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"Mulan" 1998 "Mulan" 1998

While Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan battles its own controversies, an artist involved in the 1998 animated original has spoken of the cultural insensitivities he noticed on that project.

Dan Haskett, an animator and designer with half a century’s experience, worked on many of the popular films from Disney’s 1990s “renaissance,” as well as series ranging from The Simpsons and Batman: The Animated Series to the recent Looney Tunes revival at Warner Bros. He is often called in to contribute to the early stages of animation projects, among them Mulan.

Dan Haskett
Dan Haskett

In a Youtube interview with Deborah Anderson, a.k.a. BlkWmnAnimator, Haskett recalls an exchange with one of the film’s directors: “In speaking of Chinese people, [the director] was saying, ‘You know, they’re not like us.’” Later, the film’s key character designer told Haskett that he’d become “the de facto expert on all things Chinese for the rest of the staff.” Haskett says, “I understood completely how he felt; it was not a joyful experience.”

To Haskett, the director’s comment demonstrated the “lack of respect and interest” in other cultures and races that he has found to be prevalent in the Hollywood animation industry. He wryly adds that this might have marked the first time he, a black man, had been considered a part of “us” in the industry.

Much of the interview is devoted to his experiences of racism in his career and his views on diversity today. It’s a fascinating listen, not only because Haskett has played such a huge (and largely unacknowledged) role in American animation of the last 40 years, but also because he rarely ever speaks publicly about his work in the industry.

Here are some of his many striking reflections:

  • He was denied a credit for animating on The Fox and the Hound. He initially expected one, but when he met the “Golden Ager” who he recalls was producing the film, “I knew I was going to run into trouble, because he did not appreciate my being there.” Haskett strongly implies that his race was the issue. When he saw that he hadn’t been credited, he was “angry, but not surprised.”
  • He is often asked to design black and other non-white characters. “It’s nice to be known as a go-to guy for ethnic characters,” he says. “At the same time, obviously, it points to an enormous problem in the business at large: that there’s this lack of interest that I mentioned.”
  • Animated movies with black characters are still “experimental” today. By this, Haskett means that they don’t yet have real backing from studios. He urges black creators to create these movies anyway, using new tools, like crowdfunding, that facilitate independent work. “Just do it — don’t worry about the business side right now.”
  • Black artists’ character designs are often racist. Haskett bemoans the number of designs by black people that “dance on the edge” of minstrelsy. In his view, many of these artists aren’t fully aware of the racist origins of some cartoon archetypes — “I think they need to realize.” He also speaks of a popular show, which he doesn’t name, whose designs display the “self-hate” of the black creator.
  • Young black artists are too influenced by anime. “They’re going to smack me upside the head for this, [but many of them are] desperately in love with anime,” he says. “Anime is wonderful, but anime characters, as designs, don’t necessarily look like black people.”

Below, listen to the interview in two parts. Haskett speaks about Mulan from 5:10 in part two.