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Look carefully at "Up," the new Pixar film set in the jungles of South America, and you may see hints of Bloomington's Moir Park. That's where Pete Docter, the film's director, spent hours in make-believe rain forests beside Nine Mile Creek.
"I was off in my own little world," he said. Born 40 years ago in Bloomington, Docter attended Nine Mile Elementary School fogbound in fantasy. At the playground one day he looked up to see that recess was over and he was all alone amid the swings and teeter-totters.
"I had just seen 'Planet of the Apes' and I was a gorilla in this cage," he recalled. "They had these semicircular climbing things made out of steel and I was in there climbing around. And suddenly: 'Wait, where is everybody?' I had to go to the principal's office to explain. It happened more than I care to admit."
Daydreaming has worked out spectacularly for Docter. He's a key creative force behind Pixar, the most successful animation house since Walt Disney began doodling rodents. His whimsical stories and fanciful ideas helped usher in a new golden age of animation with 1995's "Toy Story," and today he is financially and critically successful in a way few directors have been.
He has been nominated for four Oscars. "Up," about a 78-year-old widower who escapes life's troubles by tying 10,000 helium balloons to his house, became the first animated film to open the Cannes Film Festival. Pixar's first 3D film, it hits theaters Friday. In September he'll get a lifetime achievement award from the Venice film fest.
Not bad for a self-described "geeky kid from Minnesota who likes to draw cartoons."
That might sound self-effacing, but those who best know this decent, civilized, funny man endorse Docter's description. He is a low-key presence in an industry of outsize personalities. His mother, Rita, a music educator, has a smile in her voice when she describes him as "very nerdy." Nancy Hoblit, his high school adviser, echoes the term. Dave Docter, a retired choral director at Normandale Community College, calls his son a kid who never grew up: "He keeps that childlike naiveté."
You could see it two weeks ago on the red carpet at Europe's most prestigious film festival, where Pete was photographed in an ill-fitting tuxedo, hugging his wife, Amanda, like a blushing couple on prom night.
Take a pinch of bashful Sheriff Woody, add a dash of Buzz Lightyear's soaring imagination and you have a notion of the man who created them. Docter's unaffected innocence is the key to an amazing run of good and popular movies. He gets excited describing the way Looney Tunes director Friz Freleng would send Yosemite Sam plummeting down a ladder, or Walt Disney's rule that for every laugh in a feature-length cartoon, there must be a tear.
Docter remains in touch with the sense of wonder he had as a kid, about movies and about the world. Pixar films are technically comedies, but they are larger than that. The movies aren't empty, kiddie-matinee gag reels. They make us laugh, but also snuffle and dab our eyes. They teach us something in the form of a fable.
His personal Tiki Room
There were early hints that Docter was on a remarkable path in life, but nobody noticed. Dave and Rita Docter watched their little boy make cartoon flip books and wreck the family movie camera shooting animated shorts without realizing that they were witnessing something extraordinary. "With your firstborn, you don't realize it's unusual," Dave said.
His sisters were musical -- Kirsten teaches viola at Ohio's Oberlin College and Kari plays cello in the Met Opera orchestra in New York -- but Pete was a compulsive doodler and a born storyteller.
"His artistic ability was self-developed. He didn't like art classes. They were too ordered, too restricted," Dave recalled. "He's good at cartoonlike characters, but he still despairs that he doesn't know how to do landscapes."
On vacation the family visited Disneyland's Enchanted Tiki Room, where a glee club of robot cockatoos and flowers perform for visitors, and Pete's lifelong dream of working for Disney began. He re-created the shrine to Hawaiian kitsch in his bedroom with figures made from carved foam rubber, feathers, coconuts, bamboo, palm fronds, doorbell electromagnets and whatever scrap materials he could scrounge from the garage.
"They sang; they talked; there was a combo where there was somebody playing a piano and somebody else playing a drum," Rita said. "They all moved around and eventually electromagnets weren't strong enough, so by the time he was 14 he bought himself an air compressor. Everybody else buys something exciting with their confirmation money. He bought an air compressor."
Jeff Maas, Pete's classmate at Oak Grove Junior High, recalled "this kid who was really tall, but who was kind of awkward, maybe getting picked on by the school bullies because his voice change at puberty was very rough." Maas was bowled over by the Tiki room, and they bonded over Pete's "knack for the fantastical, the ability to create an entire environment out of the somewhat mundane world of suburban Bloomington."
Hooked on cartoons, old-time radio comedy teams and sound-effects records, Pete wasn't considered an especially gifted student when he entered Kennedy High School. He was bright but too nonlinear to test well. "Pete takes a long, circuitous route to get to an answer, and explores a lot of options along the way," Rita said.
As longtime pal Jerome Graf put it, "Talking with him sometimes is like trying to grab clothes out of a moving clothes dryer."
Docter made some of his best friends among smart introverts at Kennedy.
"There's a reason animators tend to draw rather than talk to people," Docter said. "They're socially awkward folks. There's always that need to communicate, but talking to people is scary sometimes, you know?"
Docter, who played with Gumby and Pokey figures at school, and Graf, who owns a world-class collection of Pez dispensers, recognized each other as kindred spirits. They teamed up to do comedy routines during the school's morning announcements. For their world history class they submitted a skit about a Roman slave ship in which the oarsmen try to follow the beat of a jazz drummer.
"We were the two biggest geeks in the world," Graf said.
Docter shot Super 8 jungle adventure movies with his buddies in darkest Moir Park. He filmed a spoof of "Star Wars" titled "Bizarre Wars."
"They had dry ice foaming out of the garage door," his mother said. "Instead of Princess Leia, there was Princess Filet-O-Fish."
Pixar's strip-mall roots
After a year at the University of Minnesota, Docter entered California Institute of the Arts, the Harvard of animation. He won a Student Academy Award for "Next Door," a hand-drawn story about an old grump and an annoyingly perky neighborhood girl that sounds like an early draft of "Up." The film almost died when half the cels he sent off to be filmed were lost in the mail. Docter laboriously re-drew the missing panels and turned the calamity into a joke. The final credits thank the U.S. Postal Service for misplacing his first draft.
Docter hoped to go to work for Disney, but after graduation in 1990 his best offers came from "The Simpsons" and Pixar. Jeff Maas thought Docter was nuts to sign on with the no-name animation house. At the time, Pixar was a struggling, ill-defined former research subsidiary of Lucasfilm. Apple's Steve Jobs bought it for $5 million because George Lucas needed quick cash for a divorce settlement. The company manufactured computer hardware for a while, did medical imaging and animated commercials for Life Savers and Tropicana but continued to lose money.
"The first time I saw Steve Jobs was when he came down to lay a lot of people off and refocus the company," Docter said.
Still, he flourished at Pixar, like the little boy in "Big" who finds his true calling working for a toy company. Graf -- who sees his friend as "a kid at heart" -- visited Docter there during those early days:
"He came to the airport in his old, beat-up AMC Hornet. Pixar was at that point in a strip mall. In the main area there were two huge buffet tables. One was completely filled with candy and the other was filled with toys -- Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots and things. When the guys had down time they'd play with toys. About two hours after we got there, it was break time. Everyone strapped on a Laser Tag pack, we divided up into two teams, turned all the lights off in the entire office and went running around."
Pixar's culture is like a clan, in contrast to the back-stabbing ethos of most Hollywood studios. The end credits of its films list all the babies born to staff members during production.
"The heart that Pixar movies have," theorizes Graf, "springs from the fact that everyone at Pixar understands that connection and belonging is something that's key to the human condition -- especially because most of them in their childhood probably were odd ducks."
In Pixar, Docter found a community of people like himself. "Growing up," he said, "a lot of us felt we were the only person in the world who had this weird obsession with animation. Coming to Pixar you feel like, 'Oh! There are others!'"
Maas considers Pixar a perfect fit for Docter, a place where his strengths are multiplied, and his shortcomings hidden: "Pete will be the first to tell you he's not a great artist. But since the work they do is on computer, he's not required to be the great artist. Instead, he's required to be what he's always been: a genuinely funny person with a slightly askew view of the world."
Building his dream house
Now Docter is at a golden moment in his career. "Up," in theaters Friday, opened at Cannes to rapturous critical acclaim. "Winsome, touching and arguably the funniest Pixar effort ever," said the Hollywood Reporter.
He's celebrating by building a ginormous treehouse behind his 15-acre San Francisco Bay Area home. "I had a dream to live in a treehouse when I was a kid," he told the local planning commission, "and that dream never quite went away." Because he'd "hate to stress a tree or cause it to die or something," the structure will sit atop a 50-foot-tall artificial oak.
Graf said that Docter never considered a Plan B, and he achieved exactly what he always dreamed of doing.
"Pete scored 10.0 on the Life Ambition Scale. It'd be easy to hate him if he wasn't such a nice guy."
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186