INTERVIEW: Disney animator behind 'Moana' & 'Frozen' credits Christ, 'God's goodness'

by Michael Foust |

LOS ANGELES (Christian Examiner) – Moviegoers may not know the name "Mark Henn," but if they've watched many animated films from the last 30 years, they've likely seen his work.

Henn is an animator for Disney, having served as the lead 2D animator for 2014's Big Hero 6 and 2013's Frozen and working as a supervising animator for 2011's Winnie the Pooh and also drawing Ariel in The Little Mermaid (1989), Belle in Beauty and the Beast (1991), Jasmine in Aladdin (1992), Young Simba in The Lion King (1994),and Mulan in Mulan (1998).

His newest work can be seen on the big screen this weekend when Moana (PG) hits theaters. It follows the story of a girl who leaves her land and travels across the Pacific Ocean to save her family.

Foremost, though, Henn is a Christian who says his faith "has meant everything" to him during his time at Disney. He is approaching his 37th year at the studio.

"I was saved during my first year in college, and the fact that I'm here at Disney is just a testimony to God's goodness to me," Henn, a native of Ohio, told the Christian Examiner. "I had that dream [to be an animator] very early on, and then once I had given my life to Christ in college, things really started to take off. There's not a day that doesn't go by that I'm not saying 'thank-you Lord' for letting me live out my dream here -- and continuing to live out my dream here."

The Christian Examiner spoke with Henn about his job, his favorite characters, and what Christian families will like about Moana. Following is a transcript, edited for clarity:

Christian Examiner: What do you like so much about animated films?

Mark Henn: When I was a small boy, I loved to draw, and I drew all the time. And when I saw that you can take drawings, and those drawings could come to life – it was just magic to me. I was kind of bit by the animation bug very early as a small boy.

It was just the idea of seeing those drawings move and become a character. We're unlimited in animation. We can tell any kind of story we want. We can be anywhere we want. We can design characters any way we want. We can animate inanimate objects. There's just a limitlessness to animation.

CE: What are your favorite characters that you've animated?

Henn: I've enjoyed just about all of them, really. There's not many, if any, that I didn't enjoy. I've kind of been typecast to do a lot of our leading ladies, so they kind of refer to me around here in the studio as the princess guy. But I've also done cats and dogs and rabbits and lions and mice. I've animated Mickey Mouse on a number of occasions. Winnie the Pooh was a lot of fun to animate on.

CE: How has the use of female characters changed in films during your time?

Henn: They're more proactive now. I think if you compare Moana and Ariel and Belle to Aurora and Snow White and Cinderella – those are all wonderful characters, but the way the stories have been structured, the earlier female characters tended to be what I consider more reactive. In other words, the stories and plots happened to them and you watched how they reacted to the different situations. Whereas, starting with The Little Mermaid, you saw in the storyline and the characters, a little more activity – in other words, the females made decisions, they made choices and did actions that propelled the story forward. And they were much more proactive in the story.

Moana is no different. Moana is faced with issues, and she makes decisions. She's proactive about doing things. These characters, of course, have to face the consequences of their decisions – good and bad.

CE: Is this a good trend?

Henn: I think it is. As someone said, movie audiences are much more sophisticated and they demand a little deeper story and intricate plots. You kind of have to have that. If Moana was just sitting around, it probably wouldn't be as exciting to audiences today. An audience wants to identify with our characters, and they want to be able to go on this journey with the characters. And I think having a protagonist who is much more active in their story in making decisions and doing thigs is much more appealing.

CE: What can Christian families take out of Moana?

Henn: Certainly some of the things we've talked about – actions and consequences. Moana is kind of torn between a duty and an expectation. And I think those are very relevant feelings and situations that a lot of people deal with – "I feel like people expect this of me, but deep inside I feel like this is what I need to do."

Those are real issues that families should talk about. Parents have to be able to look at our films and be able to engage their kids and answer questions and not run way from it, and say, "Look at what this character did. Did they do the right thing? There were consequences."

CE: Would you say that most animated films you've worked on are not simply trying to entertain but are trying to teach kids something about life?

Henn: Exactly. Entertainment is our first-and-foremost. It's almost a byproduct that you have those sorts of life lessons learned in there. As I said, people need to identity with the characters in our stories. If you don't care about the characters and the story and what they're going through, you're going to have a much more shallow experience. It's not as much as we're trying to put a message in as much as it is trying to create believable characters in believable situations that people can identity with – whether it's Moana, whether it's Simba, or Ariel, or Pinocchio. You can identify with them and say, "I know how they feel."

Michael Foust has covered the film industry for more than a decade. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelFoust

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