LOS ANGELES -- Just days before Pixar's "Coco" is set to hit theatres, Pixar co-founder and Walt Disney Animation chief John Lasseter announced he is taking a six-month leave of absence citing "missteps" with employees.
The boisterous, Hawaiian shirt-wearing personality behind some of the most beloved children's films of the past 30 years like "Toy Story" is the latest entertainment titan to be exposed for claims of sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct in the workplace.
In a vaguely-worded memo obtained by The Associated Press Tuesday, Lasseter says he knows he has made some employees feel disrespected and uncomfortable.
"I deeply apologize if I have let you down. I especially want to apologize to anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of an unwanted hug or any other gesture they felt crossed the line in any way, shape, or form," Lasseter wrote. "No matter how benign my intent, everyone has the right to set their own boundaries and have them respected."
The Hollywood Reporter published a story that said "unwanted advance" toward actress and writer Rashida Jones led to her departure from Pixar, where she had been working on the script for "Toy Story 4."
Jones called that allegation in the Reporter story untrue.
"We did not leave Pixar because of unwanted advances," Jones and her writing partner Will McCormack wrote in a joint statement. "That said, we are happy to see people speaking out about behaviour that made them uncomfortable. As for us, we parted ways because of creative and, more importantly, philosophical differences."
A Disney spokesperson says the company is committed to maintaining a respectful work environment and fully supports Lasseter's sabbatical.
Lasseter, 60, is known for directing films like "Toy Story," "Toy Story 2," "A Bug's Life" and "Cars," and has produced every Pixar feature since 2001's "Monster's, Inc." He has been the chief creative officer for Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios since 2006, when Disney purchased Pixar, and has overseen the recent Disney Animation renaissance with hits like "Frozen," "Moana" and "Zootopia," which won the Oscar for best animated feature this year.
Lasseter himself won a special achievement Oscar for "Toy Story" and one for his animated shorts, "Tin Toy," from 1989. He has been recognized for numerous honours, including the Producer's Guild David O. Selznick Achievement Award. But aside from the critical accolades around his work in animation, Lasseter's films are by and large extremely profitable. His Pixar films have earned over $10 billion and, not accounting for inflation, "Frozen" is the ninth highest-grossing film of all time (and No. 1 for animation).
The Reporter story, citing unnamed sources, details a culture in which Lasseter was known to hug, kiss and grope female employees. His well-documented hugs were at one time apparently publicly regarded as a quirk of employment under Lasseter. The Wall Street Journal had even cheekily detailed his proclivity for hugs in a 2011 story and photo spread subtitled "A sampling from among the 48 hugs administered by Pixar chief John Lasseter during the WSJ's daylong adventure with him."
Lasseter said he will use the sabbatical to take better care of himself, recharge and "Ultimately return with the insight and perspective I need to be the leader you deserve." He told employees he looks forward to working together again in the new year.
The statement from Jones and McCormack called on Pixar to do more to promote the creative voices of women and people of colour, including in directing roles.
"There is so much talent at Pixar and we remain enormous fans of their films. But it is also a culture where women and people of colour do not have an equal creative voice, as is demonstrated by their director demographics: out of the 20 films in the company's history, only one was co-directed by a woman and only one was directed by a person of colour," the statement said. "We encourage Pixar to be leaders in bolstering, hiring, and promoting more diverse and female storytellers and leaders."