Don Hahn interview: The Lion King, Disney, Pixar, Frankenweenie and the future of animation

Interview Simon Brew 3 Nov 2011 - 18:22
Don Hahn

Don Hahn, the producer of The Lion King and Beauty And The Beast, chats to us about animation past, present and future...

One of the surprise box office successes of the year has been the 3D reissue of The Lion King, which has made a stunning $93m in the US alone. It's also led to Disney confirming big screen re-releases for Beauty And The Beast, The Little Mermaid, Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc in the years ahead.

Ahead of the UK release of The Lion King Blu-ray, producer Don Hahn spared some time to talk about animation, his excellent documentary (Waking Sleeping Beauty), Frankenweenie and a whole lot more. Here's how it went...

You’ve briefly touched upon before the moment when people, back in the early 90s, first saw the amazing opening scene from The Lion King. You put it out as a trailer, well ahead of the movie’s release, but you’ve said before at that point that you had no film to back it.

[Laughs] Yeah!

In your film, Waking Sleeping Beauty, you go even further. You describe the state that The Lion King was in at that point [around a year before release] as “a shambles”. Could you go a bit deeper, and give us a flavour of just how far away the film was at that point?

Well, we knew it was solvable. And we had all the elements to make the rest of the film great. It’s just the opening song came off so strong, and so good, and ended with such a bang, that we thought it’ll be a great trailer, we’ll send it out there. The response was so effusive that it scared us. We thought how’s it ever going to live up to this? We’ve made a terrible mistake by starting the film at this level, because all we can do is go down!

So we went back in, and doubled the effort on the rest of the film to have it try and live up to that opening song. And ultimately I think it did, because we still had Elton John and Tim Rice.

Elton’s a great dramatist, and was able to help us put music into the film. We had great directors. We had Hans Zimmer, which was a big secret weapon. And even though the movie was not fully baked and very mature yet, we knew we had all the tools to pull it together. And it just needed time.

There were lots of obstacles. We had a major earthquake happen six months before the movie came out. So we were shuttling drawings up and down the freeway, and we were trying to finish it in garages. It was a dramatic finish, but it got done.

Was this the first one that was really expected to be a big success? Even taking into account that, in production, Pocahontas was viewed as the next big one. But by the time The Lion King came around, Aladdin’s numbers too had gone through the roof. Beauty And The Beast’s had. The Little Mermaid’s had.

Was there a different kind of pressure here, than there was on Beauty, for instance?

On Beauty, we were terrified that we wouldn’t live up to The Little Mermaid, because we thought that The Little Mermaid was such a huge success, we’ll get compared to it, and we’ll never live up to it. I think that was a healthy pressure.

On The Lion King, we were always referred to as the B-movie, because it was a great risk. Doing a movie about Africa, doing a movie with no humans. A movie with Elton John, who hadn’t really written a musical before. It was seen as an experiment, a branch out into new territory. We knew we had to try a few things.

But it was always not seen as the next big success from Disney. I remember Jeffrey Katzenberg [ex-chairman, The Walt Disney Company] saying if this movie makes $50m, I’ll get down on my knees, because that’ll be a big success?

Did he?

He did! I have a photograph! He lived up to his word!

The studio was trying to manage expectations all the time. They were saying listen guys, we don’t have to hit these high numbers. A movie will never hit $200m again like Aladdin did, so don’t try. Try to make a good quality movie. Of course, The Lion King then went on to make $425m or something ridiculous. So in a lifetime you can never hope for that kind of success. All you can do is keep your head down and try and make a good movie.

It’s interesting when you go to the 1984 segments of Waking Sleeping Beauty, because there’s a line in the commentary track where you say that you can’t ever remember back then the words ‘release date’ ever crossing anyone’s lips. That there was no pressure to get it done. And even that money was not even talked about as such in 1984.

Was Disney trying to put you in that kind of protective bubble when making The Lion King? Or do you think its Lion King expectations were secretly actually a lot higher?

No, I think Disney didn’t have higher expectations for The Lion King. And that makes sense, because if you look at Alan Menken and Howard Ashman [composer and lyricist on The Little Mermaid and Beauty And The Beast, the latter of which Ashman also had an executive producer credit on], and if you look at their work on The Little Mermaid and Beauty And The Beast, and Aladdin, Alan’s next film was Pocahontas.

So if you were a thinking animator, you’d think where’s Alan going? Because that’s where the hit’s going to be.

This whole idea of a movie about a lion cub that gets framed for murder was, like, what? So there were expectations, and yes, we had to do good, and yes, there were giving us talent. But it was seen as somewhat experimental.

We weren’t spending a lot of money on it. We did miss our release date: we were supposed to come a year after Aladdin, because all Disney movies up until then had come out at Christmas. So we missed our release date, and came out in the summertime with much consternation, because people said you can’t release animation in the summertime.

And, of course, now all animated releases are in the summer time.
So there were a lot of those kind of missteps and teeth gnashing and things like that, that led to The Lion King being what it was. So much of it was serendipity, and was unplanned. Certainly, the success of it was hoped for, but unplanned.

With The Lion King, I thought it marked the next move on for Disney. You talked about Howard and Alan, and the style of Beauty and Mermaid. This felt different. And you mentioned Hans Zimmer before, who I thought was an integral part of it.

I agree.

We talk about the music of The Lion King, and people tend to refer to the songs. But I’ve always thought the score is comfortably one of Hans’ best. It’s quite a tonal thing that you did there, that it’s less of a musical, even though it’s a musical.

The Lion King is the one where it kind of turned a little bit. How conscious was that? Was that that the tragic death of Howard almost forced this on you, that Howard and Alan couldn’t work on this one. Or was it a conscious shift for the project for day one?

It was right for the project from day one, just because of the people involved in it.

Howard and Alan’s musicals, the music from the songs existed in the score. So if you saw Gaston on the screen, you’d play Gaston’s theme, and then you’d sing about Gaston, and whatever you saw him doing. It was very much like light opera.

That wasn’t the case with The Lion King. Hans’ score is very different melodically, so it was more like a movie with songs, as opposed to a musical. So it was a style change for us.

Was the temptation to get the opening song sung? Because we don’t see anyone singing in that opening sequence?

Well,  the most problematic one was Can You Feel The Love Tonight. For a while it was about having characters on the screen singing that. And we thought no, to have Simba breaking into song would be really weird.

The opening was always meant to be an anthem. There were never characters on the screen singing that, because that felt odd to us. But we did do it in the film. A number of songs, I Just Can’t Wait To Be King and Be Prepared are sung by characters on the screen.

Musically, it shouldn’t work, because the rules are always broken. Simba sings, Scar sings, but adult Simba doesn’t sing, and Rafiki doesn’t sing. And there’s voices that we don’t know. A woman who sings at the beginning who we don’t know. And another woman sings Can You Feel The Love Tonight. Musically it’s very disjointed, but it works.

I love the little anecdote that Jeffrey Katzenberg puts on the commentary track of your film, Waking Sleeping Beauty, where he talks about Can You Feel The Love Tonight. He recalls having a conversation with Elton John, where Elton said to him that the problem’s not the song, it’s your dumb movie. Was he right, at that point?

Yep. He was right.

We couldn’t get that song to work, and we cut it out of the movie. And, of course, it won the Oscar for that year, which is tradition! We cut it out and didn’t tell Elton.

So we took the movie to Elton, and showed him. His face went very bright red. In a very controlled way, he said I think you’ve ruined the movie. Because part of what makes this movie special is the love interest, and those great ballads that were in all the Disney movies. Someday My Prince Will Come, for instance.

What we hadn’t done was lay pipe for it, and prepared the audience for it. That’s where he was really right. So we went back in and added a new scene to the movie, with Nala confronting Simba about his responsibility. And that earned the right to put that song in there. We still had Pumbaa and Timon sing the introduction, and they exit from that song, in case it got too sappy. Smart man, Elton.

You said after the success of Beauty And The Beast that success has a thousand fathers. There were very obvious changes at Disney after The Lion King, both for tragic and organic reasons. Presumably after The Lion King, the number of fathers is up to ten thousand by that point.

How did that affect what happened afterwards, when something goes to that kind of level?

Everybody loves to claim a success, even if they are just a small part of it.

We certainly made successful movies after that, movies like Tarzan and Lilo And Stitich were successful. And yet there was a course correction. For some reason, after The Lion King you get the rise of Pixar. You get the love affair with computer graphics, which is understandable, because they are modern miracles. And you probably get a little decline in storytelling – being self-critical here – on the part of Disney animation.

There were some great movies made in that time, but over the course of that time, either the audience got fatigued with the stories we were telling, or we took risks that were too big. That level of success was never achieved again.

But I have to say, we were always pushed to try and do new things, and make great movies. Peter Schneider, our executive of the time, said don’t go for the box office all the time, because you can never win that. Go for something like a Hunchback, that is creatively bold. It won’t always win a Bank of America award, but at least you’ll have stretched out and tried something new.

Hunchback is an astounding film. What binds Hunchback and The Lion King together a little bit, I think, is how dark they’re willing to go with their antagonists.

You take Ursula in The Little Mermaid, and she’s just a great villain. She’s fairly straight, though. Scar, there’s more to him, and there’s an understandable evil to him. I think that’s taken even further with Frollo in Hunchback – the song where his soul is being tortured is incredibly dark.

I always think back, when I consider how dark Disney is willing to go, of the Nazi march in The Lion King, and Frollo, with the figure in the fire. When you’re making these films there presumably, though, still has to be a consideration that it’s a Disney film you’re pushing out. Tonally, how do you arrive at the balance, because it sounds like you’re saying that the balance went just a little off on Hunchback?

Well, yeah. Not consciously. We tried to push the envelope a lot. I think the movies aren’t determined by the Disney brand. I think the Disney brand is determined by the movies. And we also took some courage out of Walt Disney’s films. Something like Fantasia, Bambi... there’s some very range-y, dramatic choices in his movies. Not all of which were successful at the box office.

So I guess our guiding principle was that if it fits in the story, and if it’s motivated by the story, it’s okay. There are lines we won’t cross, but to push the audience towards some dramatic deaths in order to show some real villainy there, that Scar is a psychologically damaged character, that is jealous of his brother, that’s the motivation. But that’s okay, because it’s very much a part of the plot, and not gratuitous.

And it’s the same with Frollo too, by the way.

Can you talk about the decision to go with 3D on The Lion King? It’s been quite maligned, especially when retrofitted to movies. Appreciating that animation has suited 3D the best so far, it’s still interesting that you’d added it to a film that wasn’t designed for 3D?

A couple of things. I think there was a gold rush towards 3D when it first started a few years ago, and so you saw a lot of bad 3D. Everyone immediately realised that it wasn’t good for any of us, so hopefully that’s all sorted out by now.

Lion King made some sense because certainly the CGI movies work well in 3D. Certainly the Toy Story movies work well in 3D, and Up was fantastic.

The other consideration was that we wanted to do a movie where all the film makers were still around, and could participate. So I could call up Rob and Roger [directors] and our art director, and say come on in, let’s talk about this. And make it a creative choice to do this movie.

Was there commerce involved? Absolutely. The idea of having a return on this movie is great. But we also felt like it worked in 3D, and since it was our movie, we though that’s a risk we’re willing to take. We think it works.

When we spoke a year back, you gave the impression of a man who was bursting to make another animated film. You’re executive-producing Frankenweenie at the moment, which is looking great. I went and had a look at them making it...

Isn’t it amazing down there?

Yeah. The really nice impact of the boost in CG animation is that, consequently, it seems to have opened people’s eyes more to other forms of animation, too. I love stop motion, and I love what Henry Selick does.

Me too.

From your point of view, though, you’re doing the nature documentaries, which again dig back into Disney heritage. You’ve got Frankenweenie.

Again, digging back to the foundations of animation in many ways. But what are the other things you want to do? Are you going to get us The Snow Queen? I have to ask everyone involved in Disney that.

[Laughs] I think it’s coming!

I’m actually interested in busting out of our Disney style a little bit. I’m really excited about Frankenweenie because of that. It’s something different for us. We’re shooting in black and white, as you know, and it’s got a different look and a different feel.

I think the same for hand drawn, and for CG. There’s a house style that we have. And even though we vary that style, where’s the really interesting graphic change in that style? Just like 101 Dalmatians was a change for the animators in that era, and Sleeping Beauty was.

So I think there’s some graphic places to go in animation that we haven’t been to yet.

What I’m trying to do now is find stories that motivate that kind of stylistic change on the screen. Can you make a film that’s all very roughly hued, can you make one that’s done with pastels. There are so many styles that we haven’t explored, and I think it’s that that interests me the most. I think we’re stuck a little bit, stylistically.

Does it matter to you whether it’s hand drawn, or computer animated?

It doesn’t. It doesn’t at all. I don’t think it does to anybody any more. I think that was an issue five years ago. Look at the huge resurgence in stop motion, with Henry, with Aardman, with all these people. I think the audience loves that hand-made feeling. I think the same it true about hand drawn animation. It’s all about story, and coming up with the right story, there’s an attraction to that.

I find it a lovely irony that, with Aardman and with Frankenweenie, the physical production of their stop motion films, once shooting, move faster than CG.

Yeah!


Waking Sleeping Beauty
, then. A great film that we haven’t had released over here yet.

Your film charts a very special time at Disney, and it’s a very special recollection of it. It feels quite warts and all, especially with the commentary track on the DVD. It leaves the story in 1994, and the ten years that followed that was fascinating for a whole host of different reasons. Have you got any compulsion to do a follow-up, looking at what happened next?

I would love to dig into the following era, I think it’s just too soon.

One of the reasons this movie worked was that twenty years had gone by. In some sense, the emotions had calmed down a bit. Although when I went back to talk to Michael [Eisner], Jeffrey [Katzenberg] and Roy [Disney], there were still very raw feelings about the era.

Yeah, there’s a great story to tell after that era, to fill in the blanks. But this, to me, was, as I say in the movie, a perfect storm of perfect circumstances. That ten year period was the beginning of another era. The idea of Howard and Alan coming in from outside, accepting outside influences at all, bringing in writers, the influence of Katzenberg and executives, Roy Disney bring protective of it all. You take away any of those characters and it’d be diminished.

Having all those characters together made it an interesting time, and certainly made it an interesting story. It’s almost a Shakespearian story when you tell it this way, and I just felt like I wanted to capture that on film.

Someday, yeah, I might do the next ten years. But it’s a very painful time, still, for a lot of people. There was a big course correction, and a lot of it dissolved. It’s a tough time to talk about.

You tell the story of the revival, but leave it a year or two before it all changed again. But animation, for it to work, does have to change again. It’s just odd that it’s taken ten years for Disney to find real courage again. I think courage is the right word.

It is absolutely courage. That’s what Pixar grew up on. The courage to try something new. Pixar was seen to be a risk. Toy Story was made on the basis of it doesn’t work out, we had a good time. It ended up being this huge business that’s grown.

Now, Pixar, I can’t say it’s run its course, because it’s not. It’s got a lot of amazing movies coming up. But what’s the next iteration? What’s the most interesting advance in animation?

I think Pixar is at that place where we were in Waking Sleeping Beauty. Where they’re looking to define themselves artistically, not just at the box office. We made films I think that were artistically superior to The Lion King, after The Lion King, but they didn’t make as much money. And that was okay in a way. You can’t judge everything by money.

And I think Pixar is a little but in that place right now. They’re always going to make very successful movies, but I think their slate is pretty interesting coming. They’re taking creative risks again, and it is that bravery issue.

Don Hahn, thank you very much!

  • Looking back at Disney's Beauty And The Beast
  • Looking back at The Hunchback Of Notre Dame
  • Don Hahn interview (2010)
  • The Lion King: the Diamond Edition out on 3D Blu-Ray, Blu-Ray and DVD 7 November

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