Fascinating Disney animated films that never were

Feature Mark Harrison 5 Mar 2014 - 06:39

For every animated movie that gets made, there are dozens more that never make it. Mark looks at some failed Disney projects...

In the age of the internet, Hollywood studios are much quicker to announce the projects they have in development than they used to be. Now that the demand is there, there's a huge turnover of movie-related news every day, and if you follow it in any significant way, there are probably a whole bunch of projects that you've heard about, maybe even gotten excited about, that never came to fruition.

Still, it's not only via the easier availability of such information that we know about projects that never came to be. At a studio like Disney, projects will get as far as being fully developed in animatic form before falling apart, and the artefacts left behind from such abridged projects have made for some fascinating reading.

Sadly, it seems like quite a few of these films were axed because of short-sighted executives. Not because the creative talents couldn't break the story, or because they weren't interesting enough to sustain a feature, but because committees of people who had never made movies, decided to pull the plug. Some of these stories might make you mad, but then perhaps not all of these projects are necessarily dead and buried.

For instance, The Snow Queen was in development at the studio since the earliest days of the animation studio, when Walt Disney was looking to make an animated biopic of Hans Christian Anderson, utilising some of the author's most famous stories. After starting and stalling several times over the course of over 80 years, Frozen finally came to the screen, and went on to break $1 billion at the box office and win two Academy Awards.

Not all of these films have a chance at such a successful turnaround, but it's fascinating to wonder what might have been, if these films had gotten further in development...

The Gremlins

Based on a screenplay by author Roald Dahl, this was about a bunch of mythical Gremlins who sabotage British aircraft during the Second World War, as revenge for the bulldozing of their forest home for a military aircraft factory.

The hero of the story, an RAF pilot called Gus, would have had his plane sabotaged by the Gremlins in the beginning of the film, resulting in a massive, traumatic crash. However, he's also the one who convinces the Gremlins to unite with the Allies, and put their skills to use in fighting Hitler and the forces of Nazi Germany.

At the time that Walt Disney was courting him to write an animated film, Dahl was working with British Security Coordination, (BSC) the secret propaganda unit whose mission it was to persuade America to join the Second World War. As a result, the British Air Ministry became quite heavily involved in the production, even after the United States had got stuck into the war.

Disney put out Dahl's book version of the story in 1943, as a promotional device for the intended film, but eventually told the author that it wouldn't happen. Aside from complications arising from the involvement of BSC, and a contract clause that insisted the British Air Ministry and Dahl would both have to sign off on the final script, Disney reluctantly pulled the plug on the project, because he believed "…the public has become tired of so many war films."

The Gremlins still appeared in various guises in other wartime propaganda of the time, notably in Bugs Bunny cartoons, and in comic strips featured in Walt Disney's Comics And Stories. And of course, if any of this sounds familiar to you, it's because The Twilight Zone popularised the idea of a monster jumping on the side of a plane and sabotaging it.

By now, we've seen William Shatner, John Lithgow, and even Bart Simpson menaced by characters that strongly resemble the Gremlins as written. Plus, Joe Dante and Steven Spielberg made a film (which some of you might have heard of) that was loosely inspired by those characters, and the name is now inarguably more associated with Gizmo and his ilk.

Disney did bring them back as side characters in their platform video game series, Epic Mickey, but Dahl's source material no longer seems suited to the style of the studio's current feature film output. Now, if Aardman were to make a WW2 movie, that would be a different story...

Chanticleer

This is one of the most infamous unproduced projects, dating just as far back as The Snow Queen in terms of attempts to develop it. The source material was slightly unlikely, coming from a pre-WWI class satire called Chantecler, written by French playwright Edmund Rostand, about an egotistical rooster who believes that he makes the sun come up with his crowing.

The project first came to Disney's attention in the 1940s, and was merged with a problematic feature project called Reynard The Fox. It was shelved during the Second World War, like many of Disney's other feature developments, but it came back around in the 1960s.

Animators Marc Davis and Ken Anderson found the archive of the project up to that point in Disney's animation library, while looking to develop something that would prove to be quite ahead of their time. They wanted to do a Broadway musical in the style of Disney animation.

The project, in which the hero was renamed Chanticleer, went on for some time after that, with Davis and Anderson working on the script, the songbook and concept art. The story developed to where Chanticleer was the mayor of a town of barnyard animals, and his authority was challenged by the aforementioned Reynard, leading him to eventually learn humility and become a better leader when the sun comes up with or without his crowing.

But at a point when Walt Disney was hoping to open another Disneyland, somewhere else in the US, he was convinced to scale back production from an animated feature every two years, to one every four years. That meant that the company had to choose between cancelling one of two projects currently in development- this one, and 1963's The Sword In The Stone, and we all know how that one turned out.

What's fascinating about this one is that the Broadway model eventually took Disney into a renaissance in the 1990s, with films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty And The Beast, and yet Davis and Anderson were suggesting that the same thing would have kept Disney relevant back in the 1960s. The project was hugely ambitious, and thus more of a gamble than The Sword In The Stone, and Disney executives apparently couldn't get past the unlikelihood of a chicken as a hero.

Some of Davis' drawings for Chanticleer were pilfered for 1973's Robin Hood, a production that also pinched pennies by Xeroxing character artwork from The Jungle Book. When the even more conservative Disney executives of the 1980s shot down a pitch to revive the project, animator Don Bluth decided to take up the cause at his own breakaway animation studio, Aurora Productions. The result, 1991's Rock-A-Doodle, bears little resemblance to the plans as they existed at Disney, and isn't exactly the most fondly remembered of Bluth's animations either.

Davis' concept art for Chanticleer is still highly regarded nowadays, and we've since had movies like Chicken Run, Free Birds and Disney's own Chicken Little, all led by animated poultry. Unfortunately, barring a Frozen-style revamp from the ground up, we can probably dismiss any hope of the sun coming out for this one.

Where The Wild Things Are

Most of us know how the various attempts to adapt Maurice Sendak's perennial children's book Where The Wild Things Are actually turned out, but we'll get to that. Disney first took an interest in the story in the early 1980s. The 338-word story follows Max, a boy dressed as a wolf, as he travels from his bedroom to the jungle and parties with a bunch of beasts called the Wild Things.

Off the back of the studio's first major use of computer animation in Tron, there was interest in utilising the same technology for an animated feature. Animators Glen Keane and John Lasseter produced a 30 second test in 1983, (see above) with the intention of computer animating the backgrounds and using traditional hand-drawn animation on top, for the characters.

The look of the test is certainly distinctive, and the mix of familiar Disney animation is oddly reassuring, next to the pre-Toy Story computer animation. However, Disney executives were weirded out, and Lasseter's enthusiasm for CG animation eventually got him fired by people who didn't see the point of the technology unless it made things “faster or cheaper” than before.

Universal took up the rights in 2001, and even went so far as to put a teaser for their film version before 2000's The Grinch, but didn't get any further with it in the following five years. The book finally came to the screen in Spike Jonze's 2009 film, which utilised animatronics, CGI and live-action, and was released by Warner Bros.

As for John Lasseter? He went on to start Pixar, prove his point about feature-length CG-animation with Toy Story and countless others, and now he's the boss of Disney. Where The Wild Things Are might have put Disney ahead of the curve if they'd seen it through, but I doubt that Mr Lasseter has too many regrets.

Fraidy Cat

This one might be the most frustrating story of the lot. Fraidy Cat was to have been made by House Of Mouse legends Ron Clements and John Musker, who directed modern Disney classics like Basil The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. Off the back of 2002's Treasure Planet, this was to be their first fully computer-animated feature.

But this one was something special - not based on folklore or literature like their previous works at the studio. It was the story of a chubby, domesticated cat who finds himself swept out of his comfort zone and into suspense thriller territory, when he's accused of a crime he didn't commit.

Fraidy Cat was originally intended for release in late 2009, and through the course of the project's development, they created a story reel that got huge laughs when it was screened for Disney's Feature Animation staff and top brass. As reports would have it, this wasn't a spoof movie, but something like the animated comedy that Alfred Hitchcock might have made.

So, why didn't it happen? The premise sounds strong, the story reel was popular internally, and Clements and Musker had an impeccable track record between them. Depressingly, it seems that the “creative” VPs crapped all over the film by pointing out the limited chances of the film being converted into a merchandising phenomenon, or a spin-off TV series, or a direct-to-video sequel.

As one of these middle-men allegedly put it: “I mean, who today even remembers who Alfred Hitchcock was? So why would kids in 2009 pay good money to see an animated film that pays tribute to an old, fat, dead movie director?”

The project was cancelled in mid-2005, and the decision was apparently a factor in Musker and Clements' decision to leave the studio shortly thereafter. Fortunately, Disney's 2006 acquisition of Pixar, and John Lasseter's interest in reviving hand-drawn animation, brought them back to make 2009's The Princess And The Frog.

For the foreseeable future, they'll be working on Moana, a comedy in the Broadway musical style that they helped to establish at the studio, but is it too much to hope that Fraidy Cat could come back around some day?

Before Pixar, Disney Feature Animation was trying to break new ground, but it was doing it with films like Home On The Range and Chicken Little. While Fraidy Cat might not have suited that Disney, it would feel right at home at the studio that made Bolt and Wreck-It Ralph, both pop-culture savvy movies, with terrific creative talents working behind the scenes.

Most importantly, we can't believe that Lasseter has ever listened to an accountant's word over that of a director, in the way that the Disney top brass did when they first pulled the plug on Fraidy Cat, so here's hoping that a genuinely intriguing project like this can come back around some day.

The Search For Mickey Mouse

Speaking of cancelled projects that would probably excel in the current Disney environment, The Search For Mickey Mouse was designed to be an Avengers-style team-up movie that would have celebrated 75 years since the creation of Mickey Mouse and friends, while also pulling in characters who have been popular in Disney films since.

There had been attempts at a feature-length Mickey Mouse feature before - back in 1989, a project called Swabbies had been fully planned and developed in animatic form before things came to an abrupt end. That project, in which Mickey, Goofy and co were enlisted in the Navy, might have made this list too, but it doesn't sound like it was nearly as ambitious as this one would have been.

The plot would have seen Mickey kidnapped by forces unknown, leaving Minnie at a loss about how to recover him. She ultimately turns to a mouse detective, specifically Basil of Baker Street, (from the 1986 movie) and winds up traversing the whole Disney canon in the course of the investigation, encountering at least one character from every Disney animated film along the way.

In addition to the cameos, the main supporting cast of characters would have included Peter Pan, Robin Hood, Aladdin, and Alice, from Alice In Wonderland. The problem, as executives saw it, was that there needed to be more to a 90 minute feature than just a cameo-palooza, and the project stalled in the story development stages.

Intended to be released as a video premiere in 2003 as part of the 75th anniversary celebrations, Disney ultimately scratched that itch with their DTV adaptation of The Three Musketeers, featuring Mickey, Donald Duck and Goofy. Ten years later, Disney's biggest franchise is the live-action Marvel Studios output, which is all based around a team-up movie every couple of years.

It wouldn't be the first time we've ever seen crossovers between Disney characters. The Kingdom Hearts video games take place in a world where Final Fantasy intersects with a whole bunch of Disney characters and villains from their animated classics, and Disney Infinity has done the same with their more recent IP. Older readers might even remember Disney's House Of Mouse, the 2001 series in which most of the Disney animated characters hung out in a bar owned by Mickey.

Of course, The LEGO Movie is another recent success that might make Disney reconsider the possibility of a movie like The Search For Mickey Mouse. In terms of character copyrights, that was as close to Who Framed Roger Rabbit as we've ever got, having characters from various different Lego licenses interact in a way that tore down the barriers between different properties. If there's one thing we're learning from recent movie successes, it's that kids don't care about copyright, if it means that Batman can hang out with Gandalf and multiple Michelangelos (the Ninja Turtle AND the artist.)

Even Disney's own Wreck It Ralph posits that the worlds of a certain medium are all interconnected, so we wouldn't be surprised if this project is playing on certain creative people's minds at the studio around about now.

Roger Rabbit 2

Of all the projects on the list, this is the one that has kept coming up in various incarnations since the early 1990s. It's languished in development hell for a long time. The closest it got to actually being green-lit was around 2000, before Jeffrey Katzenberg left Disney, and relations were subsequently soured between the House of Mouse and Roger Rabbit co-owner and DreamWorks head honcho Steven Spielberg.

As far as we can tell, the follow-up has always been planned as a prequel, going through titles like Roger Rabbit: The Toon Platoon and Who Discovered Roger Rabbit, but the actual logline has changed along with the different scripts over the last quarter of a century.

In its earliest form, the film would have been set in 1941, and centred on Roger going to Hollywood with Richie Davenport, an aspiring actor, (and human) on a mission to find his birth parents. When he arrives, he hits upon his big break in the Baby Herman films, and meets his future wife, Jessica.

When America joins the Second World War, Jessica's kidnapped by the Nazis and forced to do propaganda broadcasts for them, prompting Roger to lead a platoon of other cartoon characters into Europe on a rescue mission. Upon their triumphant return to Hollywood, we would have met Roger's birth mother, as well as his father- Bugs Bunny.

It sounds like a goer, especially with the novel idea of having toons serve as soldiers in the Second World War. After all, they're astonishingly resilient to being battered, shot and blown-up, and doing a men-on-a-mission movie with golden-age cartoon characters could have the same appeal as The Search For Mickey Mouse.

However, Steven Spielberg was understandably reticent about making fun of the Nazis after making Schindler's List. The Toon Platoon was probably on the table much too close to the release of that film for him to get involved in all good conscience - the fourth Indiana Jones film stalled throughout the 1990s for similar reasons, and when that film finally came to the screen, the Soviets were the baddies instead.

Later versions of the script just had Roger and Baby Herman on a road trip in search of Roger's mother. That sounds a bit like one of those Family Guy “Road To...” episodes, which teamed Brian and Stewie Griffin on Hope-Crosby style road trips. In fact, the first of those episodes, Road To Rhode Island, actually does have Brian finding out what happened to his mother.

Perhaps that was the version that was going around when Lion King director Rob Minkoff was attached. As he recently told us in an interview: "[It] was about Roger Rabbit trying to find his mother. That was the conceit, that somehow she'd gone to Hollywood, and he'd find her there. Then it turned into something like Sunset Boulevard! Anyway, we worked on that for a year, and they said it wasn't right, and didn't want to do it, and it got shelved."

In recent years, director Robert Zemeckis has been talking about returning to the follow-up, but substituting his favoured motion-capture technology in for live-action photography, while retaining 2D animated characters, but there hasn't been much more movement.

Plus, at last year's San Diego Comic Con, veteran producer Don Hahn seemed to debunk the renewed hype altogether, saying: “There have been scripts [for Roger Rabbit sequels & prequels] floating around for the past 25 years. There's none actively in discussion right now.”

He concluded: “I think that - in this day of multiple sequels - that it's nice to have a movie that may possibly be just a one-off.” There have certainly been longer gaps between the original and a sequel, and only time will tell if we'll ever see Toon Town on the big screen again.

Honourable mentions

- Kingdom Of The Sun narrowly missed out on the list, because it was technically produced in 2000 as The Emperor's New Groove, a sorely underrated but much more comedic film than was originally intended. The project started out as a pastiche of Mark Twain's The Prince & The Pauper, billed as “a romantic-comedy in the 'traditional' Disney style.”

If you want to know more about the troubled production of Kingdom Of The Sun, including the unused soundtrack by Sting and the point in production where two directors were essentially making two different films, it's well worth seeking out the documentary on the subject, titled The Sweatbox. There are those of us who enjoy The Emperor's New Groove just as it turned out, but the whole messy development is fascinating in that “car-crash-in-progress” kind of way.

- Conceived in the early 1970s, Louis The Bear would have been an animated vehicle for Louis Prima, the jazz singer who was beloved as the voice of The Jungle Book's King Louis. The titular bear was been sprung from the zoo by the help of two mice, and hijinks ensued.

Sadly, in 1975, the discovery that Prima had a stem brain tumour brought the product to an abrupt halt. Like Kingdom Of The Sun, certain aspects eventually wound up on screen in The Rescuers, specifically the two mouse characters and the song “Rescuers Aid Society.”

- As it turns out, even Pixar has had projects they had to cancel. Newt was intended as animator Gary Rydstrom's (Luxo Jr, Lifted) directorial feature début, and pencilled in for a summer 2012 release before Pixar pulled it. The logline for the project was “What happens when the last remaining male and female blue-footed newts on the planet are forced together by science to save the species, and they can't stand each other?”

Animation fans have since speculated that this was just a little too similar to that of Blue Sky Studios' Rio, though it's never been confirmed that the coincidental similarity was the reason why the project was shut down. Meanwhile, Rio 2 is due in cinemas this April.

- Countless sequels were shut down when Pixar's brain trust took over at Disney, and re-purposed the animation divisions that had been previously dedicated to churning out direct-to-video follow-ups and spin-offs. These included sequels to Pinocchio, The Aristocats and Treasure Planet, and further sequels to Fantasia and Mulan.

By far the most fascinating of these, however, was Disney's Dwarfs, a Lord Of The Rings-style franchise of DTV films, (presumably following the same model as DisneyToons' Tinkerbell movies) in which Doc, Grumpy, Dopey et al would have gone on quests and whatnot, prior to meeting Snow White. Sure, you can grimace at the initial concept, but it would have been interesting to see how these turned out.

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