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The "Chanticleer" Saga -- Part 1

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The "Chanticleer" Saga -- Part 1

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Bad news, kids. Disney's animated version of "Don Quixote" is DOA. Again.

For almost 60 years now, Walt Disney Studios has been trying to turn Cervantes' satiric stories about the Knight of the Rueful Countenance into an animated feature. Different teams of artists -- in 1940, 1946 and 1951 respectively -- have taken stabs at the material, only to be tripped up by the episodic nature of Don Quixote's tale.

But this time around, it looked like the Mouse might actually pull it off. For Disney had assigned Paul and Gaetan Brizzi -- best known as the resident geniuses at Disney Feature Animation France -- to tackle the project.

(I know, I know. There are a lot of really talented artists who work for Disney Animation. But -- trust me, folks -- the Brizzis really are geniuses. Do you remember that jaw dropping opening of "Hunchback of Notre Dame"? That was storyboarded by Paul and Gaetan. How about the "Hellfire" sequence from the same film? That was them too. And Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite" in "Fantasia 2000"? Yep. That's the Brizzis again. See what I mean? Geniuses ...)

Well, Paul and Gaetan labored mightily for months on "Don Quixote," turning out elaborate and immense storyboards for the proposed film. We're talking huge pieces of conceptual art here, folks. Three feet by four feet, done all in pencil. Images that took the breath away of even the most jaded of animators.

But all this artistry was for naught. Management at Disney Feature Animation took a look at all the conceptual material the Brizzis had assembled earlier this year. Even though Paul and Gaetan's storyboards were beautiful, the brass still took a pass on the proposed film.

Why for? A number of reasons, really. Cervantes' stories -- in spite of their fanciful images of windmills turning into giants and humble country inns becoming castles -- don't really lend themselves to animation. Don Quixote's adventures tend to start and stop a lot. So it's hard to turn a series of amusing anecdotes into a coherent dramatic narrative.

Plus the Brizzis take on the material? Intense. Dark. Very adult. Their version of the story actually frightened some of the suits in the Team Disney building. So Tom Schneider thanked Paul and Gaetan profusely for their efforts, then quietly pulled the plug on the project.

So all those great inspirational drawings by the Brizzis came down off the cork board, got carefully packed away, then sent off to the morgue ... excuse me, "Animation Research Library" (ARL) ... and got tucked away in a drawer someplace.

But that's okay, folks. Because sometimes when they're feeling creatively blocked, Disney animators will go down to the ARL and start burrowing through the files. What are they looking for? Images that startle. Drawings that inspire. Pictures that make you say "God, what a great idea! I wish I'd thought of that."

Years from now, animators at the Mouseworks will be saying that very same thing when they come across Paul and Gaetan's "Don Quixote" artwork. But do you know which conceptual art file Disney's artists -- top animators like Andreas Deja, even -- request to see the most nowadays?

Would you believe it was for a Disney animated film that was to have featured fowl?

Yep, nearly 40 years before Rocky and Ginger made their great escape in Dreamworks SKG / Aardman Animation's "Chicken Run," Disney proposed starring chickens in a feature length 'toon. But these weren't going to be common English hens. Walt was interested in exotic birds. Parisian poultry.

What was the name of this proposed film? "Chanticleer." That name alone is enough to make animation historians sigh ruefully. Why for? Because this proposed animated film occupies a very unique spot in toon history. It may just be the best film Disney never made.

What was the problem here? Well, to understand what went wrong with this proposed film, you have to go back to its source material: Edmond Rostand's comedy, "Chantecler." Edmond -- best known today as the author of "Cyrano De Bergerac" -- stitched together a slight story about a vain little rooster who thought that only his crowing could cause the sun to rise. Though it was set in a barnyard, "Chantecler" was actually a sly satire of pre-World War I French society bean. In spite of its satiric underpinnings (or maybe because of them) Rostand's play became a favorite with European audiences -- where it played to packed audiences for years.

Okay, now we jump to 1937. Walt Disney Studios is just about to finish work on their first feature length animated film, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." And Disney is casting about for ideas for the company's next feature length cartoon when someone says "Hey, Walt. You ever hear of that play, 'Chantecler'?"

Walt gets a quick run-down of Rostand's plot and likes what he hears. He particularly thinks that the barnyard setting filled with farm animals will lend itself to lots of great gags for the movie. So Disney puts two of his top storymen -- Ted Sears and Al Perkins -- to work adapting the play to the animation format.

A few weeks later, Sears and Perkins get back to Walt with bad news. Try as they might, they can't turn Rostand's play into toon material. Ted and Al gripe that the pre-World War I satire will be too highbrow for American audiences. More importantly, they just can't come up with a way to make the proposed film's central character -- the vain rooster, Chantecler -- into a sympathetic character.

Walt then proposed folding the story of "Chantecler" in with another French fable the studio was toying with animating, "The Romance of Reynard." This story -- actually a collection of eleventh century European folk tales and poems -- featured Reynard, a clever fox who was always tricking greedy nobles and peasants out of their ill-gotten gold. After all, what better way is there to make a vain rooster sympathetic than to give him a strong enemy? Someone like -- say -- a tricky fox?

So Disney's story people took another whack at adapting "Chantecler" to the screen, this time using Reynard the Fox as the rooster's enemy. (About this same time, folks at the Mouse House also americanized the name of the project. Which is how "Chantecler" became "Chanticleer". Anyway ...)

But even with the new villain on board, "Chanticleer" still wasn't quite coming together. Sure, the barnyard setting and the farm animals featured in the story gave Disney's artists plenty of funny stuff to work with. And they produced plenty of wonderful conceptual drawings for the proposed project. But -- in the end -- "Chanticleer"'s story was still very weak and the main characters not terribly sympathetic. So, Walt reluctantly shelved the project.

But -- in the years ahead -- Disney would periodically pull "Chanticleer" off the shelf and ask his artists to take another whack at the material. The project was revived no less than than three different times in the 1940s alone (1941, 1945 and 1947). In fact, many of the drawings done for the late 1940s version of the film provided inspiration for Disney's 1973 animated feature, "Robin Hood" (Which -- not-so-co-incidentally starred a clever fox that tricked greedy nobles out of their ill-gotten gold.)

Still, after all this effort, Disney had yet to turn "Chanticleer" into the makings of a successful animated feature. So -- as the 1950s arrived -- Walt decided to shelve the project for good (or so he thought). He then turned his attention to other more pressing projects -- like Disneyland.

Okay. Now we jump to early 1960. Ken Anderson and Marc Davis have just about finished work on "101 Dalmatians" and they're excited. They know they've produced a film that really moved feature animation into the modern age. Both through its use of the Xerox process to transfer the animator's drawings to cels as well as the film's sketchy layout and design, "101 Dalmatians" is light years ahead of the studio's previous feature, the stodgy "Sleeping Beauty."

And the characters! Thanks to the Xerox process, the artistry and power of the lead animator's original drawings really shines through now. That's why Cruella seems so vibrant, so theatrical. That's Marc Davis drawings in the almost raw you're seeing up there on the screen there.

Marc was eager to build on the theatricality of Cruella. He wanted feature animation to next tackle a project that would allow Disney's artists to really go for broke. Swing for the fences. Do something that would dazzle and entertain a modern audience.

So what did Marc have in mind? Davis -- who was a huge fan of musical theater -- wanted to do the animated equivalent of a big Broadway musical. Something with great songs and lots of colorful characters. (Does this sound familiar, kids? It should. Nearly 30 years later, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken actually pulled this off when they collaborated with Disney Feature Animation to create "The Little Mermaid." That wildly successful 1988 film provided the template for all the animated projects that follow, "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin," et al. And here was Marc Davis -- 28 years ahead of his time -- trying to get Disney to do this very same thing. Life's funny sometimes, isn't it?)

Anywho ... So what does one base a big Broadway- style animated musical on? Well, Marc and Ken looked through all of the stories Disney currently had in development -- but didn't find anything that they liked. Which is how they ended up in the morgue ... excuse me ... "Animation Research Library" ... looking at the studio's abandoned projects.

That's when Marc came across all the great concept art that had been previously done for "Chanticleer." Looking over all these colorful drawings of chickens and Reynard the Fox, Davis had a brainstorm. He turned to Anderson and said "You know, I think we could really do something with this ..."

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