An animated film at Disney or Pixar takes at least four years to make, sometimes even longer. In that time, a lot can change about a film. The style, tone or even the entire story might be reworked. In more dramatic cases, directors can get fired from their own projects. The storyboarding process allows for a lot of tinkering and revisions. The rise of computer animation, where even fully animated scenes can be dramatically reworked, only makes such changes even easier than before. This is a significantly different process than live action filmmaking, where such big changes late in the game carry a higher cost (trying to attempt this process in live action was why Pixar director Andrew Stanton’s John Carter went so ridiculously over-budget).
This list contains 15 of the most dramatic changes made to Disney and Pixar films, focusing on films from the Disney Renaissance era and onward. In most cases, these changes were clearly for the better; unwatchable films became instant classics. Other times, the final product wasn’t so successful, and these behind the scenes stories make you wonder what might have been. Still, at other times, the original ideas intrigue even when the finished films turned out fine.
15. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
Richard Williams’ amazing animation in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? more or less kickstarted the Disney Renaissance, so it makes sense Disney wanted to continue working with him. Williams was preoccupied with his doomed passion project The Thief and the Cobbler, but his London studio began development on Beauty and the Beast under director Richard Purdum.
The Purdum version of Beauty and the Beast was darker, closer to the original fairy tale, not a musical and not very “Disney-like” at all. The concept art is beautiful (many of the talented London animators would finish the film in Burbank), but it was oddly paced (the two title characters didn’t even meet until a half hour in) and Belle was a woefully underdeveloped protagonist. Purdum was fired, while Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale were brought in to redo the film closer to the style of The Little Mermaid.
14. TOY STORY
Two years before release, the first computer animated feature film was unwatchable. For the studio’s first movie with Disney, Pixar was initially very reliant on notes from its parent studio to make sure Toy Story would please the giant studio’s interests. This turned out to be a terrible idea. Jeffrey Katzenberg’s notes kept trying to push the film in an edgier direction, thinking the only way to get adults to care about toys was to include tons of “adult” humor.
Yet when Katzenberg saw the infamous “Black Friday” cut of the film, which followed his notes to a T, it was horrific. It was incredibly mean-spirited and not even Tom Hanks’ voice could make Woody likeable. What was the only way to fix this broken film within two years of its release date? Scrap everything and let the writers do what they actually wanted to do.
Pocahontas was always a questionable idea for a Disney film to begin with. Disney-fying classic literature is one thing, but giving the same treatment to actual tragic real world history is quite another. The original pitch for the movie was in most ways even less historically accurate than the controversial final film. There was one aspect, however, which was more historically accurate: Pocahontas was going to be 12 years old when she saved John Smith.
There was still the uncomfortable factor of trying to sell the story as a romance. This was originally going to be dealt with by making John Smith also a teenager. After Beauty and the Beast got a Best Picture nomination, Jeffrey Katzenberg decided to make both characters adults, thinking a more serious romance would be irresistible Oscar bait (it wasn’t). Silly bits like John Candy playing a talking turkey also got cut.
12. TOY STORY 2
Toy Story 2 is one of those rare sequels to equal and arguably exceed its already excellent predecessor. That it turned out as good as it did was a genuine miracle. Toy Story 2 began production shortly after the release of the first movie, but it was originally a direct to video project. A B-team of Toy Story CD-ROM games handled the hour-long film while the regular Pixar animators were busy on A Bug’s Life.
Disney executives saw how Toy Story 2 was coming along and decided to give it a theatrical release. The stated reason was its quality, while the unstated reason was its expense. The people at Pixar disagreed with the quality assessment, and remade the entire film within just nine months! The animators were absurdly overworked, but their pursuit of excellence paid off.
11. THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE
The Emperor’s New Groove is one of the weirdest Disney movies, too weird to be a blockbuster upon release but just weird enough to get a cult following. The reason it ended up so bizarre: it was a last minute salvage job on a more traditional but unworkable Disney film. Kingdom of the Sun was going to be a serious musical epic. Sting agreed to write songs, on the condition that his wife Trudie Styler could make a documentary about the production.
That documentary, The Sweatbox, Disney still refuses to release, but internet leaks provide insight into just how dysfunctional this production was. The story wasn’t working at all, yet promotional deals demanded the film be finished in time for a 2000 release. Unable to get an extension on production, co-director Roger Allers left the project, while Mark Dindal took full control and turned it into the absurdist comedy we know today.
Can you believe the director of Robocop and the animator of the Jurassic Park dinosaurs almost made a Disney cartoon? Dinosaur is mostly forgotten today, but it could have been something quite memorable. Paul Verhoeven and Phil Tippett developed the film at Disney as far back as the late ’80s. It was going to be a stop-motion film without dialogue, presenting the world of dinosaurs like a nature documentary. It was realistic and violent and ended with mass extinction.
Disney put the project on hold until after Toy Story‘s release, when Michael Eisner decided to make Dinosaur as Disney’s first homegrown CG film without Verhoeven or Tippett’s involvement. The new directors, Ralph Zondag and Eric Leighton, put their all into a proof-of-concept reel that became the film’s opening scene. Alas, the executives demanded talking dinosaurs, and so the movie failed to live up to that beautiful wordless opening.
After Toy Story 2 proved the people at Pixar could redo a whole film in nine months, redoing one in 18 months didn’t seem too ridiculous. That’s how it went down with Ratatouille. Jan Pinkava, best known for the short film Geri’s Game, came up with concept in 2000. Turning the wacky concept into a great movie proved challenging. Before Disney bought Pixar, Ratatouille was set to be Pixar’s first independent film, and pressure was on to make it a hit.
In 2005, after finishing promotion for The Incredibles, Brad Bird came in to fix some story problems. Shortly afterwards, he took over directing duties. We don’t know the extensive details on what he changed, but it seems the biggest changes concerned the characters. Bird decided to spend more time focusing the human characters while Pinkava’s version focused more on Remy’s family.
How many PG-rated family films started off from R-rated scripts? There are at least four. Kangaroo Jack and the live-action Scooby Doo movie (yes, really) were disasters in trying to rework adult comedies into kid-friendliness. Galaxy Quest worked out a lot better as it was already fairly tame content-wise and just required dubbing out some curse words to become kid-friendly. The most surprising success story in adjusting a film’s audience, however, is Enchanted.
Yes, Enchanted, the Disney film about a cartoon princess entering the real world, started off as an edgy R-rated spec script in which the princess gets mistaken for a stripper. Disney bought the script but was going to release it through Touchstone or one of their other adult labels. The movie turned into a family film, still mildly irreverent in its satire but a lot cleaner. The results paid off to $35 million worldwide.
This might be one of the biggest missed opportunities in Disney’s history. Chris Sanders’ Lilo and Stitch was a rare hit at a time when Disney Animation was on the decline. His CGI follow-up American Dog, about a canine actor lost in the American Southwest, looked extremely captivating visually. The story, however, apparently had problems and was in some ways similar to the recently released Cars. Refusing to take notes from John Lasseter, Sanders left and went to Dreamworks.
Disney was obligated to complete the film, so American Dog became Bolt. A story that was maybe too similar to Cars became one awfully similar to Buzz Lightyear’s in Toy Story, while the art and the characters got significantly blander (the cat lost her eyepatch, the hamster was no longer radioactive). Even if American Dog was a mess, it’d still almost certainly be more interesting than the safe mediocrity of Bolt.
What’s the most expensive animated film ever made? It’s Tangled, with a reported budget of $260 million. No other cartoon even comes close; the four films tied for second (all Pixar sequels) cost $60 million less. Why did Disney spend so much money on this movie? Because it was in production for eight years, and in that time it became several radically different films.
Tangled was originally Rapunzel Unbraided, a Shrek-style parody of the classic fairy tale. It was to be the directorial debut on master animator Glen Keane. Under Michael Eisner, the story was pushed in even more out-there directions, making the heroes time travellers. When Eisner left Disney and John Lasseter took over the animation studio, the project moved to a more traditional adaptation. Keane had a heart attack in 2008, leading him to step down and give the film to directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard.
Unlike other examples on this list, the finished film Brave isn’t too dramatically different from Brenda Chapman’s original pitch for The Bear and the Bow. It has more comic relief while the original idea took a slightly darker tone, but otherwise it sounds like it’s pretty close to Chapman’s ideas. This makes it all the more upsetting, however, that Chapman got fired from her own film.
While Pixar has a history of replacing directors, removing their prospective first female director from a story she wrote specifically for her daughter definitely seemed suspicious. Even other creatives at Pixar spoke out against the decision. Chapman says the finished film still presents her “vision,” and is clearly frustrated with her experience; in the New York Times she wrote, “Sometimes women express an idea and are shot down, only to have a man express essentially the same idea and have it broadly embraced.”
Frozen‘s production drama more than any other seems to be double-edged sword. By all accounts, the huge changes vastly improved the story. Making Elsa a troubled heroine rather than a villain and making her and Anna sisters gave the story a psychological complexity it didn’t originally have. Yet these fixes came late into production, and while the story benefited, the animation suffered.
Frozen, back when it was titled The Snow Queen, was set to be a traditionally animated. After The Princess and the Frog and Winnie the Pooh disappointed at the box office, however, Disney once again backed away from 2D animation, and Frozen was fast-tracked as a CGI film with only two years before release date. For all its strengths, Frozen‘s the least impressively animated of Disney’s recent films. Looking at the stunning concept art makes us long to see a traditionally animated version.
3. INSIDE OUT
Pixar is so willing to fire its directors that even Pete Docter, the director of Monsters Inc. and Up, didn’t feel like his job was safe. In 2012, he knew Inside Out, his ambitious project set inside an adolescent girl’s mind, wasn’t working. Preparing to possibly be fired, his sadness over the possibility ended up saving his job. He got the idea to switch the main pairing of the movie from Joy and Fear to Joy and Sadness, and suddenly the story began to click together.
While the shift in protagonists was the biggest change made in the development of Inside Out, a lot of other ideas never came to full fruition. Characters such as Schaudenfreude, Ennui, Love and Hope didn’t make the final cut as the five core emotions filled their roles adequately. Riley’s depression was also more severe at one point in the film’s development.
2. THE GOOD DINOSAUR
What is it about dinosaur movies that Disney just can’t seem to make work? The Good Dinosaur was Pixar’s first (thus far only) box office flop. Reviews were merely OK, not disastrous, but far from Pixar’s usual high standards for non-Cars films. Typically Pixar’s troubled productions end up becoming successful films. In the case of The Good Dinosaur, the final product remains troubled.
It was set for release in Fall of 2013, then delayed to Summer 2014, then again to Fall 2015. Director Bob Peterson was fired from the film in the Summer of 2013. Unlike other directors who’ve been fired from Pixar films, Peterson still works at the studio. The whole dinosaur culture was reworked as protagonist Arlo got aged down. The original voice cast except for Frances McDormand also got replaced.
Zootopia wasn’t always a story about discrimination. Initially, it was just a wacky comedy about a James Bond-style arctic hare named “Jack Savage.” Co-directors Byron Howard and Jared Bush, however, found their interest was more in the animal city than the spy plot. The story shifted into the police procedural we know today, but with a big difference: Nick was the main character instead of Judy.
Because Nick hates Zootopia from the start, and with good reason, there wasn’t as much of a character arc for him to have. As such, the focus shifted to Judy, an optimistic character whom Nick educates about the city’s dark truths over the course of the film. Those dark truths were even darker in some drafts of the film. Originally, “predator” species were forced to wear shock collars to keep them in line!
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