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Jim Hill

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Don't like the way your cartoon is turning out? Hit "rewind" & recast.

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I gotta tell you guys that I am really looking forward to "Chicken Little."

Why for? Because -- back in August, while Nancy and I were attending SIGGRAPH -- I was lucky enough to see about 20 minutes of this Mark Dindal film. And based on what I saw, this is going to be one funny flick.

Of course, half of what made watching these scenes from "Chicken Little" so enjoyable was hearing the movie's great vocal cast go through its paces. I mean, some of the people that Disney recruited to do voicework in this film -- Steve Zahn as the Runt of the Litter, Gary Marshall as Buck Cluck, Joan Cusack as Abby Mallard (AKA the Ugly Duckling), Don Knotts as Turkey Lurkey -- just do an incredible job with their characters.

But it's Zach Braff (of TV's "Scrubs" and last year's Indy hit, "Garden State") who -- I think -- is really going to surprise people. His vocal performance in "Chicken Little" is actually this delicate balancing act. By that I mean: Given that this film has some huge comic scenes, it's important that audiences find the film's title character funny. Which Braff pulls off with ease.

But -- at the same time -- because "Chicken Little" is really a story about a father & son who are trying to reconnect with one another ... You also have to care about this little bespectacled bird.

Well, the good news is (based on what I've heard so far) Braff does brilliant work in the film's quieter scenes. Where you see Chicken Little struggling to put the whole unfortunate "The Sky is Falling" incident behind him, where he aches to be accepted by the residents in Oakey Oaks and (more importantly) his dad again.

Which is why I can't wait 'til November 4th to roll around. So that I can finally get a look at the rest of this movie.

But -- at the same time -- while I'm sure that (based on what I've seen so far) I'm going to enjoy Zach Braff's performance as this film's title character, a tiny part of me is still going to be wondering how Holly Hunter would have played Chicken Little.

What's that? You didn't know that Ms. Hunter was once the voice of Chicken Little?

Yep, back when this movie was built around a little girl chicken, Holly was busy recording vocals for the part. She supposedly worked on this film for about eight months before Disney decided to ditch Dindal's original story for the film (Which had Chicken Little [Who -- because of that whole "The Sky is Falling" incident -- had been sent off to Camp Yes-We-Can] uncovering a nefarious plot that her camp counselor [Who was literally supposed to be this Wolf-in-sheep's-clothing, voiced by Penn Jillette] was planning on pulling on her hometown) in favor of a whole new storyline. Which asked: "What would Chicken Little do if the sky really was falling?"

As this film was being reworked, "Chicken Little" then became much more action-oriented. And -- since it was felt that it would be much easier for an audience to accept a male chicken as an action hero -- the film's title character underwent a sex change. Which was why Holly Hunter (in spite of the great work that she'd done to date in her "Chicken Little" recording sessions) was suddenly out and Zach Braff was eventually in.

Okay. I know. That's kind of an interesting behind-the-scenes story. But -- to be honest -- this sort of thing happens all the time in Hollywood (I.E. Studios recasting roles because the celebrity that they originally hired -- for somer reason or another -- just isn't working out).

Sometimes it's done for unfortunate reasons. Take -- for example -- the reason that Lloyd Bridges was replaced as the voice of eccentric billionaire industrialist Preston Whitmore in "Atlantis: The Lost Empire." Lloyd lost out on the "Atlantis" gig because the "Sea Hunt" star died while this film was still in production.

And -- given that Bridges hadn't finished recording all of Whitmore's dialogue before he passed away -- "A:TLE" directors Kirk Wise & Gary Trousdale had no choice but recast this role. Which is why they eventually hired "Frasier" star John Mahoney to play Lloyd's part in the picture.

Other times, it's more a case of the project suddenly shifting gears midway through production. This is what happened when "Kingdom of the Sun" underwent its meltdown in the late 1990s. Suddenly Owen Wilson's sincere voicework didn't really fit the film anymore.

So, while "Kingdom" was being radically retooled to eventually become "The Emperor's New Groove," John Goodman was hired to replace Wilson. Since it was felt that this "Roseanne" star's personna would be more in tune with the picture's new anything-for-a-laugh sensibility.

A somewhat similar thing happened while "Finding Nemo" was in production. Back when "Nemo" director Andrew Stanton was originally casting the role of the harried father figure in the film, he decided to go with an actor who had previously done a great job playing people under pressure: "Fargo" star William H. Macy.

The only problem was -- while Macy was super at making Marlin sound just like a stressed-out parent -- the Academy Award nominee reportedly had trouble making the father fish funny. Which (I'm told) made the early leica reels for this film a little grim to watch.

Stanton knew that the only way that "Finding Nemo" was going to win over audiences was if movie-goers actually liked Marlin. That they cared enough about this character to join him on his epic journey. Going all the way from the Great Barrier Reef to 42 Wallaby Way in an effort to save his son.

Which meant that -- in order to do this -- movie-goers had to enjoy spending time with Marlin. Consider him good company. And this just wasn't happening with Macy's take on the character. Who -- the way I hear it -- was genuinely floundering in his effort to make the adult clown fish more amusing.

Which is why -- in the end -- Andrew opted to let William H. go. Replacing him with a performer who had an obvious gift when it came to making stress funny: Comedian Albert Brooks.

Sometimes, it's just a case of the film-makers no longer needing a star's services because they've decided to cut the character that they're voicing out of the picture. This is what happened when "Aladdin" directors Ron Clements & John Musker followed then-Disney studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg's order to "86 the mom." As in: remove all references to Aladdin's mother from the film.

Given that Emmy Award winner Kim Stanley had already recorded some killer vocals for this character, Ron-n-John were understandably reluctant to do this. But -- sure enough -- the mom-free version of "Aladdin" did play better with test audiences. So -- in spite of Stanley's superb voicework -- cutting that part out of the picture did turn out to be the right thing to do in the end.

Other times, it's more a case of a studio trying to improve a picture not by cutting something out. But -- rather -- by trading up. As in: swapping out one voice performer in a picture for another performer who's a bit more better known. With the hope that this decision will then make the finished film that much easier to promote.

This is reportedly what happened with the Stinky Pete character in "Toy Story II." Back in the late 1990s, David Ogden Stiers spent a number of months recording vocals for that character (And did a really great job, or so I hear) when Kelsey Grammar supposedly suddenly indicated that he'd love to work on a Pixar project.

Well, Stiers (Who had already done superb voicework with Cogsworth in "Beauty & the Beast" as well as Governor Ratcliffe in "Pocahontas") was a guy who had already obviously demonstrated that he could do a great job when voicing an animated character. But -- that said -- David didn't exactly have big-time name recognition with the movie-going public. What with "M*A*S*H" having been off the air for 15 years at this point and all.

Whereas Kelsey Grammar was the star of a Top 10 sitcom at that time. Which meant that -- when it came time to promote "Toy Story II" -- Disney's PR department would have no trouble in persuading the talent bookers at "Today," "The Tonight Show" and "The Late Show with David Letterman" to clear some space on the couch  for Kelsey. So that Grammer could then talk up the brand new movie that he'd just worked on with Katie, Jay or Dave.

Which was why -- even though a lot of people at Pixar really liked Stiers' performance as Stinky Pete (I've heard from a number of people who worked on that film that David actually did a better job with "Toy Story II" 's villain than Kelsey did) -- the "Frasier" star was the one who finally won this role.

(Just so you know: There were no hard feelings on David Ogden Stiers' part when he found out that he was being replaced with Kelsey Grammar. After all, Stiers has been in the block before. Having been in the business for 30+ years, he knew that these things sometimes happen. That -- in spite of your best efforts -- the studio will still decide to go with a bigger name.

Of course, what helped ease David's disappointment is that he got a fairly sizable check for his six months worth of work. So that provided some consolation. More to the point, the folks at Pixar [Who had really enjoyed working with the "M*A*S*H" star. Finding Stiers to be a professional in every way] promised that they'd all soon work together on some other project.

And -- true to their word -- once they began casting "Cars," the folks at Pixar immediately called up Stiers and asked him to come read for a role in that film. Which is how David wound up voicing the Mayor of Radiator Flats in this upcoming John Lasseter film.

So, you see? Every so often, one of these stories does end happily. Anyway ...)

Of course, one of the reasons that Pixar agreed to replace Stiers with Grammar was that it was still relatively early in their production deal with Disney. So -- at that point -- Lasetter & Co. were still listening to WDFA executives when they said: "These pictures would be a whole lot easier for us to promote if you guys would just cast big name stars in your lead roles."

Which why Pixar initially went after Al Pacino to play the part of Hopper in "A Bug's Life." Allegedly even going so far as to animate some sample footage to show Pacino. Which supposedly showed the villainous grasshopper in action, moving in perfect synchronization to a piece of dialogue that the animators had lifted from the soundtrack of "Scarface."

The way I hear it, Al was really impressed by that demo. But -- in the end -- Pacino still wouldn't agree to voice that role in "A Bug's Life." Which is how Kevin Spacey eventually won the part of Hopper.

But -- as time went by (And -- more importantly -- as Pixar's pictures began making more & more money) -- the folks up in Emeryville began paying less & less attention to the casting "suggestions" that the suits back in Burbank would make. So, when Disney asked Brad Bird to find a star to voice Mr. Incredible, the director of "The Iron Giant" kind of went through the motions. By that I mean: They brought in both Harrison Ford & George Clooney to record some test dialogue for the film. To see if either of these two A-Listers could add anything to the mix with "The Incredibles."

But -- in the end -- Brad went with the guy that he wanted all along: Craig T. Nelson. The "Coach" sitcom star who could bring just that right amount of humor, honesty & angst to his portrayal of this much-put-upon superhero.

If it's any consolation, Disney and Pixar aren't the only studios that regularly go through this sort of thing (I.E. This very expensive version of musical chairs, as film-makers struggle to find just the right actors to voice crucial roles in their animated films). For example: Dreamworks Animation seemed to have a hell of a time as it tried to put together the vocal cast for its upcoming feature release, "Madagascar."

How so? Well, let's talk about all the trouble that that studio had with casting the voice of Gloria, the female hippo in the film. For a while there, it seemed like every hot-looking woman in Hollywood was trying out for this part in "Madagascar."

Initially, it was announced that Madonna had been signed to play this role. Then -- suddenly -- Madonna was out and Jennifer Lopez was in. Then J.Lo was replaced by Gwen Stefani. Then Stefani bailed out of the picture, only to be replaced by Jada Pinkett Smith.

And then there was the whole Melman-the-giraffe saga. Which -- in a way -- seemed an awful lot like what David Ogden Stiers and Kelsey Grammar went through on "Toy Story II." Where the star of a once-hot sitcom (I.E. Jason Alexander of "Seinfeld" fame) who was originally voicing this part was suddenly replaced by another sitcom performer who was (back then) still appearing on a popular TV show (I.E. David Schwimmer of "Friends").

And don't even get me started on what happened with "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas." Where the actor who was originally hired to provide the voice of  that film's title character (Russell Crowe) was reportedly let go because no one at Dreamworks Animation liked working with the guy.

Crowe was then followed for a brief time by George Clooney. But Clooney supposedly didn't enjoy the whole working-all-alone-in-a-recording-booth-without-any-other-actors-around experience. Which is why George eventually exited the project, only to be replaced by his "Ocean's 11" co-star, Brad Pitt.

Yeah, the history of modern feature animation is littered with stories like this. Of stars who don't quite work out & films that suddenly drop characters and/or whole storylines. Meaning that perfectly good vocal performances winds up on the cutting room floor.

Still, I have to admit that I have a sort of fascination with all these what-might-have-been stories. Which is why (I guess) I've collected so many of them over the years.

Anywho ... Here's hoping that -- as part of "Chicken Little" 's DVD release in 2006 -- that the nice folks at Buena Vista Home Entertainment at least give us a little taste of what Holly Hunter's take on that film's title character might have been like.

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