If anyone knows about the animated Disney musical, it’s directors Ron Clements and John Musker. Their resume includes “The Great Mouse Detective” (1986), “Little Mermaid” (1989), “Aladdin” (1992), “Hercules” (1997) and the under-appreciated “Treasure Planet” (2002). Some might say that thanks to putting Ariel’s tale on the big screen alone the team almost singlehandedly saved the Magic Kingdom.
Yet if you pay attention to their resume, you’ll see Clements and Musker don’t 100% stick to formula either. “Little Mermaid” may be the film that put their name on the map, but it’s incredibly different from the vaudeville nature of “Hercules.” “Treasure Planet” can hardly be called a musical at all.
Still, when the man who sits on Uncle Walt’s chair, John Lasseter, wanted to revive the traditional animation style that had put Disney on the feature film map, he called on them.
“We were invited to pitch ideas for new hand-drawn Disney features,” Musker recalls. “We were all particularly inspired by the Brothers Grimm tale of ‘The Frog Prince.’”
“We’re both relatively agreeable Midwestern types, and we each have slightly different strengths and approaches. Ron is more structure-oriented and makes sure that the overall story doesn’t disintegrate during the course of too many rewrites. I tend to be more concerned with specific details and gags. We constantly go over each other’s scenes and drafts and add new ideas and suggestions in the process.”
“At every turn,” says Clements, “we realized we could reach out and touch the legacy of the animated Disney fairy tale, and yet move in surprising and interesting new ways, rather than slavishly imitating or reproducing what had been done before.”
Yet true to their nature, Clements and Musker didn’t do a white bread reinterpretation of the childhood favorite. They reset “The Frog Prince” in early 20th Century New Orleans, during the peak of the Jazz Age. While hero Prince Naveen hails from a fictional Mediterranean kingdom, their princess, Tiana, was a hard working, working class, black woman.
Then they added one final twist. Early in the process, when Tiana kisses Naveen in order to break the spell put on him, he isn’t returned to human form. Instead, she’s turned into a slimy, if cuter, amphibian like Naveen. From there, both must escape to the heart of the Louisiana bayou and endure a series of Dirty South ordeals to not only regain their human forms, but learn some valuable life lessons.
Hey! This is a Disney film after all.
“John Lasseter loved the idea,” Musker recalls, “and the idea of New Orleans as a setting, with all the cultural, historical, visual and magical ideas that great city offered us. We decided that the Jazz Age added an element of both nostalgia and musicality, and we really wanted to play up the fairy tale archetypes.”
Still, returning to Disney’s feature film roots wasn’t something that could be turned on and off at will. There was the problem of the entire traditional staff having moved on to CG, or simply being laid off over five years ago. Clements and Musker also got it in their collective head that this didn’t mean they would strictly stick to the tried and true, either.
“We’re tried to reinvent everything,” says art director Ian Gooding (“Chicken Little,” “How to Hook Up Your Home Theater”). “It’s so hard to just pick up this animation style again. It’s not like it was in the freezer and you just thawed it out. There are lots of challenges. There’s a lot of training and…trying to figure out where to buy paper from again.”
““It has been a very interesting process,” adds film producer Peter Del Vecho, who has worked his way up under Musker and Clements, since 1992. “Fortunately, we have a lot of collective memory here, so we know how we wanted to do it, but since we are starting from scratch, we also had to think about how we want to do it going into the future. So we talked about doing paperless hand-drawn. But, since technology hasn’t quite caught up to that ability yet, the best thing to do for now was to animate on paper. I’m really glad we made that decision.”
According to Del Vechio, moving back to paper was key to bringing back the magic. In part this was due to getting some of Disney’s best on the job, including legendary supervising animators Glen Keane, Andreas Deja, Eric Goldberg, Mark Henn and more.
“We brought back to the Studio the best of the best,” Del Vechio proudly boasts. “If you think about the animators we have on the team, it’s almost like we’re bringing back our modern-day version of the Nine Old Men; they all get to collaborate on one movie together, they’re at the top of their form.”
“There’s something really rewarding about watching the animator put down pencil to paper, and then when you’re watching the film, you forget all about the individual pencil lines and those characters are really coming off the screen. You kind of take them home with you in your mind—each of the characters is rich and has a life of his own.”
“It is a process that is akin to laying the track as the train is going down the line,” Del Vecho continues. “It’s not easy, and it causes a fair amount of anxiety, but we’re trying to only pay attention to the things that matter. We’re putting our efforts into what gets up on the screen. To us, it’s all about what the audience ultimately sees.”
Another important element was the city of New Orleans itself. Some might say the MouseWorks was being a tad cynical in setting their movie in an urban area that had gotten a ton of media exposure from the Hurricane Katrina disaster. They would counter that there are very few other American metropolitan centers that carry such a rich tradition of music and magic.
“We really feel that the city is a major character in the movie,” says Clements. “We wanted to be true to this city and what’s special about it. We visited these great mansions in the Garden District, since part of our story takes place there. Our story also takes place near the ninth ward. We worked on a Habitat for Humanity project while we were down there.”
“The climax of our film takes place in Mardi Gras,” Musker continues, who with his partner rode on a Carnivale float. “So we were trying to get some of the vibe in terms of the float design and the ambiance. We got to experience the power of the beads. For those few moments when you’re on that float holding those beads—it’s like you’re holding a fortune; everybody wants those beads.”
“We got to experience being rock stars for 15 seconds at a time,” says Clements. “The moment the float passed the people, they’d turn their attention to the next thing. Fame was so fleeting.”
Just don’t think Disney is sitting on its laurels when it comes to bringing back its greatest tradition. Last column, Henn openly acknowledged he’s working on a new Winnie The Pooh movie. Various web sites are also stating that the Magic Kingdom is moving from the Brothers Grimm to Hans Christian Anderson with his classic tale “The Snow Queen.”
We also should not be surprised if Clements and Musker will have another project in the works. Until then, fans of the Magic can just sit back and regal in “The Princess and the Frog.”