The Animation Art of Ron Clements

Howdy, Mouseketeers!

Kevin here, with another fun look at the wonderful word of Disney - Midwest style!

When most people think of "Sioux City, Iowa," the name "Disney" usually doesn't come to mind first. After all, Disneyland and Walt Disney World are both four-hour plane rides away, and Iowa isn't exactly home to a burgeoning film or television industry (Field of Dreams and Bridges of Madison County aside). But Sioux City was recently lucky enough to have a little bit of Disney history come to town, thanks in part to a native son who went to Hollywood and made it big.

The Sioux City Art Center

On Saturday, September 27, the Sioux City Art Center held its opening night reception for its newest exhibit, "The Animation Art of Ron Clements," dedicated to legendary Disney artist and film director, Ron Clements. Ron was born in Sioux City in 1953, in what he calls "a very grounding place to grow up." He recalls seeing Pinocchio for the first time in Sioux City's Orpheum Theater when he was 9 years old, where the animation bug bit him. "I instantly knew that I wanted to be involved in animation," he told animation collector and historian Peter Adamakos.

Ron later attended high school in Sioux City at Heelan High, where he began his animation career drawing cartoons for the school newspaper and yearbook. At age 15, he went to work part time for a local TV station, where he did illustrations for the news, local ads, station IDs and billboards. During one six-month period, he produced his own 15-minute cartoon on 16 mm film, Shades of Sherlock Holmes, which used both sound and animation cels.

The Little Mermaid swims into the Midwest

As an adult, Ron moved to Hollywood, where he accepted a job with Hanna-Barbera Studios, but his dream of one day working for Disney never ebbed. He continued to call Disney's personnel department to ask for a job, and his persistence finally paid off when he was accepted into Disney's talent development program.

Trained by Disney Legend Eric Larson, Ron passed his animation tests and became an animation assistant to another Disney Legend, Frank Thomas. It was with Frank that Ron worked on his first Disney animated film, Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, Too. With Frank's guidance, Ron became a full animator on The Rescuers and Pete's Dragon, and then moved up to supervising animator on The Fox and the Hound. Moving on to story and direction opportunities, Ron teamed up with John Musker, with whom he co-directed some of Disney's most popular films, five of which are featured in the exhibit: The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules and Treasure Planet.

Ron will celebrate his 30th anniversary with The Walt Disney Studios in 2004, and along with his longtime directing partner John Musker, has become a Disney Legend in his own right. His movies have brought smiles to millions of people, and his characters have become some of the most popular icons in the world. And so it was with a lot of local pride that the people of Sioux City are pleased to welcome Ron back with this tribute to his work.

The Sneak Preview

A few months ago, my friend in all things Disney (and Director of the Walt Disney Archives) Dave Smith tipped me off that this show would be coming to town, and he put me in touch with Peter Adamakos, the curator for the show. Peter and I met during one of his trips to Sioux City in August, and he introduced me to Nick Mahon, the exhibit's designer. At that time, Nick showed me a small model mockup of what the show would look like, and Peter told me about the incredibly cool features the show would have. Peter, Nick and I had a great time talking that night about all things Disney, and by the time we were done, there I was, a month before the exhibit even opened, and already I was dying to see it.

Yours truly, along with show designer Nick.

Finally, it came down to being unable to wait any longer. It was Friday, September 26, the day before the exhibit opened. I "just happened to be in the neighborhood" when I dropped by the Art Center to see what was happening. Fortunately for me, Peter must've seen my excitement, for he let me in for a sneak preview. And what could I say but "WOW" ...

Now, I don't want to give away all of the exhibit's secrets and surprises here, but I don't think it would hurt to share a taste of what you'll find. ("I was kind of hoping for a little larger small helping." Pooh, 1968.) The exhibit focuses mainly the five films that Ron co-directed, with each section of the room designed to remind you of that movie's moments.

For The Great Mouse Detective, Ron's first co-directing effort for Disney, the exhibit is reminiscent of London. There was also a cool storyboard recreation of Ratigan's song, "The World's Greatest Criminal Mind."

Sing along with Ratigan!

For The Little Mermaid, in addition to the animation sketches, you can also sit in Ariel's undersea kingdom and watch her starring performance while seated in a cozy recreation of her grotto. For Aladdin, the streets of Agrabah come alive, complete with laundry hanging out to dry above the marketplace. The sketch art features several early renditions of the Genie (who looks very little like his current form), and images of the Genie in one of his many pop culture disguises, such as Jack Nicholson and Ed Sullivan.

Arabian Nights ... Iowa Days.

For Hercules, it's columns, columns, columns! The artwork shows pencil sketches of Hades in his early days, and a touching look at Baby Herc. Plus, there's a full color cel of one of my favorite Disney bombshells, the lovely Meg. ("It's been a slice.") Finally, for the adventure seeker in all of us, the sketches for Treasure Planet are especially interesting to see, as the pencil drawings of John Silver only include one arm, with the other arm added by computer animation later.

After walking around the exhibit for as long as I could, I went back to work that afternoon, excited for the opening night gala the next day.

Opening Day!

The gala kicked off with a free showing of The Great Mouse Detective at Sioux City's historic Orpheum Theater, which recently reopened after a major renovation. Before the movie, Ron spoke to the nearly full auditorium, telling about this being his first directing job for Disney, and how he had to go "pitch" the movie in 1985 to the newly appointed CEO of Disney, Michael Eisner. (All quotes approximate -- I didn't take any notes. Sorry.) "We had to pitch the movie all over again, even though we'd worked on it for almost two years," Ron said. "Michael asked us how long it would take to complete production, and we said, 'Two years.' Michael nodded, and said, 'I think one year will be enough.' He then asked us how much of a budget we needed, and we said '$22 million should do it,' and Michael said, 'I think $11 million will do.' And so that's what we did."

Ron also mentioned that The Great Mouse Detective was originally supposed to be titled Basil of Baker Street, which was also the name of the Eve Titus books that the movie was based upon, but the marketing people changed the name to The Great Mouse Detective at the last minute. Ron never did like the new name, telling the crowd, "If I had my way, even today I'd change it back to Basil of Baker Street."

The introduction of Basil & friends.

After the movie, everyone was invited back to the Sioux City Art Center to attend the grand opening ceremonies. I walked the three blocks down to the Art Center, where the festivities were being set up in the first-floor atrium. There was food and drinks available, and a raffle was set up to win one of three different sericels. They also gave away four door prizes; autographed Treasure Planet DVDs.

Bless my soul, Herc is on the wall ...

Although there were a lot of people milling about, I saw Ron standing to one side by himself, so being the "incredibly affable Disney enthusiast" (i.e. "nerd") that I am, I immediately ran over, shook his hand, and begged for an autograph on some Disney Store lithographs I had brought with me. (Remember: "Be Prepared" ain't just a song from The Lion King, kids ...)

Ron was soft spoken but very cordial, and listened to me babble on about my Disney obsession and my days as the Disney Store Trivia Champion, representing his hometown. Before long he was surrounded by well wishers and autograph hounds, and every time I saw him for the rest of the evening he had someone waiting to talk to him. But he always smiled, and never refused to sign anything.

At 6:15 the planned entertainment began. The first act was a troupe of kids from a local Sioux City theater group, who sang songs from The Little Mermaid. This was followed by a four-piece string quartet that played selections from Aladdin, a local dance class that performed to music from Hercules, and finally by a choir which sang several songs from Ron's movies.

In the grotto ... Isn't that an Elvis song?

After the entertainment portion, Ron, Peter and Nick awarded the winners of the cartoon character drawing contest with certificates and savings bonds. Four awards were presented in four separate age brackets for the kids (and adults!) who were finalists in the Art Center's "design a cartoon character" contest. The finalists' posters were displayed on the first floor wall, and some were very, very creative.

Towards the end of the evening, when Ron's long line of well-wishers was finally ending, I went up to him and asked if he'd mind posing for a photo. And here it was, 3 hours and countless people later, he was still just as friendly as could be. And as you can see from the photo below, he didn't mind the photo op at all.

"No, honestly, Mr. Clements. Just one photo, and I'll leave you alone. I swear."

In the end, it was a Disney evening I won't soon forget. If you happen to be in the Sioux City area and would like to see the exhibit, it will be at the Sioux City Art Center until December 14. Tell them Kevin sent you. :)

So that's it from Iowa. My deepest thanks to Peter Adamakos, Nick Mahon and, of course, Ron Clements for letting me take part in the fun.

Have a Disney day, Mouseketeers. See you real soon!

- Story and Photos by Kevin Burk

In addition to being an "incredibly affable Disney enthusiast," Kevin was the 1999 Disney Store National Trivia Champion and is head ambassador of Beans Around The World.

E-mail Kevin at, discuss this story in the Disney Discussion Forums or use the Talkback feature below.




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