Making an animated film is a long and arduous process. Typically it takes four or five years, though in some cases it can take ten years (see Tangled's complicated development cycle) or even longer (look up the multi-decade saga of Richard Williams trying to complete The Thief and the Cobbler if you want a good cry). A lot can go wrong in that time. Because Disney often announces films shortly after they're greenlit but years before they're released, there have been many times when fans have become aware of projects that never actually got finished. Some of these unfinished films we know scarcely anything about, while for others a wealth of details, concept art and, in rare cases, even test animation footage gets made available to the curious public.
We don't know everything that caused these abandoned animated films to be canceled. Perhaps they really wouldn't have turned out any good if completed. Most of them, however, sound at least interesting, and it's fun to imagine alternate histories where some of the more out-there rejected Disney movies managed to really shake up the animation industry. Given how Disney animated films can get revived after long periods of Development Hell, we wouldn't even be too shocked if a couple of these end up actually being made sometime in the future. This list goes through 19 of the most promising of these canceled Disney animated movies, in roughly chronological order of when they were in production... and concludes with one idea so thoroughly awful that we must dance on its grave!
20 PENGUIN ISLAND
Back in 1938, Walt Disney was just coming off an enormous success with his first feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and could do pretty much anything he wanted. His studio hadn't established a formula yet, so ideas you might not think of today as typically "Disney" were on the table. One such film proposed was an adaptation of Anatole French's satirical novel Penguin Island.
The story of a blind missionary who accidentally baptizes a bunch of penguins, who are gifted human souls and advance as a civilization ultimately undone by terrorism, is certainly not the innocuous family fare we associate with Disney. Though the film didn't get made, Disney did make a penguin-based short film Polar Trappers the same year.
Who'd have thought a vain rooster would be so unlucky? Chanticleer, based on the play by Edmond Rostand, first entered development at Disney in 1941. Concerns that the main character wasn't sympathetic enough were alleviated by adding a villain for him to face off against, Reynard the Fox, but World War II budget cuts put it on hold.
Marc Davis and Ken Anderson tried to revive the project in 1961, even having George Bruns and Mel Leven write three songs, but again budgets were short. Much of the Davis/Anderson concept art got repurposed for Robin Hood. Chanticleer was pitched again in 1981 and instantly rejected. Don Bluth ended up animating his own loose adaptation of the play in 1991, Rock-a-Doodle, which bombed massively.
18 DON QUIXOTE
Is Don Quixote the most cursed novel when it comes to cinematic adaptations? Orson Welles never finished his version. Terry Gilliam took decades to finally finish his. Walt Disney himself tried to produce an animated version at least three times in his lifetime, and the Disney studio once again attempted to make this movie in the 2000s. All attempts ended in failures.
Disney's first attempt to do a Don Quixote short film in 1941 fizzled out due to wartime budget cuts. It came back in 1946 but got canceled. In the '50s, there was an attempt to develop a more stylized UPA-influenced feature length version. Paul and Gaetan Brizzi's 2001 pitch, though gorgeous, was deemed "too adult" for Disney.
17 THE GREMLINS
The Gremlins might be the most famous Disney movie never made. The movie was a proposed colaboration between Walt Disney and Roald Dahl, back when he was a fighter pilot in World War II and before he became famous as a writer. It got canceled due to a mix of both copyright problems and strict oversight by the British Air Ministry.
A book written to promote the film, however, did end up becoming Dahl's first published children's book. The gremlin characters have since been used by Disney in a couple of Dark Horse comic series and in the two Epic Mickey video games.
Walt Disney initially intended to rerelease Fantasia every year, replacing segments and inserting new ones each year. This ambitious plan didn't work out, but the Disney Animation studio has made attempts throughout the years to honor that vision. Fantasia 2000 was the one attempt to make it to theaters. A proposed Fantasia 2006 unfortunately got canceled, but at least four segments got finished and released as individual shorts.
None of the segments from Musicana, the 1980 attempt at a Fantasia-esque project, were completed. Proposed segments included a battle between an ice god and a sun goddess, frogs performing Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald songs and a version of Hans Christian Andersen's The Nightingale starring Mickey Mouse as the Emperor.
15 CATFISH BEND
Hidden in the Disney theme parks is a reference to a movie that never actually got made. At the end of the Splash Mountain ride, you can find a sign pointing to "Catfish Bend." That's the name of Ben Lucian Burman's book series about animals in the Mississippi swamps that almost became a Disney movie in the '80s.
Not that much is known about this project, but Walt Pegeroy's concept art for Catfish Bend sure is stunning to look at. Perhaps if this movie actually got made, the Imagineers could have themed Splash Mountain around it instead of around a source as legendarily racist as Song of the South.
14 WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
This certainly would have changed animation history. After Disney's live-action studio innovated computer animation for Tron, a young John Lasseter made a test animation for a Where the Wild Things Are movie combining 3D backgrounds with 2D characters in 1983. Disney didn't want to cover the costs for a feature.
Now, perhaps it's for the best this didn't get made. Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are movie is a underrated masterpiece. Pixar did end up driving the future of CGI, and it's become clear John Lasseter's role in Pixar's successes was overstated. Still, it's fascinating to imagine how differently animation might have evolved if this got made.
13 ROGER RABBIT PREQUEL
Coming out a year before The Little Mermaid, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was really not just the start of the Disney Renaissance but the start of a renewed appreciation for animation as a whole. R0bert Zemeckis has developed two different Roger Rabbit prequel ideas. The first idea, Toon Platoon, was canned because Steven Spielberg couldn't bring himself to produce a WWII-themed comedy after Schindler's List.
Another prequel script titled Who Discovered Roger Rabbit? has been highly praised and still occasionally gets discussed, but its chances of ever actually getting made are extremely low. Blame the difficulties of getting all the rights holders of the different cartoon characters to collaborate again.
12 THE ODYSSEY
When changes of the guard happen at movie studios, a lot of projects get scrapped. Such was the case with Disney when Jeffrey Katzenberg left the studio in 1994 to co-found Dreamworks. Many of the films he was hyping before, including a version of Swan Lake involving dragons and a comedy titled Silly Hillbillies from Mars, never got made, while other ideas like animated Moses and Sinbad films he took with him to DreamWorks.
Of the unmade Katzenberg projects, the most interesting-sounding one is an adaptation of Homer's The Odyssey. It was scrapped for being too long and not comedic enough. Disney would go on to make a more comedic Greek mythology movie with Hercules, but we wonder how this serious take could have worked.
11 WILD LIFE
The most gloriously "WTF" of the rejected Disney cartoons, Wild Life was a CGI animated film (intended to be Disney's first without Pixar) about an elephant who becomes a pop star in the Studio 54-era New York nightlife. Yes, a Disney film inspired by Studio 54. You read that right.
Wild Life could have been something groundbreaking if released as a Touchstone film, but its more off-beat sensibilities got it deemed unfit for Disney. It was a moment wherein two gay characters go down the sewers and crack a double entendre about "man holes" that Roy Disney supposedly got furious at a test screening and demanding the whole production be shut down in 2000.
10 MY PEOPLES
Pour one out for Walt Disney Animation Florida. The studio which made Mulan, Lilo and Stitch and Brother Bear was striving to preserve traditional animation in a digital age. My Peoples, also titled A Few Good Ghosts, was a hybrid film about feuding families in Appalachia helped by ghost-possessed dolls. The dolls were CGI, while the humans were hand-drawn.
This was a very personal project for director Barry Cook, inspired by his own family. Early test screenings got wildly positive responses, with executives calling the film Pixar-quality. Ultimately, however, the whole WDA Florida staff got laid off while WDA Burbank focused on the supposedly more marketable Chicken Little.
9 FRAIDY CAT
John Musker and Ron Clements had made Disney blockbuster bucks with The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, but their passion project Treasure Planet did so poorly at the box office it shut down Disney's traditional animation department. The directing duo were ready to venture into the world of CGI, however, with Fraidy Cat.
The premise was a creative one: a cat afraid of everything gets caught up in an adventure inspired by the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock. This would have been catnip for film buffs while hopefully entertaining kids as well, but the executives decided it was too obscure and canceled development in 2005.
Pixar has a history of dramatically retooling its films midway through production. Often it's been for the better, other times not so much. The studio became particularly infamous for taking away films from new directors. Newt was set to be the feature directing debut of Gary Rydstrom. He was fired and the film got canceled.
The initial reasoning given for the cancelation was that the concept, of two members of an endangered species having to mate, was too similar to Rio. Given other instances of similarly themed competing films, however, it seemed there was more to the story. Ed Catmull later revealed he tried to salvage Newt by giving it to Pete Docter, but Docter wanted to direct Inside Out instead.
Here's an unlikely combination that could have been amazing: Disney Animation and Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. As the studio looked to less likely inspirations in the early 2010s, from video games to Marvel comics, an adaptation of Mort, the first book about Discworld's Death, was set to be Musker and Clements' follow-up to The Princess and the Frog.
Expenses were the publicly announced reason for the project's failure: Disney couldn't option Mort individually and had to pay a hefty price to license the whole book series. It's reasonable to assume executives might have also been nervous about having Death as a main character, as well as reluctant to greenlight what was being planned as a 2D animated film.
6 KING OF THE ELVES
A Disney Philip K. Dick movie sounds like an unlikely combination, but King of the Elves, an adaptation of one of Dick's short stories, almost happened. It was first announced in 2008 and supposedly set for a 2012 release. Production was canceled in 2009, but resumed in 2010 with Chris Williams replacing original directors Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker.
Supposedly production was going well enough that the movie almost beat Frozen to theaters, until it wasn't. Williams decided he was more interested in joining the production of Big Hero 6. Supposedly there was also nervousness that King of the Elves wasn't merchandise-friendly and too dark for Disney.
5 THE SHADOW KING
Pixar establishing Cinderbiter, a stop-motion studio, sounded like cause for excitement. Even more exciting was putting Henry Selick, the director of The Nightmare Before Xmas and Coraline, in charge of Cinderbiter. The studio's intended first feature, The Shadow King, was on track from a fall 2013 release yet suddenly got canceled little over a year before release.
Disney had already spent $50 million on the film when it was canceled. Supposedly there were "creative differences" and the project was running behind schedule. An agreement did allow Selick to shop the film to other studios, so we might see it someday, though currently he's directing the Key and Peele-starring Wendell and Wild for Netflix.
4 THE GRAVEYARD BOOK
Perhaps the biggest tragedy of Cinderbiter falling apart is that Henry Selick no longer had the chance to develop Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book into a stop-motion film. If The Shadow King might have had story problems, The Graveyard Book already has an amazing story to build a film off of, and Selick has already proven himself a great fit for Gaiman's sensibilities with Coraline.
Disney might still make The Graveyard Book, but as a live-action film directed by Ron Howard. That might still turn out OK, but it just doesn't sound as exciting as the animated version which could have been.
3 PHINEAS AND FERB
Doug's First Movie, Recess: School's Out and Teacher's Pet didn't exactly set the box office on fire, so it makes perfect sense why Disney stopped making theatrical movies for its TV cartoons. It seemed for a while, however, that Phineas and Ferb would be an exception. The proposed film would be a Roger Rabbit-style hybrid of animation and live-action.
Original show creators Jeff "Swampy" Marsh and Dan Povenmire were teaming up with Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3 screenwriter Michael Arndt for the script. The film was scheduled for July 26, 2013, then delayed to 2014 before finally being taken off Disney's release schedule altogether. Given the TV series ended in 2015, it seems unlikely this movie ever leaves Development Hell.
The most recent major cartoon cancelation at Disney came as a shocker because Gigantic was already being promoted with seeming confidence. Gigantic, a musical inspired by the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, got a splashy announcement at D23 in 2015, complete with the performance of a full song by composers Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez.
Gigantic was set to be released on March 9, 2018. Then it got delayed to November 21, 2018, and then again to November 25, 2020, before ultimately being canceled in October 2017 due to story issues. The film did manage to get referenced in Zootopia's bootleg DVD stand (parodied as Giraffic) before it got canceled.
1 GLAD IT'S GONE: THE YELLOW SUBMARINE REMAKE
*deep breaths* OK, then...
The original Yellow Submarine is one of those movies entirely dependent on its execution to work. The story is nothingness, but the combination of Beatles music and beautiful pop-art animation make it a classic. Remaking it using creepily realistic motion capture is maybe the worst idea anyone's ever had for a movie. Thankfully nobody saw Zemeckis' similarly horrifying Mars Needs Moms so Disney pulled the plug on this remake.