LOS ANGELES—Executives at Walt Disney Co. DIS 1.28% have discussed bringing animation guru John Lasseter back to the company in a new role that would reduce his managerial power but allow him to retain creative influence, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Those discussions come as the end of Mr. Lasseter’s six-month leave, taken following accusations of unwelcome hugging and other touching, approaches on May 21. So far, Disney has given no indication whether or not Mr. Lasseter will return. It is also possible that Monday will pass with no decision.
Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Animation, which Mr. Lasseter helped develop into family-entertainment powerhouses, have adapted to operating in his absence, even as staff members remain in the dark about who will lead them, employees said. The entertainment giant faces a tricky situation in deciding what to do about Mr. Lasseter, a predicament facing many companies in the #MeToo era as they deal with executives whose infractions they didn’t consider severe enough to warrant termination.
In Mr. Lasseter’s case, Disney executives led by Chief Executive Robert Iger are deciding the fate of a man long considered one of Hollywood’s most bankable and well-known creative geniuses.
In his position as chief creative officer of Disney’s studios, a title he has retained while on leave, Mr. Lasseter has steered a number of the company’s most valuable franchises, including “Toy Story” and “Finding Nemo.” After Disney acquired Pixar in 2005, he helped lead a revival of Disney Animation Studios, which made “Frozen” and “Zootopia,” and consulted on everything from toy design to theme park attractions.
Along the way, Mr. Lasseter became something of a celebrity himself, showing up at Disney fan conventions to present new footage or sell versions of his signature Hawaiian shirts. Rosé from his family’s Sonoma Valley vineyard is still available at Disneyland and Walt Disney World.
A representative for Mr. Lasseter didn’t respond to a request for comment.
If Mr. Lasseter returns in his prior role, Disney risks alienating employees and opening itself to blame for any future inappropriate behavior on his part. Some current and former Pixar employees have told media outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, that Mr. Lasseter regularly hugged or otherwise touched them without consent.
Some employees said that Mr. Lasseter’s behavior didn’t bother them. Others, however, particularly younger women, said they were uncomfortable and came forward in the light of the #MeToo movement.
In announcing his leave in November, Mr. Lasseter, 61 years old, said: “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.”
Since then, Mr. Lasseter has disappeared from public view. Disney employees said they haven’t heard from him and don’t know where he is.
He left immediately before the debut of Pixar’s Oscar-winning “Coco” and has been absent as the studios ready two high-profile releases: Pixar’s “The Incredibles 2,” out June 15, and Disney Animation’s “Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2” in November. Other projects that have moved forward without his involvement include “Toy Story 4” and “Frozen 2,” scheduled for 2019.
In considering a redefined role for Mr. Lasseter, Disney leadership appears to be attempting to maintain the benefit of his creative input without the liabilities that could come from his being in charge of thousands of employees, as he previously was.
Day-to-day management duties, including hiring or firing capabilities, would be removed or contained in the scenario being considered, the person familiar with the matter said. Reining in Mr. Lasseter’s managerial oversight could be complicated, however, as his power came less from his official title than his unofficial position as Disney’s most-valued creative employee, people who worked with him said.
It is still possible he could leave altogether or come back with his old job unchanged, the person added.
His absence has been felt in every corner of Disney’s animation business, current and former employees say. Though he personally directed only five movies, the last one in 2011, he consulted on every movie at Pixar and Disney Animation, weighing in anywhere from every few weeks to every few months depending on how smoothly production was running, employees said. Approval from Mr. Lasseter was necessary to move past key benchmarks in writing, storyboarding, production and editing.
Now Disney is relying primarily on a panel of artists, producers and executives at each studio to make creative decisions, according to current and former employees, a more diffuse approach than Mr. Lasseter’s arrangement.
Other experienced creative hands are helping to lead upcoming movies in Mr. Lasseter’s absence. Andrew Stanton, director of “WALL-E” and “Finding Dory,” is filling that role on “Toy Story 4,” whose director, Josh Cooley, hasn’t previously made a feature.
— Jim Oberman contributed to this article.