To most of our modern media, Disney‘s second ‘Golden Age’ of animation seemed to end with Tarzan in 1999. Almost every article I’ve read that mentions Disney animation in some form or another seems to assume that nothing good came from Disney‘s feature animation division until almost a decade later. Pity that they often gloss over a film that seemed to do pretty well in the summer of 2002 (then again, the media tends to focus on how much money you make, not the integrity of your character).
Conceived of by story artist Chris Sanders, the original concept for Lilo & Stitch was that of a strange alien creature lost in a forest. After more story work, the lost alien creature soon became a fugitive alien experiment (codenamed “Experiment 626”).
There was a feel of rude-n-crude humor to Stitch, but what managed to keep the film from falling into just being mediocre, was the story of Lilo (Daveigh Chase), a little girl whose imagination makes it hard for her to fit in, as well as get along well with her older sister, Nani (Tia Carrere).
In a way, both Lilo and Stitch’s abrasive tendencies allowed them to learn from each other, and provided one of the most unconventional films to come from Walt Disney Feature Animation in quite some time.
Production-wise, making the film was different in a number of ways:
1) It was only the second film to be produced entirely at Walt Disney Feature Animation in Orlando, FL (the only other animated film to be made there was Mulan).
2) Aside from an orchestrated score composed by Alan Silvestri (composer of Back to the Future), the majority of the music used were songs that were sung by Elvis Presley.
3) Background art for the production was painted entirely in watercolors.
Much like Atlantis: The Lost Empire had relied on artistic inspiration from Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, Sanders’ unique stylings would be all over his production. Straight lines in the production were largely done away with, and almost everything was given an expanded or rounded look to it (which definitely contrasted with the very angular designs of Atlantis as well).
The idea behind the production of the film, was making something on a smaller budget, but still retaining the heart of the piece. For inspiration, the filmmakers would often look to Dumbo, which was a simple little story that was also made on a much smaller budget than other films the studio had produced at the time.
This feeling to make a film in the spirit of the first Golden Age of animated features (1938-1942) also carried over into a small scene in the film. One of the first things that Stitch becomes interested in is a book showing the story of The Ugly Duckling. This was one of the last Silly Symphonies that The Walt Disney Studios produced in the late 1930’s, and I often cite it for its ability to be very emotional. There’s one scene that I recall seeing in the theaters, that noone ever really noticed as an ‘homage’ to that animated short.
To direct our attention to the film’s upcoming release, the marketing department soon attempted a campaign that was unlike anything we had seen before. Instead of giving us outright clips of the film, 3/4 of the movie trailers consisted of the alien Stitch invading some of the most heartfelt moments we recalled from the Disney classics of the early 1990’s.
Marketing made Stitch out to be the black sheep of the Disney character stable. He was the rebel, the anti-Mickey if you will. Even though he was engineered to destroy, a lot of people loved Stitch’s round, cuddly shape. It could tie into how we respond to various shapes. One study I remember reading said that babies tended to seem more comfortable with rounded, natural shapes than angular ones. This could also explain why so many people love Mickey Mouse: he’s largely made up of circles.
In the end, Stitch didn’t make gobs of money, but it was one of the most well-received animated feature from Disney, and it commanded a decent $145 million gross in the US alone. What I remember most about the film’s opening weekend, was a sight I’ve never witnessed since regarding a Disney theatrical release. At the time, I was working at a movie theater, and was surprised to see that the 10pm showing for the film was sold out! I snuck in to check out the crowd, and it wasn’t families…it was teenagers and 20-somethings that made up a good 90% of the audience!! Such a thing would become commonplace with many of Pixar’s films, but this was a rare occurrence.
Unknown to alot of people, a couple major changes were made to the story during its final year in production.
One of them was made after a test audience’s reaction to the scene where Jumba chases Stitch into Lilo and Nani’s home, and proceeds to fight him inside.
The original piece was a lot more violent, and at one point, the chainsaw Stitch finds gets out of his hands, and chases Lilo around the kitchen. At the end, the destruction of the home was more intentional as Stitch and Jumba’s fighting escalates. Stitch pulls out the stove, and turns up the gas, which soon turns into a ‘do you have the guts to do it’ moment between the two, resulting in Jumba pulling the trigger and destroying the home. This definitely was a bit more menacing than the final product, which became a comical game of ‘hot potato,’ with a jammed blaster.
Another change was the slamming on the brakes of an action set-piece in the wake of the events of 9/11. Originally, to get Lilo back from Captain Gantu, Jumba, Pleakley, Stitch, and Nani hijack an airplane, including flying it through a commercial district on the island.
This was a key sequence in the film, and much of the scene had already been animated and finalized.
The solution? Restructure the 747 so that it looked like an alien spaceship (after all, Jumba and Pleakley had to get to Earth somehow!), and change the commercial district to a mountainous canyon area.
The eventual DVD release of the film before Christmas satiated the public’s need to have a little piece of the adventure in their own homes, but many animation fans and myself were a little upset. Why? Well, the American release was a single-disc that gave us very little…whereas foreign releases to some countries contained everything from audio commentary, a documentary on the making of the film, and even numerous deleted scenes (such as the original house attack and the rescue by 747).
Eventually, our patience paid off as in the Spring of 2009, the 2-disc edition finally made it to our shelves, and I was sure to get it. If you love the film but don’t have the 2-disc set yet, get it! Or, maybe hold off as I’m sure some time in the next few years, we’ll get it on Blu-Ray.
Lilo & Stitch is one of those films that many of us recall before the resurgence of the dark times at Walt Disney Studios. That fall, Treasure Planet’s low-grosses in the wake of its exorbitant price tag would begin the eventual demise of hand-drawn animation at the studio, and leading to the eventual closure of numerous satellite studios the company had around the world (including the Feature Animation branch in Orlando). Chris Sanders stayed with Disney through the dark times, but when his concepts for the production American Dog (which later became Bolt) were not met favorably, he exited the studio and headed to Dreamworks. What did he do there? Oh, just a little film called How to Train Your Dragon (along with his Stitch co-director Dean DeBlois).
Aside from films made by Pixar Animation Studios, almost nothing that came out after Stitch quite captured the charm and emotions that permeated from that film. Lilo was not your conventional princess or ordinary little girl (she had issues, and at one point even lashed out at a girl who made fun of her), and doing things a little different is a way to make people remember you. Stitch could have just been an E.T. rip-off, but he was a weapon that soon learned there could be more to who you are…that you can change, and find a way to belong.
Some of you may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned the television series, or the direct-to-video releases. Well, I’m one of those people that cuts off where the main creator(s) walked away. I’m the guy who will acknowledge Terminators 1 & 2, but nothing that came afterwards.
Lilo & Stitch also makes me fondly recall the summer of 2002, when I was entering my final year of studying animation, with our Team Animation class looming on the horizon, and my eager young attitude anticipating what was to come down the road, both in life, and in animation.
Last week, I received some shocking news that made me realize how time had continued to move forward.
One of the Walt Disney Studio’s master animators, Glen Keane, officially announced his retirement. Much like Walt Disney became a fixture in the minds of many due to his appearances on the Disneyland television show, Glen became stuck in my mind as I saw him discuss the animation of Ariel, in a making-of special for The Little Mermaid.
But what really cemented him in my mind, was the interview he did for the making of Beauty and the Beast, as well as the information that was gleaned from him in the updated version of Bob Thomas’ The Art Of Animation, released in the fall of 1991. Needless to say, I was enthralled by Keane’s art style. So much so, that I began to emulate it. However, unlike most animators, Keane was a man of many lines…literally. But the amount of lines that he laid down on a piece of paper, could often convey something much more than just a simple, clean line. I was surprised how much this had wormed its way into my brain, when I showed someone some rough and clean drawings for some personal projects. “The rough drawings look better,” they said, “they have more personality.”
In recent years, I guess it has been hard to believe that the men who worked on the films when I was a kid have grown up as well (I remember being shocked seeing directors John Musker and Ron Clements with grey hair when doing interviews for Treasure Planet!). Much like time aged the former Nine Old Men of Disney’s animation division, the same has happened to the young men who were mentored and taught the principles to them.
With Glen’s exit from the hallowed halls of Disney’s Feature Animation division, I thought I’d list my Top 5 favorite animated characters that Glen had a hand in their creation and supervision. So, away we go!
As computers began to creep into the animation division at Walt Disney Feature Animation in the early 2000’s, a number of key animated items began to be relegated to cel-shaded computer models, and some animators began to shy away from the changes. However, Keane actually embraced the technology, and with Treasure Planet‘s concept of ‘Treasure Island in Space,’ chose to make the original John Silver’s missing hand and peg leg be cybernetic substitutions/attachments. While many tore Treasure Planet asunder, I have a soft spot for Keane’s work on Silver, an alien creature who is trapped at a crossroads in his life, but finds himself becoming an unofficial guardian to Jim Hawkins. In the audio commentary for Planet, Keane makes mention of a football coach who encouraged him after the loss of a football game, and pushed him on. When one hears that, it’s like those emotions definitely flowed into the character of Silver. As well, Keane brings a graceful and awe-inspiring fluidity to Silver’s movements, making his preparation of a meal almost as graceful as a ballet dancer, and his rolling around of the name ‘Billy Bones’ just as fascinating. The pronunciation scene shows some wonderful squash-and-stretch that reminded me of the awe some animators felt with former Disney Animator Milt Kahl’s work on Medusa in The Rescuers.
When it comes to having a mouse version of Sherlock Holmes (aka Basil of Baker Street), a precision mind like that needs a nefarious criminal mind to thwart and torture his sub-conscious. Such a figure was the imposingly large Professor Ratigan. This was one of Keane’s first major gigs as a Supervising Animator for a main character, and after proving he could give a powerful performance out of a larger character (the bear during the climactic fight-scene in The Fox and the Hound), Ratigan moved Keane into the territory of an animal with intellect. Emotionally, Keane helped establish Ratigan as a character who appears to be sophisticated, but underneath, lurks an angry rat ready to bubble to the surface. Certainly, this comes into play in the climactic clock fight on Big Ben, where Ratigan goes through an almost Jekyll-and-Hyde like transformation as he confronts Basil. Some people I have talked with have even said that scene was terrifying. Of course, it’s also interesting to consider the voice of the rather slim Vincent Price coming from such a large character, but the work is done so well, that you soon stop thinking ‘Vincent Price,’ and just start thinking ‘that’s Ratigan.’
In 1999, I just couldn’t contain my excitement at the prospect of seeing Tarzan. Once I saw the teaser poster showing him sketched in charcoal pencil, I knew I was going to be there on opening day. Keane’s artistry and love of the original Burroughs’ story really seemed to influence Tarzan’s design, and with the use of animation, Tarzan could be made to more ‘easily’ mimic the pose and movements of the apes he lived with. I still am fascinated by the hands and feet of Tarzan, just the way he curls his hands to look like an ape’s as he moves along the ground, and the way the toes on his feet splay out. Just like Keane would embrace the use of a computer/hand-drawn character hybrids with Silver a few years later, his work making Tarzan move through 3-dimensional backgrounds definitely captured many of our imaginations in the Summer of 1999.
Probably no Top 5 list of Keane characters would be complete without this fiery redhead. Ariel was Keane’s first major foray into doing a lead female character. Word was when someone asked Keane why he wanted to tackle a character like Ariel, he explained that he had to. Of course, one could almost look at Glen, a former football player in high school, and not realize that this man got into the mindset of a 16-year-old girl, and made her situation and emotions real to so many. But of course, that’s the beauty of animation: you become any character regardless of what you look like (animators are ‘actors with pencils,’ after all). The second half of Mermaid is also memorable, because Ariel becomes a silent character for much of that time, and it’s through little movements and gestures that we get some well-played emotional scenes. It also helps that her eyes are so large to help convey her emotions. Though when it comes to large-eyed heroines, one can definitely see Keane’s influence on Rapunzel all these years later, making her a lithe and effervescent personality too.
Ever since the fall of 1991, The Beast has been my favorite Disney character. I always remember David Ogden Stiers in the making-0f special for the film Beauty and the Beast proposing an interesting conundrum regarding this creation: “How do you draw a monster, and make him lovable?” Keane got right to the heart of the matter with the Beast: a being both man and animal, yet stuck at an uncomfortable crossroads, where one of the last remaining vestiges of his humanity are his eyes. It was also the design of the Beast that I just fell in love with. While many earlier works of the fairy tale had used more common animal heads like those of a Mandrill, Keane’s final take consisted of a creature comprised of the parts of 7 different animals. This combination could have looked alien or foreign, but the final combination looks like it could most definitely exist in our world. From a wolf’s hind legs, to the body of a bear, and even the neck and head posture of a bison, alot of attention and detail was made, with Keane even diagramming the skeleton of the Beast and making copious notes for his animation crew to follow. It almost feels like the Beast owes a little thanks to Keane’s work on Professor Ratigan, as both of these characters are large and taper down to spindly legs, yet even at their size, they can emote with even the smallest of moments.
One of the scenes that Glen did was the Beast’s Transformation at the end of the film. While I was awe-inspired and left with goosebumps, it wasn’t until I saw Keane’s original rough animation drawings of the scene on the Beauty and the Beast special features DVD, did I feel that something got lost in the translation, when his rough line-art was cleaned to pristine clean-up animation. Below, I’ve included 7 stills from Glen’s rough pencil-animation of the Beast’s Transformation:
There’s so much incredible artistry packed into these scenes. Ordinarily, animators aren’t supposed to add shadow and light to their work, but Glen works in a league all his own, and as we can see above, it helps bring a depth to his work that makes it even better. In fact, let’s compare Glen’s rough art of the Prince’s reveal, with a shot from the completed film. I remember alot of people didn’t like the final design of the Prince in the film, but if he looked like the Prince in Keane’s rough pencil animation, would you give him a chance?
Please bear in mind that this is only my top 5 list, and while I may have left off other characters Keane animated like Marahute the Golden Eagle, Aladdin, and Pocahontas, they still are incredibly inspiring pieces of work. In many interviews and sound bites, I’ve heard Keane get very, very enthused when he talks about what he’s done. On the DVD of Waking Sleeping Beauty, he discusses how he wanted Marahute the Golden Eagle’s flight to be so uplifting, that the audience feels like they’re flying right along with her and the little boy in the film named Cody. I remember seeing the film opening weekend and really being impressed by that scene, so Glen definitely did his job!
One of the key ingredients that Glen was taught by the remaining Nine Old Men of Disney Animation, was to ‘animate emotions.’ At first, Glen had no real clue what that meant (pressing harder on the paper doesn’t bring about better animation). But soon, he realized that if he went into a character or scene with the intensity of the emotions and a feeling inside of him, then it could work. This is true in the scene in Tarzan, where Tarzan touches Jane’s hand, and there’s a quiet moment shared between them. In an interview on the Tarzan DVD set, Keane said that for this moment, he held onto the memory of when his daughter was born, and the image of Tarzan looking at Jane, was how Keane felt when he saw his daughter for the first time.
Though I never did achieve my pre-teen dream of one day becoming a Disney Animator and being a part of Glen’s animation team, I often loved to keep reading up on what he was doing at Disney. For me, just hearing that some of my favorite animators were working on a project was enough to get me excited about it (one of the reasons why I was going to see Treasure Planet despite what any said about it).
One place I’d recommend to go, if you have an iPod or an MP3 player, is The Animation Podcast . Clay Kaytis works for Disney, and in the last 5 years, sat down with a number of people who worked there, and got them to tell a bit about their thought processes, and their climb up the animation ladder. Glen sat down for a 2-part interview, and you can also find interviews by the likes of Andreas Deja (Supervising Animator on King Triton, Gaston, and Scar), Eric Goldberg (Supervising Animator on The Genie), and Nik Ranieri (Supervising Animator on Lumiere, Rafiki, and Hades).
Well, I’ve rambled enough, but just in case Glen (or someone he knows) stumbles onto this page while Googling, let me just say thank you for your inspiration, and good luck on the next leg of your journey.