Chicago man behind some of the most legendary Disney animated movies

CHICAGO -- You may not know the name "John Musker,” but you definitely know his work.

He's the Chicago man behind some of your favorite Disney films.

Musker grew up as one of eight in an Irish Catholic family on Chicago’s Northwest Side. He is a graduate of Loyola Academy.

“There's a warmth to the city of Chicago,” he said. “There’s a sarcasm in Chicago that I think is part of our movies that - my dad grew up here, he's a Chicago guy - I inherited his sense of humor.”

As a boy, he was enchanted by the book "Disney’s Art of Animation."

'When I was a kid, like 7 or 8, I really did get interested in animation. I read a book on Disney animation and I used to watch the Disney Sunday Show and I learned how animation was done. And I thought I would like to be an animator," he said.

He started doodling, then drawing, and became a cartoonist for his high school newspaper, the Loyola Prep. Then in college he did the same for the Daily Northwestern.

“I did political cartoons for the Daily Northwestern, I thought maybe I would do that,” he said. “But as I got into college, I reawakened my interest in animation.”

After graduating from northwestern, the road took him to the California Institute of Arts and applied to Disney.

“I sent them my portfolio and I got rejected,” he said. “And I had to sort of had to back up and run at the wall again a few times.”

His portfolio had a glaring omission for anyone applying to work in the home of Mickey Mouse. It didn’t include drawings of animals.

So he went to Lincoln Park Zoo to sketch and then to the Field Museum to practice dinosaurs.

He applied again to Disney, just as the legendary “Nine Old Men,” the original team of animators was exiting the stage.

“The animators who did Snow White and Pinocchio were all reaching retirement age, and they hadn't really brought in new blood,” he said. “(There was) a whole drive in the ‘70s to try to get new blood in here, so they started this program there and I wound up being part of that training program.”

It was one of the best decisions the studio ever made. The kid from St. Eugene Parish on the Northwest Side became one of the most influential figures in Disney’s storied history.

Musker and Ron Clements teamed up to become a sort of Lennon-and-McCartney of animation. They wrote and directed such classics as the “Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” “Hercules” and most recently “Moana,” in which he worked with Dwayne Johnson and Lin Manuel-Miranda.

Musker and Clements slip caricatures of themselves in each movie. But if the 64-year-old has a trademark, it’s that his films have featured strong, spunky, brave and inspiring female characters -- none more so than a red-headed mermaid named Ariel.

“It’s very thrilling when a movie that you work on finds its way into the culture,” Musker said. “And so when we made “Little Mermaid,” we had no idea, would people want to see this other than us? We made it for ourselves really. We hoped other people would like it.”

“The Little Mermaid” was a world-wide smash it and is credited with saving the company’s expensive and labor intensive animation department.

“I do feel like “Mermaid” had the greatest impact, in terms of Disney was a little in trouble before that it had not had a successful film. It sort of helped reinvent the musical and that sort of thing," he said.

Three years later, he directed one of the most beloved and successful animated movies of all time, “Aladdin.”

It was a stroke of genius, casting comic legend Robin Williams as the madcap genie.

“We wrote it. It was my idea to put Robin in the movie,” Musker said. “We wanted to put Robin in the movie because we thought 'What a great medium to exploit what Robin does.’ We wrote it for Robin with the idea that he's going to shift voices and stuff. So he did what we wrote, and then he went 100 times past what we wrote…. Then the other stuff, he just went out into the stratosphere. We transcribed everything he said and, ‘What`s funny?’ And we said we’ll write new dialogue to work into his improvs. It was a great experience.”

Next it was “Hercules” and soon after, computer animation with movies like "Toy Story" would replace hand-drawn films.

But in 2009, he convinced Disney to allow him to return to the craft of hand drawn animation. He supervised a team of 300 animators working on the “Princess and the Frog,” the film that introduced Disney’s first black princess.

Recently, he returned to a hero’s welcome at Loyola Academy and critiqued the artwork of students who now sit in the desks where he once doodled.

If there’s one common thread running through his work, it’s Chicago as an influence, shaping a sense of community and comedy and, thanks to Musker, the broader culture.

“I do think Chicago as a city - there are a lot of funny people. I think people here have a good sense of humor. And I think there's a pretty strong sense of family in Chicago,” he said. “The movies have something to say about who you are, how you fit in, growing up - lessons learned about that, and I think having a sense of humor about the world that you see and an interest in it – that’s a very Chicago thing.”