(Welcome to The Disney Discourse, a recurring feature where Josh Spiegel discusses the latest in Disney news. He goes deep on everything from the animated classics to the theme parks to live-action franchises. In this edition: why the recently retired John Musker matters to Disney’s past and its future.)

There are only a few people whose presence at Walt Disney Animation Studios has been as massive as that of Walt Disney himself. During Disney’s life, although he never directed a single animated feature, it was hard to see anyone else at the studio he created with his brother being quite as influential or impactful as he was. After Walt Disney’s death in 1966, there have been a handful of artists who could say that they caused major change at the studio, from the late composer Howard Ashman to the now-mired-in-controversy animator and producer John Lasseter.

Last weekend, one of those great artists stepped down from Disney Animation: longtime animator and director John Musker, whose loss at the studio will be keenly felt for a long time.

The Little Mermaid

Remembering a Legend

You may not know John Musker’s name the way you know Ashman’s or Lasseter’s, but he’s as responsible for so many of the company’s cinematic touchstones of the last 40 years as either of those men. Along with Ron Clements (who’s still a Disney employee), Musker co-directed seven of Disney’s animated features: The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, Treasure Planet, The Princess and the Frog, and Moana. You’d have to go back to the 1960s and 1970s to find any other Disney animator who directed so many of the studio’s features, and even further to find animators who directed more films than Musker did. (Most of those older movies had slightly different production responsibilities, as a handful of animators would be tasked as sequence directors, unlike the way such films are produced today.) Despite Disney going through many different changes throughout the last 40 years, Musker weathered them, even shifting into computer animation for the wonderful 2016 film Moana.

Musker and Clements, in their work as co-directors, certainly had trademark themes or styles that you don’t have to look hard to find. Dwayne Johnson’s boisterous demigod Maui in Moana doesn’t feel too far removed from the wild and manic Genie voiced by Robin Williams in Aladdin. The rebellious streak that marks Moana and her drive to explore beyond the island where she lives is seen in Ariel, in Aladdin, in Hercules, and more. The films that John Musker and Ron Clements made for Disney are massively instrumental to the wide-ranging success of feature animation over the last 30 years. Just as you could say that the Disney Renaissance wouldn’t exist without the music of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, you could say that it wouldn’t exist without John Musker.

A Creative Evolution

One of the many highlights of Musker’s career is the creative evolution charted over the seven films he co-directed, landing in a place that suggested how far he had pushed himself and the medium. This isn’t just to say that the animation and story quality of a film like Moana vastly overshines that of The Great Mouse Detective; three decades ought to allow for improvements in technology. Instead, we only need to look at the way in which Musker and his co-director Clements treated characters of color, and how the filmmakers learned from their past mistakes and went on to improve themselves as storytellers.

Aladdin (which is now, of course, being remade as a live-action/CGI film directed by Guy Ritchie, because when you think of family films, you think of Guy Ritchie) is a frequently funny, snappy, fast-paced animated film. The homages throughout the film to the off-the-wall animation of Chuck Jones and the Looney Tunes are all the more delightful now than in 1992. But watching Aladdin in 2018 doesn’t just mean feeling another pang of sadness over the loss of the incomparable Williams, or laughing at the countless sight gags. Watching the film now means appreciating that Aladdin’s depiction of the Middle East is blithely lily-white. Though all of the characters are ostensibly from the Middle East, all of the actors in the film are White and most of the characters’ skin color is light.

Even in the early 1990s, Aladdin came under fire for its stereotypical representation of the bad guys in the film, whose appearance is more exaggerated. The film’s music also went under revision; inflammatory lyrics in the opening number “Arabian Nights” were changed for all home media releases to avoid any further controversy. This isn’t to suggest that Aladdin is a bad film, or unworthy of praise. But the quarter-century since has only changed how it plays, not altogether kindly.

As two welcome counterarguments of more positive representation, think of Musker and Clements’ final two films, The Princess and the Frog and Moana. It’s woeful that it took Disney over 70 years to release an animated film with a Black female lead, but The Princess and the Frog, a play on the old fairytale “The Frog Prince,” is one of the most underrated, charming, and winning films the studio has ever made. Though it’s true that The Princess and the Frog ran into some controversy early in its production regarding the lead character’s name and profession, the finished film depicts a hardworking young woman (voiced by the wonderful Anika Noni Rose) fighting as hard as she can to win her way through an impossible system in the middle of 1920s-era New Orleans. The Princess and the Frog, in a lot of ways, feels like a deliberate inversion of Musker and Clements’ breakthrough film The Little Mermaid.

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