We all know the characters, the movies and the songs but it is easy to forget that we are not watching actual characters. Many people designed and worked on them. I am starting a series of retrospectives on Disney Legends that are easy to overlook. Today's is Winsor McCay Award winner Andreas Deja.
Deja had already worked on Gurgi in The Black Cauldron and Queen Moustoria in The Great Mouse Detective, but his first supervising animator’s credit was not at Disney in Burbank but over in London as part of Richard Williams’ staff on Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Deja animated the titular character, showing depth and emotion in a classically inspired wacky cartoon character.
Deja was Disney’s go to Mickey Mouse expert, working on the character several times. Initially in the character’s famous, but brief cameo in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Deja also was supervising animator on the character in his two roles in Prince and the Pauper. Deja’ association with the mouse continued as an animation supervisor on Runaway Brain, animator on Fantasia 2000 and animation consultant for Epic Mickey.
Gaston, Jafar and Scar
Deja was a supervising animator on the initial success of the Disney Renaissance, animating King Triton in The Little Mermaid. But with Beauty and the Beast he started a run on three consecutive Disney villains: Gaston (who he based on ‘90s beach buffs), Jafar from Aladdin and Scar from the Lion King. He was also the initial supervising animator on Yzma back when Emperor’s New Groove when it was in production as the Sting musical, Kingdom of the Sun (Deja was excited about animating a character that the great Eartha Kitt would voice). He naturally was also the supervising animator of Queen Narissa in Disney’s Menken fairy tale throwback/subversion Enchanted.
After animating three of Disney’s greatest villains he was naturally offered more evil characters, but the diverse animator did not want to become typecast so he chose to stretch himself by animating the lead. This was reportedly more strenuous as Scarfe’s designs required many more drawings than a traditional animated feature. Deja does include a nice reference to his previous character, Scar, whose skin Hercules wears in a portrait.
It is interesting to note that the Disney animator who specialized in bad guys and cartoony characters such as Roger Rabbit and Mickey animated what is arguably Disney’s most human character. The small, innocent and broken lead of Lilo & Stitch is both tragically and hilariously expressive in her small, chubby frame. My all time favorite Dejas scene is Lilo trying to get away from her older sister Nani and just giving up and collapsing. It is timed perfectly enough to be funny but still continues the story’s emotional arc.
Traditional animation was getting less and less exciting and ended for a while with Home on the Range, in which Deja was the supervising animator on the minor character Wesley. After Disney switched to solely computer animation (a field Dejas experimented in but felt he had nothing to add to) he found work on the character of Atka in the direct-to-video Brother Bear 2. But once Disney brought back in house 2D animation with Princess and the Frog Deja was of course involved. He had said that, “I always thought that maybe we should distinguish ourselves to go back to what 2D is good at, which is focusing on what the line can do rather than volume, which is a CG kind of thing.” Deja animated the lively Mama Odie for her memorable, optimistic number.
Andreas Deja may just be the best thing to ever happen to the character of Tigger in 2011’s Winnie the Pooh. Tigger proved to be much more effective in his limited screen time than he was in his recent starring roles. Deja is a perfect fit for his angular, slender design and exuberance (calling to mind his earlier animation on Roger Rabbit). This may unfortunately be Deja's last Disney character as he has left the studio, which has again given up on traditional animation. But it is clear that he has left a great legacy for audiences and animation aficionados.