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Monday Mouse Watch: Why a change of composers on "The Frog Princess" caused lots of WDFA staffers to lose their composure

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Monday Mouse Watch: Why a change of composers on "The Frog Princess" caused lots of WDFA staffers to lose their composure

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For a film that has yet to officially be green-lit, "The Frog Princess" sure seems to be causing a lot of controversy.

Late last week, rumors began flying around the animation community that WDFA staffers were allegedly upset with John Lasseter. Supposedly because the chief creative officer of Disney Feature Animation & Pixar Animation Studios had over-ridden Ron Clements & John Musker's decision about who the studio should hire to write the songs for their next film.

As the story goes, Ron 'n' John reportedly wanted Disney favorite Alan Menken & his new lyricist, Glenn Slater to handle the "Frog Princess" score. Whereas John wanted this plum assignment to go to Pixar's house composer, Randy Newman. And since Lasseter is the ubermeister of both WDFA & Pixar, what he says goes. Which is why Randy is now writing the songs for "TFP."

As you might expect, as news of this decision began to spread, the angry e-mails began to fly. According to messages that have been forwarded to me, there are animation professionals out there who accuse Lasseter of having little respect for Musker & Clements, given that he just forced Newman on this acclaimed film-making team. There are even those who are suggesting that -- by making Randy the "Frog Princess" composer -- that this is the first real sign that John plans on turning WDFA into Pixar II.

Me? I don't know if I actually buy into all this Lasseter-really-over-stepped-his-bounds talk that's currently making the rounds out west. In fact, I think that there's a much more benign explanation as to what happened with "The Frog Princess." And that's that John is just being John.

To explain: How many of you remember all of the positive press that "A Bug's Life," "Toy Story 2" & "Monsters, Inc." got because of the out-takes that were tacked onto the ends of those films? How movie-goers & critics alike just raved about how clever these credit sequences were. Which then compelled a lot of other folks to go out and see these three Pixar productions.

Given how successful these sequences were ... Well, that's why many industry observers were surprised by "Finding Nemo" and "The Incredibles" Which didn't have any out-takes included as part of their credit sequences.

"Why did Pixar depart from such a successful formula?," you ask. Well, even though Lasseter had admitted in interviews that " ... Animated outtakes have become a signature of Pixar's films," his concern was that these credit sequences were becoming too predictable, too formulaic. Which is why John made a conscious decision to depart from this very successful formula. So that Pixar's films then wouldn't be predictable.

This also explain why Lasseter hired Thomas Newman to write the score for "Finding Nemo" and Michael Giacchio to handle the music for "The Incredibles." Randy Newman had obviously done a super job scoring Pixar's first four films. But John didn't want his studio to get too staid, too predictable. Which is why Lasseter went with different composers on "Nemo" & "Incredibles" before inviting Newman back up to Emeryville to come work on "Cars."

Okay. Now that you have a better understanding of how John actually works (I.E. That this guy will sometimes deliberately make changes in order to keep things from getting stale), let's take a cold-blooded look at what just happened with "The Frog Princess."

Of course, to really understand Lasseter's decision, you have to realize that "Enchanted" (I.E. Walt Disney Studios' big release for the 2007 holiday season) features a score by Alan Menken & Stephen Schwartz. And that this Kevin Lima film -- just like "The Frog Princess" is supposed to do -- uses traditional animation to tell the story of a Disney Princess who finds herself in a rather unusual situation. And let's not forget that Glen Keane's "Rapunzel" is still also out there in the bushes, waiting to show the world what a CG version of a Disney Princess will look like.

So let's say that you're the new head of WDFA. And you know that -- even though it's been 15 years since Disney Feature Animation produced a fairy tale (I.E. 1992's "Aladdin") -- you've now got three (count 'em, three) movies that prominently feature princesses that the Mouse is bringing to the market within the same three year period. So what do you do to make sure that movie-goers will be able to differentiate between these three somewhat similiar projects? So that your critics won't be able to say "Disney's just repeating itself. They keep trotting out the same old tired thing" ?

Well, for starters, you make sure that "Enchanted," "Rapunzel" and "The Frog Princess" don't have a common composer. Which is why Alan Menken & Stephen Schwartz are handling the music for Kevin Lima's movie, Jeanine Tesori is writing songs for Glen Keane's directorial debut and Randy Newman just got assigned to work with John Musker & Ron Clements.

More to the point, Lasseter realizes what's really riding on "The Frog Princess." Which is the revival of traditional animation at Walt Disney Studios. If this picture tanks, traditional may never get another shot at the Mouse House. Which is why John is taking no chances with this Ron'n'John production.

Given that Lasseter really wants this project to succeed ... Well, that's why John turned to Randy. Having worked with Newman on all three of the features that Lasseter has personally directed, he knows that this man can deliver the goods.

Plus one also might argue that -- given that "The Frog Princess" is supposed to be a twist on the old Disney formula (I.E. A beautiful woman gets turned into a hideous amphibian) -- that Randy's twisted sense of humor is really much better suited for this particular production than Alan Menken & Glenn Slater's work.

Anyway ... That's why I won't be jumping in on the bash-John-Lasseter band wagon this time around. I mean, the guy is the new head of Disney Feature Animation. And given that Bob Iger just paid $7.4 billion to bring the Pixar brain trust to Burbank ... I'm inclined to cut John some slack in this particular situation.

So, yeah. It's sad that Menken & Slater lost out on the "Frog Princess" gig. But given that the stage versions of "Sister Act," "The Little Mermaid" and "Leap of Faith" are all supposedly headed to Broadway sometime over the next two years ... I would imagine these two will have plenty to keep them occupied in the coming months.

Don't get me wrong. It's not like I'm letting Lasseter completely off the hook here. I'm still very concerned about those persistant rumors that suggest that -- should traditional animation actually get revived at WDFA -- that these films will then be out-sourced. Meaning that while all of the story work may be done back on the Burbank lot, the actual animation for these films will then be farmed out to places like James Baxter's studio. Which is now handling all of "Enchanted" 's traditionally animated scenes.

And then there's Don Hahn's recent announcement that he's taking an "extended sabbatical" from WDFA. To be honest, the term "extended sabbatical" has an awful lot of meanings in Hollywood. And none of them are good. So here's hoping that this much beloved animation veteran (Who's worked at Walt Disney Studios for nearly 30 years now) is back on the Burbank lot very soon.

And then there's the whole what's-the-real-difference-between-Pixar's-movies-and-the-sorts-of-films-that-Disney-Feature-Animation-should-be-making dilemma. I hear that John & Ed Catmull are still trying to hash that one out. So that a definite course can then be charted for all of WDFA's future releases.

These three stories concern me. The whole "Frog Pincess" brouhaha ... does not. So for now, Let's let Ron'n'John -- and John & Randy -- do their jobs and see what the finished film looks like 3 or so years down the line.

Your thoughts?

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  • Sweet Lord!  Jim actually made it 90% of the way through an article about John Lasseter before bashing him.  It's a new record! ;)

    All kidding aside, Randy Newman is an odd choice for a "Disney" film.  But I'm willing to give it a shot.

    I really do hope that Disney does farm out traditional animation, though.  The only caveat -- it's probably being farmed out to people who used to work for the mouse in the first place!
  • I've heard RUMORS (can't remember where) that Musker & Clements planned to relocate the Russian fairytale and take it South--
    Which would not only be a more appropriate place for frogs, but also for Randy Newman songs.

    No confirmation on that, but all I can say is....that'd -better- be the case, John.  Randy can do his lounge/mock-Copland for Pixar, but when he wants to fill Alan Menken's princess-song shoes, he's just got the wrong size feet.
  • Me...I'm tired of hearing Randy's voice........he can write the songs, but please leave him off the vocals.
    Plus his songs ended up all sounding alike.
  • Like I've been saying, John Lasetter is not going to revive Disney animation without stepping on a few toes. He seems to be one step ahead of everybody else.

    However, maybe Don Hahn's "sabbatical" is the result of fatigue from all the trouble that took place at Disney over the past six or seven years.

    I really don't think Disney will resort to outsourcing in the long term. They're only doing it for Enchanted, because they already threw out their hand-drawing tools when the decision was made to use 2-D for that particular film.
  • Whoops!  I just read what I wrote -- I mean I DON'T want Disney's animation farmed out -- AT ALL!!!  EEK!
  • If these rumors are true, I am not a fan of it at all. I am sick of John Lasseter trying to shove Pixar down WDFA's throught. WDFA is NOT Pixar and it never should be. To be quite frank, he has pretty much no experience with Disney Princess films or musicals. Disney is not primarily known for their wonderful animation, traditional animation or anything like that (although they do have wonderful traditional animation). They are known for two things...... musicals and the character triad of villain-princess-prince. I thought John Lasetter was the one that was going to bring WDFA back to its original form & yet he has gone against multiple wishes of Disney Veterans.  Randy Newman is nice, but he is certainly no Alan Menken.
  • Oh lets see..I can't quite remember.....The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame...........any of those have noteworthy songs?
  • "Well, that's why many industry observers were surprised by 'Finding Nemo' and 'The Incredibles' Which didn't have any out-takes included as part of their credit sequences.
    "his concern was that these credit sequences were becoming too predictable, too formulaic. Which is why John made a conscious decision to depart from this very successful formula. So that Pixar's films then wouldn't be predictable."
    ----
    Umm, probably also because A) it would've been too hard for fish to trip over things, and B) because the Incredibles' stylized universe wasn't really a pal-around place where we could have an affectionate fourth-wall laugh with the characters, as much as we could with Buzz and Woody.  (Somehow, I just can't picture Syndrome blowing one of his lines and then chuckling over it with Mr. I.)

    That's not to say that by the time Disney-proper was doing its own cheesy third-rate imitations on "Brother Bear", the idea -wasn't- also in danger up being up for grabs by Dreamworks.
    We did get a self-poke at Pixar's John Ratzenberger fetish in the "Cars" coda, but also a cuddly pal-with-the-audience spoof on other Pixar-ana...Outtakes would've just been redundant.

    And then, of course, there's the other matter of:
    ===
    "This also explain why Lasseter hired Thomas Newman to write the score for 'Finding Nemo' and Michael Giacchio to handle the music for 'The Incredibles'. Randy Newman had obviously done a super job scoring Pixar's first four films. But John didn't want his studio to get too staid, too predictable. Which is why Lasseter went with different composers on 'Nemo' & 'Incredibles' before inviting Newman back up to Emeryville to come work on "Cars."
    "Okay. Now that you have a better understanding of how John actually works (I.E. That this guy will sometimes deliberately make changes in order to keep things from getting stale)"
    ---
    Uh, well, I don't know--DOES John Lasseter usually tell what composers Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird can or can't hire for their own film visions when he doesn't direct them?
    (I mean, y'know, maybe he really does, but was there, like, a memo about it, or something?)  0_o?
  • Now I can't stop thinking about that Randy Newman scene in an episode Family Guy.
  • Oh, let's see... I can't quite remember, either... Sail Away, Good Old Boys, Little Criminals, Trouble in Paradise, Land of Dreams, Faust, Bad Love... any of these have noteworthy songs?

    "Sail Away," "Political Science," "Lonely at the Top," "Dayton, Ohio- 1903," "Rednecks," "Short People," "It's Money That I Love," "Baltimore," "Dixie Flyer," "You've Got a Friend in Me," "I Will Go Sailing No More," "When She Loved Me" perhaps?

    I'm a Menken fan and I enjoy *most* of his scores... But Newman's music is far more complex than anything Mr. Menken has ever written. Compare Newman's brilliantly restrained and hauntingly-beautiful "Real Emotional Girl" to Menken's predictable, bland, and cliched "A Whole New World" and you will undoubtedly see what I mean.

    I, for one, eagerly look forward to Randy's songwriting of "The Frog Princess."
  • Okay, I so don't agree with you. I myself am no hater of lover of Randy Newman, 'cause I think his scores are mediocre, but am a lover of Alan Menken. I think a traditionally animated Princess movie *should* be scored by Menken and Slater because I believe Menken has that Disney Princess-feeling that he can put into the music; where Newman has got non of this feeling.
  • Jim Hill Says: "More to the point, Lasseter realizes what's really riding on "The Frog Princess." Which is the revival of traditional animation at Walt Disney Studios. If this picture tanks, traditional may never get another shot at the Mouse House. Which is why John is taking no chances with this Ron'n'John production."

    Taking no chances?! TAKING NO CHANCES?!! HELLO!

    A new composer/lyricist that no one has ever heard of versus Newman would be "taking chances".

    Someone fresh out of their first theatrical success off-off-off-off Broadway versus Newman would be 'taking chances".

    Alan Menken (with a list of who's who in lyricists) is hardly someone you'd be taking a chance on.

    PTindy said:  "Oh lets see..I can't quite remember.....The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame...........any of those have noteworthy songs?"

    That's hitting the nail on the head. In fact, when it comes to writing great songs that advance plot and develop characer, Menken is the man! Not only does he write great material, he wirtes in whatever style the story calls for. B&B is very much an operetta. "Mermaid" has all those great Caribbean-inspired beats. "Aladdin" was filled with Cotton-club jazz, the score for "Poca" is one of the most lush and 'earthy', 'organic' scores that Menken has written. "Hunchback" is his masterpiece - it almost qualifies as opera. His melodies sweep and soar and his talent has been rewarded with how many Oscars? When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences split the music categories into "Best Score, Drama" and "Best Score, Comedy or Musical" it was because of Menken winning all the time. The award was jokingly referred to as the Alan Menken" award for a few years.

    I think that Lesseter is "taking  a chance" with Newman. All of his songs sound the same. He only writes in one style - his. Now, while his scores exhibit a variety of tone and style, his songs all sound like "You've got a Friend in Me".

    You could not possibly say that "Be Our Guest", "Under The Sea", "A Whole New World", "Just Around The Riverbend", "A Little Piece of Heaven" and "Hellfire" sound the same.

    Good Luck, but unless "Frog Princess" is urban, or gritty, contemporary - I don't see Randy's music telling that story. If it's a traditional fairy tale - give it to the master (regardless of how many irons he has in the fire).
  • Those who say Newman's music sounds all the same are clearly not familiar with his music.

    You'll find how ridiculous that statement is when you listen to say, "You've Got A Friend In Me" and compare it to something like "Mikey's."

    Heck, find me a person who thinks "Dixie Flyer" and "I Love L.A." sound the same, and I'll be a monkey's uncle. Find me a person who thinks "Sail Away" and "The Masterman and Baby J" sound the same, and I'll be the *son* of a monkey's uncle.
  • @AskMike:

    Disney is only known for the triad of villain-princess-prince?  Uh...

    Bambi, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Peter Pan, Dumbo, 101 Dalmations, Lady & the Tramp, and I could go on...

    Disney is known for creating previously unparalleled, quality animation that never relied on any formula other than it had a good idea for animating!
  • Chanticleer said: "Those who say Newman's music sounds all the same are clearly not familiar with his music."

    I could not agree with you more, Chanticleer. And perhaps I was hasty in that assesment. I've been listening to Randy's music for years (I actually owned a 45 of "Short People"), but what I'm talking about is styles.

    Randy writes rock & pop, rhythm and blues, dixie & country - all of the populist forms of composition, VERY well.

    But I don't think he has a style in his pocket that lends itself to princesses and magic, poisoned apples and "Happily Ever After". I've never heard him write anything that could compete with "The Second Star To The Right", "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo", or "Bella Notte" - "A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes".

    Menken has proven that he can write in styles that lend themselves to a Fairy Tale aesthetic. Music that transcends the here and now - transports us to Once Upon A Time. Randy is rooted in the "now", the "here and today". What rocks us. Alan takes us on magic carpet rides to Agrabah and makes us believe that a "tale as old as time" lives in our hearts and is relevant.

    Randy writes what Randy writes - and he's good at it. Alan Menken's music makes us want to live under the sea.




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