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Jerry Rees’s Treasure Trove Of Super Awesomeness

It’s a pleasant coincidence that just a week after we mentioned former Disney animator Jerry Rees in an article about the original TRON from 1982, we discover via a post on Cartoon Brew that Rees has unveiled his own website and it is most definitely not to be missed.

Derisively dubbed the “Rats” by animator Don Bluth, who saw them as a threat, animators Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline), Bill Kroyer, Jerry Rees, Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, Ratatouille, The Incredibles), and John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog) would go on to change the animation world

The site is an incredible treasure trove of goodies for fans, especially for those interested in that mysterious and fascinating period known as the 1980s, when the art and industry of American animation were undergoing some fundamental changes. Rees worked at the Disney animation studio in those fallow times, and the behind-the-scenes photos on his site are a real who’s-who of young animation talent. There are many familiar faces that would lead Disney into its renaissance period, many who would depart to found Pixar, and others who went in completely different directions. There are scads of fascinating oddities here, and some things I’ve wanted to see for a long, long time – things like Luau, the 1982 short film by Rees and fellow Disney animator Tim Burton:

Rees directed the 1987 feature The Brave Little Toaster, an independently produced film that had its origins as a project at the Disney studio. Originally proposed by John Lasseter in the early 1980s as a showcase for computer animation, the project ran up against reluctant corporate management and allegedly led directly to Lasseter’s termination from the studio. Disney production head Tom Wilhite left the studio and set up Hyperion Pictures in 1984, and with him he took the Toaster project. Rees was brought on to direct, storyboarding the adaptation with Joe Ranft, and led a team of Disney expatriates in the creation of what remains one of the most overlooked gems in feature animation history.

Disney apparently helped back the film and owned the distribution rights, but kept the film from a theatrical release in favor of a debut on the Disney Channel. This is where I first saw it, as a child of the 80s, and not understanding the world of film distribution deals and independent production companies, I didn’t understand how this animated movie I had never heard of just popped up on TV unheralded. Toaster was one of those films that got taped and put into constant rotation in our household, where it was practically memorized verbatim. After growing up a little, it was good to revisit the film and find out that not only does it hold up, but it’s better than I remember – mostly because now I realize how much it stands apart from so many inferior films and how many risks it takes. While its animation suffers from the necessities of its low-budget roots, story-wise it really is one of those rare animated films that holds up with Disney’s best. I hope to revisit it here in some detail in the future.

Jerry Rees and Joe Ranft, hard at work on The Brave Little Toaster

But back to Rees – he’s worked on a number of projects that are near and dear, including several films for theme park projects. These include the still-beloved Back to Neverland with Walter Cronkite and Robin Williams, Cranium Command, and Cinemagique. His site bills a secret new project for Disney that will debut in 2013. 2013? Hmm…

It’s all there on his site, with lots of behind-the-scenes photos, including information about a proposed predecessor to CAPS that Lucasfilm rejected, Brad Bird’s lost and lamented adaptation of The Spirit, and something you definitely didn’t expect to see today – a volleyball game pitting Tim Burton against Moochie. Now that’s what I call a Christmas miracle.

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