Stronger Than Ink

Disney just can’t win, a position felt by many celebrities and corporations who are felt to be too big for their britches. When “Pocahontas” treats its story with sensitivity toward Indians, they’re accused of political correctness. When they respect the original material — as far as Disney is capable — in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” critics sniffed that it wasn’t as good as “Aladdin.” And as for “Hercules,” their latest blockbuster that was directed by the same team that created “Aladdin” and “The Little Mermaid?” They’re accused of being a little too entertaining.

This book is really a manifesto on creativity and design according to Disney. The first hint comes with the book’s production. You get 192 large pages crammed with full-color art and photographs. On the front end pages, a bas-relief of Greek warriors do battle, grimly slashing at each other amid horses and fallen bodies. Turn to the back cover, and the reader sees those same warriors, still in position, but gazing at the reader with idiot grins plastered on their faces. In between is a book designed with characteristic Disney attention to detail. While they could have gotten away with simply cramming the book full of pictures, the authors Stephen Rebello and Jane Healey wrote the text as if it could have stood on its own. Granted, it would have been pamphlet-sized, but most of what it says tells us a lot about the Disney’s cultural values.

In short, they are:

* Let the ideas flow uninhibited, at first. “We want to start out by exploring all kinds of things — different ideas, different choices — and not inhibit that process at all. Later we’ll start inhibiting it. But, in the early stages, we want it to be as open and exciting as possible. If that means letting chaos reign, so be it.

The Art of Hercules” reflects that thinking. Behind every scene in the movie, there must have been dozens of ideas that had been sketched out, considered and discarded. Some are included in the book: Hercules drawn in the “Aladdin” style, more rounded and less angular. A Hydra that looks more like a long-tailed dinosaur with three heads. Excerpts from a laundry list of notes co-directors John Musker and Ron Clements, that range from the obvious ideas (Musker and Clements both came up with using Danny DeVito as a companion to Herc), to questionable ones (“Jerry Seinfeld sidekick”)

There’s a reason behind every choice. Deciding on colors for a hillside grove? Use a terra-cotta style that suggests ancient Greek pottery. Drawing the city of Thebes? Stack the buildings on top of each other and use strong vertical lines to contrast with the flowing contours of the countryside.

* “Plus” every idea. That is, don’t just use someone elses idea, but figure out a way to make it better. “If we had just said, here’s our concept and it’s this and only this and we’re going to adhere to it,'” Ron Clements said, “then the film would have been the poorer for it. The fact is we were able to make good course corrections and take advantage of many contributions from very early on. That’s the fun part of the process. It’s an outgrowth of the collaborative, ‘plussing’ idea which is part of the fabric of the Studio where any scene you get or any idea that’s presented to you, you’re not supposed to just execute it but you’re supposed to ‘plus’ it, add to it, make it better.

This dedication to the idea of constantly improving an idea is a hallmark Disney touch. Pushing the limits, whether in creating an animated film or new theme park, is probably the strongest force behind Disney’s success. While its marketing and corporate control of the media may help maintain its position, the company had a harder time surviving in the past when its creative juices are not flowing. Institutionalizing the ‘plusing’ concept give creativity a function in the bureaucracy, which by its very nature can inhibit the development of new ideas.

Probably the most exciting part of the book comes when British artist Gerald Scarfe was hired as a production designer. His angular, extreme caricatures shocked the Disney animation team, with many of them wondering just what they were supposed to do with it. But instead of shutting him out, they tried to make it work.

Which is not to say the text is perfect. There is a fair amount of corporate glad-handing, a lot of bogus spin about Disney’s animation tradition — until recently, Disney’s animators were faceless drones, and Uncle Walt liked it that way. But it’s amazing how some sniffs of reality sneak through the lines: amid the fawning caricatures of the directors Clements and Musker (cutely nicknamed “Ron and John” as if they were Disney characters themselves), one gets the strong impression that they did not suffer animators who did second-rate work, and were not afraid to say so, a lot. Musker is quoted telling an artist about his work, “Some good ideas, some terrible. I can’t believe we hired you.”

“Hercules” sums up the Disney ideal, its strengths and weaknesses that give it a unique place in American cultural history.