Where Is the Love for this Disney Animation?by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
I have always felt that some Disney animated characters and films do not receive enough attention. It is important to remember that every Disney character or film is somebody's favorite.
I once dated a young lady who I thought was the love of my life whose favorite Disney animated feature film of all time was The Aristocats (1970). I could not stand that film for several reasons from a poorly written story to frequent re-use of animation and what were two very Southern U.S. dogs doing in the outskirts of 1910 Paris? Don't get me started. I could write an entire column about the questionable choices.
However, because she loved it, I learned to accept it even if it was not a Disney classic and not to grumble when she wanted to watch it over and over.
Nearly two decades later, I developed a friendship with a business colleague whose daughter was named Marie and was completely over the top for anything associated with the little white kitten named Marie from that film. I spent a lot of time helping him find merchandise themed to the character. Thankfully, Japanese Disney fans loved the character, as well, so there was a lot of merchandise available.
In that spirit, here is a Disney character and a Disney animated film that I think are underrated but were very well done.
Based on the Basil of Baker Street book series by Eve Titus, The Great Mouse Detective (1986) follows the adventures of Basil, a mouse detective who operates on the same deductive principles as Sherlock Holmes and lives in a tiny home located under 221B Baker Street, the residence of the world's greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes.
Wanting to distance the film from Steven Spielberg's recent box office bomb, Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) in the belief that it proved audiences weren't interested in Sherlock Holmes, the new Disney management insisted on the title change for the film and even considered re-dubbing the film so that it sounded more "American" than British. When the exorbitant cost estimate for the change came in, the idea was rejected.
Disney Legend Frank Thomas called The Great Mouse Detective "a happy surprise, filled with humor and inspired animation, and helped immeasurably by the voice of Vincent Price as the arch-villain Ratigan."
The film came after the disappointment of The Black Cauldron (1985) and animator Don Bluth leading a mass exodus of animation staff from the Disney Studio and Disney struggling to rebuild its animation department.
Basil's nemesis is the evil genius Ratigan "the Napoleon of crime" who has ambitions of taking over the mouse world. He controls a vast nefarious network of crime under the streets of London. He himself is a giant sewer rat, but he hates to be reminded of it, to the point that he will have his own henchmen fed to his cat if they refer to him as a rat rather than a large mouse. Just as Basil was meant to reference Sherlock Holmes, Ratigan was meant to be reminiscent of his greatest foe, Professor Moriarty.
Actor Vincent Price, who was 75, was cast in the role after animators viewed a 1950 film, Champagne for Caesar, at the suggestion of director Burny Mattinson, where Price played larger-than-life corporate chieftain Burnbridge Waters. Price was encouraged to re-create that same approach and make Ratigan pompous, smug, emotional and overly theatrical.
Ratigan was designed by animator Glen Keane who found Price's "expressive voice and attitude inspired us to further redesign the character. Ratigan was originally a very skinny character. He was a rat and we had him kind of as a weasly-looking guy but his design was too similar to Basil. I was thinking maybe we should be really bigger with him."
"At the time we watched the Vincent Price film and listening to his dialogue I realized that's the voice for him. He just had this sharp, quick way of speaking and the timing was great. You could tell he enjoyed being a rotten guy," Keane said. "Like Ratigan he felt like he was justified in doing whatever he did, which is important for a villain. The villain isn't bad just because he's bad, but he's justified. He feels like he's right. I started doing drawings of a much larger, huge rat character and it fit. So then we actually brought Vincent Price in and headed in that direction."
Keane got the idea for the design by basing Ratigan's large stature on Disney's president Ron Miller who was a 6'6" ex-football player for the Los Angeles Rams and whose presence was physically intimidating. It seemed to make sense to have a larger species dominating a smaller one.
He recalled, "Originally, the character didn't have the power or presence we wanted. Then one day, we heard Mr. Miller's footsteps coming down a long linoleum hallway. You could hear the floor shaking as this 6-foot 6-inch guy with 260 pounds of muscle moved into the room.
"So we started doing caricatures of Miller as a huge rat. It wasn't done to be derogatory. I sweated it out when I presented the first sketches to him but he didn't recognize his own face and said, 'Go with it'." The Wall Street Journal heard me tell this story and contacted Miller who replied, 'That's news to me'."
Keane also drew some inspiration from a particular photograph he found of a group of railroad men in 1800s London, and that there was one guy, well dressed and wearing in a top hat, smoking a cigar and having a sleazy, fat-cat kind of look about him.
He said, "There was just something about this guy – this Ratigan… this rat sucking the cigar, completely dressed to the hilt, he was sharp and perfect – he's a sewer rat dressed like a king and he lives as a king!"
Keane wanted to be sure to capture the menace under the polish as well: "That quality was behind the character throughout the whole film, waiting to come out. When he smiled, it wasn't just an evil grin; there was an intense, tooth-gritting evil struggling to come out as he masked it with the smile. The final shot of him rising up to strike Basil is the climax of the animal side of Ratigan. Characters like Ratigan or Willie the Giant, or an animal that has a larger-than-life presence screaming to come out on screen, excite me. I like being the one who brings it out."
Keane and his assistant Matt O'Callaghan boarded several of Ratigan's sequences. Ruben Procopio did an impressive maquette sculpture of the character for reference.
While recording the voice, Price was amiable, upbeat, and shared stories of the Golden Age of Hollywood. As Steve Hulett recalled, "Only one moment of testiness happened when he had delivered a four-word line thirty-five times in thirty-five different ways, and the directors asked for a 36th interpretation. Mr. Price snapped, 'I don't have any other way to say it! I've said the line every way there is!'"
Here is part of a presentation actor Price gave in 1986 to media reporters to promote the film.
"It was the first time in 45 years I had to audition. I was furious with them. I had done more than a hundred pictures and if they didn't know what my voice sounded like then the hell with them.
"After a while I realized I was being very silly and egotistical. They knew my voice but they weren't sure whether I could adapt to the style of acting required by the role. So, like a kid, I tried out. After all, it was Disney.
"The voice is crucial in the animated film. I guess mine evokes a certain mystery…or horror or melodrama and that's what they wanted for this character. If I have added anything to the history of villainy, it's a sense of fun.
"The trouble with actors now is they mumble and grumble their arts. Everything is understated to the point of absurdity. You expect something larger-than-life, not smaller.
"As I worked on Ratigan, the animators fell more and more in love with him. He began getting more footage. He got a song. They let me go overboard as far as I could go. I would get in the sound booth with the director of the scene.
"The director would urge me on, telling me to make it bigger and bigger. To get that big sound out, I naturally gestured and made faces. I'd come back four months later and see more of the film and find that my gestures and expressions had crept in. The eyebrows especially.
"They told me that they based the part on my performance in Champagne for Caesar (1950). My character in that film took himself absolutely seriously and yet could see how ridiculous he was. He was Howard Hughes' favorite character. He gets shot in the arm and says, 'Oh my god, it's real blood!'
"Ratigan is the same. For instance every once in a while one of his frightened henchmen call him a rat. He's furious, because he thinks of himself as merely a large mouse. So he feeds the poor henchmen to his pet cat.
"Ratigan finds himself hysterically funny. He's in the marvelous tradition of Disney villains. He's mad, mad, mad! I do adore Ratigan.
"I did it because one should never stop. That's the first rule. Keep going. Do everything, even cartoons. If you don't, you stop. And stopping stinks."
Brother Bear (2003)
In post ice age North America, three brothers gather as the youngest one named Kenai is given his spiritual totem of a bear. Kenai is not fond of bears, especially after his oldest brother dies in an encounter with one. Kenai kills the bear and is transformed into one. His other brother vows to kill the bear that seemingly killed his younger brother.
Kenai reluctantly agrees to accompany Koda, a young cub whose mother has gone missing, to a salmon run to reunite the pair and also in hopes of reaching a sacred spot in the mountains where he can be turned back into human form.
A pair of Canadian moose occasionally pop up in the wilderness to lighten the dark tale where the angry middle brother continues to hunt Kenai and Koda. When the bears finally reach the salmon run, Koda tells a story and Kenai realizes that when he was in human form he killed Koda's mother and reveals the truth to the horrified cub.
Later saving Koda's life from his middle brother's wrath, Kenai is transformed back into a human but asks to remain as a bear to care for Koda.
When I worked at Walt Disney World, one of my roles was to teach two classes to interns at Disney Feature Animation Florida. Because of my performing background I taught "Acting for Animators" and because of my animation history background I taught an eight session class on the "History of Animation" that focused on non-Disney animation from silent films to the year 2000.
As a result, I also got to attend some special presentations at the studio including one in late September 2003 where producer Chuck Williams and directors Aaron Blaise and Bob Walker talked about their work on the animated feature Brother Bear (2003), one of the last hand-drawn Disney animated films and also the last animated feature primarily made by the Florida studio.
Very little has been written about this film that is generally considered a minor offering in the Disney universe.
While primarily traditionally animated, some scenes like the salmon run and caribou stampede utilized computer generated artwork. The artists did life drawing sessions with live bear cubs but were also taken to the nearby Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground at Walt Disney World for drawing sessions three times a week for two months.
The two goofy bull moose, Tuke and Rutt, were voiced by comedians Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, who had created the characters of the Canadian brothers Bob and Doug MacKenzie for the sketch comedy show SCTV in 1980. They used those same personas for the moose brothers.
After Kenai is transformed into a bear the film shifts from a 1.75:1 aspect ratio to the CinemaScope ratio of 2.35:1 to give the audience a sense of seeing the world differently. Songwriter Phil Collins wrote a 'transformation song" that was translated into Inuit and then sung by a full Bulgarian choir. It was cut from the film.
The background and layout artists studied the work of landscape artist Albert Bierstadt, a personal favorite of then Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Eisner had just bought a large Bierstadt painting and wanted to do a movie that captured the look and feel of that painting and so put Brother Bear into production.
As always, I tried to take good notes since I knew Disney would not document this limited audience presentation and that once again, I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.
Aaron Blaise: We took two trips to research bears in their natural habitat. Chuck and I went with two of our story guys to Alaska and visited some of the places with the highest concentrations of grizzly bears in the world. We went back there again the following year with Bob, along with our head of layout, our art director and other key visual artistic people. We also traveled through Wyoming on that trip and later to the National Parks in California. We tried to take the best of North America and boil it down to one perfect, idealistic North America for the movie.
Bob Walker: We flew into this one place, Geographic Harbor in Alaska, and from the air we could see twenty or thirty bears. But once we landed and walked up to where they were, they all scattered. They're actually really shy. We ended up sitting around there for a couple of hours just kind of hanging out and hoping for one or two to come out. A couple of hours later, a big, huge male who must have been 700 or 800 pounds just came walking down the river. He eventually came to within six or seven feet of us. He didn't really pay much attention to us but when you see that thing coming right at you, it's pretty scary.
Blaise: There were several encounters. We had a bear come through our campsite one night and with Chuck's experience, we were hiking up a hill just kind of talking and couple of us looked up and saw a mother grizzly with two cubs about 30 yards ahead of us. Chuck's still talking, walking along and, had we not said anything, he would have walked right into them.
Chuck Williams: Disney films like Bambi, The Jungle Book, The Lion King deal with some heavy issues of life and death. They all have moments where the central character is faced with death and what that means. You'll find that true in our story as well. So those stories kind of paved the way for us to deal with some important themes and drama.
Blaise: We had done a couple of bear story treatments that weren't really landing. Thomas Schumacher who was head of our division at the time suggested that we go off and just really research different bear legends and myths from around the world. We discovered some great native myths from North America that had to do with transformation into the human and animal worlds. Their belief was that we're all people; we just have different skin. There were also some emotional stories that we kind of attached ourselves to, so we started putting all of that together and came up with our initial transformation story.
Williams: Most good stories are about transformation. A character is changed or transformed by the course of events in a story. We thought it was a great metaphor to have Kenai transformed physically and then by the end of the film transformed emotionally as well.
Blaise: The story became about three brothers and in a way we relate to each other in that way as well. We've been together on this film for six years. Actually, we all started at the Florida studio on the same day 15 years ago. On our research trips, we lived in an RV together for weeks at a time. That can test you, and we really got along great. Plus, we each have brothers so we were able to draw on a lot of that in making this film.
Walker: We knew our movie was very dramatic right from the start and we knew we wanted these two dumb Canadian moose to provide relief from all of the drama and tension. At first, they were only comic relief and we were having trouble making them part of the twists and turns of the story. Ultimately though, their brotherhood especially in the final scene of the movie really plays a big, pivotal role. The film will make people cry. It'll make them laugh.
Blaise: Dave Thomas, the voice of Tuke, saw it and said, "This is the kind of movie that makes the world a better place." The theme of the movie is to let love guide your choices. If you do that, nothing can go wrong.