Category Archives: Magical Adventures

It All Started With A Fairy Tale

What happened to your apples?

I magic-ed them into apple turnovers, full of sugary goodness and cream!

By the early 1930s, Walt Disney faced a dilemma: his popular cartoon shorts about Mickey Mouse were starting to lose money. His competitors could afford to produce cartoons at a loss as lead-ins to their live action films; Disney, who did not have a movie studio, could not.

But he had another idea: he could produce a full-length film of his own. Only, instead of making a live action film, he could produce a full-length cartoon feature, running, say, for about 88 minutes. Good length. Sure, it might cost as much as $500,000. (Cue gasps.) He would need 300 artists. It had never been done before.

It’s safe to say that very few people thought this was a good idea. And that $500,000 turned out to be a very wrong estimate. It’s also very safe to say that this idea is why we have the entertainment megacorporation of Disney as it exists today.

The process of creating Snow White officially began when Walt Disney acted out the story he had in mind to his main animators. Later, some of them said Disney’s performance had brought them to tears; whether this was true, or just a later Disney legend, is a bit difficult to determine. But the preparation had started long before that. Disney had wanted artists that could be cartoonists, but not just cartoonists, and paid to have his cartoonists take art classes, first at the Chouinard Art Institute, and later at the newly formed Disney Art School. (Somewhat scandalously, some of these art classes involved — gasp — nude models, which apparently had the side effect of encouraging cartoonists to show up.) Cartoonists were also sent to the zoo to study animals.

This was all great, but it left just a few little technical problems: first, the difficulty of creating the illusion of depth from two dimensional drawings, needed to give the film a realistic feel; second, the difficulty of creating four lifelike animated humans; and third, not having enough artists available, even after the art school program. Oh, sure, Disney had artists diligently churning out Mickey Mouse cartoons, but for this, he needed more. Three hundred more.

This might have been impossible except for a fortunate (for Disney) historical fluke: Disney just happened to need those artists during the Great Depression. Which in turn meant quite a few just happened to be available at considerably lower-than-usual rates.

That still left Disney with the two other issues. The solution to the first was a technical milestone: a multiplane camera. First, the art was separated and put on different levels of glass. Then, each piece of glass was separated. This meant that when the camera moved in, the art on top would get “bigger” faster than the art on the bottom — giving the illusion of depth, and allowing the camera to move in and out, the same way it could in a live action film. As an added bonus, this meant that special effects — for instance, rain, which was not always animated, but instead a film of actual water drops — could be filmed on a separate piece of glass.

Next came the issues of trying to animate three adult humans, one girl, and seven dwarfs — and make their actions look realistic. Animated cartoons had included human figures before, of course — but always in exaggerated, unrealistic forms, and the results had looked, well, wrong. For Snow White, animators studied dancers and asked the voice actors for the dwarfs to dance, studying their movements as well, to see how humans actually move. The end result seems commonplace today, but at the time it was an innovation: animated humans with (nearly) natural movement.

It wasn’t perfect — the Huntsman’s movements, for one, are not always entirely convincing; an artistic/production error led to an accidental “shimmer” effect with the Prince, and a few of Snow White’s movements are off as well. But at the time, audiences found it jaw-dropping.

So how does it hold up today? For all its ambition to be the first full-length animated film, Snow White isn’t quite there in anything but length: rather, it’s a sometimes uneasy mix of the old cartoon shorts with a full-length film. To a very large extent, this was playing up to the audiences of the time, who had certain expectations from their animated cartoons that focused on short, funny gags and characters doing silly things. Walt Disney, almost always good at reading his potential audience, correctly guessed that this audience would be expecting silly dwarf scenes, and provided that — even as his animators complained that the dwarfs’ scenes went on for far too long.

The film starts off sharply, moves into a terrorizing forest sequence (a sequence that not all small children survive) then pauses for a long, extended housecleaning scene, pauses for another long sequence focused on the dwarfs, and then another long sequence focused on the dwarfs, and finally jumps back into the action as the queen belatedly realizes that the Huntsman gave her the wrong heart. Which means that we get a very long, often slow cartoon about singing, cleaning, working, and properly washing faces and hands, where very little actually happens (unless you are counting the story of that poor tortoise) bookended with sequences of near horror and terror.

The little tortoise is the most adorable and heart-warming character in the entire film. Possibly because each and every time he finally achieves his slow, hard-fought-for goal, he gets knocked down and has to start all over. With a smile.

If little bears were to watch the film 🙂 they would discover just how many elements of the Disney brand are already in place: the adorable helpful little animals, the first of the Disney princesses and the memorable songs (some, not all). As much as Walt Disney liked to say afterwards that it all started with a mouse, it’s equally accurate to say that it all started with a fairy tale. Eighty years ago today!

Little bears are instead watching Once Upon a Time, where Snow White has a bit more gumption, to quote Hook.

Despite the need to fill 88 minutes of screen time, Walt Disney severely cut the original story, eliminating the original beginning, with its deeply symbolic elements, two of the queen’s attempts to assassinate Snow White, and the gruesome ending in which the evil stepmother is forced to dance in hot iron shoes until she dies. Not that the evil stepmother gets away scot-free — or alive — in the Disney version, either, but the death occurs largely off screen, confirmed mostly by the hungry eyes of the lurking vultures.

Cutting those two assassination attempts was almost certainly necessary to keep Snow White from looking too credulous — especially since, to keep the last assassination attempt believable, Disney did keep Snow White almost as young as she was in the Grimm fairy tale. Almost. Snow White, in the original Grimm/Lang versions, is seven when she first becomes “as beautiful as she could be”, and runs off to the woods shortly after that. Disney’s Snow White seems to be at least twelve — she’s old enough to work as a scullery maid, and take on a motherly role to the dwarfs. But not much older than that. She’s drawn with a flat chest and the features of a young girl, and voiced with a childish, high pitched voice (by Adriana Caselotti) — in striking contrast to the rich, older tones of her stepmother.

(It’s also in striking contrast to the voices of later Disney princesses, usually voiced with richer, more mature tones. For entertainment, try comparing the voices of Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), Belle (1991) and Elsa and Anna (2014). The women who play Snow White at the Disney parks have to talk with the same childish, high pitched voice 🙂 )

Snow White is of a childish age but her most childish moment comes when she eats the apple offered to her by the old witch. Everything — the warnings from other characters, the reactions from the animals, the sudden appearances of the vultures who did not show up for the major housecleaning binge — should tell her not to do this. She was intelligent enough to make the best of things under her stepmother; intelligent enough to realize that she had been foolish for no reason at all; intelligent enough to bargain her way into a home with the dwarfs. And yet, this.

It feels wrong, and makes sense only if Snow White is enchanted (which she doesn’t seem to be), if Snow White is incredibly stupid (which again, apparently not, based on other bits of the film), if Snow White is too terrified to say no (an explanation that appears in other retellings, but not here), or if she is simply too young to know better. Disney went with the last.

Then the film lingers – a lot – on its theme of work. It’s not completely new to the story: in their version of Snow White, The Grimms had associated housework with positive images of women and girls — basically, girls that do housework, and avoid the temptations of vanity, stay alive and get the prince. The Disney version doesn’t quite follow this: it’s surprisingly, and even hilariously, not all that concerned with issues of vanity and personal appearance — hilariously, given the Disney Princess product line this film would eventually help launch. Yes, Snow White does look at herself in the well once, but the purpose of this is more to set up a song (I’m wishing!) and to show off that Disney’s animators had accomplished the hitherto impossible: creating an animated image of something reflected in water, than to say much about her looks. (Thanks, multiplane camera!) And that’s about it for Snow White’s vanity.

But the Disney version does pick up the work focus, only with a twist. It focuses on the sheer joy of having work to do, and the idea that working will bring you joy. In our first glimpse of Snow White, we see her smiling as she scrubs steps. We later see her singing and smiling as she cleans up the house, and a number of adorable woodland animals eagerly help her out—and have fun doing so. We see the dwarfs — whose accents, grammar and failure to bathe regularly stem from then-popular representations of working class people — sing about the sheer joy of working. All this while doing housework and mining, typically classified as tedious, menial jobs.

Doing tedious tasks have often been part of a hero’s journey and assigned tasks feature in many fairy tales, often with the assistance of small animals the hero had helped along the way. But this particular message seems to spring more directly from the Great Depression than from fairy tales, a message that reflected the relief of having any job at all, no matter how menial or tedious. And to a certain extent the original condition of that cottage may also have reflected certain images from the Great Depression: neglected, almost run down, small enough that the seven dwarfs all have to share a single bedroom — though at least they’ve personalized their beds. And although definitely cartoonish, the images of the dwarfs curling up in various odd places also fit familiar images of unemployed people finding jobs wherever they could.

That these scenes are cut between shots of the dwarfs picking up huge gems from the mine suggests that something is seriously wrong with this kingdom’s economy — echoed in the scenes in Snow White’s nearly empty castle. The dwarfs have gems, yes, but no one is buying them. Still. It’s a job, and so, hi ho, hi ho, off to work they go.

The songs are a bit of a mixed bag as well. Three became instant classics and Disney staples — Heigh-Ho, Whistle While You Work, and Someday My Prince Will Come, Other songs have not become popular staples, for a reason. As the animators complained, they are featured in sequences that last far too long, almost to the point of forgetting that yes, yes, there’s an evil witch out there. The moment she comes back, the dwarfs immediately recede: the Evil Queen doesn’t just have a far more powerful presence, she’s visually more interesting.

The Princess and The Frog

Little bears are not much into the traditional musical romance, but they are into fun, great characters, great jokes, a general sense of good humour and entrancing, eye-ravishing old-school animation. Like in The Princess and the Frog 🙂

Princess frogs! Hee, hee!

A princess kisses a frog, and it turns into a handsome Prince Charming. But what if instead she turns into a frog? Spoiler: That’s what happens. And little bears think that’s hilarious! And they know that they are perfectly safe eating princess frogs 🙂

Tiana is based on real-life chef Leah Chase. Initially, Tiana was supposed to be a chambermaid. However, the Black community pushed back against that ridiculous suggestion. Instead, Disney modelled Tiana after Leah Chase, the Queen of Creole Cuisine. Chase is 94-years old and has fed everyone from Thurgood Marshall to Barak Obama. But can she make princess cake? 🙂

The Incredible, 94-Year-Old Chef of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in New Orleans

It would be a stretch to say that a movie about a woman turning into a frog is based on a true story. But even fairy tales can find inspiration from truth, and the real-life woman behind The Princess and the Frog‘s Tiana is Leah Chase. Born in 1923, Chase is the kitchen wizard behind New Orleans’ staple restaurant Dooky Chase. “My first job in New Orleans was working as a waitress at a restaurant. That was the 1940s, when it was almost unheard of for a young black girl, a so-called Creole of Color, to go and work in the French Quarter. That was a no-no,” she says. “But I loved it. You see, it was segregation, and I had never seen the inside of a restaurant in my life. … I loved waiting on people. I loved seeing people eat. And if you like that, you’re going to go further.”

In 1944, Chase met her husband, Dooky, whose parents ran a small sandwich shop. “I just made it grow. Did what I like to do,” she says. “Stumbled a lot, but that’s what life’s all about. You just stumble and keep going.”

When Disney creators were looking for a story to inspire their new animated film about an African-American princess in New Orleans, it was easy for them to find Chase. “When you do a lot of work in your community, you become known, so somebody probably referred [Disney] to me, and I’m so happy about that,” she says. “Now everybody wants to be Tiana. I think it’s fantastic. When I came up, being a cook was nothing. It’s just lately that we have chefs coming into their own. Back then, people would look at you, especially if you were a black woman, and say: ‘Oh, you just a cook. That’s it.’ But now, being a chef is It.”

Though she’s thrilled at the outcome, Chase didn’t always know what was in store. When the folks from Disney first showed up, she says she had no idea of their intentions. “I talked to them for hours and didn’t know what I was talking to them for,” she says. “I was talking about my life. … But that’s another great thing about corporations like Disney: They know what it takes to bring people together, and that’s what life is all about. They had a Cinderella, they had a Snow White, they had all types of little white princesses, so I guess the makers thought that it’s about time we show a black princess. And that is the cutest thing, and they have done it in such a beautiful way.”

Though Tiana may have been long past due, Chase says she doesn’t dwell in the past. “It’s good to see people grow, to come together. You don’t worry about what went down back down the years. It’s progress. We know what we have to do, and we know that life is about uplifting people, and if you make people feel worthy, they’ll perform better. So this movie can inspire many little girls,” Chase says.

As for the critics who say the movie depicts its characters stereotypically? Chase brushes that off too. “In life I’ve learned one thing: You’re going to have people who find fault with anything. Now people may think, ‘Oh, you showed us this way, like we’re country, like we’re Cajun.’ What’s wrong with that? That’s cute, I thought. If you can’t laugh at yourself in life, you’re missing the boat.”

So don’t miss the boat!

Ron Clements and John Musker never do!

Elevenses with Elsa and Anna

And chocolate, of course 🙂

Frozen is the highest-grossing animated film of all time and the fifth highest-grossing film. We’ve certainly contributed to the record… Five dresses and counting…

It’s hard to believe it was only three years ago today that Frozen was released. And there are two more years to wait until Frozen 2! It is planned for release on November 27 2019. With new dresses, no doubt 🙂

Until then, little bears are happy to watch Frozen, again…

In 2015 we got Frozen Fever (or Frozen 1.25, a five-minute musical short) that gave Cinderella a slight boost.

If you’re going to the cinema for Pixar’s Coco, you will get an extra treat in the form of Olaf’s Frozen Adventure. While nearly all recent Disney and Pixar features over the last several years have been preceded by a short movie, this is a full-blown 21-minute animated special, an appetizer for Frozen 2.

Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, or Frozen 1.75, includes four new songs by Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson, and even better, it comes with two new dresses! 🙂

Aladdin’s Silver Anniversary

Busy living the dream… That’s us!

Comfy…

Aladdin was released twenty-five years ago, as part of the Disney Renaissance period, although people might be forgetting this in the middle of all the drama over the casting of the live action remake. The animated version used brown characters and a backdrop resembling the Middle East, although white actors voiced most of the characters. The final product was criticized for using ethnic stereotypes. Disney even changed lyrics to its opening song after protests from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

In 2016, Disney received praise for how it made Moana, from casting Pacific Islander leads to consulting with an Oceanic Trust of scholars to get the story culturally right. The result was a critical and commercial success that was lauded as an example of how to tell excellent, diverse stories. No doubt, Disney is hoping to repeat the experience with the live-action remakes of Mulan and Aladdin. Mulan‘s release date has been postpones by at least 12 months for a number of reasons including difficulties with casting, and the casting choices for Aladdin are causing a social media storm.

No doubt the makers of Aladdin were wishing for another classic that crosses generational lines as successfully as Beauty and the Beast did, and moves as seamlessly from start to finish. Aladdin is not quite that, but it comes as close as may have been possible without a genie’s help 🙂 The fundamentals here go beyond first-rate: animation both gorgeous and thoughtful, several wonderful songs and a wealth of funny minor figures on the sidelines, practicing foolproof Disney tricks. Even a flying Oriental rug is able to frolic, sulk and move its thumb, which has evolved out of a tassel!

Little bears love the antics of Genie and the secondary characters who make the film’s sidelines much more interesting than its supposed centre. The scene-stealing monkey Abu (with noises supplied by Frank Welker) is a particular treat, as when he mimics the Princess or Aladdin or otherwise comments on Aladdin’s adventures.

Honey and Isabelle with Rajah at Tokyo Disney Sea

An opening number, Arabian Nights, gets the film off to a grand start but ends sooner than viewers will wish. A sample lyric by the irreplaceable Howard Ashman, who died of AIDS before completing this film’s score:

Oh I come from a land,
From a faraway place,
Where the caravan camels roam.
Where they cut off your ear
If they don’t like your face.
It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.

Ashman had been diagnosed as HIV positive midway through the making of The Little Mermaid, and was forced to work from home on Beauty And The Beast (with the animation team flown out to him). The lyrics for Aladdin were completed by Tim Rice (Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar), whose style is so much more conventional than Ashman’s that the difference is instantly apparent. But the collaboration between Tim Rice and Alan Menken has produced a lilting ballad, A Whole New World, that provides the film with a pretty interlude. The soaring voice of Jasmine in this duet is provided by Lea Salonga, who sings with Brad Kane (as Aladdin) and offers more evidence of just how shrewdly this film has been put together.

Some interesting things about Aladdin.

  • Filmmakers wanted Robin Williams to play the Genie from the beginning. They even made animation tests of the Genie set to Williams’ old comedy albums.
  • If Williams had turned down the role, producers had planned to pursue John Candy, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Martin Short or Albert Brooks.
  • Robin Williams marks the first time a major celebrity took a voiceover role in a Disney film.
  • Williams recorded his lines in only a handful of sessions—he did them during breaks from filming Hook and Toys.

  • By the time he was finishing up Aladdin, director Steven Spielberg had moved on to making Schindler’s List. Sometimes Williams would get phone calls at the recording studio from Spielberg on the set of the Holocaust drama, and Williams would crack jokes and goof off to cheer up Spielberg, and his cast and crew.
  • Williams did each of his lines as many as 20 different ways, imitating various celebrities, and letting filmmakers choose which one they ultimately liked best. For example, the part where he imitates Groucho Marx won out over line reads Williams did as W.C. Fields and Peter Lorre.
  • All told, filmmakers wound up with 16 hours worth of audio footage of Robin Williams.
  • The film was reportedly nearly honoured with an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, but was ruled ineligible because so much of it wasn’t technically written — that’s how much Robin Williams ad-libbed and improvised.

  • The physical look of the villainous Jafar was modeled after Maleficent, the evil witch from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.
  • The role of Jafar was offered to several luminaries with highly theatrical voices, including Tim Curry, Ian McKellen and Kelsey Grammer.
  • Patrick Stewart pretty much had the part, but couldn’t get out of his Star Trek: The Next Generation shooting schedule. He’s called having to turn down the role one of the biggest regrets of his career.
  • The voice of Jafar was ultimately by actor Jonathan Freeman, who reprised the role in the 2011 Broadway version of Aladdin.
  • The role of Iago, the wisecracking parrot, was offered to Danny DeVito, and then Joe Pesci. Both passed, and it went to Gilbert Gottfried.

  • At the beginning of Aladdin, a peddler breaks the fourth wall and talks to the audience, showing off the stuff he’s got for sale, such as a genie’s lamp. Like the Genie, the peddler is voiced by Robin Williams, giving rise to a fan theory that the peddler and the Genie are the same entity. In 2015, Aladdin directors Ron Clements and Jon Musker confirmed the theory — in an early version of the script, the film ended with the peddler transforming into the Genie.
John Musker and Ron Clements in Aladdin
  • The peddler sings a song called “Arabian Knights”. In the theatrical version, it contained the lyric, “I come from a land / From a faraway place / Where the caravan camels roam / Where they cut off your ear / If they don’t like your face”. After the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee protested, Disney changed the last lines of the lyrics in question on the home video release to, “Where it’s flat and immense, and the heat is intense”.
  • Another early story element that was scrapped: there were two genies. One was a genie of the lamp, and the other was a genie of the ring.

  • Animators initially modelled Aladdin after Michael J. Fox. They thought he looked too boyish, so they re-modelled the character after Tom Cruise.
  • To get the movement of Aladdin’s baggy harem pants correct, animators studied M.C. Hammer’s dance move. (It was the early ’90s, after all.)

  • The 1994 sequel, The Return of Jafar, was the first ever direct-to-video sequel of a Disney movie. That business model became both standard practice and very lucrative for Disney.
  • Williams agreed to take on the role of the Genie, provided that Disney didn’t use his performance to market any merchandise. Well, they did, and citing breach of contract, Williams didn’t voice the Genie in The Return of Jafar. Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer Simpson, did it in his place.
  • Aladdin is the first American movie to be dubbed into Icelandic.
  • It was released on VHS in October 1993 and sold an astounding 10.8 million copies — in a week!
  • All told, 25 million VHS copies of Aladdin were sold. That was an all-time home video record — until Disney’s The Lion King sold more just two years later.

The Other Tangled Story

Little bears are spending elevenses today with Rapunzel and Flynn Rider and Pascal and Maximus.

When it comes to CG animation there’s one big rule: Never touch the hair. You can create all kinds of characters and settings, but as long as you avoid those locks, you’re golden. Computer imagery of hair is just a beast of its own nature; each strand has to retain realistic body and strength. So most animators keep the coif short or styled in one ‘do the entire movie and dare not touch it, lest the limitations of computer animation shine through.

Tangled co-directors Nathan Greno and Howard had none of those luxuries. At its core, Tangled is a movie about a girl with 20 metres of hair, and if you can’t get that right, then you don’t have a movie.

When long, golden tresses are your only means of escaping a prison tower, eluding an abusive mother and rescuing the handsome thief who has promised to take you on your first road trip, a bad hair day is not an option. To ensure that Rapunzel never split an end in Tangled, Walt Disney Animation Studios unleashed a small army of digital stylists – a team of more than 30 animators and software engineers – that Vidal Sassoon himself would envy.

When it comes to computer generated animation, hair is, well, hairy. Computers have trouble when objects collide, and Rapunzel’s hair is made up of more than 100,000 objects (i.e. strands) that bump into one another, sweep over her shoulders, slide across the ground and crash into other characters in moments of both embrace and defence. As character-generated animated characters go, Rapunzel is Mt. Everest, and Tangled a sign of how high the medium has climbed since shiny, hairless toy characters populated the original Toy Story in 1995. In Tangled, the hair is a character unto itself.

Long hair is costly in terms of computing power and technicians’ time, which is why most female CG characters wear their hair in a bob or a Lara Croft-style braid. In the case of Tangled, a wash-and-go ‘do was out of the question. Rapunzel’s famously magical hair had to remind the audience of the character’s vast, untapped potential.

The filmmakers started out with a “hair bible”, a set of drawings created by Glen Keane, the artist behind some of Disney 2D animation’s greatest hair hits — Ariel from The Little Mermaid, the Beast from Beauty and the Beast and Pocahontas. Keane, who had been a director on Tangled before Disney rebooted it in 2008, stayed on as an animation supervisor to guide the filmmakers stylistically in creating wavy, lush, shampoo commercial-worthy hair.

Glen Keane

To understand the feeling of carrying around that mass of hair, animators donned helmets with 20 metres of fishing line attached and ran down the hallways of the animation building. To see how hair would shimmy and shake when let down from the tower, they dropped 20 metres of cloth from a balcony in their office and waved it around. They brushed wigs at their desks and asked a model with hair past her waist to perform tasks like walking stairs and tossing her head. “At times the animation building looked like a mental institution,” Greno said.

It fell to a core group of 10 software engineers to figure out how to duplicate the look of real long hair in a CG environment, and their early tests weren’t encouraging. A single scene could take weeks for the computer to simulate, and when it was finished, Rapunzel’s hair might drag behind her like a long tail that the filmmakers called “the racetrack”, clump into a mass or wrap around her face like Cousin Itt.

“We developed different techniques to put in the twists and turns and hold it while it moved, which is not what hair wants to do naturally,” said Kelly Ward, a software engineer at Disney who helped create the program, Dynamic Wires, used to animate Tangled. “We had to make up physics to do it.” (Ward isn’t kidding: The hair team includes at least one member who has a logarithm named after him.)

Computationally, blonds are especially high maintenance. Multiple colours make up blond, requiring extra delicate work by teams of lighters and shaders to keep Rapunzel’s golden locks from looking dyed and to add a high shine.

Most importantly, Rapunzel’s hair had to reflect her personality. “There was a performance to the hair,” Ward said. “When she’s doing cartwheels, the hair had to have huge arcs to symbolize that she’s free, she’s out of the tower.”

With Tangled done, the filmmakers moved on to Merida’s curly and fiery hair!

Mother Gothel, the evil woman who holds Rapunzel hostage in Tangled, may rank as one of the best villains in Disney history.

Actress Donna Murphy is the reason why.

Donna Murphy

Known for her Tony-winning turns on Broadway, Murphy came equipped with eight billion questions, according to director Nathan Greno. She wanted to know everything about the character before she started working: What was she like as a child? Had she been married? Did she grow up in the kingdom? Things the directors hadn’t thought about. After a two-hour question-and-answer session, Murphy went home, created the character and came back with a performance that left both Greno and his fellow director Byron Howard in awe.

Mother Gothel

“She WAS Mother Gothel,” Greno says. “Usually you do multiple recording sessions with these kinds of characters. But she did it once through and most everything you hear is from that first session. We’ve never met anyone like her. The first time we heard her voice, it was really something.”

Princess Movie Night

Beary princesses are enjoying chocolate cake and watching Moana 🙂

Moana was the first Disney princess film after the world-conquering, billion-dollar-box-office-busting Frozen, and the next princess film after Moana will be Frozen 2, due to be released in 2019. The focus now seems to be on the live action remakes of the princess movies and not on introducing new princesses to the line-up.

Since its introduction in the early 2000s, the Disney Princess franchise has been one of Disney’s most valuable properties. The franchise includes not just films and videos featuring adorable and increasingly independent princesses who no longer follow the princess-movie magic formula of happily ever-after with a prince (thank goodness!), but also related merchandise ranging from toys to clothing to books to furniture and wall paint, not to mention various theme park and Disney Cruise Line attractions.

How will little bears cope without new princess dresses? Hellooo! Disney marketing department! As it is, little bears are still waiting for Pocahontas and Moana outfits. On the other hand, they have six different Frozen outfits and three different Belle dresses.

There was once a time in Walt Disney Studios history when the massive production company churned out princess movies at a rate of almost one a year: the 1980s and ’90s saw the release of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas and Mulan, all of whom are considered official Disney princesses.

A few additions have been made to the Disney princess movie lineup in recent years. The Princess and the Frog revived the genre in 2009, eleven years after Mulan, the previous princess movie, and became notable for featuring the first African-American Disney princess heroine and marked a return to hand-drawn animation. The Princess and the Frog was quickly followed by four more Disney princess movies: Tangled starring Rapunzel, Brave starring Merida, Frozen starring Elsa and Anna, and Moana.

With Moana, Disney’s 56th feature and the first princess film since Frozen, the expectations were pretty high!

To head their new film, Disney selected the two men arguably most responsible for spearheading a revived interest in Disney Princesses: John Musker and Ron Clements, who had been responsible for three of the eleven previous Disney Princess films: The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992) and The Princess and the Frog (2009).

Ron Clements’ and John Musker’s first cameo in Moana can be seen on the tapa hung out on a clothesline.
Both the director’s faces are also embedded in the Polynesian totems at the side of screen during the scene when Chief Tui and the villagers assemble to discuss the state of the dying crops on the island.

Maui, a central figure in Polynesian mythology, was originally going to be the hero. But, after pitching the story to John Lasseter, chief creative officer at Disney subsidiary Pixar, they were dispatched on a field trip to the South Pacific, where after meeting with Oceanic historians, linguists, archaeologists, tattoo artists, fishermen and others, they changed tack to a princess coming-of-age story. The film follows Moana as she sets sail from her island home to find the demigod Maui and restore the heart of an island goddess, putting an end to a creeping darkness destroying the ocean.

The film is an obvious allegory for climate change that focuses on one of the cultures most immediately and acutely affected by it, and, as a bonus, features a leader brave enough to take action while others in her tribe are content to just wait and see: Moana isn’t reluctantly signing treaties, she’s sailing straight into the centre of a lava monster and going to battle to save the planet.

The film subverts the princess-movie magic formula even more than Frozen did: while Anna’s happy ending in Frozen involved a reconciliation with her sister instead of a handsome prince, Moana does not feature a prince at all.

At a time when Hollywood is being hammered for “whitewashing” stories, it’s noteworthy that the lead voice actors in Moana are all of Polynesian descent and historians, linguists, choreographers and cultural leaders from Fiji, Tahiti, Samoa and other islands were deeply involved in the film’s development. Part-Polynesian story artist, David Derrick, put a rubbing of his ancestors’ gravesites over his desk for inspiration, and hired native choreographers to help animators create some of the film’s dance sequences. Hawai’ian screenwriters Aaron and Jordan Kandell were brought in to help out with what was now becoming an almost inevitable discovery of major story problems just as the film was rushing to completion.

The voice actors included part Somoan Dwayne Johnson/The Rock as Maui; part Maori/New Zealander Rachel House; part Maori/New Zealander Temuera Morrison; part Maori/New Zealander Jemaine Clement; part Hawai’ian singer Nicole Scherzinger and, after a long worldwide search, debut actress and Native Hawai’ian Auli’i Cravalho, at 14 among the younger voice actors for Disney protagonists.

From left: Director John Musker, producer Osnat Shurer, Nicole Scherzinger, Auli’i Cravalho, Lin-Manuel Miranda, director Ron Clements and Opetaia Foa’i at a Moana screening in London.

The film is a musical, with songs co-written by Lin-Manuel Miranda (the man behind the Broadway hit Hamilton), including one, How Far I’ll Go, that Musker calls the Over the Rainbow number, in which, like mermaid Ariel in Part of Your World and Queen Elsa in Let It Go, the heroine sets her heart’s desire to song.

Moana mostly features lush, brilliantly coloured computer animation, with one exception: the tattoos, animated by hand by Eric Goldberg, who was the lead animator for the Genie from Aladdin (1992). Goldberg created highly stylized, sentient cartoon characters, with a two dimensional look, mimicking both the two dimensional look of tattoos and some elements of South Pacific art. As with many of Goldberg’s previous creations, the tattoo characters never speak, but manage to make their feelings quite clear through pantomime. It’s not just beautifully — and amusingly — done, but adds a touch of hand art to a computer animated work — a neat contrast to the very first film Musker and Clements directed for Disney, The Great Mouse Detective (1986), which added a touch of computer animation to hand art.

Moana shows where the future of animation as an art form might lie. Though it was made on computer software capable of animating more than a billion individual water particles in a single crashing-water effect, Musker and Clements dug into their contacts book to bring some analogue magic to the digital frontier.

One of the first names they turned to was Eric Goldberg, who had drawn Robin Williams’s Genie in Aladdin, and is one of only a few venerable Disney animators with a personal style that’s strong enough to spot. They originally asked Goldberg to help work out how to animate the ocean itself, which becomes Moana’s equivalent of a fairy godmother. The ocean had to be able to express emotions through simple waves and splashes without looking like a nightmarish watery tendril from The Abyss – a near-impossible task on a computer that becomes natural and intuitive with a pencil on paper and the right hand to guide it.

During production, Musker and Clements charged Goldberg with a second task: animating Mini Maui, a Jiminy Cricket-like “living tattoo” who bounces around Maui’s much-flexed musculature, nudging and flicking him down the more morally admirable path.

Goldberg drew the character by hand, and his work was digitally transferred on to Maui’s body: a nifty marriage of techniques old and new.

The water effects are spectacular, from the multiple underwater shots in different lights (something the directors had learned a little about back in their The Little Mermaid (1989) days, to various images of waves and waters, and waterfalls that look more like actual falling water than anything Disney animators had previously achieved. Disney has finally achieved something it had been trying for since the 1930s: a moving painting — computer generated, but still a painting — of realistic looking, moving water.

And over 30 years, Musker and Clements went from the story of a teenage girl who lives in the water and is drawn to the land, to a teenage girl who lives on land and is drawn to the water 🙂