Inverting the Past

While both heroines are transformed in a way by a mysterious and villainous character with magical powers, when we first meet Ariel, she wants for very little and doesn’t quite work so hard to get what she wants. (Please note: I greatly enjoy The Little Mermaid. I come to praise, not to bury. But it’s not my favorite Musker and Clements film.) Rose’s character Tiana has a very clear desire and the experience to match: she wants to open her own restaurant in the Big Easy and has been working multiple jobs at local diners for years just to save up enough. But one day, at a low point, she finds herself doing what she thought she never would: literally wishing upon a star and soon kissing a frog who can talk.

Once she kisses the frog, Tiana learns that she’s accidentally kissed Prince Naveen, a human was himself turned into a frog; their kiss hasn’t turned him back to a human, but her into a frog. As Tiana and Naveen are on their own, struggling to turn back into humans, they fall in love (naturally), but the push and pull between the two of them offers a much richer romance than that of Ariel and Prince Eric.

Musker and Clements’ ability to push themselves, as opposed to making a variation on the same film over and over, is remarkable especially when you consider some of the other animators who stayed at Disney for many decades, directing as many or more films as them. Though I know there are plenty of fans of the Disney animated films from the 1960s and 1970s — all of which were directed or co-directed by Wolfgang Reitherman — I would argue that they’re marked by a predictable sameness within the stories, right down to sometimes featuring variations on the same shots. There are a couple of highlights from that era, such as The Jungle Book, but the 60s and 70s were more of the same for Disney. When we look at the Disney Renaissance, there’s no doubt similar themes and elements, to the point where it felt like the existence of Pixar in the mid-1990s was meant as a sharp rebuke to the Broadway-style musicals Disney was churning out. But when you look at the filmography of John Musker, you see someone evolving with the form and with popular culture.

Charting a Course

Take Moana, a film that has only become richer over the last year-plus. (This November, Disney will release its first animated film in two years, Wreck-It Ralph 2. Two years is too long of a wait for new Disney animation!) The basics of the story may feel recognizable, but the way in which that story is executed is remarkable. Musker and Clements had been in the world of hand-drawn animation for over 30 years when they started work on Moana. (The Princess and the Frog was the penultimate Disney film that was hand-drawn as opposed to computer animated, and when you revisit it – which you should – don’t ignore how beautiful it looks.) But they made the transition to the cutting-edge style of computer animation with ease. From the opening scene, in which a toddler Moana interacts with the surprisingly playful waters of the ocean, it’s clear that Musker and Clements weren’t going to have any major hiccups in working in computer animation.

The story, too, is a leap forward from even the relatively diverse The Princess and the Frog. The cast, including newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement and Dwayne Johnson, is largely of Polynesian descent, reflecting the film’s Pacific Island setting. The premise is, in keeping with the sense of Tiana being empowered in The Princess and the Frog, not about a young woman in peril; it is about a young woman gaining strength. Moana is an active character, struggling not with a romance but with whether or not she wants to lead her people or lead expeditions across the great blue unknown. The modern quality of the story extends to the excellent soundtrack, featuring songs composed by Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina, and the man behind Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Putting a hip-hop style to songs that once were designed like old-fashioned showtunes, and adding in modern storytelling and technology only make Moana stand out more, not feel like a poor fumble by older filmmakers to harness their talents for a younger audience.

There are still many great animators who work at Disney Animation, whether it’s veterans like Ron Clements or Eric Goldberg, the latter of whom was the lead animator for the Genie and was responsible for Maui’s hand-drawn tattoos, or younger animators and directors like Byron Howard and Jennifer Lee. And John Musker may not be done entirely — Tony Bancroft, who co-directed Mulan, left a telling hashtag in his tweet honoring Musker: “#hesnotdoneyet.” Musker’s only 64, but if this only means the end of a chapter of his career, as opposed to the end of his career, that would be a wonderful surprise. John Musker, one of the architects of the Disney Renaissance, has ended his lengthy tenure at Walt Disney Animation Studios, and deserves to be celebrated for his remarkable body of work. He’s a hell of an animator, and we’ll all be wanting a little bit more without him making features.

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