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"Rapunzel Unbraided" gets retooled

"Rapunzel Unbraided" gets retooled

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Normally, this would be a great day for the employees at Disney Feature Animation. After all, today's the day when all their hard work finally pays off. The day when the studio's brand-new animated feature finally rolls into theaters.

However, given the way that the majority of advance reviews for "Chicken Little" have been running (The New York Times just flat-out called this Mark Dindal film " ... a terrible movie"), I'm imagining that there won't be all that much celebrating at WDFA today. Particularly with the news that yet another production at the studio may be in trouble.

Which still-in-development picture am I talking about? The big one. That truly ambitious CG project that was supposed to signal to the world that Disney Feature Animation had finally returned to greatness: "Rapunzel Unbraided."

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Though "Rapunzel" isn't actually supposed to hit theaters 'til sometime in 2008, WDFA has already been heavily promoting this picture (EX: Having the film's director -- Disney animation legend Glen Keane -- make an appearance at SIGGRAPH 2005. With the hope that Glen's appearance might convince the cream of today's animators to come work for the Mouse House). And -- up until just recently -- the buzz on "Rapunzel Unbraided" has been mostly positive.

Oh, sure. There had been a few whispers about the film's screenplay. Which seemed to be all over the place. First the script was thought to take a far-too-traditional approach to the source material. But then the next version of "Rapunzel Unbraided" 's screenplay ... That was said to be far too jokey. Yet another "Shrek" clone.

And then there was the whole Reese Witherspoon issue. To explain: With the hope of that this might convince the star of "Legally Blonde" to come on board as the voice of Rapunzel, Disney Studios allegedly offered Ms. Witherspoon an executive producer position on "Rapunzel Unbraided." Which meant that Reese would supposedly have considerable say-so over how her character would be portrayed.

Unfortunately, the whole Ms.-Witherspoon-as-executive-producer didn't really work out. Reese reportedly had lots & lots of ideas about how to improve "Rapunzel Unbraided." But few (if any) of her ideas were actually workable for an animated feature.

Which is Ms. Witherspoon eventually got frustrated with the project and quietly exited "Rapunzel Unbraided" earlier this year. According to her reps, her reason for leaving the picture was that " ... 'Rapunzel Unbraided' was no longer the film that Reese had originally signed on to do." Which is why the co-star of "Walk the Line" decided to take a walk.

So that left "Rapunzel Unbraided" without a name actress to voice the film's title character. Plus the project's screenplay lacked a consistant tone and/or a strong emotional arc.

So if you're a WDFA exec, what do you do in a situation like this? When your multi-million dollar prestige production is clearly in trouble? It's simple, really. You shut your picture down for serious retooling.

According to what I've been hearing, that's what's going on right now. Glen Keane has reportedly gone into hiding as he tries to come up with a new workable storyline for this film. Mind you, given that Glen is a first-time director on "Rapunzel Unbraided" ... Well, there are a number of folks at the studio who are supposedly very concerned that Keane is now the guy who's deciding what Disney's "Rapunzel" should really be about.

"Why is that a problem?," you query. Well, no one's disputing that Keane is a master animator. But to have a guy who's directing his very first animated feature suddenly become the unofficial head of story on that same picture ... That seems like an awfully large workload. One that might actually crush a first time film-maker.

Which is why a lot of WDFA insiders are hoping that Glen soon reaches out to the other members of the studio's story department to help get the film's script back on track. So that Keane can then take advantage of their talents. More importantly, so that "Rapunzel Unbraided" can then be put back into active development / production.

Of course, that's the other reason why Feature Animation vets hope that Keane quickly comes up with a new workable storyline for "Rapunzel Unbraided." Until this project officially goes back into development / production, that means that the WDFA staffers who were already assigned to this film have to find temporary positions on the studio's other CG projects, "A Day with Wilbur Robinson" and "American Dog." And if they can't find a new in-house gig ... These WDFA employees may soon find themselves on the outside of the Mouse Factory, looking in.

"So what sort of changes is Glen Keane reportedly making to the storyline of 'Rapunzel Unbraided?," you ask. Well, the way I understand it ... Given all the criticism that's being leveled at "Chicken Little" for that film having far too many pop culture jokes and film references ... That's the stuff that Glen is supposedly cutting out of "Rapunzel." All the "Shrek"-like stuff.

Mind you, virtually every great animated film has gone through a moment like this. "Toy Story," "The Lion King," "Aladdin." These films all had to be shut down in mid-production for significant retooling. And -- once these animated features solved their story problems -- they all went on to become better, stronger, more entertaining pictures.

So here's hoping that "Rapunzel Unbraided" follows the very same path. That this still-in-production film emerges from its current retooling with a much better story. Because -- to be honest -- the folks who work at Disney Feature Animation could really use a bit of good news right about now.

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