Is there a special formula for Disney animated films?

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“We never know how the things are gonna do,” says Mark Henn, a veteran Disney animator. “We work hard to do the very best we can and make the best movie we possibly can.” In photo: A still shot from "Ralph Breaks the Internet." Photo courtesy of WALT DISNEY ANIMATION STUDIOS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Before Disney became the animation powerhouse that it is today, it suffered monumental losses because of a series of commercial flops in the ‘70s until the mid-‘80s.

In 1989, however, Disney released a film adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen classic, “The Little Mermaid,” which became the highest-grossing animated film of that year, trumping “The Land Before Time,” and winning the Academy Award for Best Original Score and Best Original Song (for “Under the Sea”). An unexpected heroine, Ariel ushered in what is now known as the Disney Renaissance.

Besides “The Little Mermaid’s” iconic songs, one that stood out during that time was the color choice for Ariel — the stark red hair that shone even more brightly when in contrast to the greens and blues of the sea.

“One of the things that we try to avoid as much as we can is any kind of stereotypes or clichés. At that time, the discussions were, ‘Well of course mermaids are blondes.’ But who decided that? Why would they be blonde?” says Mark Henn, the supervising animator for Ariel, who was here in Manila to promote his latest work as the 2D animation supervisor in “Ralph Breaks the Internet.”

ariel-littmerms.jpg The color choice for Ariel's hair was a novel idea at that time, but it proved to work well with the rest of the "The Little Mermaid" backdrop. Screenshot from DISNEY MUSIC/YOUTUBE

Coming from “The Little Mermaid”’s success, the studio went on to produce more animated musicals in the next decades, fortifying its place in the world of animation. Henn has continued to lend its ideas and talent to Disney, adding Belle (“Beauty and the Beast”), Jasmine (“Aladdin”), young Simba (“The Lion King”), Mulan, and Pocahontas to his oeuvre.

His work, particularly on the leading characters, has been described to have subtle expressions and light touches, which make his animations more powerful, as they are able to capture real human emotions.

“I tend to be cast on leading characters. And I've always found that the leading characters have arguably the most interesting journey,” he says.

“I like the emotional moments. I like the characters that are very three-dimensional. As an animator, that gives you a lot to work with.”

While he’s also worked on larger-than-life characters such as Roger Rabbit, he says that subtle animation is one that he gravitates to the most. “I tend to like the subtler animation because to me that's what I think our audience identifies with,” he says. “That's what makes Disney animation so special and unique because people can identify with these characters.”

Mark-Henn_IMG_7613_Lo (1) (1).jpg “I like the emotional moments. I like the characters that are very three-dimensional. As an animator, that gives you a lot to work with,” says Mark Henn, the veteran animator of Disney, whose work includes animations for iconic Disney heroines such as Jasmine ("Aladdin"), Belle ("Beauty and the Beast"), Mulan, and Pocahontas. Photo courtesy of WALT DISNEY ANIMATION STUDIOS


In the last couple of years, Henn also oversaw the animation for the animation juggernaut, “Frozen.” He has said that the scope of the success of “Frozen” is akin to that of “The Lion King.” When asked about why he thinks this is the case, he says that, like all the other Disney films, it’s most to do with how the audience can almost vicariously follow the journey of the characters.


“You can get in there, in their heads, and you can cheer for them. You can follow along,” he says. “In the case of Simba, people could easily identify with this young lion cub but he exhibited a lot of emotions and his thinking was very similar to a lot of us.”

He explains that when they’re making movies, the primary goal is to come up with characters that people can identify with, characters that are believable in their situations.

“You want to be able to cheer for the heroes, boo the villain, laugh at the sidekick,” he says. “Frozen,” in his opinion, had all those kind of elements that all of the other films had to one degree or another.

Henn says there’s no special formula that Disney follows to ensure an animated film becomes widely laudable. “We never know how the things are gonna do,” he says. “We work hard to do the very best we can and make the best movie we possibly can.”


Mark Henn also serves as the supervising animator for Disney’s upcoming film, “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” which opens on Nov. 21, 2018.