Don Hahn on the Fun of Disney History

Directed by John Gleim, the documentary Adventure Thru the Walt Disney Archives (which was previously only available for a single screening to D23 members) gives a peek behind the magical curtain at The Walt Disney Company. While exploring the Studio lot, a warehouse of iconic treasures, and the theme parks, all with producer and host Don Hahn (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Maleficent) as a guide, viewers will hear from Disney Executive Chairman Bob Iger, Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige, Pixar’s Pete Docter, film historian Leonard Maltin and others, as they get a fuller understanding of the detailed history that’s helped shape every aspect of the company.

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Hahn talked about how much he enjoyed getting to shine a light on the archivists responsible for preserving so much history, how overwhelming but fun it is to have so much at your fingertips, the magic of walking around the Disney Studios lot, his early theme park memories, why he had a dream of being a storyteller at Disney, working on the one-of-a-kind Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and the fun of watching the classic stories get retold in different ways, over the years.

Collider: I was delighted by watching this and you were such a fun host. What was it like to get to actually be the host for all of this?

DON HAHN: I know, after like 40 years at Disney, I finally get to be a B-list host. I really enjoyed it. Becky [Cline], the head of the archives, asked me if I’d be interested and I said, “Well, yeah, especially if I can go around and talk to all the archivists and unearth what they do.” So much of it is done in dark rooms and it’s really nice to pull out of them what they do for a living.

What is it like to get to go digging around in the archives to learn about how there’s so much, and no matter how much you uncover, there’s still vast amounts more of things?

HAHN: Yeah, it’s huge. It’s like the Library of Congress, except more fun. It’s overwhelming, but in a fun way because it’s like walking through your childhood. You’ll see things that you had forgotten completely about, like a movie maybe you saw when you were a kid, and then there’s a prop for something like Mary Poppins. And then, once in a while, I’d see something from a movie I worked on, like the Roger Rabbit stuff, and it’s amazing. It really is that artifact from your youth. It’s like a tremendous garage sale and you’re able to walk through and every item is interesting. It’s a real treat.

It’s easy to focus on the wonder of Disney and think about the imagination and the magic of it all, but there is such an incredible amount of history that it’s hard to even comprehend how much and the extent of it all.

HAHN: Yeah, it really is, and there are layers of it too, with Fox Studios being on board. That was a surprise, just seeing some of the costumes and things from their archives. It’s a great collection and it’s more than just an archive. It’s really a memoir of the company culture. Why is Disney different? With all respect to the other studios, I’m not sure everybody goes to see a Universal Picture. Maybe they do. But people definitely go to see Disney pictures. It’s trying to unearth why that is and why that’s so special.

I’m sure that you’ve been on the Disney Studios lot more times than you could keep count of anymore, but when you do something like this and you have to really stop and pay attention to everything around you, that you typically take for granted on your hundredth time walking around the studio, does it give you a different appreciation of it all? Does it help you rediscover the magic of it again?

HAHN: It really does it because you’re walking in the footsteps of giants. My generation has had success in animation because we stand on the shoulders of Walt Disney and his Nine Old Men, and the people that invented animation. When you think of it through that filter and walk around and say, “Wow, this was Walt’s office, and this is where these animators sat, and this is where Peter Pan and all of these movies that I grew up with were made,” then it becomes more than just a bunch of buildings. It’s a really special place that you can dredge up in your memory and just think, “Wow, this was once home to all of those people.” They’re all gone now, but their work isn’t gone and their memory isn’t gone. That’s the fun and a little bit emotional part of walking around that studio lot . . . What makes Disney so different, in my head anyway, is the people and the shared culture that everybody has for this quality in entertainment and exceeding expectations when people go to the theater, and all of those good things. It really brings back memories of people that you’ve worked with. We’re trying to do that by creating these great experiences for the audience.

RELATED: Exclusive: Disney+ Will Take Fans on an 'Adventure Thru the Walt Disney Archives' in November

One of the places I haven’t gotten to go are the warehouses that have all the big props and ride vehicles and all of that. What’s it like to get to see all of that stuff and to get to sit in a ride vehicle?

HAHN: I had never been there before either. You’d think that I would just hang out there all the time. I kind of roughly knew where it was, but I’d never been there. They said, “We’ll shoot all over, in different locations, and one of them was this huge warehouse where there was the Flubber car and a ride vehicle and a submarine. It’s just amazing. It was a surprise for me, just to walk through and see all of that stuff, with the volume of it all and the variety of it all. There were props and pre-production things, but there were also final costumes and jewelry, and things that we might’ve seen in any number of Disney movies or even Fox movies, at this point. That’s really special, to go to this secret warehouse and open a door, and all of the stuff inside was really fun.

Everybody who works at or for Disney seems to be a lover of all things Disney, or you’d likely just work somewhere else. When did you go from loving Disney movies to realizing that Disney was a company that you could work at and work with, and you could have this career as a filmmaker and storyteller?

HAHN: Pretty early on. I never thought I could work there. I grew up on Disney movies and couldn’t wait until the next one came out. I loved Jungle Book and 101 Dalmatians. And then, I was 20 when I went to work at the studio, and pretty soon I started working for a guy named Willie Reitherman, who was the director of all of those movies I grew up on. That’s when I started to think, “Wow, people have actually made careers here and work here.” I love the movie business, but I never really wanted to work in the movie business. I really wanted to work at Disney. Maybe that sounds odd, but it’s just been a place that’s been the home of some of the great stories that I grew up with and is an approach to entertainment that I really can relate to.

I love that this project also ties in the theme parks and the stories of the theme parks. What are your earliest Disney theme park memories? Is there a ride that you always have to go on, anytime you visit the theme park?

HAHN: What a great question. I was born in 1955, the year the park opened, so it wasn’t until probably I was maybe five or six or seven years old that I started to remember things at Disneyland. Adventure Thru Inner Space is long gone. Other rides, like Pirates of the Caribbean, is evergreen. It has the same spirit when I go on it today. The one ride that I always loved when I was a really little kid, and one of the first rides I went on, was the Peter Pan ride in Fantasyland. I still go on it every time because you can fly over the rooftops of London and it’s just magical. Talk about suspension of disbelief. You just are totally in that world. It worked when I was six years old and it works now.

I love the Peter Pan ride too. My heart is always with the Haunted Mansion.

HAHN: That’s great too. I produced the Eddie Murphy Haunted Mansion movie, 18 years ago, and we did that. We went really early in the morning and we turned on the lights and we walked through the place, and it was so cool. On one hand, you’re amazed at the stage craft they use because a lot of it’s cardboard cut-outs and black light paint, but on the other hand, you’re looking at your whole life. You’re looking at years and years of going on that ride with friends and your parents, and everything else. It was really a treat. You realize how great those guys and girls were back then, that invented those rides.

You worked on Who Framed Roger Rabbit so early in your career. It was such a special, different and unique film then, and it’s still a special, different and unique film now. Are you surprised that it really is still one-of-a-kind?

HAHN: Yes and no. It’s a product of its time. People really didn’t rush out to see animated features then. If you were on a date, you would never be caught dead at a Disney animated feature. But I think Roger Rabbit reminded everybody how much they loved animation and love Chuck Jones and Disney, and all of those cartoons growing up. It was also a time when you could actually call all those studios and get access to all those characters. You could have a scene with Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, and you could have Elmer Fudd and Donald Duck and Daffy Duck. I suppose you could do that now, but back then, it was not a big deal. You could wrangle all of those characters. Did I know that it would be so special and lasting? Probably not. But we knew when we were making it that it was a one-off and really special. Bob Zemeckis is such a brilliant director. It was a good time.

You’ve worked on some of the animated films, and you’ve worked on some of the films that took animated characters and have now turned them into live-action movies. What’s it like for you, as someone who’s worked on some of the classic films, to then see them go from animation to live-action and to see things happen with the stories that couldn’t have happened when you worked on the classic version, just because maybe the technology wasn’t far enough along at the time?

HAHN: I actually enjoy it. Stories are meant to be told, and certainly Beauty and the Beast, or a lot of the movies I worked on, come from fairytales and come from stories that have been around for centuries. So, to have a new generation of filmmakers, like Jon Favreau or whoever, reinvent a movie and redo it with modern technology and modern aesthetics, is thrilling. It’s odd because you see a movie like Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, and it brings back a lot of memories of when that movie was being made, but it’s also thrilling because those are wonderful assets and wonderful stories, and they’re just meant to be told to each generation, in a way that’s really relevant. We did the Sleeping Beauty story with Angelina Jolie and Maleficent was a different reinvention of that story. It’s fun to watch what other people do with those movies.

It’s just cool that the stories are so lasting that you can tell them in so many different ways, while you can go back into the archives to look at the history of the classic version.

HAHN: When you walk through the archives and there are books that Walt Disney brought back from Europe when he went there in 1935. There are stacks of fairytale books and illustrators that he was inspired by, even before Snow White. You’re looking at these things and thinking, “Oh, my God, this is the core of the foundation that he built his storytelling on.” And then, we built ours on the same foundation plus. That’s when you start to really realize the longevity of the company and the history of storytelling there that’s really special.

Adventure Thru the Walt Disney Archives is available to stream at Disney+.

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Christina Radish (5060 Articles Published)

Christina Radish is a Senior Reporter at Collider. Having worked at Collider for over a decade (since 2009), her primary focus is on film and television interviews with talent both in front of and behind the camera. She is a theme park fanatic, which has lead to covering various land and ride openings, and a huge music fan, for which she judges life by the time before Pearl Jam and the time after. She is also a member of the Critics Choice Association and the Television Critics Association.

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