Capone puts on his best Cajun accent to talk to THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG directors John Musker and Ron Clements!!!
Published at: Dec. 10, 2009, 12:45 a.m. CST by Capone
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
It has been 20 years since directors John Musker and Ron Clements (whose first film together was 1986's THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE) ushered in the last revival of quality animation with Disney's THE LITTLE MERMAID, not only a visually stunning work but a solid musical. Of course, at the time, hand-drawn animation was the only game in town. The first completely computer-animated movie, TOY STORY, was still six years away and between 1989 and 1995, Disney ruled the animation world with such works as BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, THE LION KING, POCAHONTAS, and visually groundbreaking ALADDIN, also co-directed by Musker and Clements. Even after TOY STORY changed the playing field of animation, Disney produced beautifully rendered works such as TARZAN, MULAN, and the Musker and Clements works HERCULES and TREASURE PLANET, but it was clear that the kids and their elders were lining up for the new world that Pixar ushered in.
So sitting down recently to watch Musker and Clements not only return to the world of hand-drawn animated musicals with beyond-glorious THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG trigger an emotional reaction in me that I simply wasn't anticipating. Not only does the work make you afraid to even blink for fear of missing any of its luscious movement and colors, but there's an attention to detail, especially in the backgrounds, that reminds me not of THE LITTLE MERMAID, but of Disney films from 40 or 50 years ago. Combine these images with Randy Newman's impossibly catchy New Orleans-tinged tunes, and you have a film that deserves to be recognized as one of the studio's finest efforts on par with LADY AND THE TRAMP, JUNGLE BOOK, PETER PAN, and even CINDERELLA. It truly is something to behold.
For reasons I can't quite explain, one of my favorite parts of this job is speaking with directors of animation. They just always seem to have the best stories. I've been fortunate to have interviewed a few of the Pixar directors and even Hayao Miyazaki earlier this year, as well as a handful of other directors of mostly computer-animated works, but talking to Musker and Clements about THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG was a real treat. They are back exactly where they belong, and they are willing to share the credit for such an unbelievable achievement with those who deserve it, beginning with Disney/Pixar's Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter. Enjoy this conversation and please check at the movie as it expands nationwide this weekend.
Capone: Gentlemen, how are you?
John Musker: Good morning. We're doing good.
Capone: This will be an interesting exercise in transcribing since I can’t see who is talking, but okay we are going to make the best of it.
Ron Clements: [laughs] Our voices aren’t totally different, but hopefully you can tell the difference, but this is Ron Clements at the moment.
JM: And this is John Musker, slightly more nasal, slightly more Chicago.
Capone: I was about to say I know one of you is from Chicago, somebody mentioned that to me. Speaking of which, I heard at some phase in the development of this film that it was going to be set in Chicago. Is that true?
JM: Actually the early Pixar version, Ralph Eggleston, the art director there pitched a version of "The Frog Prince" set in gangland Chicago in the 1930s, but then it went to John Lasseter, and ironically Ralph is from New Orleans and he’s the one who introduced John Lasseter to New Orleans. John was like “No, I think the story would just be more fun in New Orleans.” He loved New Orleans and I think he thought the bayou and frogs fit together and all of that, so it moved from Chicago downriver to New Orleans.
Capone: I may never forgive you for making that move, but I still love the movie.
Capone: If someone had told me after I had seen THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG that it was made 50 years ago, that you had found this in a vault and restored it, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it. It really has a feel of classic-looking Disney animation.
RC: Yeah, we were really trying to go back to that and really celebrate the richness of the classical Disney animation, which is something we realized the youngest kids have never seen anything like that on a big screen. They have seen those things on DVDs, but this could be the first theatrical experience for a lot of kids of seeing this caliber of animation.
JM: We really wanted to embrace the Disney aspect of it, which isn’t true of some of the more recent movies, but we wanted to bring that back. We started as Disney fans before we even worked at the studio and we both have been there more than 30 years now, and John Lasseter was a huge Disney fan and worked as an animator at Disney as well. So it felt like the right time to try to recapture those feelings that we had when we saw Disney animation for the first time, but we wanted to bring something new to it.
RC: I think that John felt that there were more stylized graphic animations that people might see on TV, but he felt that really getting into a dimensionally drawn atmospheric film that had all of the great backgrounds that you associate with classic films like BAMBI and LADY AND THE TRAMP and PINNOCHIO and that sort of thing, really getting the richness of that world. It’s an imaginary world that is re-imagined, but it seems almost real and palpable and yet exploits the fact that it’s drawn. It isn’t the real world. It is a drawn world that seems real somehow, so it’s an elaborate beautiful magic trick that Walt Disney pulled, and we were trying to go along those same lines.
Capone: You mentioned the backgrounds--you really have two primary ones which are the city of New Orleans and the bayou. The city backgrounds in particular are stunning, but New Orleans is a bit of a cheat only because the architecture hasn’t changed very much in so many years [Everybody laughs], but still they look so beautiful and I think the next time I see it, I’m just going to ignore the characters and just look at the backgrounds. [Laugh]
RC: Ian Gooding, our art director, had to find a way to get all of that wrought iron and all of that complexity, yet enough to make it not too complicated and yet make it as rich as the city feels when you are there.
JM: The two touchstones in turns of Disney were LADY IN THE TRAMP for the city and BAMBI for the bayou, and they fused both of those city together to some degree. But the backgrounds themselves, you could just put those backgrounds up in a museum and look at them for a long time.
RC: Our art director is a fabulous painter himself. He was a background painter, and I think he had a feel for that, so he really watched carefully over all of those backgrounds and really tried to get all of the richness he could into those things and was a perfectionist about it, so that helped step up the game with the painters I think to really…
JM: And our layout supervisor, Rasoul Azadani, those are the black- and-white drawings that generate those backgrounds. We did research trips down to New Orleans where we literally took thousands of pictures and we visited the bayou, and they really studied how that stuff fit together and then distilled it and made it iconic. It was fun and to base a movie on a real place like this, we haven’t really done that too much. Most of our films have been imaginary universes, but to have something that was there that you could actually look at and like you said with a place that has had some of the same architecture for so many years, that helped.
Capone: Is that what you call it, “research trips” to New Orleans?”
JM: Yeah, I know. Boondoggle, research trips, it’s one of those and I’m not sure, but yeah we somehow talked them into a few trips. In fact, we even rode a float in Mardi Gras. That was wild. We were there throwing the beads and seen it all from the inside out, so that was great. We visited with a voodoo priestess and we went to the graveyards here and out to the bayou with Reggie our Cajun tour guide, who showed us how he fed alligators, so it was a lot of fun.
Capone: I’m actually surprised that New Orleans hasn’t been used in an animated work to this degree before. It seems almost tailor made.
RC: I think it has been used in some films to some degree, but yeah with this film it certainly was a major character in the movie just as much as the other characters.
JM: In THE RESCUERS, that was sort of set in a bayou setting, not specifically New Orleans, but it really didn’t seem like it took advantage of it.
Capone: I was there at Comic Con to see the premiere of footage from this movie. It’s one thing to just premiere footage for the first time in front of people who will eventually become a paying audience, but then to have that lovely bonus pressure of having Miyazaki up onstage with you…
JM: Oh, I know!
RC: It was fun being there with Miyazaki though, because we are big fans of Miyazaki.
RC: Both Johns had met him before, but I had not met him, but yeah that was…
JM: Certainly, we felt like the audience of Comic Con, they are animation enthusiasts and certainly Miyazaki is a wonderful story teller. So it was intimidating, but we lucked into having the opportunity to share the sneak peak with that group, because we consider ourselves among that group. We have been to Comic Con before…
RC: Yeah, we had been to Comic Con many, many times standing in those long lines to get in.
Capone: Let’s talk a little bit about some of the characters. I love that with Tiana that you both sort of reject and embrace the classic Disney princess characteristics, because she is very career focused and she’s not impressed with men with money or looks or charm, but at the same time eventually she gets there.
JM: It’s a little bit of a spin on the whole Disney philosophy. I think certainly Tiana would be someone, even as a little girl, she would not be rushing to Disney stores to buy a lot of merchandise. It’s kind of just this rejection, in an admirable way, on the focus on romance, and yet I think and hopefully in a sincere way that she comes to realize the importance of that side of her. We had always thought of Tiana as someone maybe who grew up a little too fast, and that there’s something about the magic, not just in terms of romance, but in terms of a whole kind of philosophy about life that she does kind of come to embrace.
RC: It was fun to be able to counter point her with the Charlotte character, who is sort of the type that would watch "The Bachelor" and be addicted to that and be maybe the downside of Disney princesses or the over emphasis on that. So to be able to play Tiana off of that to be able to comment on that was fun to write.
Capone: Charlotte is definitely more of the classic mold. Of course she is ridiculous….
JM: We had fun sort of pushing her over the top, so yeah.
RC: Charlotte, there’s something very likable and endearing about Charlotte more so than we first intended, to be frank. I think we always thought of her as being funny and wanted her to be a funny counterpoint to Tiana, but we find people really like Charlotte, and there’s something just endearing about her and her sort of focus on that.
JM: But Tiana was great and having Anika Noni Rose do the voice and Mark Henn do the animation, I think they really made her very specific and likable. It was a tough part, because it is someone who is so focused that you still want to get people behind her and get them to route for her, and I think that’s what both Mark and Anika brought to it.
Capone: Did you make a conscious decision not to top load your cast with these big names? There are certainly big names in some of the smaller roles, but that seems to be a very Disney/Pixar way of doing things.
RC: It is.
Capone: It seems to make sense and yet almost nobody else does it that way. They are all looking for big names.
JM: They sense a marquee value in the promotion of the movie, I think, but we felt like it helps identify with the characters if you don’t necessarily immediately get a mental picture. Today Jiminy Cricket seems so real to me, but I don’t know if I could pick out Cliff Edward’s picture in a book of Hollywood stars.
RC: It’s not so much even conscious that we are not going to use that, it’s just that with animation voices, it’s very tough to find just the right voice for a character, and I think the Pixar philosophy and the Disney philosophy as well is just find the best voice wherever it comes from.
JM: Ironically with Anika, she has been such a great spokesperson for the movie and she is beautiful and she can sing onstage and all of those things, but those weren’t our primary things while casting. She came in and read for the part. We loved the way her voice sounded. We put some pictures to her voice and felt that that fit.
RC: We auditioned many other actresses, and there were many actresses of varying degrees of celebrity who were interested in the role and we met with many. Anika was actually the second one who auditioned, and we kind of thought, “This is going to be very tough for anyone to beat” and it was. It just felt like she was right for Tiana. There is certainly a lot of Tiana in Anika. That’s not always true in certain cases, but Anika is just a very strong woman as far as an actress, and she has certainly played parts that are not so much like her, but this part I think there’s a lot of Anika in Tiana.
Capone: I’m trying to explain to people who she is, because they assume it’s somebody famous, and I’m like “No, it’s the one from DREAMGIRLS that isn’t the Oscar winner and isn’t Beyonce.”
RC: I know, right. “The one with Eddie Murphy.”
JM: She was great in DREAMGIRLS and was a little over shadowed.
RC: More recently she did "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency."
Capone: I loved her in that!
RC: She’s great in that, very funny part that she played.
Capone: I’ve noticed in the last year or so that stop-motion animation has made a big comeback as well, and I’m wondering if you think the pendulum is swinging back in the other direction in terms of animation in favor of the more hands-on, organic forms of creation. Have you noticed that?
JM: I have noticed that with the stop motion. I am amazed that there’s such quality stop-motion films in one calendar year.
RC: I don't know if it's going to happen again, but this year in particular is a really great year for animation, and everybody involved with animation feels that way and everything is well represented. You have got fantastic digital animation with UP and CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS and puppet animation with CORALINE and FANTASTIC MR. FOX and hand-drawn animation…
JM: It would be great if all of them could continue to thrive. I don’t think any of them are meant to displace one or the other, but if they could all coexist, that would be great.
RC: That’s part of the theme of our movie, it’s about the value of diversity, and diversity in animation is a good thing.
JM: I think there are different tools for the artists to use, just like there’s sculpture and there’s painting and there’s photography, and so I think it would be great to have different forms of expression available for the artist. Even now with John Lasseter on all of these movies that the various directors pitch to him, I think they pitch movies to him and they suggest to him “I would like to do this hand drawn.” “I would like to do this computer animated.” He’s open to hearing pitches either way, and I think that’s great that there’s that openness to try that.
Capone: Is the plan to do more hand-drawn projects?
JM: That was always the plan I think even with John Lasseter brought it back, and they weren’t saying “Let’s bring it back as an experiment and see what happens.” Certainly the stakes are kind of high with this movie, and we certainly hope it does well, but the plan was to bring it back and to keep doing it.
RC: The plan isn’t to do like one a year, like it was being done for a while, but to do one every couple of years, and I think that seems like a good way to go just in terms of the manageability and it keeps it special. There’s a little more novelty to it. Even right now In a year that had so many other types of animation, I like this being a hand drawn and a novelty certainly with all of the computer films that have come out this year that we are kind of a new act in town; I like being in that spot.
JM: Digital or even hand drawn, these things take three to four years to do, so any way to do them coming out sooner than that is to have overlapping productions which spreads the talent thin and also can kind of kill people over time, so that seems good like there will be a new hand-drawn film every two or three years. That seems about right.
Capone: I’m in favor of that. With all of the pressures of bringing this art form back and getting it right this time out, one might think the result would be something a little uninspired and safe, yet this is maybe one of the weirdest and darkest things that Disney has ever put out. There’s absolutely nothing safe about it. How did you manage to get away with that?
JM: Well John Lasseter is one of the big reasons. He’s a fearless guy, and we just went for what we thought was right for the story, and John certainly never asked us to pull our punches on anything and he was very supportive of us. He’s one of the best executive producers you could ask for, because he’s a filmmaker and he’s a story teller and he produces where quality counts.
RC: He says to aim high and he trusts his own instincts and isn’t afraid. I think he feels and I think it’s true that John is fairly in sync with audiences, and he’s a great audience for us when we present him stuff. Certainly John in intuitive and when you show him something that he really likes, he gets very, very excited and that revs everybody up. I think he does represent the audience in general, and his instincts are pretty good. With the Pixar films, there’s certainly nothing safe about any of the Pixar films.
JM: Like with UP to have your good old 78-year-old protagonist, [laughs] but John is certainly willing to walk the rarely walked line if he thinks the story is compelling like with WALL-E, “Okay, here’s a movie with practically zero dialogue in the first half” and RATATOUILLE with the rat. I think he understands, and we would agree, it’s sort of more than those things in terms of what makes a movie.
RC: I think that John goes on his instincts and that’s part of his strength. That’s what we did to when we were trying to tell the story, as much as we solicited opinions internally. Even during the internal screenings, while we were making it, we’d get notes, but so much of it does come down to what in your gut do you feel like is the right way to do this, and you find out and the end of the line whether or not you guessed right on all of these things in terms of just communicating to an audience. They are not meant to just be artistic things that are seen by 10 people at midnight; we do want people of all ages enjoy these films and it’s rewarding when that happens.
Capone: I did want to ask about Randy Newman. Obviously he is a proven talent when it comes to making music for animated films. And one of the songs, the “Friends on the Other Side” song, that deep-voiced male choir that voice the voodoo masks sounds so perfectly dated.
RC: That was Randy’s idea to get that choir.
Capone: That just reminds me of some older Disney cartoon.
RC: It was really a throwback to a '20s and '30s style almost. We had the idea that he would have a song there ,and the villain would have a song that would be kind of Cab Calloway-esque, maybe where he would turn the prince into a frog basically in a magical ceremony. We wrote a scene that way, but Randy came up with the whole song and the whole call-and-response idea of having this chorus of voices and that throwback style in terms of the vocal arrangements. He really had an affinity for that and even when he mocked that demo up, it was funny, because he would sing his part and the deep voice part, but he’d say [Deep Cajun accent] “Now the low voices…” He would talk through a demo in a very primitive crude way that he recorded on, like a little cassette recorder for us, but we could kind of picture what he had in mind and it was really a lot of fun to see it realized with all of the voices and all of that.
Capone: I’m a firm believer that an animated Disney film is only as good as it’s villain, and you have a fantastic villain both in terms of just concept and looks. Can you talk about what went into creating Dr. Facilier?
JM: There are these versions of these guys that sort of exist in New Orleans, these fortunetellers who we're told, have made a pact with the voodoo spirits and now they sell magic to people for money. We thought of Keith David right away for that character, because he’s got this great voice, and we didn’t know if he could sing or not. That was our big question, because we had actually never heard him sing. It turns out he sings beautifully, so that nailed that and then Bruce Smith who did the animation really when to town. It was kind of a tour de force.
RC: We actually hired a choreographer, and when we did that musical number, we actually shot choreography of a dancer. Betsy Batos was our choreographer and she was a student of 20s and 30s dance, and we had some great dancers in who did this thing called Snake Hips dancing, so we had this flanked dance that this wonderful dancer Dominique Kelly did as reference for Bruce. When we were writing the character we were even influenced a little bit by Ray Bradury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, where you have a dark character, this kind of theatrical showman, but connected to this sort of sinister side that puts a smile on his face, but he’s got this deeper agenda.
JM: And a little Bob Fosse thrown in.
RC: Then Bruce did such a great job, and just the combination with all of them sort of came together in the final result.
Capone: Ron and John, thank you so much. I really did love the movie and can’t wait to see it again.
RC: Okay, thanks a lot.
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