content by

Mari Ness

Fiction and Excerpts [3]

Fiction and Excerpts [3]

Breaking Away from Your Programming: Wreck-It Ralph

By 2006, the Disney Animation Studios had collected a number of projects in various stages of development, including ideas that had been lingering around for decades, somehow never quite managing to take the next step into development stage. One of many such projects was a little thing about a video game—something Disney storyboard artists had worked on back in the 1980s, and then again in the 1990s, going nowhere until John Lasseter, Disney’s then-new Chief Creative Officer, hearing the magic words “video game,” thought of bringing up the concept to veteran television animation director Rich Moore.

[Even villains can want more out of life. Major spoilers ahead.]

Hunting for Honey in the Franchise: Disney’s Winnie the Pooh (2011)

After taking charge of the Disney Animation Studios in 2006, one of John Lasseter’s most immediate tasks was to see if Disney animators could exploit Disney’s other franchises, properties and trademarks. The result was not just a series of films introducing new Disney Princesses, or even an animated film focusing on one of Marvel’s more obscure superhero teams, but a film that focused on one of Disney’s most lucrative franchises, one based on a bear with very little brain, Winnie the Pooh.

[A film focused on honey and hunger…]

An Adorable Dog in an Unbelievable Premise: Disney’s Bolt

After his appointment as Disney’s new Chief Creative Officer in 2006, John Lasseter’s first task was to look at what projects the animation department had on hand. Some, like Meet the Robinsons, were immediately put through a rapid revamping process in a desperate effort to get a decent film out in time to meet various cross promotional contracted deadlines. Some, like The Princess and the Frog, were rapidly moved from a Disney Princess marketing concept into full production. Some, including sequels to Chicken Little and The Aristocats, were simply cancelled.

[And then there was the little film about a puppy…..]

Udderly Awful Yodeling: Disney’s Home on the Range

“Ha! Bovine bounty hunters! Now I’ve seen everything.”

Sometimes, you’re sitting on a couch, aimlessly scratching the chin of an overly friendly cat, and then some animated bulls start sexually harassing an animated cow voiced by Judi Dench, and a cattle rustler voiced by Randy Quaid starts yodeling, turning the animated cows pink, and you start wondering where you went wrong in life.

And that’s all before Randy Quaid’s yodeling breaks into the William Tell Overture.

[I have suffered for your sins, oh readers. Oh how I have suffered.]

The End of an Animated Era: Disney’s Brother Bear

When Walt Disney World opened the MGM-Hollywood Studios theme park in 1989, the “Magic of Disney Animation” was one of its most popular attractions. In part, this was because the theme park initially didn’t have that many attractions, thanks to contract disputes, unexpected delays and the initial plan to use part of the theme park as a working backlot, a plan which eventually proved impractical. But in part, it was because the “Magic of Disney Animation” offered a then-rare chance to see Disney animators in action in a working studio.

Of course, that meant that the animators there had to be given actual work to do.

[Why “bear” may not be a sufficient inspiration for a film.]

Aliens and Family Values: Lilo and Stitch

Gantu: You’re vile. You’re foul. You’re flawed!

Stitch: Also cute and fluffy!

Before I get into this post, I should perhaps confess something. I have two plush Stitches; a Yoda Stitch complete with a stuffed green light saber; a Christmas Stitch; assorted Disney Trading Pins featuring Stitch, including, but not limited to, a Star Wars Emperor Palpatine Stitch and a pirate Stitch; and a Stitch backpack which I have taken to cons.

Which is to say, I may—may—have a slight bias in favor of destructive aliens reformed through the examples of Elvis and Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling.

Just slight.

So now that we have that slightly embarrassing admission out of the way… let’s chat about Lilo & Stitch.

[In which we can all learn valuable lessons from the sterling example of Elvis Presley]

An Expensive Adventure: Atlantis: The Lost Empire

Disney executives could not help but notice a few things during the 1990s. One: even accounting for inflation, science fiction films continued to do very well at the box office, if not quite grossing the same amounts as the original Star Wars trilogy. And two, many of the fans who flocked to Disney animated films, theme parks and the newly opened Disney Cruise Line were teenagers. Why not, executives asked, try an animated science fiction or adventure film aimed at teenagers? It would be a bit of a risk—the company’s previous PG animated film, The Black Cauldron, had been a complete flop. But they could bring in directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, whose Beauty and the Beast had been a spectacular success, and who had also added more mature elements to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It was worth a try.

In theory.

[A film unsafe for linguists to watch]

When Chaos Leads to Comedy: The Emperor’s New Groove

That is the last time we take directions from a squirrel.

In the early 1990s, the Disney animation department was flying high, after a series of remarkable films that had restored the studio’s critical reputation and—perhaps more importantly—its funding. The success led Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg and the animators and directors to brainstorm even more ambitious prestige projects: an adaptation of a Victor Hugo novel, a continuation—finally—of the 1940 Fantasia, and a film about space pirates that its directors simply would not shut up about. Oh, as a nice follow-up to films set in Africa and China, something set in South America. About, perhaps, the Incas. Featuring songs by no less than singer-songwriter Sting himself.

The film—with the grandiose title The Kingdom of the Sun—had all the elements of a guaranteed Disney hit: romance, comedy, hit songs, and cute llamas. And, its directors promised, it would remain just serious enough to be recognized—like its Disney Renaissance predecessors—as Real Art.

You might notice that The Kingdom of the Sun is not in the title of this post.

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Who knew Dinosaurs Could Be This Boring? Disney’s Dinosaur

Until relatively recently—well after its initial release—Dinosaur was not considered part of the official Disney canon of animated films. Oh, certainly, it had been released under the Disney name. It opened with the Walt Disney logo. It contained several typical Disney elements and themes—celebrity name those voices, adorable animals, a young protagonist trying to find a place where he could fit in, and a focus on accepting people who look different. The Disney theme parks sold Dinosaur related merchandise, especially at the Animal Kingdom park, which had an entire dinosaur section. And the film featured then-state of the art animation.

And yet, Disney executives initially claimed, this was not—no matter what it looked or sounded like—part of the official canon. It was something completely different.

[In which we learn that dinosaurs can be surprisingly boring]

Experiments in Animation: Disney’s Fantasia 2000

World War II and subsequent budget cuts brought Walt Disney’s original plans to release the 1940 Fantasia every year as an evolving project to an abrupt end. Even after Cinderella brought the studio back to profitability, Disney still did not have money—and theatres did not have the sound equipment—to plunge back into Fantasia again, partly because those profits were instead invested in the Disneyland theme park and partly because the studio had shifted to a simpler, cheaper animation style. Only one more film in the Walt Disney years—Sleeping Beauty—came anywhere near to Fantasia’s detailed, lavish animation style, and when it flopped at the box office, Walt Disney gave up all hopes of continuing Fantasia.

But as Disney animation joyfully returned to quality and—above all—profitability in the early years of the Disney Renaissance of the 1990s, Roy Disney, nephew of Walt Disney, and arguably the single person at Disney most interested in preserving his uncle’s legacy, had an idea: why not finally fulfill Walt Disney’s vision and create new segments for Fantasia? Perhaps even an entirely new Fantasia?

[A work of art that also helped create new computer animation processes]

Treading Ink: Disney’s Robin Hood

Disney animators faced the 1970s in a glum mood. After Walt Disney’s death in 1966, it seemed more than possible that the storied animation department would be closed down completely as the company moved on to focus on other, more profitable things such as family friendly live action films, theme parks, and merchandise. The Aristocats had earned back its costs, but not much more than that, and critics had noted—or claimed to have noted—the lack of the distinct Walt Disney touch. The animation studio’s budget was slashed. About all the animators really had on their side was company history, which virtually identified “Disney” with “animation.” To continue the success of the Disney brand, they argued, the animation studios needed to continue to produce full length films. Disney executives were not quite persuaded, but did release just enough—just barely enough—money to let the animators cobble together another full length film, Robin Hood.

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Everybody Wants To Be a Cat: Disney’s The Aristocats

After Walt Disney’s death, a pallor hung over the Disney animation studios, with animators and executives alike unsure of whether they should continue creating animated films—or even if they could. Almost all of the greatest Disney animated films had benefited from Walt Disney’s close—occasionally too close—supervision. The least successful film, The Sword in the Stone, was the film that he’d had the least involvement with. And although the last film he’d supervised, The Jungle Book, had been a hit, the animation studio was still on a restricted budget, with no chance of recreating the lavish animation of the prewar films, or even the simpler beauty of something like Lady and the Tramp.

On the other hand, the animated films continued to bring in money for Disney during every theatrical re-release, animation was proving to be increasingly popular on television, and the company had built its reputation on animation. Disney decided to go ahead with another animated film. But they also decided to play it very safe, choosing The Aristocats—a project originally planned for television, not film, but which had the advantage of having the seal of Walt Disney’s approval.

[Safe to the point where very little happens.]

The First True Disney Romance: Lady and the Tramp

Walt Disney started the 1950s in a delighted mood. Cinderella wasn’t just a hit—it was doing so well that he finally had funds to start up his next dream project, a little thing he called Disneyland. And possibly start shifting his movie studio towards making live action films, since the joint cartoon/live action experiments had, for the most part, done decently at the box office.

Alas, the films that immediately followed Cinderella did not do quite as well at the box office. This wasn’t just the usual revenue problem: Walt Disney needed a film to keep up the interest in his company and build the Disney brand as he started to build Disneyland. Disney did have another animated film in production, the lavishly animated Sleeping Beauty, but for multiple reasons, that film was mired in production delays. Disney needed a new animated film relatively quickly—something easy to animate, with clear popular appeal. Those little mice had unexpectedly become the showstoppers of Cinderella, and Disney had generally—Bambi aside—done well with cartoon animals. Why not something about dogs?

[Plus, he also had to create this film just as film technologies were changing]

One Last Package of Disney Shorts: Melody Time

As the 1940s continued, Walt Disney did not—could not—dare to hope too much. His recent animated films had all ranged from complete box office failures to at best modest successes. The modest successes had nearly all included live action footage, suggesting that viewers might be more interested in Disney’s live action films than in Disney’s continued experiments with animation. Still, the studio was surviving—if barely—financially. Perhaps—just perhaps—the studio could start working on another full length animated film again. Nothing as elaborate as the pre-war films, of course, but something that would let the studio tell a full story again and possibly show off the character animation the studio had still been developing. Maybe something about princesses. With cute mice.

In the meantime, however, Walt Disney still needed to keep the studio’s doors open and give RKO Films a full length film. Still lacking the money—and the artists—for a full length film, he ordered the animators to produce yet another series of cartoon shorts. This particular collection would, like Fantasia, focus on combining animation with music—in this case, mostly cheerful songs. It would also, Walt Disney decided, showcase a couple of American folk heroes, to celebrate—and take advantage of—the postwar surge in American patriotism. And just to ensure that film audiences would flock to what would be a comparatively thin and short selection of cartoons, Melody Time would also feature a cameo from popular cowboy star Roy Rogers and his arguably even more popular horse, Trigger. Roy Rogers’ band, the Sons of the Pioneers, would sing.

[Not that Roy Rogers and Trigger ended up being in much of the film.]

Forcing a Theme: Disney’s Fun and Fancy Free

What diabolical plot is being hatched in the brain of this poor demented duck?

As the United States emerged from World War II, Walt Disney felt increasingly desperate—and removed from the animation that had previously been his heart and soul. The majority of his films had been box office bombs, and even the cartoon shorts that had helped build the company before Snow White were facing increasing competition, especially from a director/animator called Chuck Jones over at rival Warner Bros. The money earned from producing training films for the Defense Department was gone, and distributor RKO Films refused to let Disney release Snow White and Dumbo on a yearly basis. Walt faced a crisis: his studio still didn’t have enough money to put together a full length animated picture, but the collections of cartoon shorts weren’t doing all that well either, strongly suggesting that the studio needed to return to longer features in order to survive.

What Walt Disney did have was a cartoon loosely based on the fairy tale Jack and the Beanstalk, featuring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy.

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