“What makes us strong is always wanting to go into the unknown.”
June 19, 2020 update: The 60th Annecy animation festival has started, exceptionally online. A good pretext to dive back into our archives! More particularly in the filmography of directors John Musker and Ron Clements, to whom we owe some of the greatest Disney classics (Basil private detective, Aladdin, Hercule, The Little Mermaid …) and who will participate in a masterclass in this Friday 19 June from 18 (all details are here). In a previous edition, they presented the first images of Vaiana, and agreed to come back for First on their captivating duet career. Until we find them this evening, we are sharing their words.
Annecy 2020: vote for the Cristal des Cristal with Première
Article of November 24, 2016: The first, the last. John Musker and Ron Clements, 62 and 63, participated in the re-enchantment of Disney animation in the 80s and 90s and are among the last guarantors of an “old-fashioned” Mickey spirit. A look back at the filmography of two veterans, who are tackling 3D animation for the first time with Vaiana, the legend from the end of the world. And may well redefine the animated film for years to come.
Basil, private detective (1986)
Long remained in the limbo of the development hell, the adaptation of Basil of Baker street, variation on Sherlock Holmes with mice and rats, is finally saved at the beginning of the 80’s by Ron Clements, of which it will be the first real feature film. Everything is there: sense of rhythm and staging, adventurous feeling, genius of musical moments, large segments of tributes to the big cinema. Initially, John Musker was to direct the film with Burny Mattinson. The hell of production that was the film (we are in the middle of the 80’s and the takeover of Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg at Disney will be in pain) forced them to embark on four in the adventure Including Ron Clements.
Ron Clements : The animation at Disney was in a difficult period at the beginning of the 80s and we wondered even if the adventure was going to continue. A very big crisis, to sum up. Taram and the Cauldron was very expensive and many disliked the direction the film was taking. I pitched Basil, private detective at that time and it turns out that the idea of adapting Sherlock Holmes into an animated film was already in the air. Fortunately, they found my version interesting.
John Musker : But it had to be done in half the time than expected!
Clements : (Laughs) Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg arrived at this period, in 1984. We went through a lot of rewriting phases, they found that it lacked rhythm. The budget was greatly reduced and we had to work very quickly to keep the release date. Looking back, I find that there is a lot of darkness in this film. But it was the beginning of something for us and for Disney. The beginnings of what is known today as “rebirth”.
Musker : Without Basil, we could never have done The little Mermaid. We can never thank him enough!
The Little Mermaid (1989)
Musker and Clements transform Andersen’s tale into a pure Disney film (the princess, unforgettable songs …), with an insolent visual poetry. Clements originally pitched the film to Jeffrey Katzenberg, then president of Disney Animation. Polite refusal: the idea is too close to Splash, a suite of which is in development. Drama the next day, when Katzenberg finally decides to validate the project at the same time asOliver and Company. The beginnings of Disney’s rebirth, a second golden age that has left its mark on our collective memory. And the first real duo film by Musker and Clements, who will not let go afterwards.
Musker : We just wanted to make a good movie! A fairy tale, which had not been done for thirty years.
Clements : We were part of a new generation, we were still young. John and I are baby boomers, we didn’t know Walt Disney but he inspired us. And at the same time we wanted to do our own thing, to prove that we could do it.
Musker : We didn’t know if our enthusiasm was going to be shared by the public. And the previews, the feedback was incredible. Peter Schneider, the animation boss at the time, talks to Steven Spielberg who tells him it’s going to make $ 100 million at the box office. “What? But no animated film has done that!“
Clements : Even 60 million, it was delusional!
Musker : Jeffrey thought it wasn’t going to work as well as it didOliver and company, which was released just before, because it was “a film for girls“… It surprised me, I had never considered it from this angle. And it was false, of course. In the end, we were overwhelmed by success. I saw Jeffrey come out of the preview, he had dollars instead of eyes! “We’ll have to market the film differently because there’s something there “.
Musker and Clements are on a cloud but are not resting on their laurels. Direction comedy pure juice with the delusional adaptation of another against, Aladdin or the Wonderful Lamp. Avant-garde madness, with a genius that breaks the fourth wall permanently. Result: a film that will permanently change the solid foundations of Disney. The success is immense but the pre-production is complicated by Katzenberg, not at all convinced by many details of the script.
Clements : It was a risk. Well, it’s easy to say that now that it’s been successful, but it was true. The tone was at odds with what was going on at the time, a real comedy. Today is commonplace in animation, not at all at the time. And while we were working on Aladdin, The beauty and the Beast went out. It scared us a little, we wondered if what we were doing was not totally disconnected.
Musker : But we were much more confident because we had the success of The little Mermaid behind us. Jeffrey was very critical of what we did during the process of creating the film, but we replied: “We did The Little Mermaid, leave us alone! “ I remember that at the time, we were given the choice between three films, including an adaptation of Swan Lake and King of the Jungle (Editor’s note: which became The Lion King). There was a story base, which we grabbed. And Jeffrey had it rewritten again! Aladdin had a mother, he was younger… He had to be transformed into a slightly older and fearless kid. After the release, I understood something: quality remains the best business plan. We cannot predict success.
Just before leaving the box, Katzenberg refuses to Musker and Clements the first version of Treasure Planet and an adaptation of Don Quixote. Luckily, the duo stumbled upon a draft scenarioHercules, centered on the legendary demi-god, and decides to adapt Greek mythology to its sauce, with the endorsement of the patron of the time. Still also focused on comedy but visually apart, the film owes a lot to Gerald Scarfe, illustrator that Musker and Clements noticed in 1993, when he was signing a cover of Time Beatles magazine. They will hire him.
Clements : We were coming out of Aladdin and it was pretty good for us (laughs). But we felt that the good times were over, the atmosphere was different. We started to explore the idea of Treasure Planet which had been in the pipeline for a while now, but the project was stalled. The idea of Hercules was pitched by host Joe Haidar and it intrigued us. Mythology was far removed from anything we had done. And Hercules, a demi-god, seemed to be an interesting character, between two worlds. It was our way of making a superhero movie: we were absolute comic book fans. Besides, I find that it is felt a lot in the film.
Musker : It’s a mix of superheroes, sports film and screwball comedy, a genre we love. It seemed like something quite new in tone, a way of approaching mythology with our own voice. I believe that what makes us strong is always wanting to go into the unknown.
Treasure Planet, a new universe (2002)
Surprising mix of genres, Treasure Planet is an extremely ambitious film. Too much, perhaps. The feature film, which combines the use of 2D and 3D, is a bitter failure at the box office. A disappointment for the duo and more particularly for Clements, who has been carrying the project since 1985. A work in which Disney never really believed.
Clements : It was my idea. I pitched The little Mermaid and Treasure Planet at the same time. I wanted to do Treasure Island in the space. I was a fan of science fiction and Disney movies, and I wanted to succeed in mixing genres. With a very marked fantasy universe.
Musker : It was steampumk before steampunk. What we also liked very much was pushing the cursor a little further at Disney. Boats in the sky, a highly developed moral complexity, intriguing characters … We worked extremely hard to get there. It didn’t have the success we hoped for.
Clements : I have a deep relationship with this film, it has come a long way. It was very hard to see him flopping at the box office. It must be said that we were caught in the crossfire, including the disagreement between Roy Edward Disney (NDRL: Walt Disney’s nephew) and Michael Eisner, who were fighting for control of the business. We’ve been through all of this.
The Princess and the Frog (2009)
John Lasseter, now a Disney masterpiece, attempts to make a comeback from traditional animation and brings Musker and Clements home (they left the company in 2005). With his feeling to the old inspired by Cinderella, the film is a visual enchantment that puts the princess and magic at the heart of the debate. Success is mixed and 2D will go to sleep two years later at Disney, with Winnie the Pooh.
Musker : John Lasseter was 100% behind the idea of making the film in 2D, hand drawn. It was a great opportunity to go back in that direction, to work “the old way”. In addition it is happening in New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina took place six months before we started the film. We wanted to celebrate the city, its culture, and everything that makes it diverse. 2D was perfect for that, it was like diving back into the magic of the past. I think we needed it.
Clements : With The Princess and the Frog, we were returning to a more traditional formula of the Disney classics, which was totally appropriate in relation to history. And it was the first animated film by hand in several years. We are still fans of this style of animation and we hope that it will resume at some point. I believe that Disney is always open to that, if the subject corresponds to this style.
Vaiana, the legend from the end of the world (2016)
Exit 2D, for the first time, Musker and Clements experiment with computer animation, pushed in this direction by John Lasseter. Like their heroine, they navigate by sight, gradually learning the complex rules that govern this new technology. A vibrant green fable about a heroine who, for once, has no prince charming. Vaiana redefines the contours of the animation and succeeds in bringing to life two elements deemed indomitable in 3D animation: hair and water. A leap forward. Breathtaking.
Musker : We were looking for the theme of our next film and the universe in which it would take place. And I’ve always been intrigued by the South Pacific. I had read the books of Melville and Conrad, seen the paintings of Paul Gauguin, and it seemed like a visually stimulating, very rich place. No Disney movie takes place there, except Lilo and Stitch – but it was specifically in Hawaii. John Lasseter loved this universe but he found our work too superficial. He wanted us to go deeper. So we left for several weeks in the South Pacific, four years ago, to soak up the culture, understand what it means to live on an island.
Clements : The idea of making this film in 2D tickled me. But 3D has logically imposed itself. Because there is volume everywhere in the landscape and on the faces of people. It’s like they’re carved out of rock. The idea of using the computer seemed even more justified after I realized that. And the animation of water alone imposed 3D. It was a challenge. We had to experiment, to try things. But the result is beyond all our expectations.
Interview by François Léger