New to Blu-ray this past week is one of Disney’s best made-for-DVD animated features (yes, there are good ones): Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers. Donovan Cook (Return to Neverland, 2 Stupid Dogs, Nightmare Ned, Duckman) was the director behind this overlooked Mickey masterpiece - and he recalls working on the film in this exclusive interview.
GREG EHRBAR: One of the fun things about The Three Musketeers is the number of clever gags that make gentle sport of the classic characters. Mickey strikes his corporate pose; Pete sings the “Mickey Mouse March,” things like that.
DONOVAN COOK: It is a classic story and we were telling it in a classic production style with classical music, but we didn’t want it to feel old or have a retro sense of humor. We just wanted to come up with humor that made us laugh. For us, it wasn’t honest if we didn’t make a little fun of some of the historic stuff. And it’s not necessarily making fun really, you make a joke because you love it.
GREG: Kind of like Mel Brooks did with Young Frankenstein—minus the naughty bits—a very spot-on meticulous tribute as well as a sophisticated sendup.
DONOVAN: That was what was driving us and hopefully that’s what we achieved. We anticipated a lot of restrictions, and there were some, but not like you might imagine. We definitely had to make changes for the studio from time to time and there were battles—I almost got locked out of the building a few times—but it wasn’t this thing where someone handed you a big book of rules you had to follow when you were working with the classic characters. It wasn’t like that.
GREG: Is Mickey’s look inspired by the Fred Moore design?
DONOVAN: What we used definitely looks like and is extremely close to the Freddy Moore version. Bob McKnight was our character designer; he’s an absolute encyclopedia on countless variations on every one of those characters. If you got on the phone with Bob and asked him to tell you about it he would not stop for about 30 minutes telling you about the variations—what was this, what was that. We all loved the older versions of Mickey. I did feel though that there was no way in a long feature format to get the level of acting we wanted from him if we went back to pie-eyed Mickey. The Studio wouldn’t have had it that way if we tried to back then.
GREG: Goofy has almost a comic book look. His eyes are free-floating without circles. You seemed to use a combination of classic looks.
DONOVAN: All that really dynamic older stuff was up on the walls, inspiring us. I decide to go with the watercolor look not so much to look like a classic cartoon, but because I just felt those characters never lived better in any world than when they lived in that watercolor world of the thirties. I felt that the funniest and most appealing the character had ever been was around that late 30’s—early ‘40’s period in films like Clock Cleaners or The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. We were experimenting with a lot of other stuff early on—some more contemporary, stylized stuff—but I just didn’t feel any of it was as appealing as the watercolor stuff. So we went to Toby Bluth because he was such a specialist in that. I learned a ton working with him.
GREG: Was Three Musketeers originally conceived for theatrical release?
DONOVAN: I don’t think that’s the case. From where I sat, it was never going to be theatrical though I pushed pretty hard on two occasions and again, nearly got locked out of the building for it. The biggest obstacle to Three Musketeers being theatrical was our good friend Michael Eisner. We were making it between 2001 and 2003 and at that time, 2D animation was on its deathbed at Disney. There were two things going against this movie going theatrical: one was that it’s 2D animation, which Eisner was completely done with, and two; it was a Mickey Mouse movie. Not many people at the studio felt Mickey Mouse had enough marketing momentum to warrant it.
GREG: CG was on the rise. He declared 2D dead, and it was sort of a dark time for the 2D features. They kept expecting another Lion King so a lot of fine films were declared disappointments. They did well, but they didn’t do phenomenally, but they’re wonderful films.
DONOVAN: And they’ve had a good afterlife.
GREG: They usually do in the long term. Another notable thing about Three Musketeers is that it offered Clarabelle Cow her breakout role.
DONOVAN: Clarabelle was great! She developed more than in our first versions partially because April Winchell is so great performing the voice of Clarabelle. We also just loved the idea. I recalled that there was some very thin precedent for Clarabelle and Goofy being paired somewhere from some comic book…
GREG: Orphans Benefit, maybe?
DONOVAN: Yeah, there are a couple places where you kind of get a sense that maybe Clarabelle and Goofy might get together at some point. I thought it was very funny and wanted to run with it. Bob Taylor storyboarded most of the scenes for Pete and wrote quite a bit while doing them. Between what he did with Clarabelle and what Chris Otsuki did with Clarabelle—especially when she’s serenading Goofy while trying to kill him—that was just fantastic. So much fun. When Roy E. Disney came to work with us a couple of times, he was a little uneasy about the relationship between Goofy and Clarabelle but luckily he wasn’t too rigid with his reluctance and allowed us to pursue it. Clarabelle is one of my favorite things about the movie. She’s got a great arc and a lot of layers.
GREG: She’s like the proverbial librarian with the bun in her hair who undoes the bun and becomes a bold, passionate woman.
GREG: Can you tell about the songs? The classical pieces with funny new lyrics?
DONOVAN: That came about because I love musicals and songs in animated movies. The Studio and I wanted to have songs. If you’re gonna have songs, they ought to be great songs. But the budget was not gigantic. I was talking to Matt Walker and the people in the music department, expressing my concern. We didn’t have the budget to hire great songwriters. There’s nothing more tedious than those sorts of common melodies, forgettable songs in movies. Since Three Musketeers had a comic opera as its climax, and we were already doing research about that, we talked about the classical genre and decided to use classical music with new comedic lyrics.
GREG: The lyrics are very funny. You have to watch over and over to catch all the comedy.
DONOVAN: It was almost all Chris Otsuki. He was a really prolific storyboard artist on the movie as well as a fantastic lyricist. He would write the majority of the lyrics very quickly. He might work with another artist’s storyboard or one of his boarded sequences, then he’d take about a day and a half, sometimes just a day and come back with amazing lyrics. The music department always had great notes so the lyrics might get tweaked a little. I love that we were able to accomplish that aspect of the film.
GREG: Coming up with good lyrics to an established piece of music isn’t as easy as it seems. There are great parodies out there but also lots of cringe-worthy ones, too. Of course, Gilligan’s Island did such a good job with Hamlet.
GREG: Were you excited when Walt Disney Records released a Three Musketeers soundtrack album?
DONOVAN: I loved that! It was great! The album is made up mostly of the songs with a little bit of Bruce Broughton’s score. He did such a wonderful job with the score. Steve Bartek, who I’ve worked with many times before, gave us great arrangements that we used to create the animation, and then Bruce did the finals. It was great that they put out a soundtrack album.
GREG: A lot of us got exposed to great classical music through Bugs Bunny cartoons.
DONOVAN: Yeah! That was one of the reasons, too. We were certainly not the first ones to do it. There’s a great legacy of that in cartoons. It was great to know that a lot of kids got to hear Bizet, Offenbach, Grieg and other great composers. We remember seeing those cartoons as kids and the day that we heard Barber of Seville outside of their context. People would say, “No, its not really from that,” and all of a sudden our world became so much bigger. We became more curious about what else these composers did. It is wonderful to have been part of that legacy, to be linked to other cartoons that used this music—kind of out of context and in a funny way. We didn’t invent it, but it would be nice to think we did it right.