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Why Walt Disney Feature Animation opted NOT to make "My Peoples"

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Why Walt Disney Feature Animation opted NOT to make "My Peoples"

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I'm sure that you're already familiar with that Audio Animatronic version of Abraham Lincoln which appears in The Hall of Presidents at WDW's Magic Kingdom.

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And maybe you've seen that cool, new NextGen version of Honest Abe which made its debut in Disneyland's significantly revamped "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln" show back in December of 2009.

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In honor of Presidents Day, I thought that I'd show you another Disney version of Abe Lincoln that you may not be familiar with. Which is the folk art version of our 16th president that was supposed to have appeared in "My Peoples."

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"My Peoples" AKA "Eglin's People" AKA "Once in a Blue Moon" AKA "Angel and Her No Good Sister" AKA "A Few Good Ghosts" was the animated feature that Walt Disney Feature Animation - Florida had in the works right before that studio was closed for good in March of 2004.

Now as to why "My Peoples" got shut down (More importantly, why this animated feature was going to feature a folk art version of Abe Lincoln ) ... Well, it's kind of an interesting snapshot of what was going on at Walt Disney Feature Animation at that time.

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According to Barry Cook, the co-director of Disney's "Mulan " as well as the creator / director of the "My Peoples" project, the origins of this proposed production can be traced back to the late 1990s. Which - as you may recall - was a pretty stressful time to be working in feature animation.

For those of you who don't recall: As the summer of 1998 was arriving, Disney Company management was increasingly concerned about WDFA's mojo. Or lack thereof. You see, the three animated features that the Studios had released since the Summer of 1994 - 1995's "Pocahontas," 1996's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and 1997's "Hercules" - hadn't even come close to matching "The Lion King" 's box office earnings and/or merchandising might.

And then - when you factor in the increased competition that WDFA was about to face in the animation marketplace, what with the upcoming release of DreamWorks Animation's first two feature-length films, "Antz" (which was released to theaters on October 2nd, 1998) and "The Prince of Egypt"  (which went into wide release on December 18, 1998) - there was increasing pressure on Walt Disney Feature Animation to deliver a hit.

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Thankfully, "Mulan" delivered. The first feature-length project to be produced primarily by the crew working at Disney Feature Animation - Florida, this Tony Bancroft / Barry Cook film performed solidly at the box office. More to the point, critics hailed "Mulan" as the Studio's best film since "The Lion King." Which is just the shot in the arm that Walt Disney Feature Animation needed at that time.

But as for Barry Cook ... As he looked at all of the other animated features that Disney had in development and/or active production at this time, ambitious & hugely expensive projects like "Tarzan," "Fantasia 2000," "Kingdom of the Sun" and "Atlantis," Cook couldn't help but think that WDFA needed to be doing things differently. Like maybe borrow a page from what Walt did in the early 1940s. Which is -- in addition to the big, expensive, labor-intensive projects like "Pinocchio," "Fantasia" and "Bambi" -- you slip a smaller, sweeter, easier-to-animate films like "Dumbo" into your production schedule. That way ... Well, you'd be adding some variety to the mix. More to the point, Mouse House managers then wouldn't have to worry about all of these hugely expensive animated event films becoming massive blockbusters. Which was the only way that these movies were ever actually going to recover all of their production / P & A costs.

And Barry ... He thought that he had the perfect premise for a small but sweet Disney animated feature: "The Ghost and his Gift." Which was a short story that Cook had written (which - in a phone conversation that he and I had last week - Barry described as being a cross between "The Canterville Ghost" and "To Kill a Mockingbird") about these two star-crossed lovers who lived in Appalachia in the late 1940s. More importantly, how a ghost and three small kids helped to bring this couple together.

"Mulan" co-director and "My Peoples" creator Barry Cook. Copyright
2004 Westlund Productions, Inc. All rights reserved

Now given that Cook had actually grown up in Tennessee, he knew this region of the United States -- more importantly, its music & style of storytelling -- very well. Which is why Barry was then able to create a series of beat boards that he used to pitch this project to Michael Eisner, the then-Big Cheese at The Walt Disney Company, and Thomas Schumacher, the then-head of Walt Disney Feature Animation.

And while Eisner & Schumacher were admittedly charmed by Cook's initial presentation, they both had concerns about "The Ghost and his Gift." Michael flat-out told Barry that his story was just too simple & sweet, that it needed more edge. Whereas Thomas ... His main concern with "Ghost" was that this premise - as Cook had initially pitched it, anyway - wasn't crying out to be animated. That this film (in its present form) could just as easily be produced by the live-action side of things at Walt Disney Studios.

So Barry took the notes that he got from Michael & Thomas and then thought some more about this Appalachia-based tale. Which then made Cook think of his grandmother who dabbled in folk art. Who'd taken things like high heel shoes and glued pieces of macaroni & fabric to them, thereby transforming those shoes into something entirely different;  truly unique pieces of character art.

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Barry wondered. If he removed the Ghost & the kids from his storyline and then made it pieces of folk art which eventually brought these two star-crossed lovers together ... Would that make this story seem that much animate-able and edgier? At least in Eisner & Schumacher's eyes?

So Cook quickly sketched up 7 folk art characters: Angel (the sweet protagonist of our tale, whose body & head had been made out of an old flour scoop) and Ms. Spinster (whose body & head were fashioned from of someone's long-discarded wooden leg & foot) ...

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Whereas Blues Man had been built out of a broken mandolin, Abe Lincoln was made using an old scrub brush & some spoons, and Good O' was fashioned entirely out of auto parts ...

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Cherokee had been crafted out of an old work glove ...

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While Crazy Ray had been carved out of an old tree stump.

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With these seven pieces of folk art now acting as the backwoods Cupids that ultimately brought Rose & Elgin (i.e. they're the human couple at the very heart of "My Peoples" ' story) together, Barry wondered: Would these characters actually be enough to then put this story premise over the top? Get Michael & Thomas to allow "My Peoples" to move beyond beat boards into artistic development?

To seal the deal, Cook had a maquette of Angel created ...

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... and then had this folk art figurine placed inside of an empty fiddle case. Which Barry then had shipped to Thomas' office at Feature Animation's headquarters in Burbank. And when Schumacher opened that fiddle case and saw the Angel maquette, he was immediately charmed and saw the true potential of "My Peoples." Which is why Thomas then allowed Barry to proceed with development of this project .

Which isn't to say that "My Peoples" had a particularly smooth production path. Given that Disney Feature Animation already had a "Romeo & Juliet" -themed project (i.e. "Gnomeo & Julliet") in development, Cook knew that his proposed animated feature had to seem that much better, had to have some sort of additional hook if it were to eventually get greenlit  by  Mouse House managers.

And given that Barry - thanks to his work experience on "Off His Rockers," that hand-drawn / CG combination short that Cook and the crew at Walt Disney Feature Animation - Florida had created back in 1992 -- ...

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... he knew that there was considerable cost savings to be had if all of the "My Peoples" folk art characters were animated via CG while this film's human characters were done hand-drawn style.

So that's how Barry wound up pitching his production plan for this Walt Disney Feature Animation - Florida project. That "My Peoples" would be 70% CG and 30% hand-drawn. Which meant that he could then deliver this movie for a considerably lower price point than - say - "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" or "Treasure Planet."

As Cook recounted in an interview that he did for Dan Lund & Tony West's acclaimed documentary, "Dream On Silly Dreamer " :

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"As I told (veteran WDFA producer) Pam Coats: 'Give us $45 million dollars, leave us alone for 3 years and I'll deliver you a movie. A movie that could make a profit. I felt very confident that I could do that."

Mind you, it was very canny of Barry to suggest that he could deliver "My Peoples" for $45 million. Given that - back in 1992 & 1992 - "The Lion King" had been produced for just $45 million. And that Don Hahn film had gone on to make $783 million worldwide.

And Coats - to her credit - genuinely went to bat for "My Peoples." Doing everything she could to run interference for this Walt Disney Feature Animation - Florida production, as she tried to keep the executives back in Burbank out of Cook's hair.

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Want proof? Here's an excerpt from James B. Stewart's 2005 book, "DisneyWar." Where Pam actually stands up to Michael Eisner in an animation production meeting. Telling the then-head of The Walt Disney Company that " ... We don't want you to shoot ("My Peoples") down," when  Eisner continues to quibble about this particular project. Saying that this Barry Cook film is admittedly "... cute but it feels small."

Well, to counter Michael's concerns, Barry then went out and signed a big-name vocal cast for "My Peoples." Hiring Dolly Parton to voice the role of Angel, Lily Tomlin to do Ms. Spinster's dialogue and Hal Halbrook to perform Abe Lincoln's lines. Cook - for a short time, anyway - even convinced James Carville (i.e. the former lead strategist for Bill Clinton's presidential campaigns and now a noted liberal pundit) to do the voice of Crazy Ray.

Better yet, Barry convinced Ricky Skaggs & Marty Stuart to come handle the musical end of things on "My Peoples." Which meant that this WDFA production was going to have an absolutely killer score. Which would then (hopefully) translate into a best-selling soundtrack for Walt Disney Records.

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All of the necessary pieces seemed to be falling into place. With master animator Andreas Deja agreeing to handle Elgin & Rose, this film's two hand-drawn starring roles. While Ric Sluiter handled character development of "My Peoples" CG characters and Andy Harkness worked on this film's overall look.

And for a while there, it really did look like "My Peoples" was actually going to get made. Especially when - on March 25, 2002 - Thomas Schumacher announced that the Burbank end of Walt Disney Feature Animation would soon be transformed into an all-digital operation producing only CG films. With the Studio's two remaining hand-drawn projects (2003's "Brother Bear" and the 30% hand-drawn "My Peoples") being completed by the crew at Disney Feature Animation - Florida.

Given that hundreds of his longtime friends & co-workers had lost their jobs as a direct result as Schumacher's announcement, Cook tried to stay positive. Tried to keep his team at WDFA-F on track, focusing on the day-to-day problems involved with developing a brand-new feature-length cartoon. Rather than obsessing on what was going on in Burbank at that moment  and what the long term implications for the staff of Disney's Florida studio might be.

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"Tom genuinely believed in 'My Peoples,' " Barry stated. "Which is why - if he had just stayed with Disney Feature Animation - I'm certain that he would have helped me get this project where it needed to be. That this movie would have eventually been made."

Unfortunately, Schumacher exited WDFA in November of 2002. Opting to move over to Buena Vista Theatrical Productions, so that Thomas could then concentrate on developing new plays & musicals that The Walt Disney Company could then present on Broadway.

Which is why  - after a brief power vacuum - Eisner then appointed David Stainton as the head of Walt Disney Feature Animation in January of 2003. And given how poorly "Treasure Planet" had performed over the 2002 holiday season (earning only $38.1 million during its entire domestic run), Stainton was under orders to make even more reductions-in-production-costs-and-head-count at WDFA. Which didn't bode well for the folks in Florida.

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"Don't get me wrong. I don't think that David was a bad guy. I just don't think that he never got 'My Peoples,' " Cook said. "

Which is why - while Stainton was calling the shots at WDFA - "My Peoples" went through a number of title changes (In "DisneyWar," David is quoted as being really enthusiastic about renaming this film "Angel and her No Good Sister" because that title then suggested " ... automatic conflict").

On Stainton's watch, the main plot of this animated feature also received a pretty significant rewrite. Now it wasn't just enchanted pieces of folk art that were helping Elgin & Rose with their romance. But - rather - pieces of folk art that were now possessed by mischievous mountain spirits. Hence "My Peoples" late-in-the-game title change, "A Few Good Ghosts."

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And then the production team began to get increasingly erratic story notes from the execs back in Burbank. So one week, the folks in Florida would be told "Stage that scene indoors at an old-time movie theater ..."

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And the very next week, these same allegedly-creative executives would then say "You know, maybe this scene would play better if it were set outdoors at a drive-in movie?" ...

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And the crew in Orlando would then have to create all-new artwork in order to accommodate this sudden story change.

Mind you, all of this extra effort & aggravation would have been worth it if "My Peoples" had actually been completed.  But in the end, though David allowed Barry's film to officially go into production in May of 2003, this project was only up and running for a brief six months. In November of that same year, Stainton abruptly pulled the plug on this combination hand-drawn / CG animated feature because ... Well, for a variety of reasons, actually.

Some folks will tell you that it just came down to the fact that "Chicken Little" had far better name recognition than "My Peoples" AKA "Angel and Her No Good Sister" AKA "A Few Good Ghosts." Which is why Disney then decided to press ahead with production of that Mark Dindal movie rather than continuing with Cook's film.

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"Which is kind of ironic. Given that Disney then didn't allow Dindal to make the movie that he originally wanted to make either. Mark's an old friend of mine. We started at Disney together in visual effects animation. We both worked on 'Tron,' " Barry remembers. "And after they okayed production of his animated feature, the Studio then made Mark make all sorts of changes to Chicken Little. They made him get rid of Holly Hunter as the voice of Chicken Little because some VP suddenly decided that 'This character should be a 10 year-old boy.' All sorts of stuff like that. Mark had a really tough time on that project."

Another factor in Disney's decision to abandon "My Peoples" came because there were a lot of executives at Walt Disney Studios who seriously underestimated the appeal of bluegrass music.

"Which again is kind of ironic., " Cook laughed. "Given that Disney was the company that had distributed  "O Brother, Where Art Thou?' domestically in 2000. And given the soundtrack for that Coen Brothers film - which was just loaded with great bluegrass music - then went on to win a Grammy as Album of the Year and then become one of the best-selling soundtracks of all time. But - by the time 2003 rolled around - people at the Studio had entirely forgotten about that. Which just goes to show you how short memories in Hollywood really are."

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Still others will tell you that the decision to shut down production of "A Few Good Ghosts" in November of 2003 (and then the entire Walt Disney Feature Animation - Florida studios just four months later) wasn't Stainton's doing. But - rather - Eisner's. Who - as he did with ABC back in 1999 when Michael ordered that that network move its corporate headquarters from Manhattan to the Disney lot in Burbank - was just looking for ways to consolidate power. Put all of WDFA employees in one place under one roof so that they could then respond that much quicker to any & all of Eisner's commands.

Whatever the real reason for "My Peoples" 's shutdown, it was then up to Barry to pick up the phone and break the bad news to all of the voice actors that he'd signed to work on this Disney Feature Animation -Florida production.

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"I think that the toughest call that I had to make was the one to Charles Durning. You see, when we hired him to do the voice of Old Man McGee, Charles just went on and on about how thrilled he was to get this part. How he'd always wanted to do a voice for an animated character in a Disney film. And now I had to call Durning and tell him that the Studio had decided that it didn't want to make that movie anymore?," Cook remembered. "Yeah, that was a tough call."

Barry also had to reach out to Hal Holbrook, the voice of Abe Lincoln for "My Peoples." Who - as our 16th president was going to be portrayed in this proposed Walt Disney Feature Animation production - was going to be a very comical character.

"Just like the Teddy character in 'Arsenic & Old Lace ' is crazy and thinks that he's Theodore Roosevelt, our folk Abe wasn't going to be the real President Lincoln. He was just an old scrub brush with spoons for ears that thinks he's president," Cook explained. "So we were going to have him do crazy President-Lincoln-kind-of things like emancipating the chickens out in the barnyard."

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But that said, "My Peoples" Abe Lincoln character was also going to be this movie's voice of reason. He was the one who'd be advising caution when all of the characters wanted to go rushing after Angela. Who - after learning that Elgin had created this particular piece of folk art in order to tell Rose of his love for her ... Well, Angel decides that she just isn't up for playing the role of Cupid and then runs away from home.

And given that Holbrook had already played Honest Abe in "Sandburg's Lincoln" (which was this 6-part mini-series about our 16th president that NBC aired back in 1974) ... Well, Hal gave a wonderfully warm & thoughtful performance as this cartoon character. In fact, it was during one "My Peoples" recording session that Holbrook did something that brought Cook and the rest of his team in the booth to tears.

"Before he got started, Hal said 'I gotta warm up as Abe.' So then - in his Lincoln voice, entirely from memory - Holbrook performed the Gettysburg Address," Barry recalled. "And to hear those words in that voice was just so moving.

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And speaking of moving ... As if the sudden shutdown of "My Peoples" AKA "Angel and her No Good Sister" AKA  "A Few Good Ghosts" wasn't bad enough, Cook soon discovered that there just  wasn't any room for him at the new Burbank-based version of Walt Disney Feature Animation. So after 22 years at the Mouse House, Barry moved on.

"Which was tough. I mean, it's a hard lesson to learn that -- while you may personally be loyal to a corporation - it's impossible for a corporation to then be loyal back to an individual. Enormous multinational companies just aren't built like that," Cook continued.

But Barry took all of that story-telling expertise that he picked up during his two-plus-decades of working at Disney and then took it on the road. For most of 2009, Cook was over in the UK., where he worked with the folks at Aardman Animations, Ltd. as the co-director on their upcoming  Holiday 2011 release, "Arthur Christmas." Which is already getting some terrific buzz thanks to its very funny teaser trailer.

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But as for "My Peoples" ... Well, Cook continues to have a soft spot in his heart for this aborted WDFA-F production. Which is easy to understand. Given that Barry associates so many great experiences with this nearly-made movie (like the time he got to go to Ricky Skaggs' house and watch this country star perform in his home recording studio) that it's hard to now dwell on what might have been.

But that said ... Given that the Walt Disney Feature Animation management team that actually pulled the plug on "My Peoples" is no longer in power in Burbank  ... More to the point, given that the crew that's now in charge of Walt Disney Animation Studios have begun circling back on feature film concepts that Schumacher & Stainton couldn't quite make work (EX: "Reboot Ralph." That console-game-character-who-escapes-from-his-vintage-cartridge-only-to-then-discover-that-it's-now-a-MMORPG-world film that's currently in active development at WDAS. Whereas - back in the late 1990s / early 2000s - this project was known as "Joe Jump").

So if "Joe Jump" can be rebooted ... Wouldn't it stand to reason that a sweet, sincere and deliberately-low-cost project, one that's deliberately aimed at the heartland of the country and combines CG & hand-drawn animation, deserves another look-see?

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Well, here's hoping that - someday soon - John Lasseter has his people take another look at "My Peoples."

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  • Wow ... what a looooooooooooooooooooooooong story. I dunno, to me this entire tale is a nice microcosm of what's wrong with Disney these days (and more specifically their animation group). What an overwrought process this was! A guy has a story, he wants to animate it, he pitches it to two suits who wouldn't know a good animated feature if it came up and bit them on the butt (as evidenced by the fact that non-Pixar Disney hasn't made a good animated film since Katzenberg left), and then has to go and muck around with the story to the point that it just becomes forced feeling and kinda stupid. Then he has to battle suits the entire time he's trying to make the damn thing, which he was forced to screw up because of them in the first place.

    Bah ... Disney's nothing more than a "corporation" these days, just like any other one of the behemoths that have sprung up in the Corporate landscape in the last 20 years. A big, dumb, inefficient, stupid bureaucratic mess. Small wonder they can't get anything done in a reasonable amount of time and with a satisfying ending.

    Fire the suits ... put the creatives back in charge ...

  • Arthur Christmas looks like a fun film. That's the one my son and grandkids want to see this Thanksgiving. I just might be joining them.

  • "Wouldn't it stand to reason that a sweet, sincere and deliberately-low-cost project, one that's deliberately aimed at the heartland of the country and combines CG & hand-drawn animation, deserves another look-see?"

    Yes, yes it does. This sounds like a lovely and "Walt-like" story. The artist drafts are awe-inspiring and creative. Too much of Disney nowadays is over-hyped technology, and lack of story. "My Peoples" is just simple genuine story telling! I would expect to see something of this caliber compared to Winnie the Pooh. It deserves a reboot, and would easily shine among the bloated "movies" of today.

  • very long and interesting post. im looking to see the arthur's christmas. it seems like a family movie again :)

  • I've missed this kind of story from your site Jim - nice work. I love these inside stories and am always a little sad about what might have been for both Disney movies and attractions.

  • I have always hoped Disney would just hire Dolly and make this into a Broadway musical.

  • You can't imagine how amazing a job the creatives at Disney Florida did with this show and all the changes asked of them. It is a tribute to their talents. They, and the people at the other Disney Feature studios, are the reason for anything you might have liked in the features that were mashed up by the execs over the years.

    Now the leaders from PIXAR are giving Disney Feature back to the creatives, so I expect great things in the future.

    I went from Disney Florida to Disney California when the studio closed and a very sad symbol for me was the clocks. Each studio had three clocks that formed a Mickey head on the wall. The largest clock was local time and the two smaller ones were the times at the other two studios. So in California the big one was California time and one ear was Florida time and the other ear was Paris time. I came in to work one day and both ears were gone.

  • I agree  - great article Jim.  This reminds me of the "old days" at Jim Hill Media.

    Nice to read an interesting, insider's story that doesn't feel like an infomerical for a book or movie.

    Thank you Jim!

  • Personally, I would love to pull a Jericho, and send WDAS something symbolic of the film, like spoons (As in Abe's feet) so this movie can be made. The animation in this is the most beautiful I have ever seen. Anyone else on board?

  • I like quite the chicken little, I look like I'm raising two chicks.

  • If Cook is working with Sony/Aardman now, would he be under contract with them?  Can Disney use his story and concepts for this movie if he isn't there and in charge of it (as in, just taking it from him and putting someone else in charge)?

  • In the book "Disney lost and found" you can read and see more about this project. To be honest, I do think that the characters do not look that good and I'm not excited about this movie. The hand drawn characters look great, but the CGI characters not. So I'm not sad Disney didn't move on with this project... I don't think it would be better than Chicken Little. Disney just had a rough time, with some pretty bad moves and movies. I'm glad Brother Bear got finished, that one is great!

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