Norridge native becomes next Walt Disney with Oscar-nominated 'Moana'
John Musker grew up in Norridge, watching and loving Walt Disney movies at Park Ridge's Pickwick Theatre and Chicago's Mercury Theater.
He knows exactly where he was the day Disney died in 1966.
"I remember sitting on my couch, crying," Musker said. "I was 13 years old. I had thought one day I would meet Walt Disney."
The Norridge teen could not have predicted that a few years later he would become the next Walt Disney. To be more accurate, he would become one of several Walt Disneys.
Musker and his longtime business partner Ron Clements codirected the movie that ignited a renaissance in Disney's faltering animated features department, 1989's "The Little Mermaid." Then came other milestone Disney projects: "Aladdin," "Hercules," "Treasure Planet" and "The Princess and the Frog," which gave Musker his first Best Animated Feature Oscar nomination, a category created in 2001.
On Sunday, his latest creation "Moana" vies for the Best Animated Feature Oscar at the 89th Academy Awards. Lin-Manuel Miranda's song "How Far I'll Go" in the movie is also up for an Oscar.
Five years ago, Musker came up with a spark of an idea to set a Disney animated project in the South Pacific.
"I had always been fascinated by the Pacific islands, but never been further than Hawaii," he said.
So, Musker and several key fellow filmmakers took a trip to the islands of the South Pacific -- several actually -- to gain a better understanding of the people while searching for a story hook for their animated tale.
They found a really good hook.
"There are many rich stories that come out of the culture," Musker said, "particularly stories about Maui, a shape-shifting demigod covered in tattoos. And he had this magical fishhook he pulled out of the sea. So, he was like this strong, superhero fisherman."
Musker couldn't remember Maui ever being in a movie. A perfect hero for them.
But the story kept evolving.
"We went out on a canoe just like the one Moana uses in the movie," Musker said. "We had a guide, a sailor named Angel who talked to the sea. He said you have to speak gently to the ocean. The ocean has feelings and emotions. All this changed how we approached the story."
Maui became a supporting character. The new hero became a young girl Moana, whose name means "ocean."
"Polynesians were the world's greatest navigators," Musker said. "They used the stars and the sun and birds to find their way around the South Pacific. Then, for 1,000 years, they stopped navigating. No one knows why. Moana has dreams about being a great navigator like her ancestors."
"Moana" came out on Digital HD last Tuesday. It premieres on Blu-ray March 7.
Musker, 63, remembered when he was 8, he read Diane Disney's book about her famous dad, Walt.
"I did imagine going to work for Disney someday," he admitted. "I was into editorial cartooning and Marvel comics, things like that."
Disney's 1959 fairy tale "Sleeping Beauty" became the movie that changed his life.
"I was 6. As I recall, I even got the sticker book for 'Sleeping Beauty.'"
"101 Dalmatians" followed. Then the next Disney movie and the next.
"Disney was a presence in my childhood," he said. So was O'Hare Airport.
"The flight path to O'Hare was our backyard," he explained. "You could go out at night and see a stream of lights from the planes on their way to O'Hare. And they flew right over our house. I grew up breathing jet exhaust, which might explain a lot of things."
One of Musker's greatest achievements has to be his idea to cast Robin Williams -- he, like Disney, was born in Chicago -- as the genie in the critical and commercial smash "Aladdin."
"We wrote the genie with Robin in mind," Musker said. "He was such a shape-shifter with his own voice, and the genie was a shape-shifter on the silver screen. Who better to get than Robin Williams?"
At the time, Williams was too big a star to bother with auditions. But he agreed to play the genie after hearing the story pitch.
For two years, Williams would come into a recording studio at Skywalker Ranch and lay down tracks of the evolving screenplay.
Sometimes, he would go off-script. Then off the rails.
"Robin would do a wide range of takes and occasionally he would do something off-color and he'd shout, 'Disney! Disney! I have to remember that this is Disney! Whoohooo!'" Musker recalled.
"There were a number of things that were like that. But he did a lot of great stuff we could use. It was an embarrassment of riches with Robin, no question."
At a time when the performing arts face budget cuts and lowered priorities in education and culture, Musker offered a staunch defense.
"One of the things we learned in the Pacific islands is connectivity. The ocean doesn't divide people, it unites them. It pulls the islands together. The arts are the same way.
"They're a way of connecting people across cultures and across time. Art is a very important force for breaking down barriers and walls. I think the human condition is better served by breaking down walls than building them up."
He has heard Moana's theme "How Far I'll Go" sung by girls in Japanese, Polish, Turkish, French and Spanish.
"It resonates in ways that defy geography," Musker said. "The arts are important in reminding us of all the things we share in life."
In the South Pacific, Musker learned a phrase from the natives: You have to know your mountain.
"If you don't know your mountain, you don't know who you are," Musker said. "I feel like Chicago is my mountain. It continues to be a strong influence in my life.
"I feel very lucky to be from Chicago."