Keane is the son of Bil Keane, creator of “The Family Circus” cartoon strip. Keane joined Disney in 1974 after leaving Cal Arts, and was mentored by Ollie Johnston, one of Walt Disney’s legendary Nine Old Men (the core group of male animators responsible for the studio’s most enduring animated classics). In the early ‘80s, he also collaborated with another young Disney upstart named John Lasseter on a brief test scene for an adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” that combined traditional animation with then-cutting-edge computer graphics. In the ‘80s Keane paid his dues, doing solid if uninspired work on things like “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” and the disastrous “Black Cauldron.” When the studio found its footing once more towards the end of the decade with small steps like “The Great Mouse Detective” (Keane animated Vincent Price’s villainous Ratigan) and “Oliver & Company,” Keane was there.
But it wasn’t until the Second Renaissance period, beginning with “The Little Mermaid,” that Keane became a superstar. The characters he animated during this time – not only the aforementioned Ariel, Beast, and Aladdin, but also the title characters in both “Pocahontas” and “Tarzan,” and you’ve got a body of work that is absolutely astounding. This was largely the era when the Jeffrey Katzenberg PR-machine was churning at full blast, and Keane gamely appeared on television shows, showing people how to sketch The Beast, and showing up for red carpet and corporate events.
When Disney Animation lost ground to Pixar and DreamWorks Animation and all but shuttered its traditional animation department, Keane was adrift. He worked on the “Mickey’s PhilharMagic” attraction at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom and his experience, animating Ariel not in 2D animation but in full-on computer animation, inspired him to try his hand at directing. That film, “Rapunzel,” was a tortured and overlong process, with Keane’s goal of creating a moving Renaissance painting seen as too daunting and experimental, with little of the emphasis placed on the fundamental aspects of character storytelling. After Pixar was absorbed by Disney and its creative principles transferred over to the main studio, Keane’s old collaborator Lasseter removed Keane from directing duties, keeping him on as the lead animator of Rapunzel but jettisoning much of the artistic and technological development Keane and his team had been working on, as well as changing the title to "Tangled." (The studio blamed some vague, “non-life threatening health issues” on Keane’s removal.)
It’s telling that Keane cited animation’s “endless new territories” in his resignation letter, as Keane was a tireless innovator. Beyond the work he did with Lasseter on the “Where the Wild Things Are” short, he also pioneered a process called “Deep Canvas” for “Tarzan,” which gave 3D depth to 2D images, and the work he had done on “Rapunzel” was supposedly jaw dropping (“Tangled” is a lovely little film but stylistically anonymous). While the studio (and many animation fans) try to paint the Lasseter-run Feature Animation division as being all gumdrops and fairy dust, it’s been a contentious atmosphere from the start, with many longtime animators either outright fired (like Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, who went to DreamWorks and made the masterpiece “How to Train Your Dragon”) or feeling neglected to the point of resignation (Andreas Deja, who animated Lilo from “Lilo & Stitch,” and Scar from “The Lion King,” left recently too). Keane, and many other animators, seem to be saying that some experimentation needs to factor into the decision making process, instead of what’s going to make a really cool ride at Disneyland.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, Keane was “not currently attached to any future project at Disney,” although Keane’s legacy at the studio will remain vital for decades to come (if not longer). A new ride featuring Keane’s Ariel will open in a revitalized version of Fantasyland at Walt Disney World this year (alongside an interactive restaurant that centers around the Beast), with “The Little Mermaid” heading back into theaters (in 3D no less) in September of 2013. We’re certain that wherever Keane ends up, and really the possibilities are endless at this point, he will be back to creating something truly magical.