Cartoon Brew reports that Glen Keane has departed Disney after nearly 38 years. Keane is the supervising animator most identified with Disney’s second Renaissance (Ariel in The Little Mermaid; Beast in Beauty and the Beast; Aladdin in Aladdin; Tarzan in Tarzan). It’s sad but not surprising given the bittersweet experience he had on Tangled (he never could quite conquer his hybrid vision for Rapunzel). In fact, Keane confided to me a year ago at DreamWorks’ annual Oscar brunch — of all places (they were trying to woo him) — that he probably should’ve left Disney to make Rapunzel as an indie. He liked the idea of doing something smaller and uncompromising in 2D. Maybe that’s just what he’ll do now that he’s on his own. Or continue down the path of creating a better hybrid.
All I know is that Keane is one of the few contemporary geniuses from animation I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. He’s so talented, creative, curious, and innovative. He never stops drawing and thinking about the craft and and what young people are doing. He could’ve abandoned the CG Rapunzel and go back to a hand-drawn vision when John Lasseter took over Disney. But he adored the challenge — he had something to prove.
When we first discussed Rapunzel in 2005, he was so excited about the possibility of taking CG animation to the next artistic level, breaking down the symmetry and perfection and making it warmer and more artist-friendly — more lush and more human. He recalled being wowed by Tron like everyone else and working with Lasseter on the 30-second hybrid test for Where the Wild Things Are. But Disney said no when it proved too costly and risky, Keane settled back into hand-drawn and became one of the greatest artists of his generation.
But then he got this idea for Rapunzel as a new kind of Disney fairy tale, but was eventually forced into doing it CG, so Keane set out to do the ultimate game-changer. Well, it didn’t turn out as he originally planned — and it eventually gave him a heart attack. Yet Tangled became a hit and people adored the animation. Keane accomplished his goal: he transformed CG animation at Disney into a greater art form and the studio is better off as a result. Keane’s dedicated draw over has been institutionalized — the studio now does it routinely, and there’s even a new interface being developed that translates hand-drawn into CG. Meanwhile, there’s the upcoming Paperman short being directed by John Kahrs and featuring a technique co-created by Eric Daniels. They have Keane to thank for helping pave the way.
And Keane can always look back at the advice Ollie Johnston gave him when he was mentored on The Rescuers: What’s the character thinking? Ironically, it’s the same question that Johnston reminded Keane when he regaled him with his plans for Rapunzel and her gorgeous photoreal hair. That emotional touchstone will continue to serve Keane well as he embarks on the next phase of his career.