written by Bill Desowitz
"We're almost there." I don't remember which nominee said it, but it was very fitting, given that Walt Disney Animation Studios was the last stop yesterday on the L.A. leg (beginning with a tour of the indispensable Animation Research Library in nearby Glendale). Of course, "Almost There," from The Princess and the Frog, summarizes the hopes and dreams of all the nominees. So, it was also very fitting that Princess and the Frog directors Ron Clements and John Musker were on hand to view the shorts and meet with the nominees over lunch.
Musker marveled at the wit and craft on display in all five films, while Clements reminisced with me about the genius of the late Howard Ashman, the driving artistic force so poignantly explored in the brilliant documentary, Waking Sleeping Beauty (opening March 26), from Don Hahn and Peter Schneider. The film chronicles the phenomenal yet turbulent years from '84-'94 when Disney experienced its second animated renaissance. "It's very honest," Clements said," but if anything is missing, it's how difficult it was to make Aladdin, which was included but wound up on the cutting room floor." A very challenging movie, in fact, with so many iterations (Ashman's vision was much darker) that it was temporarily shelved, enabling Ashman to rescue Beauty and the Beast and help transform this masterpiece into the first animated Best Picture nominee.
Meanwhile, Glen Keane was also there and arguably the most enthusiastic supporter of the shorts. He graciously spent time with directors Javier Gracia (The Lady and the Reaper), Fabrice Joubert (French Roast) and Nicky Phelan (Granny O' Grimm's Sleeping Beauty). Keane, who has recovered from his heart attack, is back serving as directing animator on Tangled (formerly Rapunzel), opening Nov. 24. He shared a lot more than the daily drawings he made yesterday in his journal.
"I walked in [the screening room] after viewing dailies and saw that waiter's face [in French Roast] and thought, 'What is that?'" Keane beamed. "And I just sat there and watched… it was so great [to express so much with so little]. We do so much wasteful stuff around here and to be reminded of what can be accomplished in these shorts, to focus like a laser on what's important. I was telling Ed Catmull the other day that there is so much animation going on right now outside of this studio that we're not aware of -- it's fantastic."
Keane was so thrilled that he couldn't wait to show off his movie. Talk about difficult: The CG-animated Tangled has proved to be both a technical and artistic challenge like no other in recent Disney history. In fact, with 25% of the film animated and 19 weeks left to go, Keane said they've just about gotten Rapunzel's fabled hair figured out. "You follow the design -- the twisting and turning; it's organic stuff that the computer doesn't do well."
Unfortunately, Keane was unable to let her hair down for us; however, he showed us a pencil test in his office that conveyed her irrepressible nature in a way only hand-drawn can, as she strutted to the window of her tower only to be reminded of her imprisonment. "She's a contained/uncontainable person," Keane emphasized about his first drawing in eight years.
But the surprise of the day was the six-minute rough animation clip Keane screened in the room where they watch dailies: In a meet cute encounter with dashing bandit, Flynn Rider (Zackary Levi), Rapunzel (Mandy Moore), sans skirt and hair, tries to make a bid for her freedom while holding him captive in a chair. Keane, who described how the eventual lighting would look ("He will be in complete shadow"), definitely piqued our interest.