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How Glen Keane & Mark Henn turned some of Disney's most popular Princesses into toddlers

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How Glen Keane & Mark Henn turned some of Disney's most popular Princesses into toddlers

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Trish D. of Tallahassee, FL. wrote in to say:

I enjoyed reading today's story about "Tangled Ever After" and how Disney used all of its divisions to make the most of that animated short. But what really intrigued about today's article was the final photo, which showed a shelf full of Disney Animator's Collection Dolls. I haven't been to our local Disney Store in quite a while, so I'm unfamiliar with this line of toys. What's their story?

The Disney Animator's Collection series of dolls can actually be traced back to the Fall of 2009. When Mattel produced -- as part of its "Princess and The Frog" line of products -- a Princess Tiana-as-a-toddler-doll that wound up being a very popular item that holiday season.

Copyright Disney / Mattel. All rights reserved

The following year, when a Rapunzel-as-a-toddler-doll proved to be one of the more popular "Tangled" -related items offered over the 2010 holiday season ...

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... Well, executives at the Disney Store couldn't help but notice. Which is why they then decided to create an entire line of dolls that would reimagine Disney's most popular princesses as toddlers. But to make sure that this new product line was just as authentic as it could possibly be, the Disney Store reached out to two modern masters of hand-drawn animation, Glen Keane and Mark Henn.

And Glen and Mark were obviously the right guys for this assignment. Given that -- between the two of them -- Keane and Henn had been supervising animators on seven of Disney's most-beloved modern princesses (Glen was the talent behind Ariel in "The Little Mermaid," the title character in "Pocahontas" and Rapunzel in "Tangled," while Mark helped create Belle in "Beauty and the Beast," Princess Jasmine in "Aladdin," the title character in "Mulan" and Tiana in "The Princess and the Frog").

Mind you, to fill out the Disney Animator's Collection line, Keane and Henn agreed to make toddler versions of characters that they themselves hadn't originally animated. Among them the title characters from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" & "Cinderella" as well as Briar Rose from "Sleeping Beauty."

Glen Keane with the Princess Aurora doll from the Disney Animator's Collection series.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"But given that I knew Marc Davis -- the Disney Legend that had originally created Princess Aurora -- and I knew the way that he drew ... Well, I thought that I could handle translating that character into a toddler. Take the stylization of her hair that Marc had come up with for this character and then make that work for a doll," Glen recalled in a Fall 2011 interview with JHM.

"And since I was mentored by Eric Larson when I first joined Walt Disney Animation Studios back in 1980 and Eric was the first animator to work on the title character of 'Cinderella' for that film ... Well, that's why I agreed to take on the assignment of designing the Cinderella-as-a-toddler doll for this series," Mark remarked.

And when it came to coming up with an authentic-looking design for the toddler version of Snow White, Keane found a trip to WDAS's ARL (i.e. the Animation Research Library) most helpful.

Glen Keane's drawing of Snow White as a
toddler. Copyright Disney Enterprises,
Inc. All rights reserved

"I had them pull a lot of the original concept art that the Disney artists had originally created for this film back in the mid-1930s. And there -- on a yellowing piece of paper -- I found some drawings for a sequence that they'd discarded for this animated feature which showed Snow White as a toddler right after her father the King had died," Glen remembered. "So I used those concept drawings as my jumping-off point when I was designing the Snow-White-as-a-toddler doll."

It was those research trips to the ARL that reminded Keane & Henn of how far they'd come in the 30+ years that these two had worked for the Mouse House.

"You gotta understand that -- when you're just starting out as an in-betweener , when you're learning your craft -- you spend an awful lot of time down in the morgue (that's what we used to call the chicken wire cage down in the basement of the old Animation Building where we kept all of the drawings & concept art from Disney's earlier features) looking at these animation drawings for reference and for inspiration," Mark explained. "So to see these drawings again after all these years, to smell that same old smell of the old paper that Ollie Johnston & Frank Thomas & Freddy Moore drew on ... That was kind of a time warp."

Mark Henn back in 1991 working on Princess Jasmine on Disney's
"Aladdin." Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But -- if these two had to be honest -- Keane & Henn's favorite part of working on the Disney Animator's Collection series of doll was getting the chance to revisit characters that they themselves had helped create.

"When you work on a film like 'Beauty and the Beast' or "Aladdin,' you literally spend years working on characters like Belle and Princess Jasmine. So they kind of become like members of your family. But once production of that movie is complete, you then have to send that character out into the world. And you then rarely if ever get the chance to revisit or interact with them again," Mark said. "That's what's been so great about this collaboration with the Disney Store. They've given me the chance to go back & dust off these characters, talk to them again."

"Of course, the real challenge of a project like this was to find the toddler version of some of these characters. I mean, take Pocahontas. Here's this tall confident woman with long beautiful legs. How do you take a character like that and translate her to toddler form -- with those big eyes and a chubby little belly -- and still make this doll recognizable as Pocahontas?," Glen mused.

Glen Keane's concept drawing and the Disney Store's finished version of
the Pocahontas Animator's Collection doll. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

In Keane's case, he didn't have to look all that far for reference material. Given that his daughter Claire (who works as a story artist and designer at Walt Disney Animation Studios) has a three year-old daughter, Matisse.

"Given that she provided a lot of the inspiration for Rapunzel-as-a-baby in 'Tangled,' it was great for me to be able to circle back on Matisse and then hold her in my lap as I drew her little pushed-out lips. I used my own granddaughter for inspiration as I tried to turn these Disney Princesses into toddlers," Glen laughed.

Which is actually kind of fitting. Given that -- when Keane was Ariel's supervising animator on "The Little Mermaid" -- he used his wife Linda as inspiration for that character. Likewise when Henn was struggling to get a handle on how Princess Jasmine should look in "Aladdin," he used his sister Beth's high school photograph as a jumping-off point for that character.

Mark Henn's sister, Beth Allen Henn. Copyright
Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"That's the real key to a truly successful character. You have to make them seem real to the audience," Keane said. "Take -- for example -- this scene in 'The Little Mermaid' which captures this beautifully. Ariel has just run into this room, thinking that Prince Eric is going to marry her. She's hiding behind this column, her fingers are trembling, you can see her breath going in and out. That scene was a real break-through on that movie because -- thanks to Mark's beautiful animation -- Ariel wasn't just this series of drawings anymore. She became this character that the audience genuinely cared about. Who your heart ached for when you found out that Prince Eric was planning on marrying Vanessa instead of Ariel."

As you can see, Keane and Henn have kind of a mutual admiration society going here. Which is what you might expect from two guys who have worked together on multiple animated projects at the same studio over the past 30 years. But then again, Glen & Mark also had kind words for the folks from the Disney Store that they worked with on the Disney Animator's Collection doll series.

"I kept figuring -- each time they'd then bring us the prototypes -- that this would be it. That it would now be time to put the Animator's Collection dolls into production. But each time, the people from the Disney Store would then ask 'Is there anything else that we can do to make these dolls better?' And Mark & I would  give them our notes," Keane continued. "This must have gone on 6, 7, 8 times.  I don't think that the Disney Store and Walt Disney Animation Studios have ever worked as closely together as we have on this particular line of dolls."

Glen points out some of the detail work on the finished version of the Pocahontas-as-
a-toddler doll. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And if you'd like to see for yourself how this collaboration turned out, Trish D ... Well, I suggest that you make a special trip to Tallahassee's Disney Store. Which currently has the entire line of Disney Animator's Collection dolls on sale.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Since I conducted this interview with Glen and Mark back in November of last year, the animation community was obviously rocked by Mr. Keane's decision to leave Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Now I know that a lot of people online have used this occasion as an excuse to bitch and moan about what's going on behind-the-scenes at WDAS / complain bitterly how the Studio could let a huge talent like Glen Keane just walk away like that.

"Family Circle" creator Bill Keane (1922 - 2011)

But you have to remember that Glen is a guy in his late 50s who had a pretty serious health scare four years ago. Not to mention losing his father -- "Family Circle" cartoonist Bill Keane  -- last November.

It's moments like these that make a man reassess the path that he's on. And if Keane has decided to step away from WDAS so that he can finally work on his long-gestating passion project (which is reportedly an animated version of Beethoven's 9th symphony. Which -- given that Walt Disney Animation Studios is unlikely to put another "Fantasia" follow-up into production anytime soon -- won't be funded with Mickey's Moolah) ... Well, I say more power to him.

Besides, given that Frank Thomas & Ollie Johnston both retired from Walt Disney Animation Studios on January 31, 1978 and then spent the next 25 years writing books about Disney animation, speaking at events like the Official Disneyana Convention, being interviewing for Special Features on VHSs , DVDs and Blu-rays,  attending signings at the Disney Store and the Disney Gallery, consulting for The Walt Disney Company and Pixar Animation Studios ... Well, I suspect that -- should he chose to -- Glen can have the exact same sort of retirement that Frank & Ollie did.

(L to R) Glen Keane, Ollie Johnston, Frank Thomas and Mark Henn in a
1988 photo celebrating Mickey Mouse's 60th anniversary.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But as for right now ... Given that Keane seemed to genuinely enjoy collaborating with the Disney Store on its Animator's Collection series of dolls, I'd suggest that other arms of the Company discreetly reach out and see if Glen is up for tackling any other Mouse-related projects.

I'd especially urge the folks at Disney Publishing to contact Keane. Given that I'd love to see what's in that book that Glen's allegedly been working on for the past 8 years.

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  • The Pocahontas doll looks like she just saw someone littering.  Not the best expression of the bunch.

  • C'mon, Jim. Enough with these thinly veiled Disney press releases. How about something a little more hard hitting?

    For example, what the heck is Disney trying to do with the Test Track closure? They're doing everything they can to try and hide the fact that it'll be closed for six months, starting Monday. They aren't putting it on their public calendars, like they do for other closures. And even their revised park maps aren't going to acknowledge the fact that it's closed. They aren't behaving in a very 'Disney' manner. There's a real story.

  • These girls have been in the Imagination Park and Core stores since Christmas and really do live up to the hype. Good to hear more about the creation process.

  • Quick note, The Disney Stores have been selling Toddler dolls as a staple of their holiday toy offerings for at least a decade.  It is only last year that they were redesigned to be Animator's Collection dolls.  To say that the dolls were inspired by Mattel is incorrect or at least misleading.  

    Otherwise, this article is very interesting- thanks for the info.

  • How about a story to confirm/deny my suspicions that Glen Keane was woo'ed by Dreamworks to help them complete the 2D animated segments in Me and My Shadow?

  • I've read that when Fantasia 2000 was in development, Glen expressed interest in developing the 'Beethoven's 5th symphony' sequence but he was too late as the piece had already been assigned to someone else. Now Jim, you're telling us that Glen's dream project is animating Beethoven's 9th symphony. He seems to have a fascination for Beethoven, doesn't he?

  • What John said! What's going on there...really?

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