A Trip Through Disney History for The Princess and the Frog
by Alex Billington
October 22, 2009
The magic of Disney. There's nothing quite like it. There's nothing quite like Disneyland, or Walt Disney and his Imagineers, or the 48 animated movies created in his name over more than 70 years. A few weeks ago, Disney invited a small group of movie journalists, myself included, to experience the classic world of Walt Disney in a trip to Disneyland, the Disney Archives, and finally, back to the Animation Studio for a look at The Princess and the Frog and a chat with directors Ron Clements and John Musker. You may be wondering what a trip to Disneyland has to do with any movie and remarkably it has a lot to do with one.
As everyone probably already knows, Disney will be releasing the first hand-drawn 2D animated movie in over 5 years this fall - The Princess and the Frog. It's another classic Disney fairytale with princesses and all the Disney magic like we haven't seen in, well, a long time. I grew up in what is now known as the Golden Era of Disney Animation, the time when films like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Lion King were debuting in theaters (and the very era documented in the fantastic documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty). And it just so happens that Ron Clements and John Musker, who are directing The Princess and the Frog, directed both The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, too.
So again, what exactly does Disneyland have to do with all of this? Well, over the last 10 years, the classic hand-drawn animated fairytale that Walt Disney brought this world (the likes of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty) has sadly faded away, and CGI computer animated movies have become the norm instead. To take us back to that classic time, Disney invited us to Disneyland, the park that Walt first envisioned and built back in 1955, some 17 years after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was first released. It may now be modernized and include references to Pixar movies and otherwise, but it's still certainly representative of all of those wonderful fairytales that Walt brought us over the many years.
Our half-day at Disneyland consisted of a VIP tour of the park, which I hadn't been to since I was a very young kid, and a special lunch at the very exclusive Club 33. Of course we got to ride a few rides, including the classic Space Mountain (my favorite) and the Pirates of the Caribbean ride (now featuring Captain Jack Sparrow), as well as the newer, yet still impressive, Indiana Jones ride. It was so fun to step foot in that park once again and feel like I was 8 all over again. Everywhere you go, you can feel the magic of Walt Disney and everything that he wanted to bring to this park. It's still evident in rides like Splash Mountain and the buildings that surround you. And yes, we even got our own embroidered Mickey Mouse ears (see the photo).
One stop we made before lunch was at the Disney Dream Suite, which you've probably heard of before. Starting a few years ago, for their Year of a Million Dreams promotion, Disney built a luxurious dream suite right inside of the park (above the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in the New Orleans Square area) where a guest family would be chosen at random to win the prize of staying in the suite for a night. Essentially, you get to stay inside of the Disneyland park overnight and stay in one of the most luxurious, and of course magical, places in all of Disneyland. This suite truly was incredible, deserving of more than a five-star rating if you ever get to stay there.
John Lasseter himself had just visited the Dream Suite this year, as it's used occasionally by Disney executive staff. One of my favorite things about the suite was what they call a "goodnight kiss." There are two bedrooms, one for adults and one for kids, and each one has a special kiss, since Walt and the staff wanted to give those who stay there a "goodnight kiss" before they go to sleep. By pressing a button, the room would instantly change, the lights would dim, music would be played, and the room would turn into a fantastic whirl of color and light. The kids room even had a train that traveled around the upper shelves, bringing everything to life as it passed by. Truly magical.
For those who don't know, Club 33 is a private members-only restaurant located near the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. It is the only place in Disneyland that serves alcohol and has (at least) a 10-year long waitlist and a $10,000 per year membership fee. Walt created the club as a place to escape and as a place for adults to come to enjoy a fine meal, with Disneyland being the treat (not the other way around). We were treated to a gourmet lunch at Club 33 that was one of the finest I've had in a long time before leaving Disneyland. I don't want to boast any further, but it was a very rare honor to even be able to step foot in Club 33.
From there, Disney shuttled us back to the Walt Disney Animation Research Library (aka ARL) or more commonly known as the Disney Archives. If you're a Disney nut, then you probably have already heard of this place. The "archives" is where they keep, in special vaults, every piece of hand-drawn artwork ever created for every Disney animated movie. This includes concept art, early sketches, maquettes, the actual animation plates, background pieces, absolutely everything. This is where we were really able step back in time and look at actual pieces of hand-drawn art from classics like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.
The "archives" are not open to the public and are very rarely ever open to anyone outside of Disney. They're maintained by a dedicated staff and are in the process of being digitized for reference purposes. If an animator working on Princess and the Frog wants to see how they animated a certain sequence in Bambi, they can stop by the archives in Glendale and actually be shown the paper where the animator, some 67 years ago, sketched out the sequence. It's breathtaking and awe-inspiring to see some of the artwork they have stored there. We were shown a few glimpses of some pieces and it was truly inspiring to see.
What was evident everywhere we went on this journey throughout Disney history is that the people working at that company, from the theme park to the archives to the current animators, are all immensely dedicated to their job and, especially, to staying true to the vision of Walt Disney. They're just as passionate about their work as we all are about seeing great movies. And it shows in the way they maintain Walt's legacy and the magic across his entire "empire", so to say. It's amazing to see everyone's dedication and it pays off in the work, whether it be the quality of care they put into maintaining the original pieces of art or how much they want Princess and the Frog to be as great as every animated Disney movie previously.
The last part of our Disney tour ended at the Disney Animation building in Burbank. We were shown five separate, and finished, scenes from The Princess and the Frog, a few I had seen before (at Comic-Con) and others that had not been shown yet. Based on that footage, I can't wait to see the full thing. I've been excited for Disney's return to classic hand-drawn animation ever since it was announced and so far it looks as wonderful as I was hoping it would. If you haven't seen the latest trailer, you need to watch it. And I'll tell you now my favorite characters will be Ray the firefly and Louis the jazz playing alligator. We saw a few great scenes with them and I already love them both.
Ron Clements and John Musker last directed Treasure Planet for Disney in 2002, but have been gone from the studio for a little while. How did they return? "John Lasseter and Ed Catmull came to Disney and became in charge of Disney Animation they sort of invited us back and we've known John for years and years and years," Clements said. Musker adds, "I went to school with John Lasseter at Cal Arts. I was in the same class in '75. It was Brad Bird and John and I and various people." So they came back on, looked at various versions of the project, since it had once been in development at Pixar, and decided to set it in New Orleans with the African American Princess and go from there.
In relation to the Disney Archives, Clements and Musker said they looked at Bambi and Lady and the Tramp for inspiration. "Those were the principle ones that we looked at." Clements adds: "On another level we looked at some of the work that had been done for New Orleans Square in Disneyland." Coincidence that we just visited that location earlier in the day? I think not. "I think that we went for a classic Disney look. We felt that was correct for this story." I love hearing about their inspirations for this, since the Disney history is so rich in different styles. Here's more of what they had to say about inspirations:
"I mean, very, very early on we kind of zeroed in on Bambi and Lady and the Tramp, elements of both those films that we liked, particularly Lady and the Tramp for New Orleans because a lot of the movie takes place in the city of New Orleans and Bambi for the bayou. Those are not the same. Bambi and Lady and the Tramp are definitely not in the same style but they both have, in terms of character design, very dimensional, very appealing style of character design. It's not stylized but it's about as sophisticated – I think that John said this, too, that if you follow the classic Disney a certain kind of animation sort of reached it's peak with Lady and the Tramp. In a way that's the most sophisticated version of classic Disney animation."
Another great part of this movie is that they finally got to bring back all the great hand animators who have been out of jobs for years. "One of the really great things in terms of this movie was the sort of opportunity to put a dream cast together which couldn't have been done ten years ago because when hand drawn animation was at it's peak everyone was getting spread pretty far around… I think that everyone who worked in this kind of art form really wanted to return to it. They missed it." Musker adds: "For some of them they weren't sure if [hand-drawn animation] would ever return and I think when this opportunity availed itself they were like, 'This is what I've been hoping for and didn't know if it would ever happen.'"
There are days where I feel so incredibly privileged to be doing what I do, and this was one of those days. I think my love for movies, and everything Disney, comes from watching all the classic Disney animated movies in the 90s as I was growing up. I still usually get chills whenever I hear the Disney theme song play at the beginning of every Disney movie. Spending a day in the world that Walt created is something I won't ever forget. And it has, unquestionably, reminded me why we should be excited for Disney's triumphant return to the classic animation style that Walt introduced the world to in 1928 with Steamboat Willie.
Thank you to everyone at Walt Disney for giving me an incredible glimpse at the magic behind it all.