Bring on the non-princesses...
It's been an interesting few years for Walt Disney Animation Studios...
When John Lasseter took over it was literally thought of as the second coming. And in a sense, it was, but it has been a far more difficult effort to reproduce the lightning in a bottle that is the Lamp as I mentioned in my post, "In Betweeners." From the last film made by Walt Disney Feature Animation, "Meet The Robinsons," which John wound up tinkering with so that the ending of the film would be more coherent, to the current films, the Mouse has been looking for a turnaround. A rebirth from its rebirth, so to speak.
Beginning with "Bolt," the Suits and the new animation heads were expecting a great shift in the direction that the once, crown of animation unit was headed. Sadly, Calvin Klein Vampires in a badly told, badly acted film drove a stake in the opening weekend box office of this critically well received film and it wound up limping the way to the finish line. The next film, last years "The Princess and the Frog," also critically well received film under-performed at the box office, and people were wondering what was up. With that, the princess problem began and all the turmoil surrounding the renaming of the upcoming film, "Rapunzel" to "Tangled" happened.
And so the Hat Building waits to see the reaction to this latest film, which, from those I've talked to is quite good actually. It's far more classic in its telling than that horrid teaser trailer with the rock music score would have you believe. It's not a direct attempt to mimic the pop-cultury films of rival studio DreamWorks Animation. It's just the marketing departments sad attempt to take a film that is what it is, and try to make it appeal to more boys. Which, if you think about it is a stupid thing to do, because once those boys realize they've been sold a bill of goods, they'll stomp out of the theater and head toward the exit.
And then there is next years film, "The Further Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" or whatever the final name becomes. It's adding to another classic character and it is also supposed to be a very entertaining story from what the Bothans have told me. One thing that has definitely changed since John and Ed took over is that the quality of the last few features has dramatically gone up, even if the box office hasn't.
The problem is the Mouse is treading old, familiar ground, while it's younger brother is experimenting with different concepts. Yes, they've started to make sequels, but they haven't sacrificed the quality and no one has stopped exploring other ideas that would make you think Pixar is getting comfortable with its success. But that is the problem for WDAS. It's looked at as not being risky. Milking a formula that people have come to expect. And what appears to have been needed is to boldly go out in uncharted directions, not just appeal to what was expected.
It takes a long time to make an animated film and changes appear slowly. Make that, sloooooooooowly. But, now with the new slate of stories that Disney Animation is working on it appears the future will be filled with films that are absent tiaras for the remaining future. It most likely won't appear for a couple years as there is a lull in 2012, but starting in 2013 you will likely see a whole different collection of films. Ones that tread a path not known for over a decade and certainly a departure from the strategy that began a few years ago.
So what is on the slate for the next few years? Well, as you know, the schedules for these are nowhere near set and dates can change and some of these could even be canceled because they're in development now, not production. Once you hear they're in production, you can expect firmer release dates and a clearer picture of what lies ahead. But here is what you can expect to see in front of you, with the blurry vision of a distant future that is always in flux. There are various pitches being prepared for theatrical and a few for shorts (with one featuring Lanny and Wayne, again). As of right now, (after Rich Moore's film) two CG animated films have been approved for development and one hand-drawn animated film.
Around 2013, you can expect to see "Reboot Ralph" come into theaters if the schedule solidifies. This is the project by Rich Moore that bares a slight history with "Joe Jump." Very slight, as most of what you will find in Moore's story has very little resemblance to the tale that Joe was. Kind of how "American Dog" was vastly different that what "Bolt" became. Except perhaps that J.J. was never in as much of a story mess as Dog was. But the original story didn't gel, unlike the new one which seems to be heading along at a brisk development pace. We should start hearing more about this project as we get into the new year when Disney gets closer to putting it into production.
A while back, Chris Williams presented to Lasseter, Catmull and Ross his pitch for his next project. It was rejected outright by the Chairman of Walt Disney Studios as playing "too young" so it was shelved and Chris went away trying to retool his pitch. Now you all know that Disney Animation was going to do a film called "The King of the Elves," based on the Philip K. Dick story. Well, it too was shelved because of story problems. The take that Aaron Blaise & Robert Walker had wasn't going smoothly. Lasseter decided to stop development on it until they had a better take on the project. Well, now they have that better take, and the version that will be going forward is much different thanks to Chris Williams new direction on the project. That's right, Williams is the new director of KOTE, and it is moving forward in development. While it hasn't received approval to go into production, Williams is one of John's "first finds" at WDAS and he likes what he sees in the young animator/director. Since he came aboard, the story flow has become much smoother than the previous try.
The hand-drawn feature is one of two projects that two venerable Disney directors pitched to Lasseter, with the hopes that one of those would get the green light to move forward. And while details are slim, this project is being described as unlike any project that these two directors have done before and takes Disney into territory it hasn't really explored. This will be no princess movie. It's still in the embryonic state, but the development of this project that we'll call the "Untitled John Musker & Ron Clements film" is moving forward. That's right, the duo are back at it, but no release date is set as it hasn't been put into production and likely won't until at least next year.
One other project is in development from Dean Wellins that is the other CG animated feature, it is in the formative stages as well. Again, the story is very unlike what we've seen in the past, but we will wait to see how this one evolves. It all depends on how the development process goes, but the direction that John and Ed have now plotted is far more interesting than the original line-up a few years ago.
There have been several ideas shot down. Some are what you'd expect, like using classic characters in new situations. Others, like Chris Buck's project have been shelved. What was Buck working on? Well, after his Snow Queen project was shelved, he started working on a twist on a classic fairy tale. He was planning a big animated "Jack and the Bean Stalk" film. He had a very good and aggressive pitch that he poured his heart into, but Ross and Co. turned it down. You see there is a little project that Brian Singer is working for Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures on called "Jack the Giant Killer" that would have been out well before Chris' project and the Suits didn't want any brand confusion with the competition. And so Buck went back to working on another pitch. His and several others are planned to be heard by Lasseter in the coming weeks, so another one could be greenlit for development before the year goes out. There are many ideas at work in the Hat Building. The walls there cannot stop them; eventually they'll get out.
It takes time. More time than we would like, but Disney Animation is moving on and moving forward. Now that Lasseter has improved the storytelling, he's trying to improve the bottom line. The more money the Burbank animation unit generates, the less it will be compared to its younger brother. Once the hits start coming, the moral will improve and the letting go of talent will cease. And as that happens, the depth of stories and ideas in the production pipeline will improve and grow. It's frustrating, but when you break something apart like what was done to WDFA in the late 90's/early 00's, it takes time to find all the pieces and correct your bearings. But based on some of the projects I've heard about, those bearings may have finally been found.