10 Animated Films That Underwent Big Mid-Production Changes

The Good Dinosaur is the latest in a bunch of big animated movies that have undergone very big changes mid-production...

A simple story change in an animated movie can generate months of work. But what about a radical reworking half way through? Or a change in director? It’s often said that coming into an animated movie just 18 months prior to release is akin to stepping onto a live action set just as the shoot is wrapping. Considering that the average high profile animated movie takes three to four years to make, it’s no small matter to change even one detail.

For the following films, though, one of which we’re still yet to see (and is some way away from a happy ending), the changes were far more dramatic…

The Good Dinosaur

It seems logical to start here, given that Pixar’s 16th film, The Good Dinosaur, was originally intended to be its 15th.

Ad – content continues below

The movie was originally pitched back in 2009, when then director Bob Peterson came up with the idea. He started working with Peter Sohn, and the project was announced by Pixar in 2011.

Details finally came about in the summer of 2012, as Pixar boss John Lasseter confirmed that it’d ask the question as to what would have happened on Earth had the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs actually missed. A release date of November 2013 was revealed, although that soon would change, with Pixar announcing in 2012 that The Good Dinosaur has shifted to May 30th 2014.

But bigger problems lay ahead. Rumors persisted that Bob Peterson and his team were struggling to crack the film, and Pixar – not for the first time – took drastic action. In summer 2013, the film’s producer and director (Peterson) were both taken off the project, with the problem reportedly being sorting out the third act of the story.

For a while, a replacement director wasn’t announced, with the story being that Pixar’s legendary brain trust of directing talent was overseeing the movie. But eventually it was confirmed that Peter Sohn – who had been with the film since 2009 – was to direct. Bob Peterson, incidentally, continues to work at Pixar, and is believed to have another feature in development.

Big changes, however, would happen on The Good Dinosaur, and come the autumn of 2013, Pixar admitted it needed to buy itself more time. The film was delayed again from May 2014 to November 2015, leaving 2014 without a Pixar feature on the schedule.

Fast forward to the summer of 2014, and voice actor John Lithgow revealed that the film had been, in his words, “completely reimagined.” He wasn’t kidding. Lithgow would be one of many changes in the voice case of the film, with also the likes of Judy Greer, Neil Patrick Harris and Bill Hader finding their tones cut out of the movie.

Ad – content continues below

Even now, Pixar is racing to the finish line. The Good Dinosaur finally debuts at the end of this month, but it’s believed that it’s still pushed its final deadline about as far as it could go. Hopefully, it’ll turn out as strongly as other Pixar movies that have undergone such drastic changes…

The Emperor’s New Groove

It never seems to get too much press, but The Emperor’s New Groove is a funny, underappreciated animated comedy from Disney that arrived in the midst of the downward slump in the fortunes of hand-drawn animated tales. Given just how much trouble the production had, however, it’s almost amazing that it made it to the screen at all.

The film was originally conceived as Kingdom Of The Sun, with Lion King co-director Roger Allers at the helm.

Sting had been brought in to write the songs for the film, following a strategy that had worked with Elton John and The Lion King, and to a lesser extent, Phil Collins with Tarzan. And the story was about a selfish emperor who discovers a double of him among the peasants of his empire. Before you can say “Prince And The Pauper,” the pair swap places.

Ad – content continues below

In the midst of all of this, though, was supposed to be Yzma, the evil witch, who summons – in order to retain her youth – a dark spirit to go and capture the sun for her. Yzma then finds out about the switch, and turns the emperor – the real one – into a llama. Said llama, however, then – in true Disney fashion – learns about goodness, and sets off to put the world to rights.

The final version of the film, however, was much different, although it was nearly shut down altogether.

It was originally planned for release in 2000, but even two years before that, it was clear that it was running very late. With the all-important commercial tie-ins in place, and early test screenings coming back with dismal results, Disney had a major problem, and didn’t have the flexibility to push back the film’s release.

It thus brought in Mark Dindal to help with the directing of the film, and he started adding in lots of comedic elements. Allers, however, was still pursuing the dramatic side. He reportedly asked for an extension of up to a year on the project, but had this turned down, and subsequently quit the project.

Producer Randy Fullman then had a six month turnaround window to sort the film out – a not significant time frame in what was generally regarded to be a three year production – and major changes were made. Gone was the plot to capture the sun, the characters were changed, most of the Sting songs were dropped (something the singer wasn’t happy about), and the film became more of a buddy-buddy film. Also, the title changed, to The Emperor’s New Groove.

It was, eventually, released in 2000, getting a December 15th bow in the US. And the critical response was very strong, even if the box office didn’t set the world alight. A documentary, The Sweatbox, was put together which covered Sting working on the project. It leaked onto YouTube in unfinished form in 2012, although it’s long-since been deleted. But as an eye-opener into the struggles to turn around a project that’s heading off the rails, it’s something else…

Ad – content continues below

The Simpsons Movie

It wasn’t until July of 2007 that The Simpsons Movie finally premiered, on its way to grossing over $500 million at the global box office. But its journey to get there had been really quite fraught.

The project was first mooted back in 2001, and so firm were the plans that the voice cast duly signed on the dotted line to make the film. Work then started in earnest on a screenplay for the movie, although the TV series was continuing in tandem. Given it was the same bunch of people, effectively, overseeing both, it didn’t take long for bottlenecks to emerge.

As such, two years later, the script was still being worked on. Many key writers from The Simpsons past and present were drafted in, but by the time a screenplay was finally locked down – with some ideas for the film eventually making it to the TV series instead – the script had gone through over 100 revisions. It wasn’t until the middle of 2005 that a draft was in place that people were happy with, and a table read duly took place. Animation would then begin in earnest at the start of 2006.

Fox wanted the movie for the summer of 2007, and the film hurtled towards its deadline, with animation work not fully finished until May of that year. That’d be running things tight on a live action project, yet alone an animated one.

The Simpsons Movie isn’t necessarily a story with dramatic changes along the lines of some of the features in this piece, but it is one whose process was drawn out, thanks in no small part to the parallel pressures of the television series.

Ad – content continues below

Plans are occasionally spoken of for a Simpsons Movie 2, but given the exhaustive work it took to realize the first film, nobody’s foot appears to be on the proverbial accelerator there…

Ratatouille

When we interviewed Pixar’s Angus MacLane back around the release of Wall-E, he noted that every project the firm had undertaken had suffered a dark period. Perhaps none of those were as pronounced as the trouble that beset Ratatouille, however.

The film commenced in 2000, when Jan Pinkava, who had directed the short film Geri’s Game for Pixar, began developing the treatment for what would become Ratatouille, with the idea being that Pixar would give him the director’s chair of his first full-length feature.

It was he, we understand, who came up with the idea of the rat becoming a chef, and he fleshed out the idea for the film, and started formal work on it shortly afterwards.

Pinkava put together a story that wasn’t too far away from the finished film, although talking to Animated-Views.com in 2008, Pinkava noted that “Where the movie differs most from the story I imagined is in its tone, in the story’s core idea and in Remy’s character. Perhaps this is, at least in part, a matter of… ‘European Sensibility.'”

Ad – content continues below

For by that point, he was no longer on the project, having been effectively replaced in 2005.

The film, as Pinkava noted, was to be the first outside of the original Disney-Pixar deal (prior to the two companies merging), and that seemed to add more pressure to it. As Brad Bird would tell EW, Pixar “were in a tough spot at a very vulnerable time.”

With the story being that Pixar lacked confidence in Pinkava’s vision for the film, Brad Bird – who had The Iron Giant by this stage on his CV – was brought in just eighteen months before release. In animation terms, that’s beyond turning up half-way through the shoot. As Bird told us back in 2011, “particularly because we only used two lines of dialogue and two shots from the previous versions. It was kind of crazy.”

While specific details of what was changed never fully emerged (short of Bird changing the look and feel of the rats, to make them more amenable to a human audience), Bird changed the film around, and delivered, in the end, one of Pixar’s most acclaimed films to date.

Pinkava, meanwhile – who got a co-director credit in the closing credits, but not the opening ones – scored an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for the film.

Ad – content continues below

Toy Story 2 and 3

Not all stories of major retooling are quite as painful. The original plan for Toy Story 2 was that it was heading straight to video, as many Disney sequels did in the ’90s.

Originally set to run for just an hour, it was when Disney saw the work in progress that it ordered up a full length cinematic sequel. This meant a fairly substantial fleshing out of the movie’s plot, which given the tight deadline involved, was no small feat. In fact, at the time A Bug’s Life was the major Pixar project, and it came as quite a surprise when Toy Story 2 surpassed it, both critically and commercially.

Toy Story 3, meanwhile, finally triumphantly hit cinemas, but not before going through major changes of direction of its own.

When Disney and Pixar looked like they were going their separate ways, Disney – which held the rights to Toy Story – started development work on a third movie, without the involvement of Pixar at all. A script was written by Jim Herzfeld, which would have seen Buzz being sent off to Taiwan to be repaired. Yet the malfunctions, it seems, are more widespread among the toy community, and this would have meant several old, and now recalled, toys would have featured in the movie, with the quest on to get to the root of the problem.

A further screenplay for a direct to DVD version of the movie was then drafted, and this time it would apparently have seen the toys heading off to Andy’s grandmother’s house, which isn’t the friendliest place in the world. That’s proved further when toys start to mysteriously disappear, and apparently, the concept had some legs to it.

However, come January of 2006, and Pixar was finally bought by Disney in a move that saw the stand-off between the pair come to an end. It seemed a clear case of Disney needing Pixar rather than Pixar needing Disney, but both seemed weakened a little by not working in tandem. As part of the deal, John Lasseter assumed control of Disney’s animated output, and the direct to DVD Toy Story 3 was shelved. In its place? The announcement of a full-on sequel, which went on to be one of the most acclaimed endings of a trilogy of all time.

Ad – content continues below

Now what kind of wringer are they going to put themselves through for Toy Story 4, we wonder?

Meet The Robinsons

To this day, I’d argue that Meet The Robinsons was a real turning point for Walt Disney feature animation. It followed underwhelming fare such as Chicken Little and The Wild, and it remains an underappreciated, smart, positive family movie.

It was also a movie that was being made in the midst of the big money merger between Disney and Pixar. Thus, it started production in June 2004, working under the title of A Day With Wilbur Robinson. By the time it finally saw the light of day in March 2007, it was the first animated movie from Disney released since the Pixar deal.

That said, John Lasseter, who by this time had assumed the role of chief creative officer across both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, didn’t have too much time to influence this one. But he certainly did enough.

Two months after the Pixar/Disney merger was revealed, Lasseter watched a rough cut of what would become Meet The Robinsons. And he had problems. As the New York Times reported back in 2007, “something bothered him about the villain,” finding him “neither threatening enough nor scary.”

Ad – content continues below

Lasseter and his team convened a meeting straight afterwards with Meet The Robinsons director Stephen Anderson. The meeting would last six hours.

By the time Lasseter sat down to watch a further rough cut ten months later, “nearly 60 percent of the original film had been cut.” A new sidekick had been added, there was a new ending and substantive changes had been made. The film would go on to become a minor hit for the studio.

Bolt

The second film – following Meet The Robinsons – to spit out of the Disney side of the Disney/Pixar union, Bolt was the first one to be fully developed under the new regime, and gave Disney a welcome box office success at the end of last year.

The film was originally known as American Dog, however, and had a different director attached. The story had originally followed a TV star dog who finds himself in the desert with a one-eyed cat and a radioactive rabbit. You can almost see the stuffed toys from here. The film was being helmed by Chris Sanders, who already had co-directed and co-written the Lilo & Stitch film for Disney, and when Pixar’s John Lasseter and his team came on board, they gave Sanders notes on how to make the film better.

However, things didn’t quite go to plan, and the story that circulated was that Sanders was resistant to the changes that were being suggested. Thus, in 2006, he was removed from the project, and he eventually upped sticks to DreamWorks Animation (where most recently he took control of the huge hit, The Croods. We’re coming to that shortly). 

Ad – content continues below

Bolt, meanwhile, would now be directed by Chris Williams and Byron Howard, and the pair had a shortened 18-month deadline to hit, too. A new title was put in place, Bolt, and changes were made to the characters and story.

The film eventually made it into cinemas at the end of 2008, to generally warm reviews. Chris Sanders, meanwhile, co-directed How To Train Your Dragon. Which remains, to this day, arguably DreamWorks’ best film.

The Black Cauldron

The film that you get the feeling that Disney would happily wipe from its CV. It’s never had a Platinum DVD release, or appeared on Blu-ray, or anything like that, and just gets the catalogue DVD treatment. And, bluntly, it’s a film that would stand no chance of being made under the current regime.

The film was already in the works when Jeffrey Katzenberg – who now heads up DreamWorks Animation – was appointed studio head in 1984. It was already shaping up to be the most expensive animated movie of all time, and yet Katzenberg didn’t like what he saw. The film has, even in its released version, a far more sinister edge than most Disney material (that’s some understatement), and with its release planned for 1985, Katzenberg ordered some hefty cuts to be made to the film.

Among the excised material was much of the undead Cauldron Born, a partially naked Princess Eilonwy, and the slaying of people with a magic sword. There was genuinely a fear that the film might even get an R rating in the States off the back of such material, unthinkable for a Disney animated movie.

Ad – content continues below

The cuts, however, were both sizeable in some instances, and cumbersome too, and would leave some gaps in the finished print of the film that there simply wasn’t time to fix. Thus, we’ve never really seen the full, intended vision of what The Black Cauldron was supposed to be, and nobody seems keen to redress that.

There remains hope that a version of the movie with the cuts restored will one day be released, but given how much money Disney lost on the project, and how it tonally differs from much of the studio’s output, that’s not likely at all. That said, different versions have popped up on Disney’s movie channels in the past.

If the plan with The Black Cauldron had been to extend the Disney animated brand to teenagers, it’s fair to say that it failed, and Disney never released it in any form for another 15 years or so. It also fundamentally changed the style and focus of its animated movies in the aftermath of it, arguably leading to its latest golden age, in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

The Croods

In its original form, The Croods was a very different beast. It was originated by Aardman Animation, who at the time had a deal in place with DreamWorks in the US. That deal covered, ultimately, Chicken RunWallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit and Flushed Away. Yet in the midst of it too was The Croods.

The film first was heard of in 2005, when it was a stop motion Aardman project by the name of Crood Awakening. At the time, the DreamWorks and Aardman deal was supposed to cover five films, although when the culture of the two firms didn’t necessarily mesh, it ended after three. Still, Kirk DeMicco and John Cleese had been working on the film, and pitched a film that was then about two cavemen on the run.

Ad – content continues below

Things started to change dramatically in 2007, however. As Aardman and DreamWorks went their separate ways, the film had to be left behind at the latter. The plan for it to be stop motion was thus abandoned, in favour of a CG feature. Kirk DeMicco stayed involved, and would ultimately co-direct the movie with Chris Sanders (How To Train Your Dragon).

Plenty changed, though. As John Cleese told us last year, “ours was much less about a family, more about a small town with an inventor arriving. The invention was more to do with a scientific invention, so it was quite a long way away from what they made.”

Indeed, the film that was ultimately made – and would hit big – was one of a protective father shielding his cave-dwelling family away from the dangers of the world. Only for circumstances to take a turn.

It arrived in the end in 2013, and hit big enough for a sequel to be ordered.

Aladdin

It’s hard to know quite where to start here. Considering the incredible success of Disney’s Aladdin, it’s remarkable how close it came to not working at all.

Ad – content continues below

The idea of doing a musical adaptation of Aladdin was first pitched by the late, great lyricist and producer Howard Ashman (a man who Disney has never been able to really replace, and whose significant contribution to The Little Mermaid and Beauty And The Beast can’t be understated). He had the idea to do the film as a 1930s campy musical, and enlisted his musical partner Alan Menken to start working on the songs for the film.

Directors John Musker and Ron Clements signed up to make the film their The Little Mermaid follow-up, and their screenplay draft was delivered in April 1991. And then material we don’t like to talk about duly hit the fan.

You might think of Black Friday as a day to go and trample over people in pursuit of a cheap telly you don’t want. But for Disney animators, Black Friday is that April day when Disney animation boss Jeffrey Katzenberg rejected the script, and ordered the team to start again. This has happened before on animated movies (the development of Beauty And The Beast had a false start or two before it got going). The difference here was that Katzenberg wouldn’t budge on the release date. The film was still going to be in cinemas in finished form in November 1992.

The Aladdin team had to go back near square one, with 22 months to put the whole film together. Every last bit of it.

Musker and Clements rose to the challenge. They reworked the screenplay in just over a week, with a new plot, and work began in earnest. Falling by the wayside – and since released as part of a fascinating set of deleted music – were many of Ashman’s songs. In fact, Ashman was so ill by this point, he was unable to complete his work on Aladdin. He died in 1991, and Alan Menken thus partnered with Tim Rice on the film’s music.

Even after the film’s release, there were problems though. An early lyric in the film, “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face, it’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home,” was changed after objections from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. By this time, the film had already been released in US cinemas, but the line was changed for the video release, and subsequence UK cinema roll-out.

Also:

Dumbo: A five-week animator’s strike hurt the production, and apparently, some of the strikers are represented in the film itself as the clowns who go looking for a pay raise.

Lilo & Stitch: In the aftermath of September 11th 2001, the film’s originally ending, which had a 747 flying between the skyscrapers of Honolulu was abandoned, and changed to a spaceship in the clouds. The film was released in the US on June 16th 2002.

The Lion King: Disney’s most successful hand-drawn animated film started life as King Of The Jungle back in 1988, with an original script drawing inspiration from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Roger Allers was joined by Rob Minkoff as director just over two years before the film was released, though, and a major revamp of the film’s second half took place. The character of Simba also underwent changes, and rewrites continued for much of 1992.

Interestingly, the film was in production at the same time as Pocahontas, which many believed was going to be the more successful film…

Shrek: Mike Myers wasn’t DreamWorks’ first choice to voice its now iconic ogre. That honour went to Chris Farley, who had already started recording his voice for the film, before his tragic and untimely death. Mike Myers came in, and had to re-record the role from scratch.