It’s been some time since we’ve discussed the upcoming Disney animation slate in any detail, and even longer since I updated the site’s list of animated projects. We’ve mentioned some of the schedule shifts that have occurred in the year and a half since Disney announced their ambitious development plans; most notably, Cars 2 was bumped up to a 2011 opening, pushing Gary Rydstrom’s newt back to 2012. But as the months pass, the crews at Disney and Pixar continue to develop new material. We’ve had one official announcement, 2011’s traditionally animated Winnie-the-Pooh, but there are several other new projects waiting in the wings.
First, though, a look at some of the projects that have been announced already. Disney will soon debut Princess and the Frog, its first traditionally animated feature since 2004. Hopes are high that this December release will revive Walt Disney Animation Studios, and pave the way for many 2D features to come. Early indicators are good; the screening of the film’s first act at the D23 Expo went over like gangbusters, and I was pleasantly surprised by the strength of the parts we were shown. I still have some qualms about some of the character design and animation (again, too loosey-goosey for my tastes), but the general aesthetic of the film looks great and the story seems to be extremely tight and lean. The music’s good, too.
Work on Rapunzel continues for 2010; as that long-in-the-making film moves from story to production, the scuttlebutt coming out of Burbank has become increasingly optimistic. After the story problems that plagued the film for so long, one hopes that things really start to click. The development art that has been released looks top notch.
The first new film to add to our list is the aforementioned Winnie-the-Pooh. Directors Steve Anderson and Don Hall originally brought this project to John Lasseter as an idea for a direct-to-video feature. Lasseter, who apparently has an affinity for the Disney Pooh featurettes from the 1960s and 70s, liked the idea so much he greenlit it for a theatrical release. This came as something of a surprise to observers, who are used to Disney targeting this character directly at the preschool crowd. Lasseter seemed aware of this during his presentation at the D23 Expo, asking the audience to “trust him” that the film won’t be just for little kids, and that we “won’t believe how funny this thing is.” Indeed. Just kiddin’, I love ya Johnny boy.
I’ve always assumed that I was alone in my incredible and all-consuming disdain for the Pooh character and his cohorts. I’ve never liked Pooh, even as a kid. Maybe it’s because each inhabitant of the Hundred Acre Wood seems straight out of a different chapter of the DSM-IV. Anyway, it was amusing to hear both the muted reaction to the Pooh news at D23 and then to watch the documentary the boys and hear Richard and Robert Sherman talk about how they couldn’t stand the stories either. Don’t get me wrong – Winnie-the-Pooh will most likely be highly enjoyable in the end. I just can’t get myself excited about it right now.
What does excite me is the approach they’re taking to the film, which is hand-drawn and will incorporate watercolored backgrounds like the original films. They’re also mining the original Pooh books for five stories that will be strung together around a central narrative. Disney Legend Burny Mattinson, who worked on the original animated featurettes, returned to Disney to guide the story department in the picture’s development. Winnie-the-Pooh will hit theaters in the spring of 2011, filling a gap in Walt Disney Animation Studios’ production slate.
Another previously announced film in development is 2012’s King of the Elves; based on the Philip K. Dick short story, it’s rumored to be computer-animated. The Animation Guild blog mentioned recently that the story is currently being retooled, bringing some changes and the departure of at least one director. Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker were originally announced to direct, and it seems that Blaise has left the film for reasons unknown.
From here, we enter the realm of speculation. There have been a number of projects in and out of development at Disney over the last decade, and these are starting to pop up again as contenders for the next wave of releases. The first of these is The Snow Queen, which was mentioned by Disney producer Don Hahn as in development as recently as the D23 Expo. Hahn showed a slide of concept art from the film during one of his panel discussions, and offhandedly mentioned the project as something they’re working on.
The Snow Queen was in development at Disney from roughly 2000-2003, when it was scuttled because Disney management wanted to get out of the fairy tale game and into the “hip and edgy” business. The project was originally intended for directors Paul and Gaetan Brizzi for when they were finished with Don Quixote, but when that animated adaptation was canceled in early 2001 the Brizzis departed the studio. The Snow Queen was then handed off to Dick Zondag and Dave Goetz to direct, but the project eventually went into turnaround in the middle of 2002. During this break, animator Glen Keane left the project in order to direct his own film (which, eventually, turned out to be Rapunzel).
The film spiraled into development hell as management decided to retool it as a computer-animated feature, and around 2003 it simply faded away. In early 2006 it was announced that composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glen Slater were developing a stage musical based on The Snow Queen for Tokyo Disneyland; it was canceled abruptly at the end of that year, possibly when the film version went back into development. Cut to around 2007, when John Lasseter had arrived at Disney Feature Animation and was reassessing the development slate. Around that time, work began anew on The Snow Queen. Current rumors online suggest either Mike Gabriel or Dean Wellins are involved to direct. Menken has confirmed in the European press that he’s writing the songs for the film.
If Lasseter’s arrival at Disney brought new life to some projects, it meant the end of others. So it was for Joe Jump, a computer-animated film that was junked in 2008 after about four years of development. The film, a story of a videogame character from the early 1980s who tries to make his way in the modern high-tech gaming world, got some positive buzz when it was going through the story process around 2006. Story artist Sam Levine was leading the project, with designer Joe Moshier helping create the film’s look. In an interview, character designer Jim McPherson spoke about his work on the film:
“…I was appointed to join the Visual Development Team at Walt Disney Feature Animation to work with the director Sam Levine and character designer Joe Moshier on a film called Joe Jump. All the characters were developed in collaboration of drawing and modeling done in ZBrush 2. We translated a more graphic character style into 3D, slightly leaning towards “Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom” or UPA cartoons, but with a heavy influence of Milt Kahl and Tom Oreb’s work. Unfortunately, the movie was cancelled after 4 years in development. I hope to eventually get permission to show some of the characters. There were cyborg lizards, heavily armored heroes and amazon women designed in a new style.”
Joe Jump was canceled in order to focus resources on projects that were further along in the development pipeline, but now the blog of the Animation Guild reports that the pixelated hero lives again. Further information is unavailable, but look for the CGI Joe Jump and the (hopefully) hand-drawn The Snow Queen to shuffle into those 2013 and 2014 release slots at some point.
What comes after that? Your guess is as good as mine. Online sources have speculated for several years that Disney has been working on an adaptation of the ancient Hindu epic Ramayana, although I can’t find any compelling source for this. What does lend some credibility to that rumor, aside from Disney’s increased efforts in India over recent years, is their under-the-radar interest in the purchase of a publisher of graphic novels centered on Hindu mythology. No one seems to have noticed this in the shadow of the Marvel deal, but it could indicate that the rumors of Ramayana are not all fanboy speculation. Allow me to say, Disney folk, if you are thinking about this… I really hope you make it work somehow because it could be absolutely killer.
There are certainly other abandoned projects from the early part of this decade that deserve a second chance with the new management; Barry Cook’s My Peoples, Ron Clements and John Musker’s Fraidy Cat, or – please, please, please – the Brizzis’ Don Quixote. Hopefully there’s a lot of room at WDAS for new productions; that will keep a lot of animators employed and make me very, very happy.