John Musker: Disney Animation Needs A ‘Course Correction’

Now that he has been retired from Walt Disney Animation Studios for six years, directing legend John Musker is speaking openly about his experiences at the studio and his views on contemporary Disney animation.

In a new interview with Spanish newspaper El País, Musker spoke about the need for a “course correction” at Walt Disney Animation Studios and the need to put entertainment and storytelling ahead of messaging.

Musker told the outlet:

We weren’t trying to be woke, although I understand the criticism. The classic Disney films didn’t start out trying to have a message. They wanted you to get involved in the characters and the story and the world, and I think that’s still the heart of it. You don’t have to exclude agendas, but you have to first create characters who you sympathize with and who are compelling. I think they need to do a course correction a bit in terms of putting the message secondary, behind entertainment and compelling story and engaging characters.

Musker also compared the era of Disney under Jeffrey Katzenberg to that of when the studio was overseen creatively by John Lasseter. While Katzenberg would give wild notes, like asking The Little Mermaid to be more like Die Hard, Musker said he still preferred that approach over the more recent era because there were less cooks in the kitchen.

Speaking of Moana, Musker said:

Moana was a very difficult project. It was our idea, but with Pixar and John Lasseter, our story kept changing hands. In the ’90s, we had Jeffrey. He was an emperor, you know. But there weren’t 10 Jeffreys. Now, you have too many people to satisfy, before we didn’t have 15 directors telling you how to make the movie. But in some ways, they were right, it was a good thing.

Musker is correct on the latter point. In 2023, the most-streamed movie in the United States was Moana, seven years after it was originally released to theaters.

Another topic addressed in the piece is that of the controversial “live-action” remakes. Before this current remake era, Musker said that Disney management had proposed that they remake all of their films in cg animation. “I told them I’d commit harikari first,” he told them. Of course, Disney continues to remake many of their most popular animated features, including an upcoming remake of Moana. “I hope that they do it well,” Musker said, “but we have nothing to do with it.”

He did, however, criticize the recent remake of his earlier film The Little Mermaid, saying, “They didn’t play up the father-daughter story, and that was the heart of the movie, in a way. And the crab — you could look at live animals in a zoo and they have more expression, like with The Lion King. That’s one of the basic things about Disney, is the appeal. That’s what animation does best.”

Musker spoke of his interest in adapting Terry Pratchett’s Discworld entry Mort, though he acknowledges that in today’s “risk-averse” environment, the film would be a tough sell to any studio.

Like many other filmmakers who have been disenchanted by Hollywood, Musker is now exploring the indie space as a second act. He is currently on the festival circuit promoting his new short I’m Hip, a film that he completed last year and which he animated entirely himself.

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