Legacy Content

Rhett Wickham: Great Animated Performances: Profiles of Modern Masters
Page 1 of 6

by Rhett Wickham (archives)
March 11, 2004
Rhett continues his "Great Animated Performances" series with an extensive interview with Ron Clements and John Musker (Part 1 of 2)

The Fifth installment in an ongoing series from Rhett Wickham
Great Animated Performances: Profiles of Modern Masters

The dynamics of a great animated performance – the intended subject of this increasingly delinquent series – are determined not only by the specifics of how the animator thinks and works, but the influences of the other artists that surround him or her as well. Chief among these influential forces is the director of a film. When looking over the past twenty years of great Disney animated features that have been conceived and produced by the second generation of talent it is impossible not to feel the influence of a particularly famous directing duo - director/writers Ron Clements and John Musker, a.k.a. Ron ‘n John. It is not an overstatement to say that had it not been for THE LITTLE MERMAID, the great Renaissance in Disney animation may well have never happened, or at the very least been slow in coming and not lasted nearly as long. Considering the diverse range of titles helmed by Ron Clements and John Musker - THE LITTLE MERMAID, ALADDIN, HERCULES and TREASURE PLANET – the pair are arguably on their way to becoming the most recognizable living legends conjoined by “n? since Frank ‘n Ollie. At a time when animation – and Disney animation in particular – is once again standing at the threshold of change, Ron and John are poised to tackle an entirely new phase of their careers that promises to be even more exciting, and quite possibly just as influential and far reaching.

Aside from their Hitchcock-like cameos, the pair has a well reported reputation for having a blended personality that has occasionally confused people as to who is who. Indeed, they do seem to merge at times, finishing each others’ sentences and carrying on a conversation with you in tandem. It’s a wonder to behold, let me tell you. I can think of nobody in the industry who speaks of them with anything other than sincere praise and admiration. As insular as it is, the film industry in general and the animation industry in particular is very reliable when it comes to professional reputations. If you hear it from more than one two people and more than a few times then you can pretty much count on it. Reputations are earned authentically, and Ron ’n John’s is nothing but the best. Even at their most difficult, their most infamous trait is little more than a stoic silence when listening to story board pitches (although that has resulted in buckets of flop-sweat for dozens of story artists, and a laugh from Ron and John can feel like the holy grail.) But you don’t hear anyone say they fear their tempers or go sleepless trying to figure out how to make them happy.

I personally think of them as not so much a blended personality as a brother act. I don’t mean to say I find them rehearsed in any way, it’s just that the banter and the behavior between them is classic Vaudeville at times. It’s not twins, it’s older brother/younger brother. While I won’t bother saying who plays which role I will say that if you spend any time with them in the same room together it becomes clear fairly quickly as to which is which.

For those not familiar, John Musker is the taller, sharp featured of the pair and Ron Clements sports a bright red beard peppered with the streaks that are more likely remnants of surviving production deadlines than something brought on by time. John is more boisterous and demonstrative. Ron is quieter. John thinks and talks at a faster pace; what he’s thinking and what he’s saying almost seem to be in a race with each other. Ron is more studied, and careful, sometimes searching carefully for his words. John is more blunt. Ron is more diplomatic. And both – indeed – do finish each others’ sentences. I know them both to have a wickedly sharp sense of humor, but where nothing and nobody are spared John’s wit, Ron seems to be writing and editing the humor in his head and carefully crafting a well-timed and frequently self-effacing punch. Actually, this is an act too good for Vaudeville and almost too good for Disney, frankly.

As I said, there is something delightfully familial at work with these two. Although it takes an entire lunch to watch how it plays out, by the time dessert arrives I’ve witnessed a near-perfect textbook example of a typical sibling relationship. Having spent very little time with both of them together it’s a bit dizzying at first. The cross-fire of wit is sometimes too fast to catch, particularly with Ron who, again, slides them in gently while John tends to joke more deliberately. If you listen carefully you notice a kind of subtle jockeying for attention. It’s delightful and I find myself laughing as much at how the two of them work in tandem as I laugh at what one or the other is saying. Both in their humor and their excitement you can observe how one is keeping an eye on the other. If you have a close and loving older or younger sibling you’ll know what I mean. You look out for each other. It shifts with Ron and John, as to who is looking out for whom, but for the most part the more careful and reserved one seems to keep an eye on the more impulsive and impetuous one. When they make the Ron n’ John bio-pic it could be titled “A Ribber Runs Through It?, and as Musker charges straight ahead with both barrels loaded, Clements will stand back just within arms reach watching Musker carefully and every so often reeling his “little/big brother? back in from the edge. It’s not only comic but also very touching. It’s evidence of something life long, heartfelt and sincere.

After endless erroneous reports of their having been “let go? from Disney, I decided it was time to set the record straight, so I called Ron to ask if I could write a little something about the facts and dispel some of the rumor. He and John graciously agreed to talk to me over lunch, and even more graciously agreed to let me tape some of that conversation. What follows is far better than any dull narrative recounting could deliver. So – with some discreet and select editing - please join me for lunch with Ron ‘n John.