John Lasseter on Early 'Toy Story' Draft: "Woody Was a Jerk"

Toy Story Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Photofest

Toy Story Still - H 2015

The Pixar head participated in a panel discussion in honor of the film's 20th anniversary.

"You gotta make it edgier."

That was the advice Disney execs gave to a young John Lasseter after he pitched Pixar's first animated feature film, Toy Story. The studio, which had just entered into a three-picture deal with the tech startup, was afraid that a movie about toys would not appeal to older audiences.  

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Toy StoryLasseter and Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studiosparticipated in an Oct. 1 panel discussion at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, where the two regaled the audience with stories about the making of the first-ever fully computer animated film. 

The panel was moderated by Iron Man director Jon Favreau, whose upcoming flick Jungle Book is a live-action/CG rendition of the classic Disney animated movie. Favreau introduced the two filmmakers, calling John one of his "mentors."

In initial versions of Toy Story, Woody was a cowboy ventriloquist dummy that spoke with a John Wayne-esque candor. He was a detached character that relished his position as his owner's favorite toy and actively tried to sabotage newcomer Buzz Lightyear.

"Woody was a jerk," explained Lasseter, who is chief creative officer at both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios.

So, as Lasseter tells it, he and Catmull left their Northern California office and headed down to Disney Studios in Burbank with their more "adult" story. The execs hated it.

Afraid they would lose their deal with Disney, the small Pixar team, which at the time included Pete Docter and Andrew Stanton, went back to the drawing board (literally). "We felt strongly that adults, teenagers, college kids would be entertained by toys. We knew we could do it," Lasseter said.

During the panel, Lasseter cited multiple and varied inspirations that influenced the shape of Toy Story's plot and characters. They included Star Wars, the 1960s space race, buddy comedies, Sidney Poitier and Tony CurtisThe Defiant Ones, Looney Tunes animators Ken Harris and Chuck Jones and Lasseter's own childhood Casper the Friendly Ghost plush toy.

In two weeks time, they came up with a new story about a boy named Andy, his sinister neighbor Sid, the drawstring cowboy that acts as the benevolent leader to a roomful of wistful toys and the unaware spaceman that is his comedic foil. "Our story," as Lasseter put it.

Disney was back onboard. The film would go on to gross more than $190 million at the domestic box office, garner three Oscar nominations and be the start of Pixar's exponential critical and finical success.

Toy Story 2 came out four years later, in 1999, Toy Story 3 hit theaters 15 years after the original, in 2010, and the upcoming Toy Story 4 has a release date of June 16, 2017.

Lassetter, who donned a shirt decorated with Toy Story's cast of characters, explained that the greatest success of the film was that it paved the way for other computer animated movies that came after it. Two hundred and fifty-five, by his count.