Rhett Wickham: Oh Ratigan! and Glen Keane
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Some thirty years after they began the quest to recruit and train a younger generation to carry on the traditions that they pioneered, there are very few of the original voices from the great golden age of animation still available to give continued counsel to the pupils who took their place. And, fair or not, the legacy of this small but brilliant facet of the greatest generation will remain a near-impossible standard up to which the second generation (and now a third) will always be compared.
While contemporary styles and oh-so-post-modern sensibilities continue to push animation in new and sometimes aesthetically and socially questionable directions, the animators and artists of the Walt Disney Studio still stand as the best hope "personality" animation has in the business. That is to say, that Disney feature films have from the start, and still to this day, strived to achieve believable and sincere characters who deliver performances that rival those of live actors. Even while some succeed better than others in this task, it is the sincerity, pathos, believability and the universal appeal of Disney's characters that remain the hallmarks of both classic and contemporary feature performances. The short-format "cartoons" (a world ruled principally by television for the past forty years) can more freely explore characters that are much broader, who clown around and shatter the reality of even the wildest universe with cutting edge humor and, often, topicality, an approach embraced by some features in the CG driven market – such as Jeffrey Katzenberg's block-buster Shrek. But box-office numbers alone can't assure that generation after generation will be brought into the fold of followers who express genuine affection for a character's soul, and not just their stand-up comedy skills. Granted, Disney features have their comic stars and co-stars, but even they must clear the bar of serious and sincere acting, no getting by on existential slapstick alone for anyone prodigy of the Mouse House.
So it has come to pass that the mantle of master thespian among the ink and paint set has shifted gently over the past few decades from the shoulders of men like Ollie Johnston and the late Frank Thomas and Marc Davis, to a handful of artists who began their careers studying under these masters. Names like Andreas Deja, Dale Baer, Mark Henn, Kathy Zielinski, James Baxter, Ruben Aquino, Ken Duncan, John Pomeroy, Nik Ranieri and Tony Fucile have come to represent the promise of animation's future. One name, however, among all the others, has been held in greater esteem than his peers almost from the outset – starting with his breakout animation of the Bear who fights Todd in the otherwise forgettable The Fox and the Hound - an animator whose name has become synonymous with both master draftsmanship and a rare ability to render complex, emotionally complicated and stirring performances - Glen Keane.
It has been a while since I have produced another chapter in this series specifically for this web site. The last three installments have all found their way into "Tales From the Laughing Place" magazine – Ken Duncan and Jane Porter, Kathy Zielinski and Frollo along with Dale Baer and Yzma, and Andreas Deja and Lilo. While I love the thrill of seeing this series so beautifully laid out in the breathtaking print publication that is born of this web sight, I wanted to come back to LaughingPlace.com's larger audience with this particular chapter because I intended to start the series with a profile of Glen Keane, but, frankly, found the task too daunting in the face of may things – including an attempt to pinpoint a high-water mark in such an amazing career.
Keane is a powerful animator. Like Vladimir "Bill" Tytla – whose Chernabog in Fantasia's Night on Bald Mountain is arguably the high-water mark of the Golden Age of Disney animation – Keane's drawings are both literally and figuratively muscular, their every searching line conveying a powerful sense of emotion piped from the soul of the artist through the hollow lead of the pencil and bled directly onto the paper. Even when refined in clean-up and inked inside of a more gracious and contained production design, his animation still has a visceral appeal and a dynamic tension that elevates even something as subtle as breathing or as pointed as a shift of focus in the eyes. It is electrifying to watch. The paradox of a Glen Keane scene is that it is both beautiful to study, and thrilling to experience - laying out an ample banquet before one's objective hunger for visually aesthetics as well as the subjective longing for a believable character who is as real as any flesh and blood person. Unlike Milt Kahl – whose characters' graphic acrobatics were often more powerful than their personalities (most noticeably in his later films) – Keane has served as long a tenure while continually managing to satisfy both the heart and the head.
Having laid down his pencil to pick up the responsibilities of directing, I figured now was as good a time as any to make a serious survey of Keane's accomplishments as an animator. That started three months ago. In that time, I took particular care in looking over all of Glen's work, film by film. I watched each one individually and in its entirety, and then I watched each scene featuring the character that he had supervised, at least twice – once with the sound, and once with no sound – and often staying with one film or performance for weeks at a time. His Beast is so moving and powerful, his Aladdin and Ariel so earnest, and his Pocahontas so passionate and graceful. Where I landed in my attempt to single out a performance that outshined the others – or at the very least stood as a "best example" of the many talents of this truly gifted artist – well, it surprised me so much that for the better part of a month I simply refused to let myself write about it, thinking it a ridiculous choice. But the fact is that no matter how I attempted to dismiss it, I simply could not shake what an extraordinary performance is still found in Ratigan. This wanna-be rat towers, if only by inches, above all other Keane characters.
There is no argument that Glen Keane's mastery of the craft has become more refined over the decades, and there is great depth of sensitivity, thoughtfulness and subtlety in roles like Pocahontas and Tarzan and The Beast. Nevertheless, something critical pushed Ratigan ahead of the pack, and that difference, for me at least, comes down to something very simple – it is an unfettered romp of pure animated joy. Not tied down to the inevitable limits of being a hero or a heroine, Keane as Ratigan gets away with…well, murder. Walking a fine line between animated and "cartoon", he has a devilishly good time all along the way. It stands out both for what it accomplishes and for the promise it shows, with countless glimpses of what a talent like this could manage if he were given the proper material and the freedom to explore it. Glen Keane did, in fact, go on to be handed some of the most well crafted characters in modern day Disney history, and a great deal of freedom in realizing them (this includes a generous sabbatical that resulted in spending several years in residence in France while he trained a team of mostly European artists in the now shuttered Walt Disney Feature Animation Paris studio, and who, under Keane's able guidance, delivered a Tarzan to rival all that came before or since). But nowhere else is the full range of Glen Keane's skill put to full use from first frame to last. It's as if the less pretentious the material, the more playful Keane becomes, and ultimately turns in an excellent and intuitive performance that takes advantage of the medium. Ratigan begins as wildly funny, grows suddenly menacing, and ultimately horrifying (his transformation from top-hat wearing dandy to filthy, furry menace - wielding a monstrous deathblow to Basil with his razor sharp claws - is reminiscent of Snow White's Queen transforming from icy beauty to gnarled Hag.)