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The "Chanticleer" Saga -- Part 3

The "Chanticleer" Saga -- Part 3

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OUR STORY SO FAR: Since the late 1930s, Walt Disney had been trying to turn Edmund Rostand's satirical comedy, "Chantecler" into an animated motion picture. But -- in spite of the best efforts of the studio's top artists and storymen -- the project just wouldn't jell. So Walt reluctantly tabled the proposed film back in the early 1950s.

Flash forward to 1960. Ken Anderson and Marc Davis -- fresh off "101 Dalmatians" -- were looking for a project they could use to drag Disney's animated cartoons into the modern age. A story without a princess or a female fiend for a villain. A film that would work at two levels -- so that children and adults could both enjoy it.

While poking around the morgue (Excuse me. "Animation Research Library"), Ken and Marc came across all the development art for those earlier versions of "Chanticleer." Here finally was subject matter that challenged and inspired Anderson and Davis. Here was something that they could really work with, sink their teeth into, shape into an extraordinary animated film.

Working closely with Ken, Marc mapped out plans for a cartoon unlike anything Disney Studios had ever done before. The animated equivalent of a Broadway musical comedy, "Chanticleer" would have wildly funny characters, brassy musical numbers as well as a visual style and flair that would place it light years ahead of "Snow White" and "Cinderella."

Which was kind of ironic. For -- just as Ken Anderson and Marc Davis were making bold new plans to move Disney animated cartoons into the future -- Roy Disney was trying to talk Walt into making feature length 'toons a thing of the past.

Mind you, Roy's reasoning seemed sound. Disney Studio already had 17 feature length animated cartoons in the can. These types of movies cost a lot of money to make as well as taking years to produce. So why go through the expense and bother of making new animated features when the company could make just as much money re-releasing the old films?

Walt was sorely tempted. Particularly when Roy pointed out that the money the company saved from cutting out cartoons could be applied toward the construction costs of that second theme park Walt was toying with building. But -- in the end -- the younger Disney just couldn't bring himself to pull the plug on feature animation. All Walt would agree to do was scale back the studio's feature animation operation.

At that time, Walt Disney Productions only had two animated films in active development: Bill Peet's Arthurian fantasy, "The Sword in the Stone" and Marc and Ken's "Chanticleer." And -- per Walt's agreement with Roy -- one of those films would now have to be shut down.

Without Bill, Marc or Ken's knowledge, Walt brought himself up to speed concerning the current status of both projects. He did this by slipping into the animation building after hours, going into Peet, Davis and Anderson's offices after they'd gone home for the day and examining all the pre-production art they'd produced for "The Sword in the Stone" and "Chanticleer."

After reviewing all of the conceptual material, Disney quickly came to one conclusion: In spite of the film's heavy reliance on magic, it looked like "The Sword in the Stone" would be the easier (read that as cheaper) of the two films to produce. It was strictly a numbers thing. "Sword"'s cast was smaller and mostly human -- which made its characters easier to draw. That film's story -- though episodic in nature -- also seemed to have a bit more heart than "Chanticleer." (Wart was an underdog that an audience could care about, root for. Chanticleer was ... well ... a pompous, preening rooster who thought the sun only rose because he crowed every morning. This was not exactly a character that an audience could immediately be expected to warm up to).

"Sword in the Stone" had no elaborate musical numbers to stage, nor would its characters need big name celebrities to successfully voice their parts. The final decision seemed like a no brainer. Bill Peet's "The Sword in the Stone" would be the safer (read this also as cheaper) of the two films to produce. So Disney would have to pull the plug on "Chanticleer."

Now came the tough part. Walt was fond of both Marc and Ken. He knew that these guys had labored for the better part of a year in their attempt to turn "Chanticleer" into an animated feature. But Disney just didn't have the heart to tell them that all of their hard work was for naught, that their film wouldn't be going into production.

In the end, Walt couldn't bring himself to tell Davis and Anderson that "Chanticleer" was canceled. So he didn't.

He let a member of Roy's staff -- with a mumbled aside -- do the dirty work for him.


Marc knew he was in trouble the moment he saw where Walt was sitting.

Normally -- at pitch meetings like this -- Disney liked to be down front, dead center. Walt wanted to be as close to the action as possible, ready to leap up and act out a funny bit of business or quickly point out where the project had gone off track.

But Walt wasn't sitting down front for the "Chanticleer" meeting. He quietly took a seat at the back of the room and avoided all eye contact with Davis and Anderson. The seats in the front row? They were all taken by "Roy's Boys" -- executives who worked on the financial side of the studio.

Marc and Ken quickly exchanged worried glances. But then, gathering his courage, Davis stepped to the front of the room and began his pitch for the proposed animated film.

No sooner had the phrase: "The hero of our story is Chanticleer, a rooster..." left Marc's lips when one of Roy's boys muttered to his co-horts: "A chicken can't be heroic."

Then Marc knew. 30 seconds into his pitch, "Chanticleer" was already dead in the water. All of Davis's wonderful character sketches. All of Ken's beautifully rendered backgrounds. None of that stuff mattered. This movie was never going to get made.

Still Marc pressed on -- hoping against hope that he could win this audience over to the idea of doing an all-animated Broadway style musical that starred a chicken. No dice. The people attending this pitch session were polite but indifferent. For they knew what Anderson and Davis didn't: That Walt had already canceled "Chanticleer." He just hadn't gotten around to telling them yet.

When the session was over, those in attendance shuffled out silently -- not saying a word.

That includes Walt. Especially Walt.

A week went by and Davis nor Anderson heard nothing from nobody. They just sat in their offices, shell-shocked at how badly the "Chanticleer" pitch session had gone.

Ken's colleagues at Feature Animation gave these two a wide berth, avoided these two veteran animators like the plague. No one wanted to be associated with a development team that had failed that miserably in a pitch session for a proposed animated feature.

Only Davis and Anderson knew that they hadn't really failed. They were certain that "Chanticleer" -- as they designed it -- would have made a wonderful animated film. Sure, it would have cost a bit more to make, taken a lot longer than "Sword" to produce. But audiences would have loved the finished product.

Only this time around, there wasn't going to be a finished product. For some reason, the accountants -- not Walt -- were now calling the shots at Walt Disney Studios. And that meant an ambitious, expensive animated feature like "Chanticleer" was never going to make it off the drawing board.

What hurt most was not hearing from Walt. Walt -- the guy who'd so strongly encouraged them to take this approach with the material. Walt -- the guy who'd seemed so eager to get a "Chanticleer" movie made. Walt -- the guy who sat in the back of that pitch session and didn't say a word.

For a week, Marc waited by the phone -- hoping that his boss would call and explain what the hell was happening. Why Roy's Boys were suddenly deciding which features Disney's animators could and couldn't make.

Finally, the phone did ring. And -- yes -- it was Walt. But there was no explanation. No apology. Just a job offer.

"Marc," Walt said, "Those guys at WED aren't very good at staging gags. People have been complaining that Disneyland's shows have gotten kind of humorless. Do you think you could go over to Glendale and help them out?"

That was it. No "I'm sorry I let the accountants torpedo your film." No "You and Ken did a really great job. It's just not the right time to make this movie." No "That was the best work you guys ever did. I'm truly sorry that we can't make this movie." Just "Could you go over to Glendale and help those guys out?"

So Marc -- because of his strong sense of personal loyalty to Walt Disney -- went over to WED and helped those guys out. And he never returned to Feature Animation.

But -- In the 17 years he stayed in Glendale working at Imagineering --Davis helped create some of the greatest theme park attractions the Disney theme parks had ever seen: "The Jungle Cruise." "The Enchanted Tiki Room." "It's a Small World." "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln." "The Carousel of Progress." "Pirates of the Caribbean." "The Haunted Mansion." "The Hall of Presidents." "County Bear Jamboree." "America Sings."

All of them great shows. Each of them displaying that distinctive Marc Davis touch.

But Marc never entirely forgot about "Chanticleer." It was -- to borrow a tired phrase that almost every angler uses -- "the big one that got away." The great film that would have really put a cap on his career as a master animator.

Ah, well ... It wasn't meant to be, I guess.

Mind you, this didn't stop Davis from folding characters and concepts he created for "Chanticleer" into his work at WED. Take another look at those singing chickens in "America Sings." Do they look familiar? They should. Those birds belting out "Down by the River Side" are modeled after the feathered French hens would who have played the chorus in "Chanticleer."

And it wasn't just Marc that kept trying to recycle pieces of this proposed film. His character sketches for the aborted 1960s version of "Chanticleer" were so good, they quickly become the stuff of legends around Disney Feature Animation. Artists would repeatedly go down to the morgue (Excuse me. "Animation Research Library"), pull out the full color, beautifully rendered drawings Marc made for the movie and just marvel at them.

These drawings were so good -- in fact -- that veteran Disney animator Mel Shaw pulled them out in 1981 to try and sell Disney management on the idea that it was finally time for the studio to make "Chanticleer." Hoping to improve the proposed project's chances, Shaw worked up a story treatment that stressed the rooster's heroic qualities -- making him "the most MACHO (chicken) in all of France."

Mel also threw together an inspiring set of pastel and watercolor conceptual drawings as he tried to sell the studio on making his vision of the film. But the folks running Walt Disney Productions in the early 1980s were more cautious and conservative then "Roy's Boys" were back in 1960. They quickly shot down the idea of the studio ever doing "Chanticleer" as a full length feature.

When word got out that Disney had once again rejected the idea of doing "Chanticleer" as an animated feature, one man rejoiced. That man's name? Don Bluth.

Two years earlier, Bluth had made a very public break from the animation operation at Walt Disney Productions. Tired of the heads of the studio constantly cutting corners, always going for the safer choices, Bluth -- one of the most talented young animators Disney Studio had at the time -- bailed out of Burbank. He left his cozy corporate nest, taking 15 or more of Disney's top young animators with them.

These folks started a new animation studio, "Aurora Productions." Their mission: to make great animated films like Walt used to do. Movies like "Pinocchio" and "Bambi." With strong storylines and full animation. Not tired, half-hearted films like "Robin Hood" and "The Aristocats."

Right out of the box, Aurora Productions did make a great animated film. Maybe you've seen it ... "The Secret of Nimh?" This film has everything a hit movie should have: A solid, moving story with superb animation. Characters you care about. Big laughs. Great action sequences. A beautiful score.

Yep, "The Secret of Nimh" had everything that a hit film should ... everything except an audience. In spite of receiving tremendous reviews, "Nimh" really didn't do all that well at the box office and quickly faded from sight.

But still -- buoyed by those great reviews (as well as those encouraging phone calls from Spielberg and Lucas) -- Bluth remained hopeful. Maybe someday -- if he played his cards right -- Don might get his shot at turning "Chanticleer" into a great animated film.

For -- during his 10 year long tenure at the Mouse House -- Bluth too had been down to the morgue (Aw ... forget it!) and seen Marc's drawings. That's why he knew that a truly fine animated film could be pulled out of Rostand's barnyard comedy.

10 years later, Don did get his chance at turning "Chanticleer" into a feature length animated film. And while it would be nice to report that Bluth did want Disney couldn't: turned this French satire into a successful cartoon ... that's not exactly what happened, kids.

What went wrong? Well, for starters, Bluth's version of "Chanticleer" -- entitled "Rock-a-Doodle" -- moves the story to America and turns this French vain rooster into ... well .. sort of a feathered Elvis.

Then there's the problem with the villain. Bluth knew that if he borrowed Disney's proposed antagonist -- Reynard the Fox -- that it would be too obvious where he had cribbed his original source material from. So Bluth opted to create an all new villain for his "Chanticleer" cartoon: the Grand Duke (voiced by Christopher Plummer), an owl who wanted Chanticleer out of the way so that the sun would never rise again and the world would be forever shrouded in darkness.

Alright, so that's exactly not the greatest motivation for a movie villain. There's still lots to like about Bluth's "Rock-a-Doodle." Mouse fans will be pleased to hear that old Disney favorites like Phil Harris and Sandy Duncan provide voices for characters in the film. And -- as a sly tribute to the original author of "Chanticleer," Edmund Rostand -- Don named the little boy/cat who drives the action in the movie Edmund.

Unfortunately, audiences in April 1992 (when "Rock-a-Doodle" finally made its stateside debut) weren't feeling as kindly toward Don Bluth as I did. They greeted the film with indifference. "Rock-a-Doodle" got lousy reviews, did terrible box office and quickly sank like a stone.

So -- since Don Bluth Productions turned out such a mediocre "Chanticleer" movie -- that's the end of the story, right? No one will ever again attempt an animated version of Rostand's play, correct?

Not necessarily.

Modern Disney master animator Andreas Deja remains a huge fan of Marc Davis' conceptual work for "Chanticleer." In Charles Solomon's great book about Disney animated features that never quite made it off the drawing board, "The Disney That Never Was," (Hyperion Press, 1995), Deja is quoted as saying:

"Marc designed some of the best looking characters I've ever seen -- these characters want to be moved and used."

Deja's obsession with this material continues to this day. This past April -- as part of the "Tribute to Marc Davis" that was held at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Hollywood -- Andreas took a few moments to show the crowd some of Marc's drawings from "Chanticleer." As he looked up at the images on the screen, Deja remarked:

"It's kind of sad that this movie was never produced; the studio decided to do 'Sword in the Stone' instead. Which is also a very good movie, but wouldn't it have been nice to see these characters come to life? Apparently, at that time, the studio felt -- according to Marc -- that it would be too difficult to develop sympathy for a chicken. I don't think so. I have sympathy for these guys."

He added, while still looking up at the pictures, "One of these days, I'll have to sit down and do a few pencil tests of these characters -- just to see them move."

So there you have it, kids. Fowl fans rejoice! Particularly now that Dreamworks SKG had a huge hit this past summer with Aardman Animation's "Chicken Run." Maybe someday Deja will put together a test that finally convinces the accountants who are running the Walt Disney Company that there's a great film to be made from Marc Davis' "Chanticleer" conceptual material.

Here's hoping, anyway.

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