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

Jim Hill

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

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Picking up where we left off yesterday ... Richard Purdum, "Beauty & the Beast" 's first director, had just been booted off the project. Don Hahn was headed back to London to attempt to rally the troops there. While Jeffrey Katzenberg stayed behind in Burbank, as he tried to find someone who could take over the job of directing this film. Someone who could (hopefully) turn the studio's somber, serious take on "B & B" into a light, heartfelt piece of entertainment ...

Because -- truth be told -- that's what Katzenberg really wanted Disney's "Beauty & the Beast" to become. A film much more like "The Little Mermaid," the animated feature that WDFA was just then in the process of buttoning up.

Of course, Jeffrey knew the key to "The Little Mermaid" 's success. And that was all the wonderful songs that Howard Ashman & Alan Menken had written for the film. Which is why Katzenberg decided -- then & there -- that he had to recruit Ashman & Menken to help save "Beauty & the Beast" by turning this animated film into a musical.

Sooo ... At a martini party at Jeffrey's beach house, Katzenberg asked Ashman & Menken to come help bail out "Beauty & the Beast." Alan seemed interested, but Howard immediately said "No."

Why for? Well, to be honest, Ashman wanted to follow up his groundbreaking work on "The Little Mermaid" by leaping straight into production on an animated version of "Aladdin." This story was actually very close to Menken's heart, given that he had actually played the part of Aladdin in a NYC children's theater production of the story back in the early 1960s.

More to the point, Howard knew that the clock was ticking. Earlier that year, Ashman's doctor had told him that he was HIV positive. Given that this was back in the late 1980s, back before the "Cocktail" & protease inhibitors, being told that you had AIDS was a virtual death sentence. So Howard knew that he didn't really have a lot of time left. And that -- if he was going to spend his remaining time working on an animated musical for Disney -- then Ashman wanted it to be a project that he really loved. Which was "Aladdin."

Now what's important to understand here that is that Howard had told no one about his diagnosis. Not even his long-time collaborator, Menken. (Who wouldn't learn that Ashman had AIDS 'til April of 1990. Right after "The Little Mermaid" had been honored with the Academy Awards for Best Song & Best Score.)

But of course -- knowing what we know now -- it does seem kind of cruel (at that time) that Jeffrey Katzenberg was refusing to allow "Aladdin" to go into production. Mind you, we're talking about the early early version of that film. Back when the script that Disney's scriptwriters had come up with still featured two genies (I.E. The Genie of the Lamp & the Genie of the Ring), plus Aladdin's mother and his three friends, Babkak, Omar & Kassim.

Though he was still somewhat of a neophyte when it came to animation, Jeffrey still knew that this early early version of "Aladdin" had too many characters. Not to mention story problems. Which was why he refused to make "Aladdin" Howard & Alan's follow-up to "The Little Mermaid."

"Aladdin" would be sent back to Disney's story artists. Who would be encouraged to radically rework the film. Simplifying the plot, cutting back on the number of characters, while still trying to retain as many songs as possible from the score that Ashman & Menken had already written for the film.

In the meantime, Howard & Alan would be assigned to work on "Beauty & the Beast." Once their work was completed on that film, THEN they could turn their attentions back to "Aladdin."

Ashman immediately knew what this meant. That he probably wouldn't live long enough to see the finished version of his dream project, an animated production of "Aladdin." Which had to be a crushing blow.

But Howard was a pro. Which was why -- after a brief period of pouting -- he picked up Linda Woolverton's script and began reading through the thing. As he & Alan Menken tried to figure out how to turn this serious, somber story into a Disney animated musical.

Okay. Now that Katzenberg had put the project back on the right path ... All he needed was someone to climb on board & direct this all-singing, all-dancing version of "Beauty & the Beast." But who would be stupid enough to tackle an assignment that had already eaten up one experienced director?

Well, how about Kirk Wise & Gary Wise -- two twenty-something Disney animators who had never directed a feature in their lives?

"How did Kirk & Gary wind up with this gig?," you ask. Well, that's a very interesting story. One that actually can be traced back to Orlando to Epcot's "Wonders of Life" pavilion.

You see, the "Cranium Command" attraction had turned out to be a absolute nightmare for the Imagineers. It was a show that had gone through dozens of drafts before WDI had finally come up with something that both Michael Eisner & Jeffrey Katzenberg liked. Which (as you may remember) was an attraction that combined Audio Animatronics as well as live action film footage featuring celebrities like Charles Grodin, Jon Lovitz, George Wendt & Dana Carvey.

The only problem was ... Walt Disney Imagineering got so wrapped up with trying to get "Cranium Command" 's main theater show just right, they forgot about putting together a film for the pre-show area until it was almost too late. In a blind panic, WDI threw this "Wonders of Life" pre-show assignment to Disney Feature Animation. With the hope that someone over there could come up with a fast & cheap fix.

Given how troubled the "Cranium Command" project had been, few folks at WDFA wanted anything to do with the attraction's pre-show. Which is why this assignment bounced from desk to desk ... Eventually landing in the hands of Kirk Wise & Gary Trousdale.

Of course, back then, Kirk & Gary were just two glorified storymen. Their most recent assignment -- coming up with a story idea for a new "Roger Rabbit" short -- had been summarily rejected by WDFA management. And now here they were, expected to come up with a four minute long pre-show film for an Epcot attraction that HAD TO open on October 1, 1989.

Feeling that they really had nothing to lose, Wise & Trousdale threw themselves into the project. And -- by just spit-balling ideas -- came up with a version of the "Cranium Command" pre-show that met all the criteria. It was fast. It was funny. And -- more importantly (Thanks to its clever mixing of traditional animation & paper cutouts) -- it was extremely cheap to produce.

Now where this gets interesting is -- during the October 1989 press event for Epcot's "Wonders of Life" pavilion -- Jeffrey Katzenberg saw Kirk & Gary's "Cranium Command" pre-show and was truly impressed. According to some folks that I've spoken with, Jeffrey reportedly though this "Wonders of Life" pre-show was more entertaining than the attraction itself.

Meantime, Wise & Trousdale had gone back to work at Disney Feature Animation. Where they were still trying to come up with a workable idea of a brand-new "Roger Rabbit" short ... When the phone rang in their office.

It was Charles Fink, Walt Disney Pictures' VP of Creative Affairs. Who wanted to see Kirk & Gary in his office immediately. So -- as the two twenty-something animators made their way to Fink's office -- they tried to figure out what was up. Who had they offended.

The last thing that Wise & Trousdale expected to hear was Fink asking: "Can you be on a plane Wednesday?"

Gary & Kirk stammered: "Ah .. Okay ... Why?"

Charles continued: "Because Jeffrey Katzenberg wants to give you guys a shot at directing ' Beauty & the Beast.' "

To hear Gary Trousdale tell the story, he immediately began to wipe his head around -- looking for a hidden camera. Figuring that Fink couldn't actually be saying what Gary thought he was saying. Which was why Trousdale supposedly thought that he was taking part in a 1980s version of Ashton Kutcher's "Punk'd."

But Fink's offer was indeed legit. Katzenberg really did want Kirk & Gary on board with "Beauty & the Beast." With the hope that these two fresh faced kids might be able to work some of their "Cranium Command" magic on this still fairly troubled film.

Which was why -- later that week -- Wise & Trousdale found themselves winging their way to scenic Fishkill, N.Y.

Why Fishkill, NY? Well, we'll get to that part of this "Tale as Old as Time" tomorrow ...

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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