Studio has hand-drawn, CGI toons in races

Disney is singing more than one type of toon this awards season.

The three racked up a slew of nominations in the Annie Awards, the industry’s annual kudosfest, with “The Princess and the Frog” leaping into eight categories, including best feature. The early recognition is heartening for directors Ron Clements and John Musker, who left the studio during Disney’s fallow period for 2D.

The duo, who had directed “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin” for the Mouse House in headier days, were about to sign with another studio when Pixar creative guru John Lasseter lured them back with the promise of reviving hand-drawn animation at Disney after it acquired Pixar. “We hired back all these great animators that had been laid off,” Lasseter says. “You’ve never seen a group with more to prove.”

The “Princess” directors admit they have been particularly anxious about the reception of this toon, which took four years to make, given the stakes for 2D animation. “Certainly, we feel the value of hand-drawn animation,” Clements says.

Musker, who first met Lasseter as a student at CalArts, says he and Clements took advantage of the expressiveness of 2D animation, and used different styles with fantasy and musical sequences. “That’s something you can do in hand-drawn animation,” he points out.

The directors used the work of Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas for Tiana’s fantasy sequence about her restaurant, for example, and drew further inspiration from “Singing in the Rain” and “An American in Paris.” The helmers used particularly colorful sequences for voodoo villain Doctor Facilier to convey his nefarious nature.

“You can be more impressionistic and suggest more with hand-drawn animation,” Musker says. “It seems to fit fairy tales.”

Lasseter, who now oversees all Disney animation, says Pixar animators could not believe Disney and DreamWorks would abandon traditional animation completely. “We felt 2D became the scapegoat for bad movies,” he says. “There are certain qualities you can’t get without hand-drawn animation.”

He cites the toon’s outlandish Louis the crocodile as the type of larger-than-life character you can’t reproduce with CGI. Eric Goldberg, who animated the genie in “Aladdin,” did the honors on Louis as part of the team on “The Princess and the Frog.”

Lasseter, who forged his relationship with Miyazaki in the early 1980s, helped exec produce the English-language version of “Spirited Away” and has worked on the DVD releases of his toons, produced by Studio Ghibli in Japan. “I really want to get everybody at Ghibli a Disney deal,” he says.

But what if “Princess and the Frog” does not rake in Pixar-style grosses? Lasseter insists the company is committed to hand-drawn animation. “I love it,” he says, enthusing about a 2011 hand-drawn “Winnie the Pooh” feature that will try to match the look of Pooh films from the 1960s. Also in the works: a hand-drawn toon shepherded by “Surf’s Up” director Chris Buck.

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