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The enormous success of Disney’s Frozen — the top-grossing animated film of all time — is also a testament to the value of perseverance. Walt Disney himself first examined the possibility of bringing Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen to the screen in animated form as far back as 1937, and his studio made multiple attempts to make a movie version, decades before Frozen finally succeeded in 2013.
But Frozen is just the most obvious example. For every animated movie Disney has produced over the studio’s 80-year history, it seems like there were another two or three that got lost along the way. Below you’ll find eight unmade projects from the Disney vaults. Could there be another Frozen-style billion-dollar blockbuster among them? Read on and see.
After the success of his first full-length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, in 1937, Disney came across Chantecler, a well-loved stage play by Cyrano de Bergerac author Edmond Rostand, based on a classic European fable about a self-regarding rooster who believes that his crowing makes the sun to rise. An adaptation went into development, but the animators found it difficult to make the title character sympathetic. Another French folk character, Reynard the Fox, was introduced as a villain (and the spelling was altered to Chanticleer), but the story didn’t come together. With the advent of World War II, the project was scrapped, though there were several failed attempts to revive it in the late 1940s. It was brought back again in the early 1960s, when animators Ken Anderson and Marc Davis found the old concept art and attempted to retool the story as a Broadway-style musical comedy. But with Disney focused on the construction of what would become Walt Disney World in Florida, the decision was made to scale back on animation production, and the studio moved forward with The Sword in the Stone instead. (Animator Don Bluth eventually made a poorly received version of the story outside Disney,1992’s Rock-a-Doodle.)
It’s probably appropriate that Cervantes’s classic tale of a deluded hero on a hopeless quest has thwarted so many filmmakers over the years. Director Terry Gilliam famously has been on a 15-year quest to film the story of an elderly man who believes he’s a knight fighting giants (actually windmills). But that’s nothing compared to the 75-year saga of Disney’s attempt to make an animated feature out of it. Work initially began in 1940, but despite some lovely Velásquez-inspired artwork, the film was scuppered by the war and the poor box office of Pinocchio and Fantasia. A second version, based on Richard Strauss’s music, was begun in 1946 but didn’t get very far. A third was started in 1951, but no one could figure out how to slim down Cervantes’s epic or make its unhinged hero sympathetic. The project spent a few decades dormant, but in the late 1990s, French animators Paul and Gaëtan Brizzi began working on a new version, which got close to going into production but was eventually deemed too dark and adult for the studio. We could yet see a Disney Don Quixote though: The studio has been developing a live-action version with Johnny Depp since 2012.
Roald Dahl and Walt Disney were two of the most beloved children’s entertainers of the 20th century, and the two actually worked together near the beginning of their careers. Dahl — the writer behind such classic books as James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — had been an ace fighter pilot before becoming a diplomat in Washington during the closing years of the World War II. While there, he penned a story for children called The Gremlins, revolving around mythical creatures that RAF pilots blamed for mechanical failures. He sent it to his government for approval and was later surprised to find that film producer Sidney Bernstein, then at the Ministry of Information, had sent it to Walt Disney, who wanted it to make it into a feature animated propaganda film. Work on the movie progressed quite far, including concept art, but it was eventually curtailed by questions over who owned the copyright to the characters (Disney feared that the British government had a claim) and by the length of time it would take for the film to be finished. A book — Dahl’s first — was published by Disney in 1943, but the film never happened, and it was only a reprinting a decade ago that helped to unearth the project again.
Walt Disney always planned multiple sequels to Fantasia, his 1940 classical music-themed feature. But aside from Fantasia 2000 15 years ago, all the other attempts have been thwarted. The first to try was Musicana in the late 1970s, headed up by studio veteran Mel Shaw. Intended to have a focus on world music, the film would have included a jazz sequence with animated frogs set to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong; an African segment called The Rain God; and a Mickey Mouse-starring equivalent to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor and the Nightingale (the latter being one of the first projects for future Pixar head John Lasseter). But Disney sadly passed on the project in the end (though a 10-minute documentary about it is now on YouTube). A similar idea — of a more global, diverse Fantasia — was again attempted for a film in the early 2000s, code-named Fantasia 2006. But again, the move away from hand-drawn animation scuppered the project, though several of the segments, including the Salvador Dali-inspired Destino and the Hans Christian Andersen-derived The Little Match Girl, saw the light of day at festivals or on home-video releases.
Toots and the Upside-Down House
In the 1990s, director Henry Selick looked like one of Disney’s new leading lights: The stop-motion expert had gone from cult hit The Nightmare Before Christmas to the well-received James and the Giant Peach. But things came undone with what would have been his third project for the Disney. Selick was set to direct an adaptation of Toots and the Upside-Down House, a well-loved children’s book by Carol Hughes about a young girl who discovers an upside-down world of fairies in her ceiling and helps them battle Jack Frost. The film was set to be a mix of stop-motion, CGI, and live-action, and the first major children’s film from Harvey Weinstein’s Disney subsidiary, Miramax, with future Ocean’s Eleven director Steven Soderbergh co-writing the screenplay. In his book Getting Away With It, Soderbergh documents his struggle with the adaptation, ultimately concluding that the book’s conceit wouldn’t work on film. But in the end, it was budget issues that killed the movie. (Incidentally, Soderbergh isn’t the only A-list indie auteur to have a brush with Disney: Brick director Rian Johnson, soon to direct Star Wars Episode VIII, wrote a film called The Prince and The Pig for the studio in the mid-’00s.)
The 2000s were among the bleakest times in the history of Disney animation. While Pixar went from hit to hit, their owner as of 2006, Disney, put out a string of films that at best were undervalued (Lilo & Stitch, The Emperor’s New Groove) and at worst, entirely forgettable (Meet the Robinsons, Brother Bear). The decade could have looked quite different if My Peoples had made it to the screen. The brainchild of Mulan director Barry Cook, the film was a loose adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost and originally titled The Ghost and the Gift. (In the project’s short life, it was also known as Once in a Blue Moon, Elgin’s Peoples, and A Few Good Ghosts). It followed the Romeo and Juliet-style love story between the children of two feuding Appalachian families and the ghost-possessed dolls that help them get together. The film planned to use a mix of hand-drawn and CGI animation and even got as far as the casting stage, with Dolly Parton, Ashley Judd, and Lily Tomlin all signing on. But despite the promise of a low budget (just $45 million), the plug was pulled six months later in favor of the ‘safer bet’ of Chicken Little.
As the animation medium has developed, we’ve seen it move into all kinds of different genres. Disney alone has tackled everything from knockabout comedy (The Emperor’s New Groove) to the Western (Home on the Range) to the superhero picture (Big Hero 6). In the mid-2000s, audiences almost got quite a different genre, with one of the most promising of the unmade Disney pictures, Fraidy Cat. The premise — a Hitchcock-style thriller about a pampered cat forced to go on the run after being framed for the kidnapping of a neighbor pet — had been in the works since the late 1990s. It gathered steam in early 2003, when two of the studio’s biggest directors, Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin), came onboard the project, which would have been their first CGI film. It’s an irresistible premise, and the concept art (which included an homage to the famous crop duster scene from North by Northwest) looked great. But after a string of disappointments (including Clements and Musker’s Treasure Planet), studio higher-ups were nervous about the project, believing that kids wouldn’t get the Hitchcock feel and that it didn’t have enough merchandising potential. The studio shut development down, and Clements and Musker left Disney, though they later returned for 2009’s The Princess and the Frog and next year’s Moana.
Disney scored a coup in 2007 when it announced the creation of ImageMovers Digital, a new venture focusing on digital performance capture animation from Robert Zemeckis, the Forrest Gump director who’d helped to pioneer the format with his hit The Polar Express. Three movies were planned: a version of A Christmas Carol with Jim Carrey playing Scrooge and the ghosts; a kids’ book adaptation called Mars Needs Moms; and a 3D remake of the Beatles’ trippy animated classic Yellow Submarine. Once work was complete on his Dickens adaptation, Zemeckis secured the rights from the Beatles (16 songs would have been included) and got close to production. He’d even cast the Fab Four, with Peter Serafinowicz (Spy), Dean Lennox Kelly (Shameless), Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride), and Adam Campbell (Epic Movie) capturing Paul, John, George and Ringo, respectively. But disagreements over the budget and reservations over the mo-cap style that many audience members found creepy, caught in the so-called “uncanny valley,” were exacerbated when Mars Needs Moms performed disastrously in early 2011 — taking in just $38 million worldwide on a $150 million budget. Disney passed on the Beatles movie soon after, and though Zemeckis planned to take it to other studios, he eventually dropped it too, saying, “It’s probably better not to be remade.”