Making movies is expensive, and the people who make them are often fickle penny pinchers who prefer to jump ship before it hits the iceberg. The history of Hollywood is littered with near mythic tales of the great cinematic masterpieces that never finished production. Everyone knows about the now legendary version of Dune, to be directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky, but there’s also the Richard Stanley take on The Island of Doctor Moreau, Stanley Kubrick’s unmade magnum opus drama of Napoleon’s life, and that time Tim Burton almost made Nicolas Cage Superman. Books have been written about them, documentaries have detailed how close they all came to completion, and many a Film Twitter argument has broken out over whether these lofty ambitions would have made a truly watchable film. The real thrill is in knowing that we’ll never get any concrete answers.
Nobody knows this better than Disney, the most beloved studio of the Hollywood age and easily the most ruthless force in American cinema. Say what you want about union-busting, frozen head in a jar Uncle Walt, but that man was a capitalist who knew when and where to cut the cord if need be. That legacy has continued to today. After all, this is a studio who have no qualms about not only sacking directors midway through shoot but having an entire movie’s plot and tone dramatically shift in the changeover. If they don’t like what you’re making, then they sure as hell won’t let you continue making it on their dime.
To list every project that Disney never got to make would take days, and would need to encompass everything from cancelled projects to unmade fever-dreams to total overhauls of near-finished material. There would be stuff on shut-down straight-to-video and DVD sequels - something Disney invested a lot in for over a decade - as well as the stories that never got out of the pitch stage. So, for the sake of clarity, this piece will discuss the films that were given at least some substantial coverage in their early announcements. We’re talking about the films that had titles ready, synopses set in stone, even footage drawn. Failures are one thing, but to get so far into the process only for the highers-up to turn off the lights is its own particular strain of creative agony.
Disney animation can skew pretty adult in its themes - to this day, I’m still stunned that they managed to make The Hunchback of Notre Dame as bleak and sexual as they did - but they’ve never made a film intended specifically for adults. We still mostly view animation, at least mainstream American stuff, as family friendly stuff. Directors Howard Baker and Roger Gould wanted to change that in the mid-1990s, and so they set about making Wild Life. Inspired by Pygmalion, this comedy was to be about an elehant who suddenly makes it big on the New York club circuit. The humour was most definitely for adults, and the 70s styling would have referenced figures like Diana Vreeland and Andy Warhol. You know, good kid friendly stuff.
Apparently about $20m was pumped into this project’s early conception. It was also completely hated by Roy Disney, then the chairman of the board. Reportedly, one scene where two gay characters enter the sewers together, with one remarking, ‘have you ever been down a manhole before?’, was too much for him. He ordered the project be shut down. I thought the joke was funny.
Inspired by the French play, Disney took two cracks at adapting this tale for the big screen. With a cast of farmyard animals and a satirical plot about idealism and a cocky rooster who thinks his crowing causes the sun to rise, you’re probably more familiar with this story from the truly terrible Don Bluth movie, Rock-a-Doodle. Before that, a Disney project was in development with the studio for at least two decades.
Various animators took a stab at it, and Disney himself was allegedly passionate about the project, but it never really worked. Even when the studio head advised the teams to combine the story with the tale of Reynard the Fox, in an effort to make the vain bird more sympathetic as a protagonist, it never came to fruition. Animating animals was also much costlier than doing so with humans, so the studio went with its other big project at the time, The Sword in the Stone. Evidence of Chanticleer can be found throughout Disney: The rooster narrator of Robin Hood holds obvious allusions, and artist Marc Davis’s character designs were incorporated into the Disneyland attraction, America Sings.
If Terry Gilliam has taught us anything, it’s that the tale of Don Quixote may be a bit too much for just one man, or at least just one attempt. Disney were determined to get this one off the road, first taking a shot at it in the 1940s. Early rounds were shelved as the studio struggled with cutbacks during World War 2 - their focus went onto making war propaganda - but following that, they returned to the project with a second proposal coming in 1951. The basic plot and approach would have been the same as the earlier proposal, but little seems to have been completed before they moved onto more comfortable Disney fare.
Cut to 50 years later and animators Paul and Gaetan Brizzi decided to pitch the story yet again, but with a more adult approach. This was the end of the Disney Renaissance, where their princesses & classic story reimagining formula had run its course, so the House of Mouse said no and the pair left for Dreamworks. But now, Don Quixote is alive again. In 2016, it was announced that a more madcap approach to the story was in development, one which looked to Pirates of the Caribbean for inspiration. Can we please keep Johnny Depp away from this one?
Oh, Robert Zemeckis. Remember when you were so into motion-capture performances that you thought it was truly the future of cinema? Bless.
After The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol, the director was ready to take on The Beatles themselves. The studio even planned to get it out in time for the 2012 Olympics in London. Peter Serafinowicz was cast as Paul and George was to be played by Cary Elwes. If any project could have been a good match for the uncanny valley surrealness of motion-capture, it’s the ultimate LSD trip of pop culture. And then along came Mars Needs Moms. The film has all but faded from popular memory, but this disastrous family film remains one of the biggest financial flops in cinematic history. How bad did it do? Try grossing $39m worldwide on a $150m budget. Audiences just never really warmed to motion-capture beyond its novelty value. The technology isn’t there yet to convince us we’re watching something other than creepy vacant eyes. It may happen eventually, but not with Yellow Submarine, as Zemeckis himself has admitted to getting bored with the project and not wanting to screw it up.
KING OF THE ELVES
In 2008, Disney revealed their animation slate for the coming years, with titles such as Up, the first sequel to Cars, and their return to hand-drawn animation with The Princess and the Frog. The anomaly on that list was King of the Elves. Originally set for a Christmas 2012 release, this would have seen Disney take on the sci-fi giant Philip K. Dick. The CGI project - which would have had a black lead - was shelved the following year, but brought back into development with a new director in 2011. Once again, it was put on hold in 2012 as director Chris Williams went on to make Big Hero 6. No news has been heard on the project since then so it’s safe to say Disney aren’t ready to go full Dick quite yet.
(Image from Disney Wikia)
I remember waiting a long time for this film, having seen news of it for many years before the studio quietly announced that Pixar would no longer be going forward with it. At the time, it was the only film the computer animation giants had never actually cancelled, and that came after details like casting had already been announced. The early artwork looked gorgeous too. So why was this cancelled? Well, let’s hear the synopsis:
‘What happens when the last remaining male and female blue-footed newts on the planet are forced together by science to save the species, and they can’t stand each other? That’s the problem facing Newt and Brooke, heroes of “Newt,” the Pixar film by seven-time Academy Award® winner for sound Gary Rydstrom, and director of Pixar’s Oscar-nominated short, “Lifted”. Newt and Brooke embark on a perilous, unpredictable adventure and discover that finding a mate never goes as planned, even when you only have one choice. Love, it turns out, is not a science.’
Now swap out lizards for birds. Ever seen Rio? Therein lies the problem. Disney and Pixar probably could have taken on Blue Sky studios, and easily have bested them in the creative stakes. But it’s easy to see why the titans of the industry wouldn’t want to go through another round of duelling with their rivals. They already exhausted themselves with that spiel with A Bug’s Life versus Antz, courtesy of Dreamworks. Pixar president Edwin Catmull stated that the film had troubles from the pre-production stage, so it was passed onto veteran Pete Docter. He pitched another idea, and Pixar went with that instead. In fairness, Inside Out is pretty darn good.
Hey, remember that Jack and the Beanstalk movie Disney were supposed to be releasing this year? Following in their tried and tested musical comedy formula, this was set to be another fairy-tale reinvention that subverted the tropes but remained inimitably Disney. This time around, with Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Bobby Lopez of Frozen fame writing the music, the young Jack would have befriended a pre-teen girl giant who lived among the clouds. It’s something of a surprise that Disney never got around to a Jack and the Beanstalk story until the 21st century, but perhaps its recent cancellation explains why. Ed Catmull was candid but still vague in his explanation that the film ‘just isn’t working’ and that ‘although it’s a difficult decision, we are ending active development for now. We are focusing our energies on another project that has been in the works.’ We don’t know which film has been given that crucial Christmas of 2020 release date, but remember, they are planning another project with Lin-Manuel Miranda…
Which one of these unmade Disney films intrigues you the most?
(Header photo from Getty Images)