The early versions of Pixar film stories

Which Pixar film began life as a story about two alien princes living in a floating city? That’s right, Up…

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“When I grew up, I always thought the way it worked is: Walt Disney is sitting in bed and he sits up and goes [clicks fingers] Dumbo! And they just do it. He goes to work and he has the whole film in his head, “In the opening shot, we see a stork…” That was what I seriously believed how it worked. So I was waiting for John [Lasseter] to come in and tell us what we’re going to do. Instead, he would come in and go, “Well, what do you think, guys?”

– Pete Docter, director of Inside Out, Up, Monsters Inc.

As Pixar’s Pete Docter found out, animated movies obviously don’t spring, Athena-like, fully formed from the head of their creator. The process is one of continual refinement, and the tweaks can go on right down to the wire. As Docter joked to journalist Richard Crouse at TIFF 2015, “I honestly think that if we did not have deadlines we would seriously still be working on Toy Story 1.”

During Pixar’s rigorous story development, plots are scrutinised, characters scrapped, and settings changed. It’s a long, expensive process in which concepts (and entire films in the case of Newt) can be abandoned, or new creative teams brought in to replace those seen to be no longer working. All of it is done in pursuit of story, Pixar’s holy grail.

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But what about those original, abandoned concepts? How were films like UpA Bug’s Life and Monsters Inc. originally conceived? Every Pixar movie started somewhere, even if, as we’ll see below, that somewhere was entirely different to where they ended up…

Toy Story (1995)

What was different? 

Plenty. According to David A. Price’s The Pixar Touch: The Making Of A Company, before Woody and Buzz were the stars, Toy Story was originally to have been Tinny, the one-man-band plaything from John Lasseter’s 1988 short Tin Toy. A mishap on a family trip would have seen Tinny forced to pair up with a ventriloquist dummy on a search for a new home.

Tinny was given a makeover to update the character, transforming him into Lunar Larry, a space-themed military toy, later known as Tempus from Morph, a character who eventually evolved into Buzz Lightyear. Woody’s character started life as a ventriloquist’s dummy, at one point, the oppressive villain of the movie who was relentlessly cruel to the other toys, calling them names and pushing Buzz out of a window deliberately, rather than by accident.

Early versions of the story for the first film also featured Toy Story 2 characters Wheezy the Penguin, collector Al McWhiggin, and Barbie (the latter of whom became Little Bo Peep when Mattel short-sightedly refused to license the doll for the first picture). According to Price’s book, Joss Whedon, who worked on the film’s script, intended for Barbie to have rescued Buzzy and Woody in the movie’s final scenes by driving her car off a bridge, channelling the action heroics of Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

A Bug’s Life (1998)

What was different? 

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Before Flik, the marginalized colony ant who becomes its savior in A Bug’s Life, there was Red. Red was the ant ringmaster of a troupe of circus insects who hatched a plan to freeload off and then abandon an ant colony being exploited by a pack of grasshoppers by having his circus friends pose as warriors-for-hire. After warming to the colony and their princess leader though, Red has a change of heart and decides to have his pals help defend them against the grasshoppers, leading a rebellion and getting into a parlous fight with their leader, the villainous Hopper, who is eventually shot out of a circus cannon, never to be seen again.

This early (and unarguably weaker – Red comes across as much less sympathetic than Flik in the animatic) version of the A Bug’s Life story can be found as a special DVD feature in the form of animated storyboards narrated by Dave Foley, the voice of Flik.

Toy Story 2 (1999)

What was different? 

The production difficulties of Toy Story 2, originally pegged by Disney as a straight-to-video sequel rather than a theatrical release, are well-documented. Last-minute revisions to the story just months before release put extraordinary pressure on the film’s creators.

As we can tell from a 1996 first draft screenplay of the film by Doug Chamberlin and Chris Webb (made available online by Raindance), the broad “Woody is stolen by a vintage toy collector” concept remained intact from the original, but there were major changes. Chief of which was the absence in the early version of Jessie, the emotional heart of Toy Story 2. Jessie the Cowgirl’s character didn’t come into the film until later revisions. Instead, the Woody’s Round-Up toy collection comprised Bullseye the horse (who was able to talk in the first draft of the script), Prospector Pete and a character named Senorita Cactus, originally intended to be an ally of antagonist Pete.

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Other, smaller differences include the Buzz Lightyear video game opener, Woody accidentally falling into a box of toys at the garage sale instead of going there to rescue Wheezy the Penguin, and the toys not seeing a TV ad for Al’s Toy Barn, but tracking him down based on his car license plate.

Additionally, the early version didn’t feature the film’s airport action ending as toy collector Al was planning to sell his collection to a New York vintage 1950s museum, rather than to a Japanese collector. That meant that the final showdown was instead, a car chase.

Monsters, Inc. (2001)

What was different? 

According to this Telegraph piece on Inside Out, featuring an interview with co-director Pete Docter, the original concept for Monsters, Inc. was reversed for the finished movie. 

Docter took his early idea for the film, in which a man on the cusp of turning thirty was still dealing with the monsters who’d been hiding in his bedroom since childhood, to Pixar’s Andrew Stanton and Joe Ranft. In the film’s earliest version, “each [monster] would represent a particular unaddressed fear or trauma from the man’s childhood, and as he found the courage to confront them in turn, they’d pack their things and move out.”

After some tinkering, that idea was switched so the man became the monster and the object of his fears were children. According to Robbie Collin, “Docter quickly redrafted the plot, switching the real and monster worlds around, but keeping its central premise intact: the mess and chaos of childhood intruding on an ordered adult life.”

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Finding Nemo (2003)

What was different? 

According to director Andrew Stanton, the role of Dory, the character voiced by Ellen DeGeneres in the original film, was originally given to battle-hardened fish, Gill. “She was originally conceived as a male character,” Stanton writes, “(typical male-thinking on my part) named Gill (later to be Willem Defoe’s character) that would befriend Marlin and guide him through the ocean. But I was getting nowhere with it.”

The way he tells it, it took a chance encounter with a TV show for Stanton to break the character of Dory. “One evening, at home, I was pounding the laptop, and my wife was watching The Ellen Show (yes, it was that long ago), and I overheard Ellen DeGeneres change the subject five times in one sentence, and a light bulb went off. The way she spoke was perfect for this character.”

DeGeneres was approached about the role, said yes, and the rest is history. The Finding Nemo sequel is due out in cinemas in June 2016.

The Incredibles (2004)

What was different? 

In Brad Bird’s original outline (he first conceived the idea for The Incredibles as a traditional cel-animation in 1993, during his time at Warner Bros), the supervillain wasn’t Syndrome, but a character named Xerek. When Syndrome, who was originally intended only to appear in the film’s opening scene, proved more popular than Xerek, the change was made and the latter has now found life as a character in the now-defunct Boom! The Incredibles comic series. Concept art for the character of Xerek and another potential villain for the film can be seen here, at Lou Romano’s blog.

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Aside from telling Radio Free Entertainment in 2004 that the finished film is “pretty much the same story arc I came to Pixar with,” Brad Bird has never gone into a great deal of detail about how his original concepts, reportedly titled The Invincibles, differs from what we eventually saw. The reason, perhaps, lies in an interview he gave to Collider about his plans for the sequel, The Incredibles 2 in May, 2015: “I had a lot of ideas for the original Incredibles that I didn’t get a chance to use, that I like. I have ideas that I wanted to pursue a little bit and there wasn’t enough time in The Incredibles.”

Cars (2006)

What was different? 

There was no Lightning McQueen for a start. Before John Lasseter’s family cross-country road trip in 2000 inspired much of Cars (then titled Route 66—the film’s research trip was on the titular highway), an original story concept had been written by Disney animation artist and writer, Jorgen Klubien (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Frankenweenie). That story, first dismissed by Pixar as too thin for a full feature, was an Ugly Duckling narrative called The Yellow Car.

According to Michael Wallis’ The Art Of Cars, as quoted in this Huffington Post piece, Klubien’s was the story of a lone, foreign, three-wheeled electric car who looks different to all of the other petrol-fuelled vehicles. A new arrival in a US small town, the titular car is marginalized by all the other vehicles for being unusual-looking, until it eventually earns their acceptance.

The Yellow Car, like the final film, was set in a world entirely populated by cars and featured “a hippie-like VW bus named Fillmore and an uptight, by-the-book Army Jeep called Sarge,” both of which, as you’ll know, featured in the finished movie.

Ratatouille (2007)

What was different? 

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Before Brad Bird (The Incredibles) replaced Jan Pinkeva (director of 1997 short, Geri’s Game) on Ratatouille, the story of the rat who wants to be a chef was very different. As told to Animated Views in this interview, Pinkeva’s story was much “more about Remy leading a double life; more torn between his new life in the kitchen and his life as a rat, at home with his family.”

Remy’s family was much larger in the original story—his mother, Désirée, was a major character, along with “hundreds of anonymous siblings.” The sewers below Paris were also a more central location in Pinkeva’s version, styled as an entire rat village, including a family home for Remy, Emile and his parents, and a village square. The expanded rat population apparently included “a very small group of heist characters, of which only Git, the big lab rat, survived to the final version.” Chef Gusteau didn’t appear as a vision to Remy in the original either; instead, he was still alive and it was him, not the food critic, who experienced the flashback to childhood upon tasting Remy’s titular dish.

While retaining the broad strokes of the story, Brad Bird introduced major changes to the structure (which you can read about at Animation Art Conversation) and characters, including greatly expanding the role of Colette, introducing the parts of the lawyer and the health inspector, and recasting the original voice for Anton Ego with Peter O’Toole.

WALL-E (2008)

What was different? 

The original idea for WALL-E, then called Trash Planet, was discussed as early as 1995 but initially dismissed. When Andrew Stanton eventually returned to the idea, he first conceived the residents of the Axiom spaceship as formless gel blobs who would, via “a sort of Planet Of The Apes conceit” find out that they had evolved from humans. “I made them like big blobs of Jello,” he told Newsarama, “because I thought Jello was funny and they would just sort of wiggle and stuff.”

Other changes from Stanton’s original story saw WALL-E inciting a robot rebellion against the gel-aliens, and EVE being revived by WALL-E at the end of the film rather than the other way around, but those gel-like aliens that were the major shift.

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Up (2009)

What was different? 

Speaking to Richard Crouse in this informative, hour-long interview filmed at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015, Up co-director Pete Docter revealed (around 39:00):

“This one actually started from a story about two princes who lived in a floating city on an alien planet, believe it or not. As we developed that, it was interesting at first and then it went to this weird place of like, ‘Who do I identify with here? I don’t understand’. After a while I realised okay, we’re getting nowhere and I’ve got to get something that people can relate to, so we stripped away everything but the essential elements of that story.”

For Docter, the essential element was the idea of escape:

“That’s what the floating city was, so we said ‘What if we make it a floating house? Well, it shouldn’t just be floating, it should have some sort of logic. Maybe balloons? Yeah okay.’ So we came up with this visual and it was really intriguing and I just couldn’t get it out of my head. Then we worked backwards from there to figure out why is this guy floating his house. Who is he? Why didn’t he just take the train or something? There must be a really good reason he’s floating his house, and where is he going?”

Their answers led to Up, countless tear-soaked hankies later, still one of Pixar’s best.

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Toy Story 3 (2010)

What was different? 

In the abandoned Circle 7 version of Toy Story’s second sequel (read more about it at JoBlo, here), the toys didn’t wind up in Day Care, but in Andy’s grandmother’s scary attic, where they were being stored while a not-yet-old-enough-for-college Andy’s bedroom was being redecorated. There, they were to have encountered an odd collection of unnerving toys including a garden gnome and a pair of monkey sock puppets.

In another early version of the story that saw the gang return to Al’s Toy Barn, Andy’s younger sister, Molly, was to have inherited her brother’s toys.

Cars 2 (2011)

What was different? 

Inspired by John Lasseter’s international press trips promoting the first Cars movie, Cars 2 was always conceived as a world tour. The Grand Prix was once planned to have five races, according to the DVD Extras, one in Germany and one in Paris (both later used in the tie-in video game), in addition to the Tokyo, Italy and London races. The film was originally set to open in Prague, but swapped to the oil rig location to provide a more “spectacular” start, according to John Lasseter.

The spy plot was also reportedly inspired by a deleted scene from the first film, in which Lightning McQueen and Sally go to see a spy movie featuring Finn McMissile at a drive-in (well, it would have to be, wouldn’t it?)

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Brave (2012)

What was different? 

It wasn’t officially set in Scotland for a start. In an early incarnation, before Brenda Chapman was replaced by Mark Andrews as the film’s director, Chapman remembers, “I originally had it set with a generic northern European feel, but we just kept honing it down until it we thought, Oh, to heck with it! Let’s just say it is Scotland!”

And a snowy Scotland at that. According to the Pixar Times, early drafts of the film, known at one point as The Bear And The Bow, had up to eighty per cent of scenes set in the snow, à la Disney’s Frozen. Other setting changes were made as development progressed, the big transformation scene, for instance, originally took place in the wilderness and was moved to inside the castle to make it less scary for young viewers.

Reportedly in one early version of the script, Merida was romantically interested in Young Maguffin, an idea jettisoned to focus more properly on the film’s mother/daughter relationship.

As Andrews tells it, his job upon replacing Chapman was to simplify the story and strip it right down to showcase the central relationship between Merida and her mother (which was, after all, always to have been Chapman’s focus in the film). “Clearing the clutter away” are the words Andrews used in a Slash Film interview. “There was a lot more magic involved and the magic was affecting the environment. ‘Do I actually need that to tell the story?’”

Monsters University (2013)

What was different? 

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Back when the Monsters, Inc. sequel was still a project at the now-defunct Circle 7 Disney project, it was subtitled, Lost In Scaradise and involved Sully and Mike having to track down Boo in the human world when her parents move house.

After the sequel was brought back in-house at Pixar, an early iteration of the sequel showed Mike and Sulley meeting as young children in Elementary School, then falling out and reconnecting at university (chiefly, as director Dan Scanlon remembers here, to work around a line in the original picture suggesting that the pair were childhood friends, when Mike tells Sulley, “you’ve been jealous of my good looks since the fourth grade”).

Another early version of the story focused on Sulley, not Mike, as the main character, showing his difficult relationship with his father as he wanted to break family tradition and become a dentist, not a professional Scarer.

Other in-development shifts include Dean Hardscrabble, voiced by Helen Mirren in the final film, originally starting life as a male character. Mr and Mrs Wazowski, Mike’s parents, were also characters in the film at one point.

Inside Out (2015)

What was different? 

The story for Inside Out went through several iterations before it wound up as the sophisticated, funny, moving film it became. At one point, there were more “emotion” characters than the final five, including a French-accented Ennui and a German-accented Schadenfreude. The stakes for lead human character, Riley, changed from wanting a particular part in a Thanksgiving play, to running away from home. And Bing-Bong wasn’t Riley’s only imaginary friend in one version, he led a whole group of them including characters named Corner Sun and Mrs Scribbles, on a protest at being forgotten about.

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The major difference between the early and final versions though, was Joy’s original companion in her journey around Riley’s mind. As Docter told us:

“For a while we got distracted and made Joy go on the journey with Fear and not Sadness, and that was another big, long detour that ended up producing some really good stuff but was wrong. I think all of us could kind of feel it. We would sit in editorial and we would have great little scenes, but they didn’t add up to anything. And as sort of proof of that, Joy in the third act, you want her to be able to do something that she would have never been able to do at the beginning. So she had gone on this long, fantastic journey with Fear and I was thinking, well, what is she racing back to headquarters to do? What action is she going to take based on what she’s learned from Fear? And it just wasn’t anything.”

Once Sadness was made Joy’s companion, the plot clicked immediately.