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Why For was Michael Clarke Duncan's Grizz character cut out of Disney's "Brother Bear" ?

Why For was Michael Clarke Duncan's Grizz character cut out of Disney's "Brother Bear" ?

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Danielle F. wrote in yesterday to say:

I really enjoyed today's story about Luigi's Flying Tires and like the idea of you turning Why For into a daily feature at your site. I just hope you get sent  enough questions to actually make this happen.

And speaking of questions: I was sorry to hear that Michael Clarke Duncan died today. I don't suppose that you have any Disney-related stories that you can tell about him?


Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan in "The Green Mile." Copyright 1999 Warner
Bros. / Castle Rock Entertainment. All rights reserved

First off, I just wanted to say -- to the friends & extended family of this Oscar-nominated performer -- that the staff & readers of JHM are genuinely sorry for your loss. Michael was literally & figuratively a huge talent. And to lose someone like this at just 54 years of age is ... Well, tragic.

But that said ... Yeah, I do have a Disney-related story or two to share about Mr. Duncan. And these have to do with Walt Disney Animation Studio's 2003 release, "Brother Bear."

If I'm remembering correctly, it was back in 1997 when I first heard that Michael Eisner had suggested to the powers-that-be at WDAS that they put a movie about bears in development. To be specific, Michael wanted the animators there to use Shakespeare's Macbeth as their inspiration for a film which should be set in the forests of the Pacific Northwest.


(L to R) Director Bob Walker, Rick Moranis & Dave Thomas [The 'SCTV" vets who
voiced moose brothers Rutt & Tuke in "Brother Bear"], producer Chuck Williams
and director Aaron Blaise. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Which -- I know -- at first glance, seems kind of like a nutty idea But you gotta remember that "The Lion King" had been a huge hit for the Company back in 1994. And given that that animated feature -- over the course of its very troubled production -- had kind of backed into "borrowing" the story structure of Shakespeare's Hamlet (i.e. The brother of the King first engineers his demise and then assumes the throne. And it's up to the King's hesitant son to set things right / restore the kingdom) ... Well, given that WDAS was hoping that history would repeat itself with its next animal-based, full-length animated feature, "borrowing" from the Bard when it came to possible story ideas for "Bears" (FYI: That was the original title of this movie. Just plain "Bears") only made sense.

So Aaron Blaise was tapped to be this project's first director. And over time, Aaron was joined by Bob  Walker (who eventually became Blaise's co-director on "Bears") and Chuck Williams (who WDAS vet Pam Coats had recruited to become this film's producer).

And for the next three years or so, whenever Nancy and I visited with friends who worked at Walt Disney Feature Animation - Florida, as the two of us walked through that studio, we'd see these amazing pieces of "Bears" concept art (many of which drew their inspiration from Albert Bierstadt's landscape paintings of the American West). But then when we'd go out to lunch with friends who worked at WDFAF and ask them how work was going on "Bears," we'd hear these painful & protracted tales about how Blaise, Walker and Williams were still struggling. How Aaron, Bob and Chuck had come up with these memorable characters and a colorful, evocative setting for their film. But what this trio hadn't yet found was a story.


Paul Felix's concept art for "Brother Bear" 's northern lights / transformation sequence.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Which sounds kind of weird, I know. But as Don Hahn (i.e. the producer of "Beauty and the Beast ," "The Lion King" and Tim Burton's soon-to-be-released stop-motion animated feature, "Frankenweenie") is fond of saying: "Sometimes you have to be right in the middle of making a brand-new animated film before you then discover what your story is actually about."

But starting in 2000 or thereabouts, I began hearing that "Brother Bear" had finally found its footing, That -- thanks to Michael Clarke Duncan (who had just come on board this project as the voice of Grizz, this older male Grizzly that Kenai reluctantly befriends after he undergoes his man-to-bear transformation) -- this animated feature now had a solid emotional center. That Duncan's deep booming voice, his natural warmth and good humor had made Grizz this character that audiences could immediately relate to. And that -- thanks to Grizz's Falstaff-like physique and joie de vivre (not to mention  Michael's terrific vocal performance) -- "Brother Bear" was going great guns now. That WDAS seemed to have  another sure-to-be-"Lion-King"-sized hit on its hands.

But then a year or so later, I began to hear that "Brother Bear" was being radically retooled. Again. More importantly, that Grizz was now out as Kenai's mentor & companion. And that -- in the latest version of the storyline for this Walt Disney Feature Animation - Feature production -- it was Kenai who was now going to be the reluctant mentor / father figure for Koda,  this brand-new character that the filmmakers had just come up with. Koda was this precocious, motor-mouthed bear cub who was going to be voiced by Jeremy Suarez from "The Bernie Mac Show."


A storyboard for a scene from "Brother Bear" where Grizz was supposed to have
interacted with Rutt &Tuke. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"So what happened here?," you ask. "If Grizz was such a great character and everyone had been so in love with Michael Clarke Duncan's vocal performance, why then was Grizz cut out of 'Brother Bear' only to then be replaced by cute little Koda?" To be blunt, Blaise, Walker and Williams learned a hard lesson very late in the game during the production of this animated feature. Which was that they had accidentally built their movie  around the wrong character. That -- when you got right down to it -- "Brother Bear" was about Kenai's transformation both inside & out. How this troubled teen finally grew up, learned to be a better man by becoming a bear. And as long as Grizz was still in this picture, with that oversized character serving as Kenai's mentor (rather than having Kenai learning about kindness, compassion & responsibility by becoming Koda's reluctant father figure), "Brother Bear" just wasn't going to work. At least as a truly satisfying piece of cinematic storytelling.

So Aaron, Bob and Chuck now had to call Michael and let him know that he was no longer the big bear that this new Walt Disney Animation Studios production was built around. Mind you, Duncan wasn't completely out of the picture. Blaise, Walker & Williams had so enjoyed Duncan's vocal performance as Grizz that they immediately found him a brand-new character to voice in their film: Tug, the oversized Grizzly who's the defacto leader of all the bears at the salmon run.

And the way I hear it, Michael was very gracious to Aaron, Bob and Chuck when he heard that the character of Grizz had been cut out of "Brother Bear." Even though this former body guard had only been in show business for six years or so at that point, Duncan was enough of an entertainment industry vet by then to know that these things happen. More importantly, that it wasn't personal. That WDAS was making these changes not because they hadn't liked his vocal performance. But -- rather -- because the Disney Studio was just trying to make a movie that (they hoped) would eventually connect with a very broad audience.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And Michael clearly enjoyed doing voice work for animation. Given that -- on the heels of his "Brother Bear" experience -- Duncan would then go on to voice characters for feature-length theatrical releases like "Dogs & Cats" & "Kung Fu Panda " as well as home premieres like "George of the Jungle 2" and "Air Buddies." Not to mention animated series for television like "Spider-Man," "The Proud Family," "King of the Hill," "Family Guy," "Static Shock," "Teen Titans" and "Green Lantern."

So while it's sad to think that Duncan's basso-profundo voice has now been silenced ... At least we still have Michael's previous work . The obvious enjoyment that he got from performing, the real skill & craft that Michael would draw from whenever he stepped in front of a camera or a microphone.

And just so you know: Duncan isn't the only performer who found themselves -- after months & months of standing in a recording booth, voicing a character for a new Disney animated feature -- who suddenly find themselves out of the picture entirely and/or cast in a new role after that project's storyline had suddenly been retooled. Just ask Reese Witherspoon about all of the voice work that she did on the character which was originally supposed to be the lead in Disney's "Rapunzel." Likewise Holly Hunter about the months she spent behind a mike, voicing the title character for Disney's "Chicken Little."


The title treatment & concept art for Disney's
"Chicken Little" from back when this film's
title character was supposed to have been
a girl. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

When I recently asked Penn Jillette about this (He was the voice of Wolf-in-Sheep's-Clothing, the original villain for Disney's "Chicken Little." This character wound up being cut out of that animated feature entirely when WDFA dropped this picture's original sleepaway-camp-based plot  and opted to go with an aliens-fron-outer-space-invading storyline instead), he was fairly philosophical about the whole matter:

"Look, I had a lot of fun working on that project. But Disney's been doing this for a long time. So you have to trust their judgment when they say 'This isn't working. We're going to take things in a different direction and your character's no longer part of the story that we're trying to tell here. So sorry about that. Bye.' It's nothing personal. They liked my work and I liked working with them. It's just show biz. These things happen sometime."

But even so ... Well, I keep hoping that -- what with all of these loaded-with-extra-features Blu-rays that Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment has been releasing lately (Take -- for example -- that "Pocahontas" Two-Movie Special Edition that hit store shelves back on August 21st. This Blu-ray actually includes a Special Feature where animation master Eric Goldberg walks you through a lot of the storyboards & concept art that was originally created for Disney's aborted animated version of "Hiawatha" from the late 1940s / early 1950s) -- that the Studio will eventually open up its vault and actually let us see what a "Chicken Little" that was to have been built around Holly Hunter's vocal performance would have looked like. Likewise Reese Witherspoon's take on "Rapunzel." And -- of course -- give us a glimpse of what Michael Clarke Duncan's performance as Grizz in "Brother Bear" (which -- back around 2000 -- I heard was as much fun as watching Phil Harris' work as Baloo in Disney's "The Jungle Book" was) would have been like.


Concept art for Grizz, the character that the late Michael Clarke Duncan
was originally supposed to have voiced in Disney's "Brother Bear."
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

EDITOR'S NOTE: So far, we've been getting a very nice response to this week's experiment of running Why For as a daily, rather than a weekly feature. If you'd like to see your Disney, animation or theme park-related questions answered on this website, please send them along to whyfor@jimhillmedia.com.

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