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John Musker, Disney animation legend and co-director of The Little Mermaid and Moana, has retired

Contributed by
Mar 20, 2018

It is a sad week for the world of animation as a Disney legend, John Musker, has decided to retire after nearly 40 years in the entertainment industry. While his might not be a household name, Musker's work certainly is a global star, as he and directing partner Ron Clements helped usher in Disney's celebrated Renaissance with 1989's The Little Mermaid. News of his amicable departure from the House of Mouse broke when those attending his retirement party posted photos, voicing how lucky they were to work with Musker and marking his groundbreaking 40 years with the company. 

Musker's meteoric rise to animation legend began in the early '80s when he met Clements while working on character designs for The Fox and the Hound. The duo's next project was 1985's The Black Cauldron. However, the two were removed from the movie — widely considered one of the biggest missteps in Disney's history for its extremely dark story and irritating characters such as Gurgi — and began work on The Great Mouse Detective, their directorial debut. It told the story of a Holmesian mouse sleuth living in the walls of 221B Baker Street, London, and the film's success, although moderate, re-ignited Disney's confidence in its animation department, which, at the time, was run by future DreamWorks founder Jeffrey Katzenberg. 

Musker and Clements then wanted to make their passion project: an adaptation of Treasure Island, but set in outer space. Katzenberg wasn't interested in what sounded like such a daunting and expensive project with the available animation technology at the time. However, he did like the idea of a Disney take on The Little Mermaid pitched at the same meeting, and with that, the Disney Renaissance had begun. 

Once Ariel took her first steps on dry land, audiences were hooked. Musker and Clements began to churn out hit after hit like Aladdin (1992) and Hercules (1997) with the promise that if these projects made lots of money, the two could make their ambitious Treasure Island idea. While Katzenberg departed Disney in the mid-1990s, Musker and Clements finally fulfilled their dream with 2002's Treasure Planet, which — despite an impressive mix of traditional animation and computer graphics — was a bona fide box office flop. (Seriously, the movie does not deserve the obscurity in which it currently languishes; it's really, really good.)

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 Courtesy of David Livingston/Getty Images

Many thought the animation duo had lost their magical touch and were out of the ring. However, they surprised everybody with 2009's The Princess and the Frog. Not only was it a return to the old-school style of Disney animation (thought to be obsolete), but it also featured the company's first black princess, Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose). With vibrant animation, a great story, and catchy songs influenced by Dixieland jazz, Musker and Clement were back in the game.

Seven years later, they undertook their first project of total CGI animation, a little movie called Moana. While Musker won't be directing any follow-ups, Moana was a triumphant way for Musker to round out his Disney tenure. It featured a Polynesian princess as its main character (voiced by Auli'i Cravalho), made $643 million at the box office, and was nominated for Best Animated Feature and Best Original song at the 89th Academy Awards.

Even in the light of his retirement, John Musker's mark on Disney will be present for decades to come, especially now that the company is turning virtually all of its Disney Renaissance features into live-action remakes


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