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Toon Tuesday : Can Glen Keane straighten out all of "Rapunzel" 's story snarls by June?

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Toon Tuesday : Can Glen Keane straighten out all of "Rapunzel" 's story snarls by June?

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Over the past five weeks, the Walt Disney Company has really been out there thumping the tub for their upcoming line-up of animated features.

In early February, John Lasseter & Ed Catmull were talking up "Meet the Robinsons," "Ratatouille," "WALL * E," "American Dog" and "Toy Story 3"to investors. And later that same month, Disney Consumer Products reps allowed licensees at NYC's American International Toy Fair to get a glimpse of "Enchanted." And just last week, Randy Newman performed a musical number from "The Frog Princess" at Disney's annual shareholders meeting in New Orleans.

And that is admittedly is a very impressive array of motion pictures. But me? I couldn't help but notice the one WDFA production that Disney didn't talk at any of these events. And that was "Rapunzel."

Copyright 2005 Disney Enteprises, Inc.

Do you remember how heavily the Mouse hyped this movie at SIGGRAPH 2005? With concept art from this Glen Keane project being prominently displayed at WDFA's recruitment booth. And how Keane himself appeared at a special session at that year's event to talk about the role that new technologies played in the "Legacy of Disney Animation" and then showed some test footage from "Rapunzel Unbraided."

Of course, back then, "Rapunzel" was envisioned at WDFA's answer to Pixar. Proof positive that the Mouse still had what it took to be tops in toons. That Disney was still capable of rising to meet the competition. More importantly, that Feature Animation's long-standing traditions of excellence and innovation were still alive & well.

But -- of course -- that was back when WDFA was supposed to be competing directly with Pixar Animation Studios in 2007 and beyond. But now that Pixar is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company ( More importantly, now that Lasseter & Catmull are calling the shots at Feature Animation) ... No one knows quite what to do with "Rapunzel."

Copyright 2005 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

You see, part of the problem here is that -- prior to the Pixar acquisition -- Keane was WDFA's 800-pound-gorilla. As in: Glen was the guy that management had to keep happy. Given that he had become Mickey's mouthpiece. The point man for Disney's controversial changeover from being a studio that worked mostly in traditional animation to becoming an state-of-the-art operation that worked strictly in CG.

So whenever a reporter from Entertainment Weekly or CBS Sunday Morning would come a-calling, Keane was the animator that Mouse House marketing execs would inevitably trot out. And Glen would then show these journalists the CG ballerina test that he'd done and assure them that "Rapunzel" will be " ... a film of astonishing beauty."

Which was all well & good ... Except that Keane really was trying to make "Rapunzel" (Which is supposed to be Glen's directorial debut, by the way) the most beautiful animated film ever produced. With characters & backgrounds that mirrored the lush detail that Jean-Honore Fragonard used to put into his paintings. Which meant expensive test after test, as Keane pushed WDFA's R & D team to deliver the sort of stylization that this modern animation master was looking for.

Copyright 2005 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Production of this high-profile project also bogged down as Glen & Co. struggled to come up with a workable script. Should this animated feature be a spoof of all the Disney fairy tales films that had proceeded it? Or should this movie have a more serious take on its source material? Keane and his creative team struggled with this for years as they tried to come up with just the right tone for their film. Before they eventually settled on a version which would more-or-less be a faithful retelling of this classic story from the Brothers Grimm.

Of course, all of these preproduction problems consumed an awful lot of time. More importantly, they blew through a lot of Disney's dough. But -- back then -- that was okay. Because Feature Animation needed a high-profile, prestige picture to show the world that they weren't going to dry up & blow away once Disney's co-production deal with Pixar expired.

But in the meantime, Michael Eisner stepped down as CEO and Bob Iger then became the Mouse House's new Big Cheese. And six months later, Iger removed David Stainton as head of Disney Feature Animation and -- after completing a $7.4 billion deal to acquire Pixar -- put John & Ed in charge of WDFA.

And once that was done ... Well, Glen Keane wasn't quite as important as he once was. At least from a publicity point of view. Now it was John Lasseter who was WDFA's new 800-pound gorilla. And from what I hear, Lasseter is rather concerned about "Rapunzel."

 Copyright 2005 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Don't get me wrong, folks. Glen Keane's directorial debut still looks as though it will be " ... a film of astonishing beauty" loaded with lush visuals. It's just the proposed storyline of this still-in-development animated feature that now appears to be on the slim side.

Mind you, back in the late summer of 2006, Keane reportedly showed Lasseter the first 20 minutes of the most recent version of "Rapunzel." And John was allegedly very lavish in his praise, saying that it was the strongest opening of a Disney fairy tale film that he'd ever seen. The only problem is ... Glen & his team are still struggling to come up with a satisfying second & third act for their animated version of "Rapunzel."

Lasseter has supposedly told Keane that he has until June to get all of "Rapunzel" 's story problems resolved. At that time, John & Ed want Glen's film up on reels. And they'll then screen the work-in-progress version of this proposed animated feature. And if "Rapunzel" still has significant story problems at that point ... Well, there's a couple of ways that Lasseter & Catmull can go here. They can :

Copyright 2005 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

  1. Cancel the project outright.
  2. Take "Rapunzel" away from Keane and give this film to another director to develop.
  3. Assign a co-director to work with Glen on this proposed animated feature. With the hope that -- between the two of them -- Keane & his new directorial partner can then solve all of this production's story problems.

Of course, what's kind of intriguing about all this is that (According to the scuttlebutt that's now making the rounds at WDFA) it's the co-director idea that Glen is apparently most resistant to. The rumor is -- that if Lasseter & Catmull force Keane to start sharing directorial duties on "Rapunzel" -- that this animation master may then pull a Chris Sanders and quit Walt Disney Studios rather than continue to work on a severely compromised version of the film that he originally developed.

Now what complicates this whole situation is that John & Glen has a long history together. In that they both started working at Disney Feature Animation back in the late 1970s. In fact, Lasseter & Keane actually worked together on the project that was supposed to have been WDFA's initial foray into computer animation. And that was that 30-second test that was done for the "Where the Wild Things" featurette that Disney Studios never quite got around to doing back in the early 1980s.

So to now have Glen go from being the No. 1 guy at Disney Feature Animation (I.E. The animator that the studio felt that it just had to hang on to. Out of concern about the possible PR ramifications were Disney to ever let an artist of Keane's calibre walk out the front door) to now wind up one of John's subordinates, a guy that Glen started out with ... That's kind of a bitter pill to swallow.

Copyright 2005 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Then -- when you consider that "Rapunzel" (Which was originally supposed to be the film that would revive the fairy tale tradition at Disney Feature Animation) is now third down in the pile behind "Enchanted" and "The Frog Princess" ... Well, that's why it's been so hard for animation fans to watch this once-high-profile project slowly turn into a no-profile project. Something that's no longer even mentioned whenever studio officials start talking about what WDFA has in its development pipeline.

Mind you, this whole situation could quickly turn around if -- come June -- Glen Keane & his story team actually deliver a revised version of "Rapunzel" that has a much stronger second & third act. But if that doesn't happen ... Well, Keane could wind up getting tossed off of the project that he's been working on since 2002 or wind up having a co-director foisted on him.

Which (I know) sounds somewhat cruel. But the fact of the matter is Disney Studios officials really do want to move forward with production of an animated version of "Rapunzel." They're already reportedly tentatively pencilled this film in as the Mouse's big holiday release for 2010 (With "Toy Story 3" then filling the May 2010 slot). But -- of course -- that all depends on Glen Keane and/or the directors that follow him finally resolving this film's myriad story problems.

Copyright 2005 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

So here's hoping that Glen doesn't tear out what's left of his hair as he tries to find an entertaining & involving way for Rapunzel to let down her hair.

Your thoughts?

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  • I hope Glen can do it.  Rapunzel's art test are lovely and I want to see a talent like Keane become a major animation director.  Maybe they should do like Toy Story and hire a screenwriter to help with the story.

    BTW, Happy birthday Jim!  Don't set the house on fire blowing out the candles... Hehe.

  • I hope he gets the story done soon! It looks like it would be a very excellent film!

  • I think this movie will be gorgeous if it ever gets done.  I'd rather go see a gorgeous CG movie with a bad plot than a crappy CG movie with a bad plot.

    Case in point, Marie Antoinette.  HORRIBLE Movie.  but it was beautiful and I kind of want to watch it again, just for the visuals.

    Though that one image of Rapunzel with her hand on her hip just... i dunno.  Her right eye is HUGE and i can't figure out why.  I guess thats what you get for using CG.  In traditional media, you can tweak shapes and sizes of objects at will for the strongest posing and best visual appeal.  You can do that, limitedly, in CG but you can't actually break the model.

    Hey, what happened to all of those laid off Florida guys that were rumored to be starting their own company?  Did they ever do it, or did they fizzle off to work for someone else?

  • Glen keane may be a masterful animator but that doesn't make him a great director. It may be in his best interests to accept a co-director in order to get the damn thing finished. Some one who may know story better than he.

    This could be an amazing film, but i think keane should concentrate on the visuals and a new guy can bring something fresh to the table in terms of narrative.

    If not then this once promising project will be lost forever.

  • As i was reading the 3 options, I thought that having a co-director would be the best option.  I can see where Mr. Keane is coming from, though- he's rather have his vision of the movie or not have any version.  I was wondering when "Rapunzel" was slated to come out, since I knew that "The Frog Princess" is supposed to come in 2009, when "Rapunzel" was supposed to.  It's shocking to me that a movie that hasn't really started production yet will be coming out before a film which has been in pre-production and production for years.  I understand that John Lasseter is trying to put out quality product (Disney does stand for quality), but he shouldn't be bullying his friend Glen.  I wonder what kinds of story changes need to be done in order for the film to be "good" or "great".  I'm hoping that Mr. Keane and his team can make it happen...it's a shame what happened to movies such as "Fraidy Cat" and "Angel and Her No Good Sister"/"Once In A Blue Moon"/"My Peoples", etc.  I don't want "Rapunzel" to be in the Disney That Never Was.  As long as they don't go back to "Rapunzel Unbraided", and that concept, I'll be somewhat happy...

  • So you're saying that as great an artist, draftsman and animator that Glen Keane is, they gave him is own picture to direct for no better reason that they could keep the heat down while they dismantled the 2d animation department?

    What a way to run a rail road. No wonder it was necessary to bring in completely new blood to take names and kick tail. I feel sorry for Keane, I don't see any way this has a happy ending for him, based on Jim's reports.

    As was pointed out above, a great draftsman/animator isn't necessarily a great story guy or director.

  • I still haven't read anything that states whether or not this film will be a musical.  I think it would be amazing to see a full-fledged Walt Disney style production of Rapunzel in CGI, with superb music and songs!  Am I just wishing for too much?

  • All I can say is that if Lassester puts his grubby pixar paw on WDFA's Rapunzel, I will be extremely mad at him. Let Glen Keane make HIS film. I was appalled during the shareholder meeting when Lasseter called American Dog Chris William's film. I wanted to yell at him "NO. This was Chris SANDER'S film before you kicked him out." WDFA ≠ Pixar. WDFA > Pixar.

  • askmike1 said:

    "WDFA > Pixar."

    I'm quite certain that's true ... in askmike1land or wherever it is you live (maybe Burbank? in a big building with dwarves on top?) ...

    WDFA hasn't made a great film in 10 years or more ... Pixar's made at least 5 in that same time frame.

    I can't possibly fathom how you can call WDFA superior to Pixar when not one of their films outside of Lilo and Stitch has made a dime. WDFA isn't fit to wash cels for Pixar (if they had any).

  • To askmike1-

    i believe you're totally missing the point, pal.

    This isn't about egos- "All I can say is that if Lassester puts his grubby pixar paw on WDFA's Rapunzel, I will be extremely mad at him. Let Glen Keane make HIS film"

    - this is about making the best product for the company.

    As I said earlier being a master animator doesn't make you a great director. Mr Keane obviously needs a hand in making this great project come to fruition and shouldn't be afraid to let others come on board to help him.

    Thats what makes an artist of any field, great. To be able to know ones strengths and weaknesses and to bring people to the table who can counteract their own weaknesses to make the end product a great one. Not just think about their own egos at the expense of the entire production.

    If Glen could accept a co-director to come on board I believe this could be a great great film that will be remembered in years to come. If not who knows what'll happen? It isn't in Lasseter's interests to derail a production or put out a lacklustre product- he'll simply be costing his own company money.

    Remember the Richard Williams' story?

    he was a master animator but that didn't neccesarily make him a great storyteller/director. A distinction needs to be made.

  • So I guess the rumour of Rapunzel going 2-D has been scrapped?

    I appreciate what Keane's trying to do, trying to give CG animation the same flexibility and look of classical animation.

    But it's becoming apparent that he's better suited to the role of "Creative Consultant" or "Head of Design" if he still hasn't managed to crack the story after five years.

    Lasseter comes from the Pixar "Story is King" school, so he's not gonna let Rapunzel off the hook until he's satisfied with the narrative. With good reason.

    I have high hopes for this project; Rapunzel is one of the last of the Big Fairy Tales. I just hope it doesn't get relegated to "pet project" and languishes in development hell for years. Hopefully we'll have a solid Rapunzel by the end of the year.

  • I think Rapunzel could be saved, but following the Snow White formula feels ancient today, and following the post-Shrek Fractured Fairy Tales formula feels ...less than fresh too.  The story problems would have to be tackled from a brand new angle.  This is going to need a co-director who wants to tell a good, original story.  Maybe this particular project is out of his ability to complete as a solo director.  That wouldn't necessarily mean he couldn't solo on another project, but being the solitary director credit on a terrible film could mean that he'd never get the chance to direct another film by himself.  

    If it was my call, I'd call off any future fairy tale projects for a while and move onto something else.  We're being inundated with projects so similar that I for one have a hard time telling one from another.  Not just Disney/Pixar, but every studio is doing them now.  After Rapunzel, if it comes out, and after The Frog Princess, I'd say set it aside and do something new.  The sameness of the material makes it too hard to do something sincere and original.

  • Mickey Duck i feel you raise some very very good points.

    The Snow White Formula is indeed very old and wouldn't prove useful a route to go down if Rapunzel is to be refreshing. Likewise the Shrek route, perhaps even more so because this relied heavily on a small niche (post-modern fairytale mock- just look at Hoodwinked and Happily N'ever After)

    I feel however they could approach in a way similar to how they approached The Little Mermaid back in 1989. Respect the narrative's historical sensiblities, yet bring a 21st century feel to the table. A younger co-director would achieve this and also younger writers too.

    I don't think thye will flood the market with fairytales though. They have just 3 with a fairy tale theme. Rapunzel, Enchanted & Frog Princess. I think Disney must be aware that if they were to make any more fairy tale themed movies so close in time to these 3, the audience would indeed tire of the genre and we'll end up with another 30 year hairy tale hiatus (Sleeping Beauty 1959- Little Mermaid 1989).

    A good route for them would be to concentrate on childrens literatre and other famous stories. The fairy tale format IS an excellent way to reintroduce 2d Disney films back to the audience, but after that they need to diversify their stories or the audience will get bored quickly and another 90's bust will happen.


  • What isn't made clear is whether a "co-director" would be a Disney-style co-director (i.e. "directed by Glen Keane and John Smith") or a Pixar-style co-director (i.e. "directed by Glen Keane co-directed by John Smith").

    After all, Lasseter and co. have almost always used "co-directors" to help ease the burden, but no one questions that Lasseter is *the* director of A Bug's Life, et. al.

    One would hope that Keane is not so petty as to refuse help should it be deemed necessary or that he would be bothered by working for Lasseter, just because they started out around the same time.

  • I've been looking forward to this film for a long time, and I'm glad that they've abandoned the Shrek-clone "Unbraided" idea for a more straightforward retelling. (That's why I never saw "Chicken Little"--I heard that it was trying to out-Shrek Shrek with the pop culture references, and I was bothered that a company that once *set* trends was merely *following* them. I mean, I love Shrek, but enough's enough with the clones!)

    I hope they do a good job with it, and leave it in the CG format--the art we've seen already looks stunning.

    But I can totally see where there'd be story problems in a "Rapunzel" film adaptation. After all, in the original, Rapunzel does nothing but wait in the tower for the prince to come to her. Now, once the witch discovers Rapunzel's deceit there's opportunity for drama as the prince struggles to find her, but as the tale is written, all Rapunzel is doing is waiting around again. (In the original, she's the mother of the prince's twins by that point--somehow, I don't think that's going to make it in!)

    About the points Mickey Duck has made...remember, these three movies that are due out are the first fairy tales we've had in a while. (I look forward to "The Frog Princess"...a jazz-age fairy tale sounds unusual and intriguing!) I do agree that they shouldn't over-saturate the market with fairy tales, but I'd like to see them adapt some lesser-known fairy tales for film, and in doing so raise their profile. For example, "The White Cat."

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