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Toon Thursday: Dissecting Disney’s newest villain

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Toon Thursday: Dissecting Disney’s newest villain

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You know what they say in Hollywood. That your movie is only as good as your villain.

Well, one of the main reasons that Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog” was so highly praised (Richard Corliss of “Time” Magazine flat-out called Disney’s return to hand-drawn animation “… the best film of the year”) and is such an entertaining motion picture is Bruce W. Smith’s ground-breaking work with that animated feature’s villain, Dr. Facilier.

Of course, it’s easy to understand why Ron Clements & John Musker were anxious to have Bruce come work on this production. Given that he’d been a supervising animator on “Tarzan,” “The Emperor's New Groove” and “Home on the Range,” Smith was already familiar with the ways things worked at the Mouse House. He’d also proven in the past that he could handle the pressures of working on a full-length animated feature.

Bruce W. Smith, supervising animator for Dr. Facilier from Disney's The Princess and the Frog
Bruce W. Smith, supervising animator for Dr. Facilier on "The Princess and the Frog." Copyright 2009 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

More to the point, given that Bruce was the creator of Disney’s “The Proud Family,” Ron & John knew that he could bring something truly special to “The Princess and the Frog.”

“They brought me in and showed me their concept sketches for all of the characters,” Bruce remembered. “But as soon as I saw Facilier, I told them:‘We can stop right here. I’m loving this guy already.’ “

Mind you, given his history as a character designer, Smith didn’t entirely embrace Clements & Musker’s vision for Dr. Facilier. He quickly came up with his own spin on this character.

Dr. Failier from Disney's The Princess and the Frog
Copyright 2009 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

“Ron & John initially wanted Dr. Facilier to be modeled after Geoffrey Holder. Be this tall, bald, deep-voiced smooth operator,” Bruce explained. “But I argued that – since Dr. Facilier was just scraping by, living on the edges of New Orleans society – he should only look like a smooth operator. But that – if you looked close – his story then quickly began to unravel.”

And indeed – if you do look close at Dr. Facilier in the finished film – you’ll see that, while this new Disney Villain does give a good first impression, his pants are too tight, his coat is too tight and his vest doesn’t quite cover his belly. Though the real giveaway that Facilier isn’t quite what he seems is when the good Doctor doffs his cap to Prince Naveen.

“You have to understand that – back in the 1920s – black men put a lot of effort into their coif. That it was the height of fashion then to present a smooth, slick look,” Smith continued. “So to have Facilier suddenly lift his hat and reveal this tangled mess of hair (which I modeled after James Brown’s mug shot) tells you a lot about what’s actually going on inside of this character’s head.”

Dr. Facilier offers his card to Prince Naveen and shows off his James Brown head of hair
Copyright 2009 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

And to their credit, Ron & John let Bruce take his ideas and run with them. The directors of “The Princess and the Frog” even let Smith select who the voice of Dr. Facilier should be (Of the six actors who auditioned for this role, Bruce went with Keith David. Not just because these two had worked together previously on “The Proud Family Movie.” But because Smith knew that David could bring something truly special to this role).

David Keith records the voice of Dr. Facilier for the number "Friends on the Other Side" in Disney's Princess and the Frog
David Keith recording "Friends on the Other Side" for "The Princess and the Frog."
Copyright 2009 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

But where all of Bruce’s extra effort and research on this project really paid off was with this film’s showcase sequence, “Friends on the Other Side.” Which – oddly enough – was the first chunk of this picture that Smith animated.

“That song was the very first thing that was handed to me. And I really wanted to Facilier to shine in this scene. So I watched Michael Jackson. I watched Usher. And I watched hours and hours of ‘Soul Train,’ “ Bruce said.

Dr. Facilier was "conjured up" by supervising animator Bruce Smith
Copyright 2009 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

More to the point, Smith studied the performers who inspired Jackson and Usher. Entertainment legends like Cab Calloway, John Bubbles and the Nicholas Brothers. The end result is that “Friends on the Other Side” is an animation tour de force. Made all the more amazing because Smith isn’t just drawing Dr. Facilier in this sequence. He’s also animating the Doctor’s shadow, which often dances independently and comments on the action within that scene.

Which is why – when Clements & Musker were looking for a piece of “Princess and the Frog” that they could then show conventioneers at Comic-Con International last July, something that would really showcase their film – it wasn’t really a contest. Ron & John knew that they had to bring “Friends on the Other Side” down to San Diego. That the work that Bruce did with his team on Dr. Facilier would electrify all 6000 people seated in Hall H.

Dr. Facilier does his voodoo magic in Disney's The Princess and the Frog
Copyright 2009 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Speaking of Smith’s team … When we spoke last month, Bruce made sure to mention all of the other animators who’d also worked with him on Dr. Facilier. Talented WDAS vets like James Lopez, Frans Vischer and Dean Wellins who’d really delivered the goods. He was also quick to praise Ron & John for giving him this opportunity as well as going out of his way to talk about how John Lasseter has changed the corporate culture at Walt Disney Animation Studios.

“Lasseter completely changed the mentality of this place,” Smith stated. “John’s a winner. So he brought that attitude into this Studio. He’s also an artist and a storyteller. Which is why you get very different notes now from Dailies. We’re no longer servicing some executive’s ego. It’s now always about how can we make this picture better.”

Dr. Facilier the voodoo vilain from the Princess and the Frog
Copyright 2009 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

And clearly Bruce's contemporaries think highly of his work. Given that Smith -- along with his fellow "Princess and the Frog" supervising animators Andreas Deja & Eric Goldberg -- was nominated for a Best "Character Animation in a Feature Production" Annie last month.

So after these accolades, what’s next for Bruce? After working on a stylized, scene-stealer like Dr. Facilier, how does a veteran animator & character designer like Smith challenge himself? By heading off to the Hundred Acre Woods.

“We’re just about to begin work on the ‘Winnie the Pooh’ movie,” Bruce admitted. “And those characters – though they may look simple to draw – are honestly just as challenging as any of the characters that we worked on with ‘The Princess and the Frog.’ In order to do Pooh right, you have to use lots of restraint while you animate. You have to draw with plenty of appeal, stay true to these characters as they’ve appeared in the previous Disney featurettes while – at the same time – service your story. Which is a pretty tough balancing act.”

Dr. Facilier has friends on the other side in his world of voodoo magic
Copyright 2009 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Even so, to quote Dr. Facilier: “Were I a betting man -- and I’m not. I stay away from games of chance – I’d wager …” that Bruce W. Smith is up for this challenge. That he’ll bring the same level of craft that he showed with “The Princess and the Frog” ‘s calculating conjurer to A.A. Milne’s silly old bear.

Your thoughts?

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  • While I enjoyed The Princess and the Frog as a whole, I really really loved the Dr. Facilier character.  Great character work by Bruce and his team and a great voice to boot.... oddly enough Facilier and the wraths were my 3 year old sons favorite part.  He wanted more "bad guy" and "more ghosts".

  • Great movie, and they did a fantastic job on everything. I may have to go back and see it again just to see Dr. Facilier and more specifically his shadow.  I found his character scary enough, but I would've like to seen more of him. I liked him, and maybe I just missed it, but I found his dancing somewhat awkward at times, not very much like MJ or Cab Callaway. I think it would've been neat and fun to see him pull some moves similar to MJ in the Smooth Criminal video and created a fun bad guy who can really dance and was mesmerizing in his moves.

    I'll say too that Mama O.D. reminded me a lot of Big Mama from the Proud Family.

  • Where is the article on Princess and the Frog's box office performance?!? What is the inside scoop??

  • I think a major influence was the Fleischer toons Cab Calloway did, as well as Something Wicked's Mr. Dark.

    But what do you guys think Facilier got a doctorate in?

  • I've always felt that the character designs in "The Proud Family" were very strong and naturally appealing, so I'm not surprised to find that Bruce's design for Dr. Facilier to be the most satisfying one in "The Princess and the Frog" as well. I agree that it would have been a mistake to base the design on Geoffrey Holder, as that would have invited too much comparison to the similar voodoo character he portrayed in "Live and Let Die". I really like Facilier as he ultimately turned out - looked a bit like the early Little Richard to me!

  • It is the film that - when Walt Disney Pictures initially announced this project back in June of 2009

  • When I first saw Dr. Facilier the first and immediate thing/person that popped in my head was Cab Callaway.  Best Villain hands DOWN!

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