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The Strongmen Behind 'Hercules'

John Musker and Ron Clements make a memorable writing-directing team. Heck, people around Disney are even learning their names.

June 22, 1997|Bruce Newman | Bruce Newman is an occasional contributor to Calendar

By any conventional measure, they are two of the most successful directors in Hollywood, a place that worships success and treats any director who can attain it as gods.

"But we're benevolent gods," says the short pale one, pushing his glasses back up his nose. The only thing more nearly infinite than their benevolence is their grosses: Their last film made nearly half a billion dollars. And yet when they cast actor Tate Donovan to play the lead in their new film, Donovan--not exactly a household name himself--admits, "I had never heard of them."

"We're totally anonymous," says the taller pale one, shrugging his pinched shoulders apologetically. "Even now, when we tell people what we do, they say, 'Oh, you work at the park?' "

The park. That would be Disneyland. And the nice men who look like flume attendants on Splash Mountain are actually the writing and directing team of John Musker (tall) and Ron Clements (not). Their last film was Disney's "Aladdin"--which starred Robin Williams--and on Wednesday comes the pair's latest, "Hercules," for which Donovan, who plays the Greek hero, Danny DeVito and James Woods provide voices.

They never shout "Action!," although occasionally Musker will self-consciously mutter, "OK, go ahead," to an actor; the only time they say "cut" is to somebody with an X-acto knife. Musker and Clements write the dialogue, coach the actors on how to deliver it, oversee the animation and the music, and still, as Musker says, "people just don't understand how these things are made."

That can often include the people they're working with. "It's like a very weird secret society," Donovan says. "I mean, for starters, who ever heard of two directors? I worked with them for 2 1/2 years, and until I forced myself to memorize their names the other day, I couldn't tell which one was Ron and which one was John. I lived in constant fear that they might become separated at some point, and I would be expected to know which was which."

Through such blockbuster hits as "The Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin," Musker and Clements kept their profiles low and their voices lower. "When you play them a song, and you look for a reaction," composer Alan Menken says, "the best you can hope for is, 'Um, yeah. Uh, that's, that's, um, that's good.' They're very careful."

When they do speak, it is usually with one voice, and often at the same time. "Each one is completely confident that he is the only one in the room speaking," Menken says. "Very quietly, they speak right over each other. And they're both so nice, you don't know which one to ask to stop talking."

It wasn't until Disney Chairman Michael Eisner finally asked studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg to stop talking--and to vacate the premises--in 1994, that Musker and Clements became names worth remembering, even if nobody did.

Katzenberg ran Disney's animated feature division as a kind of fiefdom. "I think when he first came over from Paramount, animation wasn't an area he had all that much interest in because his background was live-action," says Alice Dewey, who produced "Hercules" with Musker and Clements. "As it got more successful and he realized that it was quite lucrative, it seemed that Jeffrey liked to get more and more involved. But there were lots of us there, you know?"

Katzenberg's reign over Disney animation seems to be recalled with a mixture of awe and dread, and in the absence of all but the lingering bad taste of his $250-million breach-of-contract lawsuit against the studio, he has been dealt with just as any unruly Disney character might be: first erased, then redrawn to look like he's Goofy. "Each film that comes out has a little less Jeffrey," Musker says of this process. "I don't know at exactly what point we'll be completely Jeffrey-free. Maybe 20 or 30 years from now."

"Hercules" is the most Jeffrey-free animated feature from the studio in a decade, and its success or failure will no doubt be judged accordingly by the industry's Madame Defarge-like scorekeepers.

After losing his bitter corporate battle with Eisner, Katzenberg summoned Musker and Clements for a valedictory statement, during which he acknowledged that his departure to launch DreamWorks would finally allow them to spread their wings. "Whether or not he totally meant it, I don't know," Musker says. "But, in fact, that's what happened. We were able to push the stylistic boundaries, and do things that were a little more idiosyncratic without being second-guessed or challenged."

If there is something suggestive of black magic in the creation of animated musicals, it is often the person quickest to raise his sleight of hand to the media who gets the credit, and Katzenberg is a known master of this black art. He worked first with Musker and Clements on "The Great Mouse Detective," which was released in 1986, and then grew increasingly involved in the details of "The Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin," the latter two of which grossed an astounding $675 million combined worldwide.

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