I have repeatedly mentioned how big a fan I am of animation. That’s why it was a giant thrill several years ago to get to talk to the likes of Marc Davis and Ward Kimball, who along with Frank Thomas, Les Clark, Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery and Wolfgang Reitherman, were lovingly known as Disney’s Nine Old Men. These artists made up the driving force behind Disney animation becoming the finest in the world.
Sadly, they have all passed away. But, a had a chance to sit down with Ron Clements whose work at Disney has been so amazing since he started with the company almost 40 years ago as a writer on “The Black Cauldron” he should be considered a 10th Old Man.
His credits include “The Great Mouse Detective,” a movie that showed the Disney Animation Department still had life when others were writing its obituary. He then went on to direct “Aladdin,” “Hercules,” “Treasure Planet” and “The Princess and the Frog.” He’s directing another film but details are being kept under tight wraps.
Working for Disney was a passion for Clements even when he was a child living in Sioux City, Iowa.
“I drew a lot as a kid and I was fascinated by animation,” Clements tells me over lunch at the Disney Animation Building. “When I was 9 years old, I saw ‘Pinocchio’ in the theater and when walked out of the theater I knew that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to be involved in animation.”
He checked out any book he could find at the public library on animation. When he got old enough, Clements moved to California where he first worked at the Hanna-Barbera Studios before he was accepted into Disney’s Talent Development Program, an animator training ground. He then had a two-year apprenticeship under one of the Nine Old Men, Frank Thomas.
It’s Clements’ work on “The Little Mermaid” that stands as the greatest animation triumph of his career. The 1989 release, that Clements co-wrote and co-directed with John Musker, brought back the stunning animation, great characters and beautiful music that had made Disney animated films under the Nine Old Men so popular. If you want to see and hear the film again in the highest quality, “The Little Mermaid” will be released on Blu-ray on Oct. 1.
“When I first started, the future of animation seemed kind of mirky because of all the outsourcing,” Clements says. “Everybody wanted to be involved with a film that was the equivalent of ‘Snow White.’ That film was the ‘Star Wars’ of its time but because several of the Disney animated films had not been successful, there was a question of whether that would ever happen again. It did happen again.”
“The Little Mermaid” has become a Disney classic but the idea was initially rejected. At that time, the process of picking the next animated project started with the animators putting together suggestions to be submitted at a roundtable meeting. Clement had seen the Hans Christian Anderson book featuring mermaid story and thought that would make a good movie.
At the meeting, the idea was rejected before Clements could make his pitch. But, he got a call later saying the idea was back on the schedule and “The Little Mermaid” went on to make more than $200,000.
“Disney’s second great age was ‘Mermaid,’ ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ ‘Lion King,’ ‘Aladdin.’ That was a huge time for Disney animation and it was cool to just be a part of that and see it happen,” Clements says. “The thing with ‘Mermaid’ that surprised everybody, and sort of led to the future, is when we previewed it for the first time, it was the highest a preview film — animation or live action — had ever tested.
“It was especially high among adults which was very surprising.”
The next preview was for an adult only audience and the response was even higher. That audience knew that Clements was continuing the excellence in animation started by the Nine Old Men.