Audiences may be delighted by "The Princess and the Frog." For the veteran Disney animators who worked on the film, though, the film comes as a relief.
The fantasy marks Disney's return to traditional, hand-drawn animation. That style was seen by some within the studio as being archaic and dated, and as dead technology.
In fact, at one point Disney fired nearly all of its hand-drawn animation force. (The move was prompted by the less than impressive box-office receipts for its 2002 and 2004 cartoon releases, "Treasure Planet" and "Home on the Range.")
That changed quickly when Disney acquired Pixar, and that animation house's chief, John Lasseter, was put in charge. One of his first mandates was to revive "traditional" animation. And work began almost immediately on "Princess."
However, "most of us had already moved on, professionally," Randy Haycock recalled.
"I was already making something out of my normal comfort zone," he said, referring to his work on the 2005 digitally animated feature "Chicken Little."
Fellow animator Bruce Smith was working on the Disney Channel television series "The Proud Family," which he created.
"I was already on to the next phase of my life and my career. I really thought I was done with film animation at that point," Smith said.
But when each of them got a call to work with co-directors Ron Clement and John Musker — the architects of such earlier Disney hits as "Aladdin" (1992) and "The Little Mermaid" (1989) — they understandably jumped at the chance.
"With those two in charge, we all knew this was something that could be really special," Smith said.
"Everyone was excited," Haycock agreed. "This was something that could really demonstrate the merits of hand-drawn animation, so how could we say no?"
Both Smith and BYU graduate Haycock spoke in interviews to promote the new animated fantasy when they were in Salt Lake City.
"The Princess and the Frog" is a Jazz Age tale about Tiana, a young woman who is transformed into a frog — as is a visiting dignitary, Prince Naveen.
Haycock and Smith worked as supervising animators on the film and were in charge of specific character design and animation.
Haycock's main responsibilities were for Naveen. He helped design both the human and amphibian versions of the character — the latter being the "really fun part."
"It was a challenge to create a cartoon frog who's still very human," he said, chuckling.
Smith's responsibilities were Dr. Facilier, the film's evil Shadow Man, who casts the spell that transforms both Naveen and Tiana into frogs.
Both men emphasized the role animators play in cartoon performances.
"The actors provide the voice, the aural part," Haycock explained. "But it's really up to us to make sure the characters' actions and faces match or exceed what they've done."
He and Smith are convinced that "Princess" holds up with earlier films. "It's not just derivative of earlier films. It's the first of our fantasies that's set in the United States," Haycock noted.
And Smith proudly touted that "Tiana is our first African-American princess character."
"She's a very strong woman and is a good role model — she shows what you can accomplish with a good heart and a lot of hard work," he said.
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