6 animated films that had massive upheaval mid-production

News Simon Brew 6/23/2009 at 2:20AM
Ratatouille

How Bolt, Ratatouille, The Emperor's New Groove, The Black Cauldron, Toy Story 3 and more nearly hit the skids...

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 eighteen 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 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.

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 insignificant 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, Sweatbox, was subsequently released which covered Sting working on the project. It awaits a DVD release, though, but it's one film we'd definitely like to see.

RATATOUILLE

When we interviewed Pixar's Angus MacLaine last year on the Wall-E promotional tour, 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'."

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, 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.

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.

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, will finally hit cinema screens next year, but not before a lot of will-it-or-won't-it-happen moments, and major changes of direction. 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 will finally be heading to cinemas next year.

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

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 didn't respond to the notes well, and 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. 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, is currently hard at work on DreamWorks' How To Train Your Dragon, which he is co-writing and co-directing.


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 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 that most Disney material, and with its release planned for 1985, Katzenberg ordered some hefty cuts to be made to the film.

Among the excised material were 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.

The cuts, however, were both sizeable in some instances, and cumbersome too, and 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.

TORTOISE VS HARE

Aardman Animations had just enjoyed the first, and arguably only, major success of its deal with DreamWorks Animation by the start of the decade, when Chicken Run struck at the box office, and won over critics too. And as it moved ahead on its Wallace & Gromit feature, Aardman was also in production on Tortoise Vs Hare, its take on the classic hare and the tortoise tale. However, in 2001, it was suddenly announced that production on the film had been stopped. Production was halted in July of 2001, with around 150 laid off the project.

The blame was put at the company's failure to address major script problems, and according to reports at the time, voice talent had come in to lay down their lines, and had to leave with nothing recorded. The film, incidentally, wasn't being directed by Nick Park, rather Peter Lord and Richard Goleszowski.

The project was put into turnaround, and Wallace & Gromit fast-tracked (well, as fast as plasticine-manipulating can get). The original thinking was that the film would need six months or so to sort its story problems out, but after that announcement in 2001, it wasn't heard from again for a long time, and had been presumed shelves.

Yet the film is still believed to be bubbling away, with rumours suggesting that Sony has picked the project up. Aardman's deal with DreamWorks ended after its last feature for the studio, Flushed Away, failed to take off at the box office. Since then, Aardman's highest profile project has been the latest Wallace & Gromit TV adventure, A Matter Of Loaf And Death.

The last that was properly heard of the project was back in 2006, though, when Aardman was reported to be working on the film again, yet no formal word was forthcoming. There's still no release date in the offing.

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 rise.

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.

Aladdin
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.

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.

 

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