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Moana directors Ron Clements, John Musker talk four decades Disney movies

Two Disney legends, 40 years of animation waves

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John Parra

Twelve hours ago, Ron Clements and John Musker called wrap for the seventh time in their careers. The way they anoint their latest movie, after more than five years toiling over its every intricacy, mirrors the directors themselves: Humble, low-key, without much fanfare, but deserving of far more than they’d allow. There was a toast, some wine, some photos taken — and then? Bedtime.

It’s Oct. 20, one month ahead of the Nov. 23 theatrical release of Moana, the newest feature film — and first done in CGI — for the directing duo of Clements and Musker, whom many consider responsible for kicking off the fabled ‘90s Disney animation renaissance. Though the pair’s first feature together as co-directors was 1986’s The Great Mouse Detective, it’s their second film, 1989’s The Little Mermaid, that’s widely credited with spurring Walt Disney Animation Studios (then named Walt Disney Feature Animation) back into a creative resurgence that would last a decade and beget some of the most cherished animated films of all time.

Clements, the quieter and more introspective of the two, first met Musker as animators on 1981’s The Fox and the Hound; they’ve since crafted entire careers on the power of captivation, as it pertains to the passage of audiences into worlds that ring texturally familiar (jazzy New Orleans, rainy London, ancient Greece) and fantastically outrageous (an undersea kingdom, a cosmic archipelago). Even as they prepare for audiences to meet the ocean-skimming, princess trope-bucking heroine of Moana, the pair has never stopped blazing creative trails, especially as they’ve seen Disney evolve over the decades. They’ve weathered high-profile corporate shake-ups involving names like Eisner, Katzenberg, and Lasseter; stomached the critical dips in the studio’s appeal to mass audiences during separate rocky receptions of animation in the ‘80s and early 2000s; and most significantly, they’ve survived the disruptive technical changes in the animation art form itself, innovations which compounded at such an alarming rate that it’s a wonder they’ve even managed to adapt at all, let alone continue being considered masters of the craft.

The thing to know about Ron and John is this: They love everything about animation — Clements calls it “a big magic trick,” and Musker agrees — and though you may have never known it from the success of most of their films, they’ve devoted their lives to an endless battle to keep Walt Disney’s favorite medium afloat.

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“There have been at least two periods since I’ve been at Disney, which will have been 43 years in January, where animation almost went away,” says Clements. “In the ‘80s, this corporate raider Saul Steinberg tried to buy Disney and would have dismantled it and destroyed the company. After that, even when Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg came, there was a question of, what are we going to do with this? The Black Cauldron was expensive and didn’t do well, and The Care Bears Movie was very, very inexpensive but did do well, so there was a real crisis period where you were feeling that there might not be a future for this place. And then about 11 years ago, before John [Lasseter] and Ed [Catmull] came, there was another period where the future looked very uncertain for Disney.”

But there was even a crisis of cartoon identity even before Clements started his tenure at Disney. “When Walt died in 1966, there was a group of people that had worked closely with him who were now all getting older, and there was a feeling that they might just kind of phase out animation,” he says. “The only thing that changed that was that the original Jungle Book was a huge success. It’s what made them start thinking, ‘Maybe we should keep this going.’ And that’s when they got a mindset to bring younger people in and train them.”

Musker and Clements were part of that wave. In the ‘70s, Clements (a Hanna-Barbera animator) and Musker (a CalArts graduate) started their Disney careers as character animators, landing the job thanks to the same potent combination of amateur talent and Walt appreciation that has galvanized many of the studio’s employees, decade notwithstanding. Clements’ first feature was 1977’s The Rescuers, which he toiled on as an eager 20-year-old alongside his mentor, Frank Thomas, one of the famed “Nine Old Men” in Walt Disney’s key brain trust of animators during the studio’s early decades. “Frank animated the dwarves in Snow White, and Captain Hook [in Peter Pan], and the spaghetti sequence in Lady and the Tramp,” Clements recalls. “I was 20 when I worked with him; he was 62. We worked together on The Rescuers, and I admired Frank a lot, but I thought 62 was pretty old. And now I’m 63. And 63 is old.”

The late Eric Larson, another of the Nine Old Men and one famous for his training ability, mentored Musker on his first movie, The Fox and the Hound. “Animation is a craft that you learn in a master-apprentice way,” he says. “Eric would literally put a drawing down, put a piece of paper over it, and then put another over that and show you specifically how you could communicate something better. It’s a craft that’s passed on. You couldn’t learn some of it otherwise, without the one-on-one thing with someone who had done it for 20 or 30 years. Their experience guides you. Now, to a certain extent, we’re passing the torch to these other younger people.”

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For its many characterizations, Moana is intrinsically interesting for its unique interplay between three generations raised on Disney: Clements and Musker; songwriting team member Lin-Manuel Miranda, recruited for Moana after impressing the pair with his pre-Hamilton musical In the Heights; and 16-year-old actress Auli’i Cravalho, the verdant newcomer plucked from the masses to voice the title character.

“Ron and John directed the movie that’s probably most responsible for me being here, which is The Little Mermaid,” Miranda told EW earlier this year. “That was the beginning of the end — or the beginning of the beginning, depending on how you look at it. We’re here because of them, and Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, and how important and incredible that tradition is to me.” Cravalho added, “You know all the movies they’ve made, you’ve probably watched all of them, so you can imagine how honored I was to have them encouraging me and giving me direction. I was so swept up in it because of them. It just made me love the movie all the more.”

Responding with polite pleasantries, it’s clear that the flattery makes both Clements and Musker go slightly red in the face, perhaps because three decades’ worth of stories of lives changed and destinies altered will make you just a little sheepish whenever you hear it. It’s not to say they necessarily share the impostor syndrome that so many artists do; rather, they’re actually only just getting used to what Clements calls “the experience of working with the kids who saw your movies.” (Beyond Miranda, consider Moana’s co-head of animation Hyrum Osmond, who cites Aladdin as his game-changer, as a sampling of dozens, if not hundreds, of other young employees who have sung their praises to the directors in rare one-on-ones.) Nevertheless, both men accept the adulation, if only for what it tacitly says about the future of the profession they’ve seen fluctutate. “When people say they got into animation because they saw Little Mermaid, that’s always nice to hear,” notes Musker. “But moreover, I see there’s a ton of talent here. Young people everywhere. If animation continues to be financially and creatively successful and something the public embraces, I foresee wonderful films coming out, and we won’t have anything to do with it in the future, but they will continue.”

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Despite the pair’s inspiring resume, which includes classics like 1992’s Aladdin and 1997’s Hercules, neither Clements nor Musker purports to have all the answers. How could they? Technology and audiences seem to demand more on an annual basis, so even on their seventh directorial turn up at bat, Ron and John take criticism and direction from all sources, including cohorts up at Pixar (“They told us to find more ways to get the ocean and Maui’s tattoos more involved,” says Musker) and Disney Animation’s story chief John Lasseter, who fell hard for Moana after sensing Clements’ and Musker’s changed temperaments following a research trip to the South Pacific. “John felt that out of all the research trips that had been done for movies he had been connected with, this one seemed the most transformative of the actual artists that went,” says Musker. “He said that it seemed like the trip had really affected us emotionally, and he was right.”

Clements and Musker follow story, wherever it takes them. Moana as we know it didn’t exist until the pair, as well as producer Osnat Shurer, headed to Fiji, Samoa, and Tahiti and conceived of their empowered heroine — a combined discovery from the Oceanic wisdom of venerated elders and the Burbank ashes of a handful of previous potential storylines. With protagonist in place, they honed the tactics that they’ve continued to employ, even 30 years into their directing careers, to keep their films rooted in the old days of Disney: They know what gives a film a “hard to define Disney-esque” quality that immerses an audience (they won’t admit it, but cute sidekicks aren’t not helpful). They know how to assemble a music team (Moana’s trio of A-lister, seasoned film composer, and cultural auteur purposefully mirrors the award-winning dynamic of The Lion King) and have strived to keep musicals alive, especially having been secretly glum when the genre fell out of fashion in the mid-20th century. And they know what works about their own partnership: Musker praises Clements’ innate sense of story structure and empirical ability to keep track of ten versions of a narrative at once, while Clements lauds Musker’s free-form improvisation and endless wellspring of dialogue and gags. “We grew up with this and sure, we’ve tried to put our own stamp on things, and at the same time tried to draw the lessons that we learned from our mentors and build on those,” says Musker. “Our objective is we try to have fun doing it. This isn’t rocket science. It’s an art form, and it’s play. It keeps you connected to your own childhood.”

Moana could have been a steep learning curve for the hand-drawn veterans; despite dabbling in 3D animation on 2002’s ahead-of-its-time flop Treasure Planet, it’s the pair’s first CGI film. Both directors insist that for all Moana’s technological advances, it’s as classic an animated movie as you can get these days. “If you look at Pinocchio, with its multiplane camera and everything they did with shadows and cels, that was almost trying to create as much of a three-dimensional plyometric space as possible, which in some ways is what a CG film is,” Clements points out. “And the other thing is, acting is so much a part of animation, and a lot of people don’t realize that. Regardless of the medium, whether it’s puppet animation or ventriloquism or even the Muppets, the key is the acting. That’s what creates the illusion of a character. It’s the thinking, the personality, the feeling that this character has a mind of its own — that’s always stayed the same. I think the Nine Old Men would have appreciated it.”

Musker goes a step further, volunteering Walt Disney’s name — an act that, to be blunt, you’d be cautious to believe from few other living sources who could invoke it as credibly. “I never worked with Walt,” Musker begins, “but I somehow feel that he was always looking at the next technological hurdle. Every one of his movies was looking for some way forward. Whether that was going from black and white to color, or the multiplane camera. I just feel that Walt Disney, if he saw CG animation, would have embraced it as a way of using technology to get an immersive experience for an audience. That’s what he was always really about.”

It’s time Clements and Musker also begin looking ahead to what the future of animation holds for them as well. Just as it’s impolite to ask an expectant mother when she plans to get pregnant again, it’s similarly too soon to ask whether Ron and John have an eighth feature up their sleeves. Time has passed increasingly between each of their projects — first, it was three years from film to film, then five, now seven — but fortunately, they don’t seem keen to stop. They confess that they have a few kernels of ideas in mind, and despite their roots in hand-drawn animation, they don’t appear to betray a strong desire to go to battle one way or another for the medium of their next project, should the studio opt for another CG picture.

There are ways they may be left behind regardless: Neither is directly involved in Disney’s recently announced live-action remakes of The Little Mermaid (with Miranda on board in an unspecified role) and Aladdin, modeled after the studio’s notable successes in Cinderella and The Jungle Book. Clements asserts, “We definitely wrote those scripts as animated films. We were always thinking, especially with Aladdin, to specifically find an angle where you couldn’t do this in live-action, or at least, you couldn’t do it as well. But nowadays, I don’t think there’s anything you can’t do in live-action.” Musker adds, “If they do The Lion King, there’s no Mowgli in that — so it seems like they should be calling it an animated film! If it’s going to be done with invented landscapes and characters, it’s an animated film! It’s hard for me to imagine Lion King. It’s hard for me to imagine even Aladdin. Our movies, in their own way, seem in my head a little harder to translate. If they’re going to do The Little Mermaid, that thing’s going to be hard! Good luck to them!”

Do not make the mistake of taking their exasperation as ill-will, though. Take it more as a challenge by two men who have stretched their imaginations to accommodate 40 years of technological disruptions in what started for both as a pencil and paper. Born in old media but kept curious and invigorated by new, there are few other veterans in the movie business who should know, as Musker and Clements do, that nothing artistic is impossible, certainly not at Disney.

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It’s now been almost six years since Ron and John’s first pitch in the offices of John Lasseter, where the idea of a film about the South Pacific came into focus; five years, almost exactly, since the research trip that changed the story entirely. At this point, they’re noticeably anxious for the film to come out, and for their hard-working team of animators, lighters, riggers, modelers, and more to finally send the fruits of their unique labors out into the public (Moana demanded a particularly longer process than usual for an animated film, which tends to take about four years to build).

As Clements and Musker pack up their offices, it’s not just a goodbye to this leg of Moana’s journey, but to the makeshift home where it was made: a giant, secluded warehouse in North Hollywood which housed the productions of Moana and last spring’s Zootopia while the Disney Animation building in Burbank underwent renovations. Now, both film and building are finished, leaving a physical marker to the farewell that adds an extra layer of solemnity to today.

“Every one of these has its ups and downs,” muses Musker. “We had some dark days on this movie, and some bright days. This actually feels nostalgic, because Mermaid was worked on in a warehouse building like this, too. I wonder if maybe there’s something about the esprit décor that comes with being in an environment that’s maybe not the most ideal but turns people inward on the work and has its own funky charm.”

“Actually, we have a good Mermaid story,” offers Musker, unprompted. “When we first put it together, we had a script reading with all the actors that we cast: Ken Mars, Jodi Benson, Pat Carroll. Howard and Alan were there, performing the songs, and each cast member had their own microphone and we did a script reading, just to see what we had. Almost like a theater play. It took an hour and a half, and as we’re wrapping, I look in the recording booth at our assistant editor and I’m like, ‘Is it good?’ And he says, ‘You never said push record.’” Musker laughs, and adds, “We did the whole thing again, but you know, it wasn’t the same the second time. There were some very elusive things that can never be recaptured.”

And yet, if their careers have proven anything, it’s that they seem to have no problem recapturing certain kinds of magic.

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