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By Daniel Lammin
19th February 2013

While he might not be a household name, the work of producer Don Hahn certainly is. Beginning in the early nineties and continuing right through to today, he has produced some of the best-loved and most acclaimed films in the Walt Disney canon, including the box-office giant ‘The Lion King’ (1994) and Oscar-winning ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1991). If there was a Disney animated film during the past twenty years that pushed boundaries, tested the art form or attempted the impossible, you’re likely to find Don’s name involved somewhere.

I was lucky enough to talk with Don; his voice was one I recognised easily from documentaries and commentaries on the films he had worked on, and the Disney fanatic in me was very excited to have the chance to ask him about his career and his work. Right now, he is promoting the Blu-ray and DVD release of his latest project, Tim Burton’s acclaimed ‘Frankenweenie’ (originally a short subject Burton had made as a young animator at Disney), a project that Don himself instigated and ultimately acted as Executive Producer on.

"I was around at the studio when Tim did the original short, back in the early eighties. So I went back to Tim, probably in 2005-2006, and said, you have this great story, and it’s sitting there, and there’s got to be more to it, there has to be more flesh on the bones, there has to be more of a plot here because it’s inspired by ‘Frankenstein’. And he said, yeah, he’d always had more to tell. And that was the start of it. It took a few years, but he jumped on it right away. So I think my job, really, was to get Tim involved, get the studio interested in it, pull all those pieces together, and then stand back and watch the professionals make the animation happen."

With Burton now one of the most successful and distinct directors working today, I asked Don if the idea of expanding ‘Frankenweenie’ into a full-length feature was one that Burton had been thinking about for a while.

"He certainly didn’t hesitate when we talked about it, and the story itself is so personal to him, and about his dog and his life in Burbank - it’s not an autobiography but it is a personal story - and I’m sure it was in his head, and it’s something that was early in his career, close to his heart and got him his first job doing ‘Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure’ (1985) and ‘Beetlejuice’ (1988), so I think it was something he was happy to go back to."


During the eighties, the Disney studios was the training ground for a number of young artists who would go on to be game-changers in film today. As well as Burton, there was John Lasseter, Brad Bird and Glen Keane, all now major animation directors and artists. In Don’s excellent documentary and only directing effort, ‘Waking Sleeping Beauty’ (2009), you see glimpses of these young men, including an awkward Tim Burton. I asked Don if he had any inkling at that time of the trajectory Burton’s career would take.

"He was always different from the rest of us, a really unique talent, and the studio knew enough to give him the opportunity to make [the original short] ‘Frankenweenie’, but didn’t quite know what to do with him. He was not an easy fit on movies like ‘The Fox and the Hound’ (1981), something that was very mainstream Disney. They’re nice movies, but that wasn’t Tim. And he always made backyard movies, to the degree that the character of Vincent in ‘Frankenweenie’ is a little bit like Tim, making movies in his attic and blowing up stuff in his backyard. So I think what was surprising and fantastic to all of us was the huge trajectory his career took and is still taking, the kinds of films and the success he’s had, and a personal voice. It’s very hard, I think, in the film industry, to have a personal voice and a personal vision, and he maintained that to the point of people being able to recognise his film even without his name on it. And that’s really unique, there’s not that many people who can say that."

Being the Disney nut that I am, I couldn’t waste the opportunity to ask Don about his other work at the Disney studio. "My background was in art and music, and I came right out of music school and went to work for Disney as a summer job, as an intern, and I was delivering coffee and running around with envelopes," he explained. "The animators at the time were the Nine Old Men, who had made movies with Walt Disney, so I was delivering coffee to people who had worked on ‘Pinocchio’ (1940) and ‘Bambi’ (1942), my favourite movies, and they were very generous with giving their information... and I really fell in love with animation, because I could use all of my interests in music and art and apply that to something in the cinema. It was a great fit for me, and I ended up staying."

When you’re a filmmaker, there’s a temptation to repeat yourself. The right approach, I think, is to stretch out into new creative directions, and try to stretch the medium and push the art form a little bit.

Don’s first producing effort, and a real highlight of his career, was the rapturously received ‘Beauty and the Beast’, which went on to become the first animated film in history to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

‘If you remember those times, animation was really seen as a children’s medium," Don recalled. "Not only do I think it was the right movie at the right time, but that it was the right time for the studio also, so it was a great movie that was beautifully shared with the Academy and with the audience. And the Academy, thankfully, felt that it was one of the five best movies that year. It was an amazing honour for all of us, you don’t get into the animation business to go to the Academy Awards. On the contrary, you get in it to sit in dark rooms and stare at computers or drawing boards. So it was a huge, huge honour, and surprise, and treat."

One of the more unusual and controversial films in Don’s career as a producer was ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ (1996), where he re-teamed with ‘Beauty’ directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale to adapt Victor Hugo’s classic novel. There is surprisingly little written about this dark and complex film, so I took the opportunity to ask Don about the film and the startling direction Disney took with it.

"When you’re a filmmaker, particularly in a commercial studio, in any studio, there’s a temptation to repeat yourself, and certainly when the princess movies like ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989) and ‘Beauty and the Beast’ were successful, they were huge successes and we probably could have gone on doing princess movies for decades, but that’s not always the right approach. The right approach, I think, is to stretch out into new creative directions, and try to stretch the medium and push the art form a little bit. And that’s what ‘Hunchback’ represents. It’s trying to push the artform and the storytelling. And I point back to the films of Walt Disney. [His] movies were very deep and full of emotion and full of range, and very brave, I think, considering when those movies were made. So I think we were trying to push out in that direction when we made films like ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’, to say that this is a medium that can really take a lot of emotion and take a lot of dynamic range, and to try and bring the art form along with it was our goal."

With such an impressive track record so far, does Disney still feel like the place to be for Don?

"It’s a great place right now. I’ve been around for a long, long time, and a lot of what I’m doing is branching out into various kinds of genres and expanding into different areas. I think what’s interesting about Disney right now is it’s the home of some spectacular filmmakers, not only Steven Spielberg but for the Marvel franchise and for Pixar, and it’s become this clearing house for some of the best filmmakers out there right now. So it makes it a really exciting place, and I have to say, the guys at the studio have been really welcoming to me. You could say that, you know, Don’s been around a long time, he’s kind of a dinosaur, but they’ve been welcoming and really understand the kinds of movies I want to make. It’s been a great place, actually, a really great place."

Both ‘Frankenweenie’ and ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ are out on Blu-ray and DVD on the 27th February. Unfortunately, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ was recently returned to the Disney Vault.

RELEASE DATE: 27/02/2013
RUN TIME: 1h 27m
CAST: Winona Ryder - Elsa Van Helsing
Martin Short - Mr Walsh
Catherine O'Hara - Susan Frankenstien
Martin Landau - Mr Rzykruski
DIRECTOR: Tim Burton
WRITERS: Tim Burton
Leonard Ripps
John August
PRODUCERS: Allison Abbate
Tim Burton
SCORE: Danny Elfman
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