The Amazing Pete Young

I've always been fascinated by storytellers. Those gifted individuals who have the ability to spin a captivating yarn and pull you totally into a make-believe world. Animation has had its fair share of talented storytellers. Lucky for me, I've had the opportunity to know and work with a few of them during my years in the cartoon business and I’d like to share that with you. However, this is not an in-depth look at the talented individuals I intend to profile. Regretfully, I know little about their personal lives but that didn’t stop me from getting to know them as individuals. What I do know is that each of them made their contribution to the wonderful art of Disney animation storytelling. Don’t expect me to tell you about their background, family or other personal details. For me they were colleagues and friends. And, sadly some were taken away while they still had so much more to give.

I returned to the Walt Disney Studio in the early seventies to work on “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” and the animated “Robin Hood.” I was introduced to an eager young man from the animation effects department who was looking to get into Disney's story department. Pete Young had more than a love of story - he had a passion. This was something I had seen before in other young artists with a love of story and a willingness to do whatever it took to break into this coveted Disney department. Because of his persistence, Pete was able to take a book the studio owned and develop it. Working on his own time, Pete developed “The Small One. ” And in time, this project was green lit for production. Disney story veteran Vance Gerry mentored Pete much the same way he guided me during my early storytelling days. However, “The Small One” became a Don Bluth project, and Pete was not thrilled to see his story moving in another direction. No matter. He had finally made it into Disney's story department and that was reward enough. In the years that followed, Pete did story development on “The Fox and the Hound,” “The Black Cauldron” and “Basil of Baker Street.” Like most good Disney story artists, Pete knew that character development was critical to a great story. Some of the most effective sequences in "Fox and the Hound” were the work of Pete Young.

Of course, a good story artist has to know when to make decisive moves in story development. Pete learned not to introduce a new story element if his director wasn't ready for it. Good ideas presented at the wrong time stood a chance of getting rejected. At Disney, the politics of story can be as important as creative skills. Pete Young - along with Ron Clements sold “Basil of Baker Street” as an animated project. And sure enough the film was green lit for production by studio boss, Ron Miller. However, in the eighties, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg became animation's new bosses, and “Basil of Baker Street” failed to get the support it needed to be a box office success. The studio bosses eventually apologized for their poor judgment. In any case, “The Great Mouse Detective” turned out to be a darn good movie and proved that Disney's animation department was still full of energy and creativity. The new Disney managers then came up with the idea of doing what became known as “The Gong Show,” a venue where new ideas could be pitched with the hope of becoming studio projects. Pete Young brought up the idea of doing “Oliver Twist” in a New York setting. The principal characters would be played by dogs and cats, and would feature a contemporary score by Billy Joel. For a time, it was rumored that Pete Young might actually direct “Oliver.” But I don't think Pete had directing on his mind. Directing a Disney movie is as political as it is creative. And, I doubt Pete was ready to deal with politics on that level. He did Partner with George Scribner, a colleague who eventually became the film's director.

One late afternoon, I gave Pete a ride home from work. He lived in nearby Eagle Rock not far from my home of Pasadena. We talked about seventies Disney and animation’s struggle to become relevant again. We were aware of the politics within the company and the factions struggling for power. In spite of all that, Pete was optimistic that Disney animation could be great again. I have little doubt Pete would one day change his mind about directing a Disney film. He would have made a great director, but such was not to be. Pete Young died suddenly in the fall of 1985 at the age of 37. His passing came as a shock, and more than a few of us found it difficult to deal with the loss of one so young. He had so much potential as a Disney storyteller, and his work as story artist had only barely begun. Like the typical Disney success story, Pete Young started at the bottom and rose to the top in a relatively short time. Remember, things moved slowly in the old days of Disney. His contributions to the Disney legacy were few compared to most artists who had a lifetime of work under their belt. However Pete Young poured his heart into every task that came his way and his contributions as a storyteller will continue to be enjoyed by generations of Disney animation fans in the years to come. I wish Walt Disney could have met Pete Young and seen his work. I can’t help but think the Old Maestro would have been proud.

Disney story artist, Pete Young with director, Ron Clements (left) and writer, Steve Hulett.

Disney story artist, Pete Young with director, Ron Clements (left) and writer, Steve Hulett.