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The "Chanticleer" Saga -- Part 2

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The "Chanticleer" Saga -- Part 2

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OUR STORY SO FAR: For over a decade, Walt Disney and his animators struggled to turn Edmond Rostand's satiric play, "Chantecler," into a feature length animated film. But -- in spite of the efforts of dozens of talented artists and gag men -- no one at the studio could ever figure out how to pull this project off. The story of this 1910 French barnyard comedy just seemed too slight to support a feature length film.

So -- in the early 1950s -- Walt reluctantly shelved the project. All of that great development art Disney's team had created for this proposed film got tucked away in the animation archives (a.k.a. the morgue or -- as it's known today: The Animation Research Library). It would be another 10 years before Disney artists would reopen the files and take one more shot at bringing this barnyard comedy to the big screen.

Those artists were Disney animators Marc Davis and Ken Anderson. They discovered all the "Chanticleer" stuff one day while they were poking around the morgue. Having just completed "101 Dalmatians," Marc and Ken were looking for a idea that they could develop into the studio's next animated feature. Something bold. Something funny. Something that these two could use to help push Disney Feature Animation into the 1960s.

Looking over all of that developmental material from the 1940s, Davis thought he might have finally found something he could work with...

But first they had to win Walt over to their idea.

When Ken and Marc told Disney that they wanted to revive the "Chanticleer" feature idea, Walt was initially thrilled. After all, he'd been trying to make a movie made out of Rostand's play for over 20 years at this point. But then Disney hesitated for a moment. "What about the plot?," Walt asked. "No one's ever been able to pull a decent cartoon out of this play yet. What are you two going that's finally going to make this thing work?"

"Simple," Marc said. "We're not going to use the play. Ken and I aren't even going to read the play. We'll take the bare bones of the story and just make something up."

It was a pretty audacious way to try and adapt a well-known story to the screen. But Disney loved the idea. (So much so that when the studio began working on a cartoon adaptation of "The Jungle Book," Walt's only advice to the story team -- after tossing a copy of Rudyard Kipling's book in the middle of the story conference room table -- was to say "Here's the novel. Now the first thing I want you to do is not read it.")

So Ken and Marc holed up in an office at Disney Feature Animation for months, doing character sketches and playing with various story ideas. The first thing they did was abandon all the work that the studio had done previously on "Chanticleer." Their hope was that -- by getting a fresh start -- they might be able to come up with something original: a light-on-its-feet satiric cartoon comedy. Something similar to Frank Loesser's 1961 Broadway hit, "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" -- a show that made a lot of clever, pointed jokes but never put them across in a mean spirited way.

The film's hero had to be -- obviously -- Chanticleer, a well meaning but not terribly bright rooster. He -- and all the other chickens that lived in his village -- honestly did believe that the sun came up only because Chanticleer's crowing awakened it every morning. The ladies of the village all swooned at the sight of the handsome young ***. The men in the village all wanted to be his best friend. (Think of Chanticleer as a kinder, gentler version of Gaston from "Beauty and the Beast.")

In fact, Chanticleer is so well liked that the people of the village decide to elect him Mayor. Naturally, all that power goes to his somewhat empty head. So Chanticleer starts nagging the hens to produce more eggs ... which -- of course -- annoyed the ladies.

Enter the villain: Reynard the Fox. A shady character in a battered top hat, Reynard has a pencil thin mustache and continental charm. But behind those smooth words and those heavily lidded eyes, this fox is nothing more than a slick con artist -- always playing the angles, always on the make.

Quickly sizing up Chanticleer's sleepy village as a fruit -- ripe for the plucking, Reynard sweet-talks some of the ladies of the village just so he can learn the lay of the land. The fox quickly ascertains that the chickens are unhappy under the rooster's stern leadership and that the hens long to have a little fun.

That's all Reynard has to hear. He slips out of town, only to return the very next day with his dark carnival. Run entirely by creatures of the night (owls, bobcats, moles, etc.) and birds of prey (vultures), the villagers have never seen anything like it. So the chickens stay up all night -- singing, dancing and playing games of chance. When morning comes, the hens are entirely too tired to lay any eggs.

Chanticleer views the chickens' behavior as civil disobedience, as a direct challenge to his authority. So he orders Reynard and his carnival to leave the village at once. The fox responds by saying that he thinks it's time for a change in leadership in town. That's when Reynard then announces that he's running for mayor of the village.

Alright. I know. This doesn't exactly sound like an award winning plot. And truth be told, it actually gets sillier from this point in: Chanticleer gets suckered into a pre-dawn duel with a Spanish fighting ***. (The Spaniard -- as it turns out -- is secretly working for Reynard.) Chanticleer is so busy trying not to get killed in this fight that he doesn't notice that the sun has risen without his crowing that morning.

After the fight, Chanticleer realizes that he's been a complete ass. He doesn't control the sun anymore than he can control the other chickens in his village. Yet -- because of his sincerity and newly humble nature -- the villagers find it in their hearts to forgive him.

Working together, Chanticleer and the rest of the chickens rid the town of Reynard and his dark carnival. From that point forward, Chanticleer becomes the kind, good-hearted, thoughtful leader that the villagers had always hoped he'd be. Every morning, he still crows -- not to wake the sun, mind you. But to wake his friends so that they can begin yet another day in their beautiful little French town.

Yes. Again, I know. The story sounds silly. Far too thin to support a feature length film. But what you haven't seen are all the great characters Marc and Ken came up with to people this odd little story. Marc drew literally hundreds of concept sketches which show beautiful French hens decked out in their turn-of-the-century finery. Each of the villagers has a hat, coat or cape. Wearing glasses or clutching canes, they stare up at you -- with their bright eyes and wide smiles -- out of the concept sketches and seem to scream: "Animate me!"

These stylized characters -- with their wonderful period costumes and stylized comic design -- would have actually helped Anderson and Davis pull "Chanticleer" off. For Marc and Ken were really hoping to do something ballsy, something original with this film. They envisioned "Chanticleer" as an animated equivalent of a French farce. Something so light on its feet and fiercely funny that you never notice the elephant sized holes in the plot.

Music too would have played a huge part in this film. Marc actually planned for the entire introductory sequence of "Chanticleer" to be done in song. Characters would have entered, literally lugging scenery to help set the stage for the show. Much in the style of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's "Belle" opening number for "Beauty and the Beast," the villagers would have sung about Chanticleer:

"... We love him so, 'cause he brings the sun up, you know ..."

The ironic part of all this was -- as Marc and Ken were laboring to create a film that would move Disney Feature Animation into the 1960s -- Disney's accountants were trying to convince Walt to stop making cartoons entirely.

I know that nowadays -- when an animated feature can make as much as $133 million ("Dinosaur"'s current domestic gross) -- it must sound strange that the Walt Disney Company had ever considered getting out of the animation business. But it's true, kids.

At the time (1960 / 1961), Disney had already produced some 17 feature length animated films. Roy tried to persuade Walt that these were more than enough toon titles to adequately stock the studio's film library. Studies had shown that Walt Disney Productions could release a different cartoon classics ("Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," "Pinocchio," "Cinderella," et al) each year and still make a healthy profit off the old movies. So there was really no sense in the company wasting any additional moneys making new animated films.

Walt at first strongly resisted this idea. But Roy knew just what cards to play. He had heard that his brother was toying with building another Disneyland somewhere in the United States. Roy also knew that this park -- which was supposed to be at least ten times larger that the original Anaheim project -- was going to be expensive.

"You'd have all the money you needed to get started on your new park," the elder Disney suggested, "if you just shut down feature animation."

Walt again hesitated. For this was truly a tempting offer. All the money he needed to get started on his second park. Plus the cash necessary to fund the project that Disney was really interested in in those days: audio animatronics. Never mind that old, two dimensional stuff in "101 Dalmatians" and "Sleeping Beauty." The three dimensional animated figures that Wathel Rogers and the other guys at WED were working on -- the birds, that Chinaman's head -- that was what really intrigued Walt back then.

Disney had always been a forward thinking guy. He may have loved nostalgia, but he was also eager to tackle new projects, try new things. Compared to audio animatronics, animation did seem kind of old fashioned. But did Walt really dare to shut down Disney Feature Animation?

For weeks, the younger Disney debated the idea with his elder brother, Roy. In the end, Walt just couldn't bring himself to do it. Walt Disney Productions' financial security had initially been built on the popularity of the company's animated movies. To stop making these fine family films entirely would just send the wrong message to the entertainment industry. So it just didn't seem prudent to totally pull the plug.

But what Walt did agree to do was to try scaling back animation production at the studio. Instead of a new animated feature every two years (the pace the company had tried to meet throughout the 1950s), Disney agreed to let Roy reconfigure things so that a new toon would come out once every four years.

The trouble was the studio currently had two animated films in active development: Bill Peet's adaptation of T. H. White's Arthurian fantasy, "The Sword and the Stone" and Marc Davis and Ken Anderson's "Chanticleer." To meet Roy's new animation business plan, one of these projects was going to have to be shut down.

Guess which movie hits the cutting room floor?

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