Why Don’t Disney Heroines Have Mothers? The Real Reason Will Shock You
As much as Disney memorabilia, movies, and marketing are seemingly everywhere, it’s very rare that the movie studio actually opens up its archives. Which is why on an early September afternoon last week, I got one of the most rewarding treats when I was invited to Walt Disney’s only original, still-standing house, high up in the Hollywood Hills. I also got to sit down with a Disney legend in his own right: the executive producer of Maleficent, Don Hahn. Getting a tour of Walt Disney’s house was exciting, but I was just as fascinated talking with the Oscar-nominated Hahn, who produced Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, among others. What he revealed about Walt Disney and the making of those classic movies absolutely floored me, and I know you will be just as fascinated. Read on.
Glamour: I was in Copenhagen, Denmark, over the summer and went to Tivoli Gardens, which was the inspiration for Disneyland. There’s a ride there that is almost identical to It’s a Small World.
Don Hahn: Yeah, that’s what is so cool about about how his background impacted him. Tivoli has a pirate ship, a lake, and parades every day, and there were pictures of Walt Disney there before there was a Disneyland. He admitted it. They had been doing theme parks and amusement parks for years, so [Walt’s stance was] “Why wouldn’t I take a hit off of that?”
The fantasy ride in Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark. If you get the chance to visit this gorgeous city, make sure you spend a few hours at Tivoli!
Glamour: We’re sitting in Walt’s backyard doing this interview. How often have you been here?
Don: Not much, really. The current owner has only owned the house three or four years and has been so gracious to open it up to us. The leap of faith it took to build this—because the year before, in 1931, Walt had a nervous breakdown.
Glamour: Walt Disney had a nervous breakdown at one point? I had no idea.
Don: Mickey Mouse was a huge star in the Depression. They were making millions of dollars with consumer products and everything else, and he burns out. His doctor says, “You have to stop working, you have to get out of here.” So he leaves and goes back to Kansas City and St. Louis [where he was from] and recharges. He ends up wanting to take a cruise up the Mississippi but couldn’t find a boat, so he goes to Washington, D.C., and from there to Havana, Cuba. Eventually, he cruises back through the canal to get back [to L.A.]. He’s totally fried, but he comes back weeks later totally rejuvenated. Then, in 1932, he makes Flowers and Trees, the first color cartoon and then The Three Little Pigs. Then he builds this house and has this renaissance. He was just the kind of guy that worked himself to the ground, I think. He had this work ethic from his dad.
Glamour: Speaking of work ethic, when you look at your career, do you realize just how many people you’ve touched with your work?
Don: To be really honest, I have a lot of trouble framing it in my little brain. To me, it’s work. It’s something I love, and I work with great people. I can’t put that other piece together with it, but people tell me that all the time. They say, “Your movies were the soundtrack of my life.” I’m so grateful for that and so humbled by it all, but I also love it. I’m so grateful that people like the movies I get to make. Who gets that chance in life? It’s weird. I’m so blessed. You put these great teams together, and it’s what Walt Disney did. My heroes growing up were Walt Disney and Jim Henson.
Executive producer Don Hahn inside Walt Disney’s former home.
Glamour: Do you know how much I want to break into the Henson Studios here in L.A.?
Don: You should! Why don’t you?
Glamour: Because they’d arrest me, that’s why!
Don: Lisa would see you—Jim’s daughter! She is in Jim’s old office, which is Charlie Chaplin’s old office. You should go!
Glamour: I love the Muppets and everything Jim has ever done.
Don: Oh, they’ll let you in! They know they are in a historic place, and they know that Jim is somebody who made a huge impact. I got to work with him once on the movie that plays at Disney all the time: Muppet 3-D. I worked on that with him. I first met him on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. He came by the the studio one day—he was very quiet, almost introverted, and sounded like Kermit, and I thought, This is a dream. I am meeting my hero. I never met Walt Disney, but I knew his daughter. He was a special guy.
Glamour: You’ve worked on so many animated films, but Maleficent was live-action. What was the biggest challenge for you?
Don: We were afraid of changing the story as much as we did. What I wasn’t prepared for was how absolutely brilliant Angelina Jolie is. I’m not just blowing smoke, but we never had another list of people for the role because she was that role. The subtlety that she plays, the ability to play those twists and turns, and pass on her love to this young girl. I mean, who could do that? Who could play and perform that with such subtlety? She was a huge surprise. We knew we couldn’t do the 1950s story because in that the girl falls asleep and can’t have a life until the guy comes along. We stopped doing that. I remember we had that conversation during Beauty and the Beast and said, “We can’t do that.” So that was a challenge. We said, “We have to make a movie that’s relevant and not preaching a message that is just obsolete and wrong.” The story here is, “You can keep fantasy alive in the world, even if your wings are clipped. Even if somebody has boxed you in and you’ve lost your freedom, you can still survive and live your life.”
Disney was kind enough to share this behind-the-scenes photo of Angelina Jolie in character as Maleficent.
Glamour: Maleficent felt like one of the first Disney movies where you had a motherly presence that’s usually missing. Ariel didn’t have a mother in The Little Mermaid; Belle only had her dad in Beauty and the Beast. Why is that?
Don: I’ll give you two stories that are the reasons. I never talk about this, but I will. One reason is practical because the movies are 80 or 90 minutes long, and Disney films are about growing up. They’re about that day in your life when you have to accept responsibility. Simba ran away from home but had to come back. In shorthand, it’s much quicker to have characters grow up when you bump off their parents. Bambi’s mother gets killed, so he has to grow up. Belle only has a father, but he gets lost, so she has to step into that position. It’s a story shorthand. The other reason—and this is really odd—Walt Disney, in the early 1940s, when he was still living at this house, also bought a house for his mom and dad to move into. He had the studio guys come over and fix the furnace, but when his mom and dad moved in, the furnace leaked and his mother died. The housekeeper came in the next morning and pulled his mother and father out on the front lawn. His father was sick and went to the hospital, but his mother died. He never would talk about it, nobody ever does. He never spoke about that time because he personally felt responsible because he had become so successful that he said, “Let me buy you a house.” It’s every kid’s dream to buy their parents a house and just through a strange freak of nature—through no fault of his own—the studio workers didn’t know what they were doing. There’s a theory, and I’m not a psychologist, but he was really haunted by that. That idea that he really contributed to his mom’s death was really tragic. If you dig, you can read about it. It’s not a secret within their family, but it’s just a tragedy that is so difficult to even talk about. It helps to understand the man a little bit more.
Glamour: That is so horrible.
Don: He was living here on a hilltop, on five acres. He had just made Fantasia, Dumbo, Pinocchio, Bambi, and Snow White in a five-year span. He buys a house for his mom and dad, they move down from Oregon, and his mom dies. Again, I’m not a psychologist to know it all, but it’s a really interesting story. To me, it humanizes Walt. He was devastated by that, as anyone would be.
Walt Disney built his Hollywood Hills/Los Feliz house in 1932 and lived there until 1949, when he and his family moved to the Holmby Hills, close to where the Playboy mansion and Spelling mansion lie today.
Glamour: There’s no easy way to transition after that—but which Disney movie has made the biggest impact on your life?
Don: I grew up on 101 Dalmatians and would watch it in the drive-in movie theater in my pajamas in the back of a station wagon thinking, This is really good!
Glamour: What about the movies you’ve worked on?
Don: That’s like picking children, but I have to say I have a real soft spot for Beauty and the Beast. I really do. It was the perfect storm. Howard Ashman, the lyricist…
Glamour: And Alan Menken!
Don: Yes, and Alan Menken! And then Howard dies of AIDS during the making of that movie, but it gets finished, and it goes on to get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, which was the first time an animated movie had ever achieved that, before there was a category. It has a lot of things that are humbling, amazing, and wonderful about it. That movie, and The Lion King and The Little Mermaid, were a little era that you probably grew up on.
Glamour: You have no idea. I played those songs on the piano in my recitals and drove my parents nuts.
Don: Haha! God bless your parents. I never know whether to apologize to parents or not! [Laughs] But we felt “This is our chance to do it too. This is our chance to make our Bambi and Pinocchio and stuff.” The level of quality they did is something we probably never achieved, but the level of storytelling I like to think we did. We did well in storytelling, so that was our chance to make those movies. I was 30 years old when I was making Roger Rabbit, so we were all babies and we didn’t know we couldn’t do it, which was the biggest thing. And we had guys like Howard Ashman. So luck, talent, the right place at the right time, fearlessness, a great studio that supported it—it was a great time.
Glamour: During the press tour for Maleficent, we heard all about how Angie and Brad were on set to help daughter Vivienne in those scenes where she had to run through the meadow. They said it was the most hilarious footage of them running around like these stage parents trying to coax their daughter to hit her mark. Will we see that on the DVD?
Don: [Laughs] Every parent knows this moment so well where it’s like, “Come on, you can do this!” It was so sweet because it was just Mom and Dad with their kid. Of course, we couldn’t cast an actor in that role because they were all afraid of the tall lady with the horns. That scene with Vivienne in the movie where, as a young Aurora, she looks at Maleficent and says, “Up! Up!” was so sweet.
Glamour: I take it that wasn’t in the script.
Don: That just happened. She came over and was like, “Oh, there’s Mom. Up! Up!” And then being who she is, Angie was able to improv around that, stay in character, and create this moment. In that moment, she starts to connect with Aurora, and that’s where their love starts to build, and that’s why this movie works. Elle Fanning is brilliant. You can’t take your eyes off of her. She and Angie have this relationship where they are like sisters. They are friends and have a great chemistry, so they were amazing.
[Ed. note: Disney PR has confirmed that the footage of Brad and Angelina will be in the DVD, which will be released in November].
Sleeping Beauty Diamond Edition will be available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD on October 7. Maleficent will be released on November 4. Coming later this month, I’ll have all the photos from inside Walt Disney’s original house. You guys will love that!
What did you find most fascinating about Don’s revealing interview? Did you know about Walt Disney’s parents?