Hot off several major announcements yesterday, Disney Branded Television kept the momentum going at Annecy Festival with a panel titled “Building on Legacy.” The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder creators and executive producers Bruce W. Smith and Ralph Farquhar celebrated their Season 3 renewal alongside Lynne Southerland, executive producer of the just announced Disney Junior series Ariel. And they were accompanied by Marvel’s Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur producers Rodney Clouden and Pilar Flynn (it got an early Season 2 renewal before it premiered on Disney Channel). The theme of the panel, moderated by Disney Junior SVP Alyssa Sapire, was on continuing an already established legacy. For ease of reading, I’ve grouped the content by show.
Disney Junior’s Ariel
After working in secret for 19 months, Lynne Southerland shared that the crew is so excited to finally be able to tell their friends and loved ones what they’ve been working on. We already got a lot of details about the series yesterday, which is centered around 8-year-old Ariel and is set entirely under the sea. “So many of us who have been in this business a long time, we didn’t grow up with someone like Ariel,” Lynne shared. “It’s pretty emotional.” Premiering in 2024, Lynne hopes to return to Annecy next year to give attendees a first look at the series. A blending of the 1989 animated film and 2023 live-action reimagining of The Little Mermaid, Ariel is set in the Caribbean and draws much of its inspiration from those cultures. Lynne revealed that the crew is obsessed with the original songs for the show and has been listening to them while they work. Lynne even sang a tiny bit of a song called “One Colorful Ocean.” That theme has extended to young Ariel’s grotto, which is a sparkly crystal cavern in the series.
On the theme of representation behind the scenes, Lynne reflected on her work on the 1995 HBO animated series Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child. She worked alongside The Proud Family’s Bruce W. Smith back then and recalled that they did their best to diversify that writers’ room, but it was still limited. Today, she celebrates the fact that the Ariel writers’ room is able to hone in on even more specificity, with writers of color who represent a broader diaspora of Black Caribbean cultures.
Marvel’s Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur
When it came to taking a Marvel Comic and translating it as an animated series, Rodney Clouden and Pilar Flynn had a few true norths. Lunella Lafayette would retain her passion for science and community, and the artistic direction would reflect a comic book style. Rodney also gave a shoutout to Disney for allowing the title to remain unaltered, with concerns there would be pushback against the name Devil Dinosaur. Pilar was working on Elena of Avalor when she first learned that development was moving forward on Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur and she knew she had to be a part of it, especially after seeing how Elana inspired the Latinx community.
Showrunner Steve Loter was careful to ensure that the crew making the show reflected the diversity seen on screen. Pilar and Rodney recalled how, due to an equality gap in the industry, gender parity was difficult at first. The producing team had to build up the confidence of creatives being put in leadership roles for the first time. But they were committed to helping them learn and grow, pairing first-time directors with seasoned pros so they could learn on the job. With Season 2 now in production, the producers have been able to promote from within. Currently, all of the directors on the second season are women, as is the entire writing team. “You can’t be what you don’t see,” Rodney concluded, quoting another executive producer on the show, Laurence Fishburne
The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder
Bruce W. Smith and Ralph Farquhar are going through something that very few creatives get to do, carrying on the legacy of a show they created in the first place. With a twenty-year gap between the original series and the Disney+ revival, Bruce and Ralph were given the opportunity for the show to be louder and prouder thanks to progress made for people of color and the LGBTQ+ community. The character of Michael Collins was coded on the original series, produced during a time when it was taboo for a kids show to have an out-of-the-closet gay character. Now he’s overtly queer, with Ralph casting someone he’d known for years as Michael’s new voice, EJ Johnson, son of Magic Johnson. EJ’s own flair for fashion even inspired Michael’s outfit change in each episode, a rarity for any animated character.
The same progress that allowed these on-screen changes were also put into practice behind the scenes. Bruce recalled the difficulty of finding women in animation with directing experience. While building the crew for the revival, he ended up offering directing roles to two women who applied for different jobs, story artist Latoya Raveneau and designer Tara Nicole Whitaker. They both grew up loving the original series, and Bruce knew they would make great directors if given the chance and coached along the way. He created an environment that would support them through mistakes, using them as learning opportunities. And Ralph acknowledged that none of this would’ve been possible without Disney’s support of their vision. “We got assisted at the top,” he declared, giving credit to Ayo Davis, President, Disney Branded Television.
Staying on the theme of building on top of established legacies and creating more inclusive teams and shows, the first question came from the father of a trans daughter who asked when we might start to see stories told in kids animation about trans people. “It’s gonna happen,” Lynn Southerland said, adding that she has a trans nephew. “Give it time.” Pilar Flynn added that there is a trans person on the team that makes Marvel’s Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, as well as a non-binary individual. She also pointed out that the show’s voice cast includes Indya Moore, Ian Alexander, and Asia Kate Dillon.
Although nobody on the panel had any control over Disney’s decision to cancel The Owl House, a fan did ask about it. They were sad to see the show end, especially because of the number of overtly queer characters included. “As one show goes, another will step in and try to tackle those issues,” Bruce W. Smith diplomatically answered. He did have one bit of advice, though, which is that minorities without much representation tend to expect whatever is inclusive of them to fit them perfectly. He recalled growing up with Blaxploitation films of the 1970s and how bad representation often was then. But if Black people didn’t support those films, Hollywood would’ve stopped making them and the landscape of film wouldn’t have moved forward in such a way that things could get better. Studios get gun-shy about putting their money behind a concept they already saw fail. He used Bébé's Kids as an example, a film both he and Lynne worked on. It was one of the reasons The Proud Family kept getting passed on when he was trying to sell the show. He recommends supporting whatever show depicts the kinds of characters you want to see in other media, even if it’s not perfect. That’s the way to see the concept repeated again in the future, hopefully in more satisfying ways.
The next question was about how they deal with conservative pushback against the progress featured in these shows. Bruce shared that he receives hate mail daily, but if you feel like you’re doing the right thing, it’s easy to not internalize it. Ralph Farquhar added that the messages of love he receives about the show drowns out the negative comments, which he ignores. Pilar recommended having a support group and bonding with other people working on the show over it. And Rodney Clouden added a quote from Sidney Poitier about flack he received from the Black community despite being a trailblazer: “It's difficult when you're carrying other people's dreams. You have to hold on to the dream that’s inside yourself and know if you’re true to that, that’s really all that matters."
Rodney pulled out his phone at one point to paraphrase a positive email he received from a father whose child loves Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur. When they would visit family members, his child would share the show with them. The family had very different political views than the man who wrote the email, and he shared that the show helped start a dialogue through which they could talk about these issues in a healthy way. “For me, that’s legacy right there,” Rodney concluded.
And lastly, they were asked how one becomes an animation director. Having all come from different paths, their best advice is to make it known to the people you’re working for that it’s something you’re interested in. Pillar shared her mantra: “Let your passion burn brighter than your fear.” Rodney added that being reliable and kind is helpful when trying to build your network. And Lynne suggested getting experience by doing side work for free, with the internet making it much easier to collaborate with independent filmmakers. She also shared her own experience of saying what she wanted and getting it. While she was working on An Extremely Goofy Movie for Disney Toon Studios, Walt Disney Animation Studios released Mulan, which captivated her. She told everyone that Mulan was the type of film she wanted to direct. And when Disney Toon Studios moved forward with a sequel, Lynne was offered the directing job.
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