Portrait of a work in progress

Meeting acclaimed animator Glen Keane for the first time feels like catching up with an old friend.

Maybe that’s because he’s spent the better part of his life illustrating so many of ours: Disney characters such as Ariel, Aladdin, the Beast, Tarzan, and Pocahontas. Glen is adamant he didn’t design these characters but, rather, discovered them. He’s a firm believer that if you put yourself out there to discover, you do discover. “That’s been my experience with every character I’ve animated,” he explains. “They all have this feeling like they were inevitable.”

Warm, open, and childlike in the best possible way, Glen rejects the notion that being a kid is something we should all unlearn. “My whole life has been about animating characters who believe the impossible is possible. I have to crawl inside of them, and feel that feeling, and try to animate that,” says Glen. This theme was central to the keynote speech he delivered to more than a thousand high school students at a recent EF Global Leadership Summit in Berlin.

Because Glen has left a piece of himself in each of the characters he’s brought to life, he recognizes that who he is today has a lot to do with them. Reflecting on his inspired career with fondness and wonder, Glen credits his curiosity—and Paris—for where he is now. In fact, if his identity is a constellation of insights and experiences forged over time, then the City of Light sits at the center of all of it.

I started wanting to experience life from another point of view.

Failing first

For Glen, not going to Europe at 18 years old was a mistake that impacted him for the better. The middle of five children to Thelma Keane and cartoonist Bil Keane (of The Family Circus fame), Glen watched his older siblings eagerly accept a gift from their parents to travel after high school graduation. “When it came to be my turn,” he recalls, “I was such an idiot. I didn’t do that.”

Instead, he put his would-be travel fund toward a new car and enrolled at the California Institute of the Arts to study Film Graphics. Two years later, Glen was working as an animator at Disney.

Still, as the years passed and Glen’s list of professional accolades grew, so did his regret over not embracing that first opportunity to travel. “I was 40 years old, and I realized there were certain things I just believed. Like: I will always only speak one language and live in America. It’s just the way it is.” But what if those things didn’t need to be true? That’s exactly what Glen kept asking himself as his regret escalated into restlessness. “I started wanting to experience life from another point of view.”

So, more than two decades after the fateful trip to Europe that never happened, Glen set his sights on moving to Paris. Sure, he had failed French in high school, but that was one detail he was willing to overlook.

A family affair

Much of Glen’s focus on France was fueled by knowing that he needed to break out somehow as an artist. “I love the art in France,” he explains. “Degas. Lautrec. Rodin. These artists had been my instructors. I learned from the dead guys.” But Glen began wondering whether that unofficial mentorship could be something more. “I started wanting to go there. To connect to that culture, to that world.”

Suddenly, that became an idea he couldn’t put down. Glen asked his wife, Linda, what she thought about uprooting their family to live in France for a year. Her response? “I’m in.”

“She’s just that sort of girl,” Glen offers with a chuckle. From the outside looking in, Linda’s always been up for anything. The couple, who met waiting in line at a movie theater, got engaged after only spending eight days together and were married less than three months later.

Once the decision to move was made, Glen wasn’t sure how to make it happen. “I was so busy at work. I was in the middle of starting Pocahontas. I had just done Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast, and I was really integral to Disney animation…but we had set our minds and said, ‘We’re going to do this,’” says Glen. So he and Linda signed up for a French immersion class at UCLA. “It was that little step. It was a real step. Because there were French words in my head now.”

The next order of business was breaking the news to their two teenagers. “Our daughter Claire loved the idea. Our son Max hated the idea,” Glen admits. “He was so into California and skateboarding.” Despite Max’s objections and Glen’s accelerating career, the Keanes felt strongly enough about relocating to press pause on life as they knew it. Glen coordinated a sabbatical year with Disney, and as soon as production on Pocahontas wrapped, the family packed up their lives and moved to Paris.

Losing yourself somewhere new

Those first few weeks in Paris were a blur, set against a backdrop of what Glen calls the “magic light” that soaks the French capital in late summer. September is still his favorite time to be there.

“I can’t say it was easy in the beginning,” he says. “But it was so real and wonderful and new.” It was also a humbling time for the accomplished animator. “The biggest thing that hit me was the shock of losing my identity,” recalls Glen. “Because in America, everybody asks you, ‘So what do you do for a job?’ That’s just normal, especially in Hollywood.”

Every day, three times a day, Glen would walk the family’s basset hound in the nearby park, often saying hello to the same people. “For a year, no one ever asked me what I did. And at first, it was kind of nice,” he concedes. “But then after three months, I was dying for somebody to ask me what I did. Because I realized so much of who I am is wrapped up in what I do.”

In France, people were more interested in what food he liked, the music he listened to, his opinion on the philosophers. The beauty of travel, Glen discovered, is the freedom it gives you to leave who you already are at home. Moreover, it’s a reminder that your identity is alive and evolving—a compilation of chance encounters, choices, and the reflection that happens between both.

“It was such a cleansing thing for me,” says Glen. “I’ll never be the same. I don’t know that it can happen unless you step out of your own culture and go somewhere else.”

Because I was throwing myself into a new culture and adapting…I had to learn to be flexible in ways I never knew.

What Tarzan can teach you

After that year in Paris, the Keanes were supposed to return to California. But Glen had other ideas: “I proposed to our family the possibility of staying and doing a film for Disney, Tarzan, in France.” With Linda, Claire, and even Max in agreement, Glen started work at the Disney studio in Montreuil.

While there, surprising parallels emerged between what Glen was experiencing in France and animating in Tarzan—a serendipitous wrinkle that did wonders for his creative output. “Because I was throwing myself into a new culture and adapting…I had to learn to be flexible in ways I never knew.” That made Tarzan feel more real than any character he had encountered before. “Here I am animating this guy, he’s a human being, but he’s living with gorillas. His whole thing was about adapting to this culture,” says Glen. “Boy, I related to that. I never would have if I had just stayed and tried to animate Tarzan in America.”

He recalls one scene in particular where something wasn’t right. “Tarzan was swinging through the jungle, and he was grabbing the vines.” But Glen didn’t sense Tarzan’s boldness, at least not the way author Edgar Rice Burroughs had described him. So he turned to nature for inspiration and began studying gibbons, the slender apes many imagine when they picture primates gliding through the trees. “I noticed that when the gibbons did it, they never looked at the branch they were grabbing. It was always beyond,” says Glen. With this new insight in mind, he went back to his studio and animated Tarzan the same way. Suddenly, Glen’s protagonist had the animal instinct he’d been missing.

Years later, Glen insists that fearlessness (or at the very least, faking it) is how he survived his time in a new country. It’s made him a better artist and a more complete person. He believes that’s how you gain the most from any unfamiliar experience, be it travel or otherwise. Using gibbons as a guide, Glen champions focusing on what’s ahead of you and forgetting your preconceived limits. “You have to overcome that fear and throw yourself forward, and not be held back,” he explains.

A whole new world

In the end, Glen and his family stayed in Paris for four enchanting years. “It changed our life,” he says. “Our daughter [lived there] for nine years, married a French guy. Now our grandchildren speak French.” Ultimately, he isn’t sure whether he ever really returned from Paris. “I’ve just expanded. I feel like I’m a person of the world, and that’s what I want to be.”

If there is any one trait that defines Glen, it’s his utter commitment to being open. It’s made him bigger, of course: introducing new possibilities, pathways, and entirely different maps of synapses. “The person I was at 18, who said, ‘No, I’m afraid, I don’t want to go to a country where I don’t speak the language and I don’t know how to get around,’ there was a security in all of that,” he says. “That person could never grow to become the artist that I needed to.” It took 20 more years before Glen reached a place where he was willing to risk discomfort to satiate his curiosity. “To throw myself out into the unknown, I needed to be that person.”

About a decade after leaving Paris, Glen’s urge to break away came creeping back. “I felt like there was something beyond, that I needed to leave Disney to do it.” So in 2012, after 38 years at a job he loved, Glen decided to move on. Since then, he’s animated stories for virtual reality at Google and collaborated with Kobe Bryant. (Their short film, Dear Basketball, won an Academy Award in 2018.) He’s currently directing another film and partnering with his son, Max, on an animated series. “I see all of that as springing from the adventure of stepping out into the unknown and moving our family to France,” says Glen.

Despite everything he’s accomplished in his 65 years of life, what Glen seems most excited about is everything that hasn’t happened yet. “It’s a wonderful thing to be growing,” he says. “I told my wife the other day, I feel like I’m 20 years old. I’m just beginning.”

I’ve just expanded. I feel like I’m a person of the world, and that’s what I want to be.

Paris, elle existe

At the very start of our conversation with Glen, we asked him, “Why France?” His response at the time was unexpected, partly because it was in French. “Pourquoi la France? Je sais pas. C’est…elle existe.

Because it exists.

If you hold on to anything from Glen’s story, let it be that. There is something out there that will change the way you view yourself and what you’re capable of, so welcome that inspiration—in all its forms. Stay open, and your life will be richer for it.

Your Paris may not be in France, but it exists.

Step out into the unknown

To celebrate his transformative travel story, we asked Glen to draw Tarzan—the character he created over 20 years ago while living in Paris—in virtual reality.

Kim Hart

Kim is a writer and an associate creative director at EF. In a past life, she wrote about everything from online poker to deodorant. (She likes writing about educational travel better.) When not at work, you can most likely find Kim on the internet or eating cheese.

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