Drawn In

Drawn In

Disney’s newest fairytale signals a return to the studio’s roots


Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on February 2010

Photo by Sarah Cortina

Critics and audiences have been buzzing about Disney’s latest movie, The Princess and the Frog, ever since the studio revealed it would be featuring its first-ever African-American princess. But the film is causing a stir among lovers of classic animation for another reason altogether—it’s the first Disney work since 2004 to be made with hand-drawn animation.

Producer Peter Del Vecho showed up in Tokyo recently with directors John Musker and Ron Clements to share their excitement over the project. They were joined by model Tsubasa Masuwaka and her husband Naoki Umeda, who came dressed as the film’s title characters, Tiana and Prince Naveen. In a “reenactment” of the movie, the couple shared a kiss on stage, before being enveloped in smoke and reappearing dressed as frogs. “Now, be sure and tell your fans that the only way you can return to being human is if they all go see the movie,” Musker joked.

Clements and Musker, who first teamed up to direct films like Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and The Great Mouse Detective, are both proud devotees of hand-drawn animation, trained by Walt Disney’s original Nine Old Men. For Musker, traditional drawing has a “special vitality” that makes it seem “more alive than live-action.” So when producer John Lasseter approached the duo about returning to make another classic animation, they got on board immediately.

However, the directors soon learned that there was one major obstacle keeping them from getting the project off the ground. “Disney was serious when they stopped using hand-drawn animation,” Clements said. When the studio made the switch to CGI, executives dismantled the old animation studios, getting rid of all the pencils, paper and special backlit animation desks. As Clements explained, “We had to learn how to build a hand-drawn animation studio again from scratch.”

The next hurdle was getting the artists themselves, as many of the old animators had either left or moved to CGI. “I worried,” said Del Vecho. “Would I be able to get the people that had very successfully transitioned to computer animation to come back to hand-drawn?” The answer, it turned out, was a resounding yes. The directors even experienced a moment of real-life magic when one of the animators came forward to admit that he had secretly stashed away several of the old lightbox desks instead of disposing of them as ordered. “It was like a fairy tale,” Musker said, grinning. “These things could come to life again and help us create this movie.”

Though the drawing style and musical format of the film hark back to the classic Disney movies of the 1950s, the creators of The Princess and the Frog wanted to infuse the story with as modern a sensibility as possible. In a way, Musker revealed, the main character Tiana is a commentary on past Disney heroines. “We wanted to introduce a 21st-century princess,” he explained. “She’s the first princess that actually has a job—really, she has two jobs.” Tiana dreams of one day opening her own restaurant. In fact, the character is partly based on Leah Chase, a real-life New Orleans legend who worked her way from waitress to owner of one of the most renowned Creole restaurants in the country.

So, will Disney’s one-time gamble turn into a full-blown, hand-drawn animation Renaissance? Yes and no, the directors said. The next feature, scheduled to hit theaters over Christmas 2010, will be a digitally animated Rapunzel, with a new hand-drawn Winnie the Pooh movie to follow. As for Clements and Musker, the duo said they’re already in talks with Lasseter about their next feature—which “will certainly be hand-drawn.” And what story will the pair tackle? Sadly, mum’s the word.

The Princess and the Frog opens on Mar 6.