For decades, La Cañada Flintridge resident John Musker has illustrated, directed, written or produced animated Disney films, leaving his imprint on works like “Moana,” “Aladdin” and “The Little Mermaid.”
Many such works have been warmly received by audiences and reviewers, and more recently Musker received acclaim from peers. Musker, who has created nearly all of his work with animation collaborator and friend Ron Clements, was honored recently with a lifetime achievement award at the 47th annual Annie Awards at UCLA’s Royce Hall.
“We felt very flattered that they decided to do it,” said Musker during a recent interview at his house. Musker and Clements together were one of three recipients of the Winsor McCay Award selected by the ASIFA-Hollywood Board of Directors for their career achievements. ASIFA stands for Association Internationale du Film d’Animation.
The award, named for a pioneering cartoonist and animator, was created to honor longtime artists who “should be thanked for their contribution to the young people in animation,” according to award creator June Foray in a statement on the website for the awards.
Musker, 66, said he has tried to evolve throughout his career.
“I’ve tried to learn things wherever I could from people and tried to apply my talent and my sensibilities to it,” he said. “I’ve done a thousand caricatures of people I’ve worked with and bring that skill set into the movies and just in terms of the visual storytelling. It’s a collective but I was a part of the collective and tried to bring whatever creativity I had to the process.”
He has been married to Gale since September 1979, and she was proud of him for having received the award.
“He loved his 40 years at Disney and has great respect and admiration for the many talented artists and support staff that made his films so outstanding,” Gale Musker said in a statement. “John never settles for something that’s just OK. … I’ve seen that at home when he’s drawing caricatures or our Christmas cards. I’ll think a drawing looks fine, but he’ll see something that’s not quite working, rip it up, and start again. Sure enough, it’s so much better when he’s through.
“John has kept me laughing for our 40 years of marriage. His brilliant humor and intellect, his faith, and his love of family and friends have been infused in his films.”
Musker was born in Chicago and graduated from nearby Northwestern University with a degree in English — he also created editorial cartoons for the Daily Northwestern — in the mid-’70s.
After Musker’s portfolio was rejected by Disney, he went to the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia and enrolled in an animation program in September 1975.
“They had a more arty animation program,” said Musker, adding that his classmates were Disney animation legends such as Brad Bird, John Lasseter and Jerry Rees.
Musker said he was offered a job by Disney but, unsure whether he wanted to stay in Southern California, he asked instead for an internship and ended up working with Disney animator Eric Larson, one of the “Disney’s Nine Old Men” — stalwart core animators for Walt Disney Productions. After the internship, Musker went back to school for a year and returned to work for Disney in May 1977.
He and Gale moved in 1992 from Glendale to their home in LCF, satisfying their need for more living space and staying close to the Disney studios in Burbank.
“As we got more kids, we ran out of room and we decided to move up here,” Musker said. “Of course, in a way, La Cañada has always been the animation mecca. At least three more [noted Disney animators] lived here — Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston and Larson, the great teacher, lived here.” He also mentioned producer Don Hahn, former Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook and Disney executive Peter Schneider.
“We love the area,” said Musker, who attends St. Bede the Venerable Church with his wife. “Of course, the schools are great here but the kids all went to Catholic school. My wife is in the Assistance League here and she really enjoys the camaraderie of that group, and they help support summer school. They’re also connected to a drama program at Lanterman Auditorium.”
He and Clements came together to direct a string of successful animated Disney movies, beginning with “The Great Mouse Detective” in 1986 and including “The Little Mermaid” in 1989, “Aladdin” in 1992 and “Hercules” in 1997.
“Treasure Planet,” made in 2002, was nominated for an Oscar for animated feature but failed to break even financially despite positive critical reception. The duo came roaring back with “The Princess and the Frog” in 2009 and “Moana” in 2016.
Musker said the reason he and Clements make such a good partnership is that they’re both the same age, are from the Midwest and both grew up Catholic and had a lot of the same cultural influences.
“We were both kind of show kids that found an outlet in drawing supported by the people around us,” Musker said. “He developed a keen interest in storytelling generally. Our strengths are a little bit different. Ron is really strong with structure, which is the most important element. I have a strength in dialogue, the comedy business, that is a little different than his.
“When he and I write a script, we would agree on an outline of the story, and the way it would work best for him and for me, too, is off that outline.”
Disney, he said, has a tradition of having multiple directors and very strong producers and he was happy to follow that blueprint.
“The work load is incredible, the amount of all the detail … and having two directors, because we’re simpatico, it seemed like it helped,” Musker said. “We each took certain sequences of the film when we were directing it. We worked with the animators on our own particular sequence. For example, on ‘The Little Mermaid,’ Ron did ‘Under the Sea’ but I did ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls.’ I did ‘Kiss the Girl,’ but he did ‘Part of Your World.’ So we would divvy up the songs.”
He decided to retire in March 2018 for “multiple reasons” including Disney having “the next eight years booked up with other directors” as well as taking care of grandkids and a live-in mother-in-law.
He continues to work on a film of his own — he declines to give specifics about it for now — but doesn’t rule out creating more scripts with Clements.
“We have some ideas we didn’t get off the ground at Disney [that we own and] that we think could make good movies,” Musker said.