Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Another Crack at It: Lin-Manuel Miranda Teaming Up With Byron Howard for Mystery WDAS Feature

Perhaps Lin-Manuel Miranda is the new Ashman-Menken for Disney Animation, if the Lopez duo already weren't.

It's no secret, Mr. Miranda's everywhere in the world of the mouse. Prior to doing the music for Moana, he contributed some Cantina material to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and is currently locked for Mary Poppins Returns and the planned live-action remake of The Little Mermaid. Yes, you could say he's quite ingrained in Disney. Of course, his work with Disney Animation won't stop with Moana...

In an interview with Vulture, the Hamilton creator mentioned that he's working on an all-new project with none other than Byron Howard. Howard, for those who don't know, conceived Zootopia and directed it with Wreck-It Ralph director Rich Moore. He was also one of the directors of Tangled, and one of the directors of Bolt. Prior to directing, he was a story man at the studio since the mid 90s. Apparently they're building this one from "the ground up", which I think indicates that it'll be another original story that's not based on any pre-existing IP. Mr. Miranda says...

"That's the fun thing about working with someone and having it go well — you go, 'Okay, what else can we do?' Lasseter took me aside and said, 'I have an idea: Here's Byron, and you guys should start talking.'"

He went on to mention that the project could take years to come together, which is of course unsurprising given how animation development usually goes in features-land. Walt Disney Animation Studios, according to the Bancroft Brothers themselves in this great interview conducted by my friend Iry of Impero Disney, have things planned out for the next ten years. A whole pipeline, a tentative decade-long chart of projects. Odds are, Lin-Manuel and Byron's project is on that very roster.

Whatever these two conjure up, it's sure to be something to look forward to. Howard's Zootopia is a triumph, not only one of the best animated films of the decade, but my pick for best post-Walt animated feature from the Disney powerhouse. (Yes, I understand that's a bold, bold claim.) Mr. Howard's other works, I think, are damn fine too! Tangled seriously grew on me not too long ago, the story in that one is top-notch and it's got a particular stretch in its middle act that's absolute perfection.

Then there's Bolt. Say what you will, I think Bolt's a rock-solid buddy picture with a consistently good script and great characters. Yes, what it did was nothing new then and now. Yes, it didn't re-invent the animation wheel. Yes, it was not American Dog... But I really don't care at this point, what matters to me is, it was a necessary step to into a new, successful era. Walt Disney Animation Studios seriously needed to bounce back from the Eisner/Stainton days, so I can understand why Bolt is risk-averse. While it all didn't amount to a huge hit in the end, it at least got the best critical reception for a Disney animated film since Lilo & Stitch.

So yes, sign me up for Howard's next! Lin-Manuel being involved leads me to believe that it will be a musical, or at least something that involves songs. (Could be a Tarzan situation where most of the songs are sung off-screen.) Whatever it may be, I am excited nonetheless.

Now of course, Disney Animation should be careful. The work of Lin-Manuel Miranda is certainly great, and currently hot. That being said... Don't overuse him.

What do I mean by that? With the future musicals, vary things up a bit!

In the 1990s, I feel that Disney Feature Animation was walked into a tiger trap. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken brought something indelible to the studio, that's undeniable, but Disney tried too hard to keep repeating such a winning formula after the huge success of Beauty and the Beast. Executives wanted more Beauty and the Beast-type pictures, and soon they wanted more Lion King-esque films. The following films were forced to fit into this kind of mold, and by the late 1990s it seemed like Disney was making the same film over and over again.

Luckily, this hasn't been the case recently. Lasseter-era Disney's first musical, The Princess and the Frog, brought Randy Newman on board. Newman hasn't done a Disney animated musical since, sadly. I'm one of the few who really dug his soundtrack for that film. Menken came back for Tangled, alongside Glenn Slater. Winnie the Pooh brought in Robert and Kristen-Anderson Lopez, new blood. They went on to do the music for Frozen, and look what happened there. They'll return for the studio's next musical in line, Gigantic.

It's fantastic that Disney has brought in someone new, but hopefully they'll continue to get more new songwriters for their heavy-on-singing features. I think they should go beyond Broadway for their upcoming musicals, beyond that bombastic, sweeping style that many associate with modern Disney. When can we see a rock musical from these guys? Or a more folksy musical? Or something that really goes beyond?

Another ramble for another day, I'm still excited to see and hear what Lin-Manuel Miranda will bring to Walt Disney Animation Studios. He's only one feature in, so perhaps getting a little antsy about him being overused is hyperbole on my part.

What do you think about Byron Howard and Lin-Manuel Miranda teaming up for a Disney animated feature? Sound off below!

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