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Why was the head of WDFA afraid to put "Fraidy Cat" into production?

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Why was the head of WDFA afraid to put "Fraidy Cat" into production?

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It was to have been Ron'n'John's first computer animated feature. A comedy thriller that affectionately paid tribute to the films of Alfred Hitchcock. And -- according to WDFA insiders -- the rough story reel version of this picture was playing as well as anything that Ron Clements & John Musker had ever produced.


Photo by Nancy Stadler

(For those of you who haven't figured out who Ron'n'John are yet: Ron Clements & John Musker are the writers / directors of such Disney animated hits as "The Great Mouse Detective," "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin," "Hercules" and "Treasure Planet." Over the past 20 years, these gifted filmmakers are personally responsible for billions of dollars pouring into Disney's corporate coffers.)

So if a picture that these two guys (with their proven track record) have helped create is playing this well in story reel form, you have to assume that Walt Disney Feature Animation is naturally going to be putting that project in production, right?


Photo by Nancy Stadler

Well, that's where you'd be wrong, folks. "Fraidy Cat" (which was originally scheduled to be released in late 2009) isn't going into production. In fact, this project was actually shelved last month. Which is the main reason that Musker & Clements -- after 31 years of working for Walt Disney Feature Animation -- are exiting the studio on September 11th and heading for ... parts unknown.

"Wait a minute?," you sputter, "If people inside WDFA are saying that 'Fraidy Cat' actually looked that good, then why isn't Disney then putting this picture into production?" Ah, that's where this cat's tail ... er ... tale gets interesting.


Photo by Nancy Stadler

To give you a bit of background on "Fraidy Cat": This concept has been kicking around Walt Disney Feature Animation for about seven years now. At one point, Piet Kroon (I.E. The co-director of Warner Feature Animation's 2001 release, "Osmosis Jones") was tapped to direct this pic. But Kroon could never get quite get the film's core concept (I.E. A pampered house cat finds itself swept up in an Alfred Hitchcock-like adventure) to coalesce.

Which is where Ron'n'John came in. Musker & Clements (Who actually came within inches of leaving WDFA last year when the studio toyed with the idea of not renewing their contract) were assigned to develop this project in October of 2004. And these two Disney Animation vets really threw themselves into the "Fraidy Cat" project.


Photo by Nancy Stadler

According to WDFA insiders, the story & editorial team that Ron'n'John assembled did an excellent job of developing this project. "Fraidy Cat" was not going to be some lame & labored Hitchcock parody, like Mel Brooks' "High Anxiety." But a really-for-real comedy thriller.

So Musker & Clements got their first pass at "Fraidy Cat" up on reels and then showed it to Disney Feature Animation president David Stainton in late May. David supposedly liked a lot of what he saw, but expressed some concerns with the film's first act. So Ron'n' John promptly went back to work on "Fraidy Cat," tightening up the film's first act as well as fleshing out the second act.


Photo by Nancy Stadler

The new, improved version of "Fraidy Cat" was shown to Stainton last month. And -- according to someone who attended that screening -- the story reels for this picture got huge laughs. Even in this incredibly rough form, "FC" was going over as well as "The Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin" had at this phase in their productions.

And David reportedly did admit that this version of the picture was much improved. That Musker & Clements had achieved just the right tone with "Fraidy Cat," that all the necessary elements for an exciting comic thriller were already in place ... Yet Stainton still couldn't bring himself to greenlight this picture.


Photo by Nancy Stadler

Why for? The whisperers. The allegedly creative VPs at Disney Feature Animation. Those people in WDFA management who have little or no experience when it comes to storytelling. But since they occupy large offices in the Sorcerer Mickey building and feel like they have to do something every now & then to justify their over-sized paychecks, these corporate weasels meddle. They mumble & mutter. But -- more importantly -- they bad-mouth.

And this time around, these empty suits chose to bad-mouth "Fraidy Cat." Saying that the premise of the picture was far too obscure. "I mean, who today even remembers who Alfred Hitchcock was? So why would kids in 2009 pay good money to see an animated film that pays tribute to an old, fat, dead movie director?"


Photo by Nancy Stadler

And those WDFA VPs ... They kept whispering and whispering. Saying things like "This project has such limited commercial appeal. There's no way that we're going to be able to persuade a major manufacturer to make 'Fraidy Cat' toys" and "How is this film going to expand the Disney brand? Are there characters here that we can use for a Saturday morning spin-off? Or for a home premiere sequel?" And eventually, Stainton started listening to the whisperers.

In short, the head of Disney Feature Animation lost confidence in "Fraidy Cat." Based on the way all his lieutenants kept bad-mouthing this project, Stainton began to wonder if this was really the sort of picture that WDFA should be producing at this time. Whether it wouldn't be wiser instead for Walt Disney Studios to greenlight some other project that had  much broader commercial appeal.


Photo by Nancy Stadler

So never mind the fact that David had two proven hit-makers -- Ron Clements & John Musker -- riding herd on "Fraidy Cat." Or that this picture was clearly getting better with each new version of the FC story reel that Ron'n'John's editorial team produced. Stainton still chose to listen to his allegedly creative VPs instead (A group of people who have never actually written or directed any movies) and just shut down development of this WDFA project.

In short, David chickened out. The head of Disney Feature Animation was actually afraid to go ahead & greenlight production of "Fraidy Cat." Just because a bunch of MBAs told him it would probably be a bad idea.


Photo by Nancy Stadler

So is it any wonder now that Ron'n'John have decided to leave Disney? After all, why should these two stay at a studio where they thought they had a proven track record as gifted filmmakers ... When Musker & Clements' opinion on a picture isn't considered as important as those of some 30-year-old accountant? Some empty suit who isn't actually looking to build a career at Disney Feature Animation. But -- rather -- is just passing through the Mouse House on his way to landing a corner office at Reebok or the Gap.

Me personally ? I miss the old days at Disney Feature Animation. When the animators in that building actually out-numbered the accountants. And the people who were deciding which movies got made at Walt Disney Studio had to know a little something about storytelling. When the decision to greenlight a picture didn't hinge on something as ridiculous as "Do you think that kids will really respond to a 'Fraidy Cat' Happy Meal?"

Your thoughts?

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  • I think this IP is right up Disney's alley, and goes well with the eclectic IP's of the PIXAR brand. This was obviously ahead of it's time. If Pixar can bring "Joe Jump" aka "Wreck It Ralph" out from cancelled development, hopefully they will notice this one, too.

  • I would love a movie on this topic. Dumb, head of WDFA

  • I really hope they bring this back into production. I'm really interested in the story and style of the movie. I would totally get toys from this movie. Especially plush dolls.

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