Jim Hill: From the Archives
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That's why both sets of directors on "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" and "Treasure Planet" respectively found themselves reducing the scopes of their proposed films. Major action and effects sequences were dropped from both projects because Disney executives refused to budge on the budget for these animated motion pictures.
It was this very same message that Randy Fullmer was carrying in to his fateful meeting with Rogers Allers on "Kingdom of the Sun." At that point, Disney Studio executives weren't in the mood to hear from any film-maker -- no matter how successful they may have been in the past -- about needing more time or money to complete their project. the Mouse wanted all of its directors to play ball, to make cuts -- no matter how painful -- to make sure that their films came in on time and under budget.
Allers just wasn't willing to do this. Which was why Disney executives were secretly relieved when Roger offered to leave "Kingdom of the Sun." These Mouse House execs knew that -- since Mark Dindal was a first time director for Disney Feature animation -- they would have a far easier time getting him to toe the line and deliver a finished film on schedule and for the money the Mouse was willing to spend.
That's why so many animation insiders are angry about what became of Roger Allers' "Kingdom of the Sun." Those that are familiar with the development material that Allers created for this proposed film believe that Disney has squandered a great resource. They compare it to the Mouse taking a centuries old Sequoia and using it to make a toothpick. Or a great chef using a finely seasoned piece of steak to make a hamburger. Given its original source material, "Groove" could have been a truly great film. But Disney opted to go instead with something that was quick and easy to produce, to avoid the ambitious project and take the low road.
That's why many of these same folks doubt that any of Allers' development art for "Kingdom of the Sun" will ever turn up on the deluxe DVD edition of "The Emperor's New Groove." Why for? Because -- if Disneyana fans actually ever get wind of the great motion picture they missed out on -- they're going to be really upset.
Mind you, it's not like "The Emperor's New Groove" is going to be a disaster. Far from it. Mark Dindal did what Disney asked him to do: deliver a highly commercial film on a ridiculously short schedule. That the movie turned out to be as funny as it is is a real tribute to Mark's talent as well as those of his production team.
Yep, there's no denying that "Groove" is a wildly entertaining film. It will undoubtedly win over audiences this coming holiday season and make the Mouse some very serious coin. Its dense layering of gags will encourage moviegoers to return again and again to "Groove" -- just to catch the laughs they missed out on the last time 'round.
Yes, "Groove" is admittedly long on laughs. But it's also awfully short on heart. Disney CEO Michael Eisner knows this, which is why he's not "Groove's" Number One fan. Yet Eisner is still profoundly grateful to director Dindal for quickly turning around what could have been a disastrous situation for the Walt Disney Company.
But this is what happens when studios think with their checkbooks. Great ideas that take time to do right are abandoned in favor of okay ideas that can be produced quickly and cheaply.
Mind you, this is not the first time that Feature Animation has squandered a golden opportunity to make a great motion picture. When Walt Disney Studios acquired the rights to Lloyd Alexander's "Prydain Chronicles" in 1971, animators in Burbank were thrilled. Here finally was some great source material that they could shape into a tremendous animated film.
Early on, the surviving members of Walt's "Nine Old Men" -- Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Woolie Reitherman and Ken Anderson -- met with Alexander himself to discuss how to adapt the stories to the screen. Treatments were written. Mel Shaw filled a room with wonderful inspirational sketches and then...
What happened next to "The Black Cauldron" has some eerie parallels with the production history of "Kingdom of the Sun" / "Emperor's New Groove." Joe Hale -- the producer Disney had assigned to shepherd "Cauldron" through the development process -- had been working for months with Feature Animation freshmen Ron Clements and John Musker. Together, Ron, John and Joe (along with the help of numerous other talented folks at the studio) had crafted what many folks at Disney felt was an incredibly strong script for the proposed "Black Cauldron" film.
Ah, but not everyone in Burbank felt as strongly about Musker, Clements and Hale's "Cauldron" script. Art Stevens, Ted Berman and Richard Rich had just come off directing "The Fox and the Hound" (Some might say mis-directing. Many at Disney still believe "Fox and the Hound" would have ultimately been a much stronger film if the studio had just let the movie's original director -- Woolie Reitherman -- complete the picture. But Stevens, Berman and Rich -- who, at the time, were all young animators anxious to get their shot at directing a feature -- were determined that they should be the ones to translate Daniel P. Mannix's book to the screen.
So these three started a whispering campaign around the studio, claiming that the then-68 year old Reitherman was just too old and too tired to tackle yet another film. So Woolie ended up being pulled off the project by studio management, who then handed the reins over to Art, Ted and Richard. Stevens, Berman and Rich promptly took the years of development work Reitherman had put into "Fox and the Hound" and tossed it out the window, opting instead to do a film that was loaded with unnecessary comic characters -- which totally under- cut the message of Mannix's fine book.). Released in the summer of 1981, "Fox" made a tremendous amount of money for the studio ... which was why Ted and Richard felt that they should be rewarded for their success by being given "Black Cauldron" to direct.
Disney Studio management was initially reluctant to hand over "Cauldron" to Berman and Rich. But then -- worried that Ted and Richard might do what Don Bluth, Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy did (I.E. leave Walt Disney Productions and produce feature length cartoons for some other studio) -- the folks running the Mouse House eventually caved in and awarded directing duties to Ted and Richard.
Just as they done with Reitherman's development work on "Fox and the Hound," one of the first things Berman and Rich did after they picked up the directors reins on "Black Cauldron" was abandon all the previous script treatments that had been written for this project. Again following their "Fox" playbook, Ted and Richard loaded up their version of "Cauldron" with un-necessary comic characters and sequences -- which totally undercut the mystery and magic of Alexander's stories.
Sensing a disaster in the making, Clements and Musker begged to be taken off of "Black Cauldron." The studio agreed to let Ron and John start up a smaller unit within Feature Animation (Made up mostly of disgruntled Disney animators who had also bailed out of Berman and Richard's version of "Black Cauldron") to begin development on a follow- up project. The film that this group ultimately produced -- I'm sure you know about. Many consider it the movie that actually started the second golden age of Disney Animation: "The Great Mouse Detective."
So Allers opting to exit "Kingdom of the Sun" might -- in the end -- turn out to be a good thing for Disney animation fans. Who knows? Maybe Disney history will repeat itself and a truly fine film will follow a well meaning mess.
Mind you, "The Emperor's New Groove" is not a mess. The film has almost nothing in common with "The Black Cauldron." "Groove" -- in spite of all of its production problems -- has actually turned out to be a pretty entertaining film. Not a Disney classic, of course. But it will still make for a fun night out at the movies.
But "Groove" didn't have to be just fun. It could have been great ... If Disney had just given Allers a little more time and put a little more faith in his vision for "Kingdom of the Sun."
- Part One of this article
- Toon Talk review of Emperor's New Groove DVD
- Toon Talk review of The Ultmate Groove Pack DVD - Part 2
- Jim Hill
Jim Hill can be reached using the Talkback form below or by emailing him at [email protected].
Jim Hill is this guy who lives 'way out in the woods of New Hampshire. (Hey, it's not like he wants to live there. But the Witness Protection Program has got rules, you know.) He has one beautiful daughter and three obnoxious cats. When he's not looking for real work, Jim writes about the Walt Disney Company and related matters for LaughingPlace.com, AmusementPark.com, "Orlando Weekly" and Digital Media FX.
The opinions expressed by Jim Hill, and all of our columnists, do not necessarily represent the feelings of LaughingPlace.com or any of its employees or advertisers. All speculation and rumors about the past decisions and future plans of the Walt Disney Company are just that - speculation and rumors - and should be treated as such.
- Posted May 10, 2001
- Originally published on another website in September 2000.