Ron Clements and John Musker first worked together on Disney's The Fox and the Hound, where Musker worked as a character animator under Clements. Their first directorial collaboration came in 1986 with Basil The Great Mouse Detective, which the pair followed up three years later with The Little Mermaid, a film that swore in the famed Disney Renaissance of the 1990s. After the mixed reception of 2002's Treasure Planet, Clements and Musker left Disney and the studio dramatically disbanded its hand-drawn animation wing. Now, six years since its last 2D animated feature, Disney has returned to the format on which it built its name, with Clements and Musker teaming up again to direct The Princess and the Frog. LWLies caught up with the animation duo recently to discuss the story behind the studio's much welcomed U-turn.
LWLies: Where did the idea for this film come from and how did you both become involved?
Musker: Well Disney had been thinking about doing an adaptation of The Frog Prince, the Brother's Grimm fairytale, for about 18 years, but different versions had never quite got off the ground. Actually Pixar independently had been exploring a CG version for a while but that never got the go ahead either. It wasn’t until Ron and I went back to Disney, after it took over Pixar, that John Lasseter approached us about doing another movie and he suggested we take a look at The Frog Prince. We really liked the fairytale and the idea of doing something with it with an American twist, and that’s where the New Orleans element came into it. Actually it was John Lasseter’s idea because New Orleans is one of his favourite cities so we took that idea and ran with it.
Clements: We pitched it as an American fairytale taking place in New Orleans in the 1920s. We pitched it as a musical with Randy Newman doing the music, because we knew that he had actually spent summers growing up in New Orleans and the music was something he was very familiar with. And we pitched it with an African-American heroine and a return to classic Disney hand-drawn animation. Fortunately for us, John said yes to all those things.
Was it a daunting prospect; returning to the format Disney had neglected for so many years?
Musker: Well with the aspect of the African-American Princess it was interesting because certainly Disney had never had a heroine like that before and it did bring some scrutiny with it. So we wanted to get it right and we did actually work with another writer, Rob Edwards, who is African-American, who helped guide us down that path. But in this internet age any little bit of information about the film was instantly out there, so we were under a bit of a microscope.
Clements: We thought it was a great idea right from the beginning but we weren’t as aware just how important this was to African-American audiences; that they had been waiting for this for a while, but certainly since the film has been released it’s been really gratifying that it’s kind of been embraced by everyone and particularly that audience.
Above all though, this is an American story, about a unique American city that is really a central character in the film.
Clements: It’s not just a unique city in America but probably one of the most unique cities in the world. But it’s also a very European city with all the French and Spanish influences, so it’s a great place to set a fairytale because of the music and magic there.
Musker: We found the movie a kind of valentine’s to New Orleans. Certainly it’s come a long way since Katrina, but having been down to New Orleans we felt this movie could help in the restoration of the city.
Was visiting the city an inspirational experience?
Musker: Well neither of us had been down there before we started working on the movie, so we went down for a week and then went back two or three times. We got to ride a float during Mardi Gras and throw beads to the crowd, we went to the Jazz Festival, spent the day with a voodoo priestess and had a tour of the bayou and fed alligators off the side of the boat. It was a lot of fun.
Clements: A lot of what we saw and experiences made its way into the movie.
Where there any characters or storylines that you developed that never made it into the final edit?
Musker: At one time we had this otter character that Randy Newman was going to voice who was going to be the narrator, but that would have made the movie too long so that went. There was also a sequence we did at the end of the film where there was a frog eating contest with all these townspeople hunting frogs in the bayou and Tiana was caught up in that, but then she released all the frogs and unleashed them on Mardi Gras.
Clements: It was changed for story reasons but the production team were actually quite happy that we eliminated the thousands of frogs that would have needed animating.
One to keep for the DVD perhaps…
Clements: Actually that only ever went as far as storyboarding, so it’s not animated, but we will probably look to get all the deleted scenes on the DVD, maybe include the entire film in storyboard form.
Consider it pre-ordered. As a directing team you were pivotal in the Disney renaissance of the 1990s, do you see this return to 2D as a new era in Disney animation?
Clements: I don’t know if it’s another renaissance, but we love that kind of classical Disney style, we were fans of that as kids and were really sad to see it leave. I think our feeling was that Disney was being a little bit short sighted in abandoning it. And that’s really what they did; they completely got rid of all the pens, the pencils, the desks, and we were really excited to bring it back. It’s still a valid artform and we would love to see it continue.
Musker: John Lasseter really loves hand-drawn animation, but I guess time will tell whether this is the beginning of a new era for hand-drawn films. I think there will be new voices that will come out of hand-drawn animation and our goal right now is to continue to encourage and nurture that.