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Toon Tuesday : Will Disney Animation's latest "Rapunzel" rescue attempt have a negative impact on "Bolt" 's debut ?

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Toon Tuesday : Will Disney Animation's latest "Rapunzel" rescue attempt have a negative impact on "Bolt" 's debut ?

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By now, I'm sure that you're heard that Glen Keane is no longer the co-director of "Rapunzel." That he and Dean Wellins will be turning the reins over to Byron Howard & Nathan Greno, who were the co-director and head of story on "Bolt" respectively.

To be honest, this change couldn't have come at a worse time for Walt Disney Animation Studios. At least from a PR point-of-view.

Why For? Well, for months now, Mickey's marketing staff has been gearing up for "Bolt" 's wide release on November 21st. Trying to get some positive buzz going about this new animated feature. Which -- given that this project started out under a different name ("American Dog") and with a different director (Chris Sanders) ... It's always been something of a challenge to keep reporters, webmasters and entertainment writers from asking difficult questions like:

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"Why did you guys remove Sanders from this movie? Wasn't he the guy who came up with one of Disney's only hits over the past 10 years, 'Lilo & Stitch' ?"

So to have Disney's best-known animator suddenly taken off of the picture that he's personally been developing for over six years now ... Well, that makes it fair game for the press to ask about why Chris Sanders was taken off "American Dog." Especially in terms of discussing the very hands-on approach John Lasseter & Ed Catmull have taken to running WDAS.

But you know what? While it's fun to gossip about all this behind-the-scenes stuff at Walt Disney Animation Studios ... At the end of the day what really matters most here is the quality of the finished film. Is it actually entertaining to movie goers?

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And when it comes to Chris Sanders' original take on "American Dog" ... What he seems to have been going for was an animated version of Preston Sturges' "Sullivan's Travels." Where this jaded Hollywood hound suddenly finds himself two thousand miles from home. And in order to get back to Tinsel Town, he's forced to interact with all of these colorful yokels. Who then teach this self-important celebrity a little something about humility, what's really important in life.

Which -- I know -- sounds an awful lot like the storyline for "Cars." But the key difference between that Pixar production and the movie that Chris Sanders was trying to make is that -- at the end of the day -- "Cars" had a storyline that actually worked. Over the course of that 116 minute-long animated feature, you genuinely came to care about Lightning McQueen and his predicament. Whereas Henry (i.e. the title character for "American Dog") reportedly left test audiences cold. While they allegedly found individual sequences & characters from this work-in-progress amusing, they never really came to care for this American Dog.

As to why Chris came up short, story-wise, this time around ... A number of Disney insiders have pointed to the fact that Sanders actually had a co-director on "Lilo & Stitch" : The very talented Dean DeBlois. A fact that has not gone unnoticed by the folks at DreamWorks Animation. Who currently have Sanders under contract to direct "Crood Awakenings," and then plan to reteam Chris & Dean on that studio's March 2010 release, "How to Train Your Dragon."

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Speaking of co-directors ... Back in April in 2007 when Dean Wellins was brought on board "Rapunzel," it was hoped that this veteran animator & story artist would then be able to help Glen Keane get a handle on that production. In particular untangle that movie's myriad of plot problems.

And while "Rapunzel" 's story reels have gotten noticably stronger over the past 18 months ... In the end, Glen & Dean were never able to solve this project's main story problem. Which is that -- once Rapunzel gets trapped in her tower -- this fairy tale goes stale.

This is why John Lasseter & Ed Catmull were forced to do what they did on both "American Dog" and "Rapunzel." As the new heads of WDAS, they have a responsibility to deliver commercially viable animated features that will then go to entertain a mass audience. As for "American Dog," the word in-house was that this Chris Sanders film was "Meet the Robinsons" revisited. Meaning that this aborted project was loaded with great design & quirky characters but was woefully short on heart and genuine entertainment.

Copyright 2007 Disney. All Rights Reserved

As for "Rapunzel" ... For five years now, the word of this Glen Keane production has always been that it had the potential to be the most beautiful picture that WDAS would ever produced but that this film's storyline was a snooze. Which is why -- in the end, even though Lasseter has been Keane's friend for over 20 years now -- for the good of that project, John had to pull Glen & Dean off of "Rapunzel" and then send a new team in. With the hope that Byron & Nathan would be able to wade through the past six years of development and then find some sort of workable storyline for Disney's holiday 2010 release.

So you see -- in spite of what you may have been reading elsewhere -- this wasn't some sort of blatant power grab by Catmull & Lasseter. This isn't a case of Ed & John's egos being out of control. But -- rather -- these two putting the needs of the Walt Disney Company & its shareholders ahead of any personal relationships that they may have with individual filmmakers.

And as for a director being removed from a Disney animated feature ... This isn't exactly new news, folks. This sort of thing has been going on for at least 50 years now. And if you don't believe me, pick up a copy of the new "Sleeping Beauty" DVD and watch the Special Features. Especially the one that deals with Walt Disney removing Eric Larsen as a director on that production because he was spending far too much time & money on one particular sequence for that picture.

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This is the challenge that WDAS's PR department will be facing in the coming weeks. As they try persuade reporters, entertainment writers & webmasters that what may look like a juicy story actually isn't. That taking Keane & Sanders off of "Rapunzel" and "American Dog" isn't any different than when Woolie Reitherman got pulled off of "The Fox and the Hound." And when Roger Allers was taken off of "Kingdom of the Sun" AKA "The Emperor's New Groove." And when Jan Pinkava was removed as the director of "Ratatouille."

At the end of the day, what really matters is the quality of the finished film. And based on what I've heard about "Bolt," Byron & Nathan delivered in spades on that particular picture. Which is why John & Ed selected these two to run a rescue mission on "Rapunzel."

As to whether Howard & Greno will succeed where Keane & Wellins failed ... Well, I guess we'll have to wait 'til Thanksgiving of 2010 in order to find out.

Your thoughts ?

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  • I will see Bolt.  But am I excited or even interested?  No.

  • First of all, I really do not envy the position that Lasseter and Catmull find themselves in right now.  I think they have definitely made strides in getting Disney animation back on the right track, but they are still very much in the period where they're trying to fix the problems from well before their tenure at the studio began.

    What I had heard is that Keane has not so much been removed from "Rapunzel" as pushed out of the top spot and into a lesser position.  I hope this is the case, because the one area in which I think "Bolt" could have really benefited from the influence of Chris Sanders is the visuals.  Whatever the story issues "American Dog" may have had, the early character designs boasted a lot of the uniqueness and appeal of Sanders's trademark style.  While the final visuals in "Bolt" look nice enough, there's really no strong direction to the look of the film, nothing to really make it stand out from the crowd of other 3D animated feature films.  And with a story that is already striking some potential moviegoers as awfully similar to Buzz Lightyear's character arc in the first "Toy Story," "Bolt" really could have used some unique visual punch to help it feel more like its own thing.  

    "Rapunzel" has been through so many changes throughout its development that I don't think it takes an insider to recognize that the film has problems.  Heck, even if all you know is the original fairy tale, you may be wondering how a character who is largely known for being trapped in a tower and maintaining a ridiculously lengthy hairstyle could be turned into an interesting and appealing character who takes a more active role in her own story.  But the one thing that has kept me interested in seeing this film even as it's gone from straight-up fairy tale to modernized send-up and back again is the promise of seeing what Glen Keane can do with 3D.  Press articles on the film pushed the idea that this movie would bridge the gap between Disney's past classics and the studio's new direction.  For once, Disney 3D animation wouldn't be playing catch-up with Pixar or DreamWorks; they would be working to their traditional strengths.

    Given everything I've read about the story issues on "Rapunzel," I don't doubt that it needs help.  But I sincerely hope that Lasseter and Catmull can successfully salcage the baby while tossing out the bathwater.  I have never heard anyone say that "Rapunzel" is anything short of top-notch in the visual department.  And while that alone wouldn't save a film with a weak story, losing the artistic influence of Glen Keane would certainly decrease my interest in seeing the final film.

  • "Make the movie you want to make. Tell your story."

    Anyone remember _that_ quote?

    Right or wrong, John Lasseter deserves to be questioned.  Since stepping into his role of as Creative Director (or whatever the exact title for his wide ranging role is), there have been many questionable decisions made that seem directly influenced solely by his personal preference.  

    Whether or not removing Sanders was the appropriate decision, Lasseter's well known dislike for Lilo & Stitch needs to be mentioned.  That dislike definitely could have colored his view of the audience test results.  And removing Sanders, rigt after making the above quote, does not show a willingness to help Disney's creative staff fufill their vision in a mutually beneficial way (i.e. making that vision a movie).  It shows the standard Hollywood cut throat attitude all tied up in a happy Disney/Pixar wrapper.

    Keane's removal from Rapunzel is something that we may never know the truth of.  Were the rumored health issues the true reason, or were there really insurmountable story issues that Keane & Co. couldn't overcome?  Either way, Keane's removal doesn't seem like the option that fit's in with the sentiment above.

    Even in regards to the theme parks, Lasseter's personal preferences have led him to give the Florida parks much less attention than California, where he cut his teeth.  Witness the disparity between the Disneyland & Epcot versions of Nemo.  Disneyland had millions added to it's budget.  Epcot, clearly did not.  

    Questioning Lasseter's motivations in regards to his decision making process is not a bad thing.  Perhaps there are issues that need to be worked out, and this will allow him to see them and fix them.  Perhaps there is nothing wrong, at all, and this will put the questions to bed.

  • Jim I'm surprised you didn't mention Glen's health issue or this memo that was sent around the studio....from what i have heard Keane had a small heart attack not that long ago; hard to direct a film when your having problems with your ticker.  Get better Glen!

    For nearly two years, Glen Keane and Dean Wellins have been directing partners on Rapunzel. As Glen lessens his directorial responsibilities to attend to some non-life threatening health issues, their involvement on the project will shift. Glen will step back as a Director but stay attached to Rapunzel as an Executive Producer and Directing Animator. At the same time, Dean will move into development to pitch three new ideas for one of our future feature projects and focus on directing one of his CG shorts. We are happy to announce that Nathan Greno and Byron Howard have accepted to partner as directors on Rapunzel as we continue to hone the story in anticipation of our Holiday 2010 release. We want to welcome Nathan and Byron to the project and thank Glen and Dean for their great contributions to date on Rapunzel.




  • To Longaway, John Lasseter is a creative executive, BUT he also has a responsibility to the stockholders to make money. I think that John meant that he wouldn't allow what happened in the past where business executives came in and made changes so that they could sell more toys. Disney/Pixar needs to make GREAT movies, BUT they also need to make money.

    In addition, Disneyland is getting the TLC it hasn't gotten over the last 20 years while it was COMPLETELY ignored while the company focused on WDW. Plus during the 50th DL demonstrated that it still had a lot of growth left in it. WDW hasn't grown that much and Corporate believes that DL has a greater growth potential.

    Disneyland has a potential audience of 20 million people ALL within a few hours drive.

  • ""Make the movie you want to make. Tell your story."

    Anyone remember _that_ quote?"

    The bit you are missing is that sometimes, despite the best of intentions, the original director is unable to fulfill his original promise.  Sanders was, most likely, not coming through with the story as needed for "American Dog".  That's what happened to Jan Pinkava on "Ratatouille".  For all his artistic and creative achievements, the story was not holding up and another hand was needed to right the ship.

    In the case of "Meet the Robinsons", Stephen J. Anderson was able to respond to Lasseter's concerns, which were specifically to get the story back to what it had been.  Back to Anderson's original vision.  Clearly, Sanders was not able to do the same.

    We may never know how much of Keane's supposed stepping down (remember, this still has not been officially announced) was health-related and how much was creativity-related.  But the fact that he (unlike Pinkava and Sanders) is staying on in a prominant creative role (exec producer and directing animator) leads me to believe that it is the health concerns and not creative ones that led to this decision.

  • Oh, and on topic, no, I don't think "Rapunzel" issues will affect "Bolt" coverage, except with specialized media like Jim or other Disney-specific places.  People don't care that much about backstage goings-on.  In the mainstream press we heard very little about "Ratatouille's" difficult path to the screen.

  • MTR was "loaded with great design & quirky characters but was woefully short on heart and genuine entertainment"?  News to me!  I thought it had huge heart and I was genuinely entertained.

  • i'm a few days late, but i just read the article and the thing that stood out to me was, "At the end of the day, what really matters is the quality of the finished film".

    though i agree, i think it's been determined by wall street that, "at the end of the day, what really matters is how much money the film earned".

  • LtPowers said:

    MTR was "loaded with great design & quirky characters but was woefully short on heart and genuine entertainment"?  News to me!  I thought it had huge heart and I was genuinely entertained.

    The original script, the reason that the original director was pulled off the project.  They needed to add the heart back in...Jim says that...

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