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Looking back on "Beauty & the Beast" -- Part I

Jim Hill

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Looking back on "Beauty & the Beast" -- Part I

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You wanna know what I'm doing next Monday night?

Well, actually, in order to tell this story properly, I guess I better back a bit first. And tell you what I'm doing a day or so BEFORE next Monday. Which is getting on a plane and flying 3000 miles to Southern California. Just so I can be at the Glendale Public Library next Monday night to attend "The Lion King" 's 10th anniversary reunion.

"So what's so special about this 'Lion King' reunion?," you ask. Well, just take a look at the panel that ASIFA-Hollywood has put together to discuss this historic 1994 Walt Disney Pictures release:

  • Roger Allers, CO-director of "The Lion King."
  • Rob Minkoff; co-director of "The Lion King."
  • Irene Meechi, co-writer of "The Lion King."
  • Andreas Deja, animator of Scar
  • Mike Surrey, animator of Timon
  • Tony Bancroft, animator of Pumbaa
  • Scott Johnston, CGI creator of "The Lion King" 's wildebeest stampede sequence

"Lion King" story artist Tom Sito will serve as the panel's moderator. But the really big news is that -- for the very first time ever since he left the Mouse House back in July 1994 -- Jeffrey Katzenberg is making an appearance at a Disney-related event. To talk about the film that he helped shaped into Disney Feature Animation's biggest blockbuster ever.

Okay. If you're a serious animation fan ... Obviously, you now know that you HAVE TO be in the auditorium at the Glendale Public Library next Monday night. To hear what Roger, Rob, Irene, Andreas, Mike, Tony, Scott, Tom and especially Jeffrey have to say about the making of this modern Disney Feature Animation classic.

"What sort of stories can I expect to hear at an ASIFA-Hollywood reunion?," you query. Well, here: Let me share a few stories from the last time that this nonprofit organization held an event like this. Which was back in July 1992, when ASIFA assembled a panel of Disney veterans to celebrate the 11th anniversary of "Beauty & the Beast." As well as share some stories about it was like to put that particular picture together.

Among the folks who were on the dais that night were "B & B" 's producer Don Hahn; Gary Trousdale, one of the film's directors; Nik Ranieri, the Disney Animation vet who animated Lumiere; Brenda Chapman, a story sketch artist on that film; Roger Allers, who also did story work on "Beauty & the Beast" as well as Jim Hillin, "B & B" 's computer FX supervisor.

Now you have to understand that -- according to these folks -- that the story of "Beauty & the Beast" actually begins back in the Spring of 1988. Just as production of "Beauty & the Beast" was wrapping up. And Walt Disney Feature Animation was looking for a project to keep the team of London-based animators (who had done the bulk of the work on "Roger Rabbit") intact. And -- more importantly -- busy.

For almost a year at that point, Disney's story teams had been working on developing an animated version of "Beauty & the Beast." Which everyone recognized as a classic fairy tale. The only problem was ... Not even Walt himself could figure out to do with the story's second act. When the girl is trapped in the Beast's castle. And all these two characters seemed to do was sit around & talk as they had dinner.

Well -- after a year or so of story work -- Disney Feature Animation thought that they finally had a workable version of the film's story. Of course, in this very early incarnation of the movie, Belle had a cat named Claire and several self-centered sisters. And Gaston -- instead of being an egotistical hunter -- was this elegantly dressed fop. Plus -- instead of having a short, stupid henchman like La Fou -- Gaston was saddled with a nervous accountant (who looked an awful lot like Woody Allen, by the way) who served as his sidekick.

Oh ... And did I mention that this version of "Beauty & the Beast" wasn't a musical? That's right, folks. This extremely early version of the film didn't have a single song in it.

Anyway ... As I mentioned, Disney Feature Animation saw "B & B" as a way to keep the London-based "Roger Rabbit" production team busy & intact. Which is why -- initially -- Disney tried to recruit "WFRR" 's animation director, Richard Williams, to direct "Beauty & the Beast."

And -- for a while there -- Richard reportedly did give some semi-serious thought to directing "B & B." But then Williams realized that -- if he put in the time necessary to complete Disney's "Beauty & the Beast" -- that would be another four years away from working on his own dream project, "The Cobbler & the Thief." A traditionally animated epic that -- at that time -- Richard had already been working on for over 20 years.

Realizing that it was really time that he got back to work cobbling together "Cobbler," Williams turned down Disney's offer. Which is why the powers-that-be at WDFA eventually recruited Richard Purdum -- a well respected British animator who ran his own studio in London -- to serve as "Beauty & the Beast" 's director.

So -- for 10 weeks -- Purdum & his crew of "Roger Rabbit" vets labored at putting together Disney's "Beauty & the Beast." Of course, in an effort to make sure that they got all of the chateaux featured in this film just right, Richard and key members of his animation team made a "research trip" to France's Loire Valley.

Among the folks who reportedly went on this trip was Disney master animator Glen Keane. Who -- years later -- didn't really have all that much to say about the castles that they toured, but did supposedly have some very fond memories of all the great French wine that the animators got to drink as they worked their way across the Loire Valley.

Anyway ... After 10 weeks of hard work, "Beauty & the Beast" 's producer Don Hahn flew back to Burbank with the footage that Purdum & his "Roger Rabbit" team had completed for a work-in-progress screening of the film. What was screened that afternoon on the Disney lot was mostly storyboards & unfinished animation. But even in this extremely rough form, it was supposedly immediately obvious that "B & B" was already in trouble. If anything, "Beauty & the Beast" was the anti-"Roger Rabbit." The film was slow, dark, depressing. Exactly what Disney studio Jeffrey Katzenberg WASN'T looking for in his "Roger Rabbit" follow-up project.

Which was why Jeffrey allegedly turned to Don that fateful afternoon & said: "I guess it's time to fish or cut bait." Which -- in Disney studio exec speak -- means: "We've got the wrong director on this project. Please go back to London and fire Richard Purdum while I search for another director here in Hollywood to take charge of this film."

Which is just what Don did. Though not with much enthusiasm. Why for? Well, Hahn actually liked Richard Purdum and had great respect for him as an animator. "How much respect?," you ask. 10 years later, Don personally recruited Richard to come work on "Fantasia 2000." The film where Purdum's studio animated virtually all the animals that trooped in and out of the ark in "F2K" 's "Pomp & Circumstance" sequence.

Anyway ... While Don Hahn was back in London, firing Richard Purdum, Jeffrey Katzenberg was out beating the bushes back in Burbank, trying to find SOMEONE to serve as interim director of "Beauty & the Beast." One of the folks that Katzenberg reportedly approached was Disney animator Randy Haycock.

Best known today as the supervising animator of Clayton in "Tarzan" and Princess Kida in "Atlantis: The Lost Empire," Randy was supposedly a pretty cocky guy back in the late 1980s. Which is why Haycock reportedly told Katzenberg that he'd only accept the position of "B & B" 's director if he was given complete creative control over the film.

Once Jeffrey finished laughing, he told Randy: "Thanks but no thanks."

So who did Katzenberg eventually recruit to direct "Beauty & the Beast." Come back tomorrow when I'll continue this story at JimHillMedia.com. When you'll learn how "Cranium Command" 's pre-show actually wound up giving two green kids a shot at the big chair.

To learn more about ASIFA-Hollywood's "The Lion King" 10th anniversary event -- that's being held Monday, June 14th at the Glendale Public Library -- JHM suggests that you follow this link .

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