Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Unsung Disney Legends: Glen Keane

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.  Todays retrospective is on Annie Award and Winsor McCay Award winning industry icon: Glen Keane.

The Bear
Keane's first work in animation was as a layout artist on TV series such as Star Trek: The Animated Series.  For Disney he was a character animator for Penny and Bernard in The Rescuers and Elliot the Dragon in Pete's Dragon.  He also did models and animation on A Family Circus Christmas, which is significant because his father was the creator of Family Circus.

But the scene where Keane made his mark was when he was supervising animator on The Bear in Fox and the Hound.  While the movie is lovingly remembered by those who grew up with the film it is not well regarded by animation critics.  Fox and the Hound has many story problems and the animation is not the best, however every thing I have read on the film praises Keane's animation.  Back in 1981 Disney animation was in a rut and this scene was the highlight that took many by surprise.

I grew up with Fox and the Hound and I vividly remember The Bear and the emotions I felt seeing this realistic, relentless force of nature who was a threat to the main characters.  Those eyes and that snarl are extremely terrifying and emotional.  A great start to a great career.

Where the Wild Things Are
Animation in the early eighties was not in good shape and Disney animation was not taking any risks.  When Keane saw 1983's Tron he was amazed by the revolutionary use of computer animation and could not understand why Disney animation could not experiment with it.  Keane collaborated with John Lasseter who would clearly go on to do great things with CGI on a short animation test based on Where the Wild Things Are.  Disney did not move forward with the project although they owned the rights (although I wished they had since it would have been much better than the live-action version we finally got in 2009).  Nevertheless this test was revolutionary at the time.

Professor Ratigan
Keane had been a character animator on the character of Gurgi in The Black Cauldron, but he really stole the show oin what is considered a comeback for the cartoon studio when he was supervising animator on the villain of The Great Mouse Detective.  The world's greatest criminal mind is a clear cartoon creation, acting larger than life in every frame.

When Glen Keane heard the song Part of Your World he demanded to work on Ariel.  Other animators asked why, because pretty girls were not his thing.  Keane responded that he had to.  He had an emotional connection to that song and wanted to bring it to life.  His love for this character is really a large part of what makes The Little Mermaid work.  Ariel is a character of passion and love, emotions that the audience completely buys into.  This was Keane's first real gracefully moving character, which the rest of his characters would become known for.

What is unquestionably the highlight of the underrated movie The Rescuers Down Under is the opening flying sequence.  It is absolutely breathtaking and a great first use for the CAPS computer animation system.  Keane did the supervising animation for the eagle Marahute.  Keane animates this character with such majesty and gives it the perfect balance between realistic and fantastic.

Keane showcases his incredible range on the character of the Beast from the Academy Award nominated Beauty and the Beast.  The creature could be more menacing than The Bear from Fox and the Hound and yet more heartfelt than Ariel.  The most loved sequence is the ballroom scene which is just lovely to be hold and also fascinating to watch when you realize how graceful this beast is moving.

The next title character Keane animated was in Aladdin based on a Tom Cruise type persona Keane adds depth and emotion to an action star.  Much like with Ariel, it is heartbreaking to see Aladdin sing about wanting something more.  The character works in broad physical comedy, serious actions and more intimate character scenes.

In my review of Pocahontas I named Keane's animation as the thing that makes the main character work.  Story wise there is not much to relate to, but the strength that Keane gifts her with makes her very compelling.  She is not a showcase of an ideal of female beauty, but rather she has an intimidating posture and strong movements.  Seeing this character run and jump or even just stand in the mist is a great experience.

I remember seeing Glen Keane on the Movie Surfers before on the video of Mulan discussing the upcoming movie Tarzan and how he was inspired by seeing his son do extreme sports.  The influence of skateboarding and snowboarding seems like an odd fit for a classic jungle character but it is just the kind of new thing that the story needed.  Keane's animation of the muscular dreadlocked lead is thrilling.  Naturally Keane is able to give the character strong emotions and use the character arc.

Long John Silver
Silver in Treasure Planet is very different from most of Keane's work.  This character is sloppy, overweight and at times unlikable.  But Keane was the perfect choice to animate this classic character as he was able to make his fatherlike connection with Jim, two-faced nature and conflicted emotions seem natural.  This is an underrated feature and while not Disney's best there is so much to like, Keane's work on Silver being one of them.

Glen Keane was originally the director on Tangled (known as Rapunzel at the time).  But he had to step aside due to health reasons but he did stay on as a producer.  He also had designed the characters for the film.  Keane worked on combining traditional animation and computer animation styles.  His process was the inspiration for the Oscar winning short Paperman.  Tangled was the last Disney feature that Keane worked on as he has since left the company, but hopefully we will see the legend work on something very soon.

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