- April 13, 2000
Roger & Gene, Ron & John, Jeffrey & Oscar, Candy and ... er .. um
By Jim Hill
The folks at Disney Feature Animation work long and hard to make sure that their feature length cartoons are heartfelt and compelling to modern audiences. To do this, the feature production teams sometimes have to labor for years, trying to get the story just right.
In this process, a lot of fun stuff falls by the wayside. Sometimes it's just a great little gag. Other times, it's whole scenes, songs and storylines that get whacked. All in an effort to bring you a better movie.
What follows is a string of anecdotes about things that didn't make the final cut in some recent Disney animated films. Hopefully, these stories will give you some insight as to what ends up on the screen and why.
Ready? Okay. Now it's Lights ... Camera .. Trivia ...
Can it be true? Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert once turned "Thumbs Down" on a movie without even seeing it?
Well, sort of.
Ron Clements and John Musker -- the writers / directors of "Aladdin" -- had come up with what they thought was a great gag to add to that film. Here's the set-up: Prince Achmed -- yet another suitor for Princess Jasmine -- rides into Agrabah. As he does, the citizens of the city look him over. Toward the front of the crowd, two peasants -- who look exactly like Siskel and Ebert -- check Achmed out. Not liking what they see, these two peasants quickly give the Prince the "Thumbs Down" sign.
Alright, so it's not exactly a knee-slapper. But it's cute. And the gag would have worked in context.
Clements and Musker really wanted to put this gag in "Aladdin." They thought that the joke would help establish that film's anything-for-a-laugh sensibility, which would clear the way for Robin Williams' off-the-wall work as the Genie. And -- since Roger and Gene's TV show, "Siskel & Ebert at the Movies," was produced by Disney's TV arm, Buena Vista Television -- Musker and Clements thought that getting Roger and Gene's permission to use their likenesses in "Aladdin" would be a breeze.
It turns out that Siskel and Ebert took their jobs seriously. Perhaps a little too seriously. Roger and Gene were worried that -- if caricatures of them appeared in a Disney film -- people would think that the critics had somehow sold out. So, while the two Chicago film critics were flattered, they reluctantly had to turn down Ron and John's offer.
Don't believe me? Keep a sharp eye out the next time you're watching "Aladdin." The scene in question: Our hero has just handed the bread he stole over to those two starving orphans in the alley. Hearing the sound of the prince's procession, Aladdin and Abu walk over toward the street.
As they stand at the mouth of the alley watching the parade go by, Aladdin and Abu stand behind two other peasants. One -- with a full beard, wearing a red fez -- says: "On his way to the palace, I suppose" (That's Ron Clements). The other -- with a gray mustache, wearing a white turban -- replies: "Another suitor for the princess" (That's John Musker).
What did the staff of Feature Animation think of Musker and Clements inserting themselves into their movie? They thought it was a great inside joke. In fact, folks at Feature Animation got such a kick out of Ron & John's cameo in "Aladdin" that they insisted that the two directors do it again in their next film, "Hercules." You can spot them -- if you're really quick -- as young Hercules zooms that wagonload of hay into market. Do those two buff construction workers Herc knocks off the arch look sort of familiar? They should. That's Musker and Clements again.
And now that Ron and John are at work on their next movie -- a '50's sci-fi version on Robert Lewis Stevensons' classic pirate yarn, "Treasure Island," called (appropriately enough) "Treasure Planet" -- who knows what form these guys will take for their next cameo? If I were you, I'd pay particularly close attention to any two headed aliens that wander through that movie...
Of course, just because you land a part in a Disney animated film doesn't necessarily mean you get to keep it. Think of poor Linda Larkin, the voice of Princess Jasmine. After three months of grueling auditions, Larkin finally won this role in "Aladdin" in January 1991. Thinking she was home free, Linda happily threw herself into working on this animated feature.
Now imagine Larkin's shock when -- six months later -- she learned that Disney was once again holding auditions for the voice of Princess Jasmine.
What was the problem? Disney studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg just wasn't liking what he was hearing coming out of Larkin's recording sessions. He didn't think Linda sounded forceful enough, regal enough to portray a princess.
Clements and Musker -- who loved Larkin's work -- fought hard to keep her on the film. With the help of "Aladdin" co-producer Don Ernest, they finally convinced Katzenberg to give Linda another chance. They then coached Larkin through a carefully staged recording session, which was deliberately done to win Jeffrey over.
That was the session that finally convinced Katzenberg that Linda was the right person to play Princess Jasmine. He then backed off, leaving Musker and Clements to do the movie the way they wanted.
What was Ron & John's secret for making Jeffrey think that Larkin was the right voice for the princess? They just had Linda speak lower and slower, which -- to Katzenberg's way of thinking -- was how princesses sounded. Once Jeffrey forgot about his concerns with Princess Jasmine's voice, Musker and Clements let Larkin go back to what she'd been doing before.
Linda lucked out. But that's not what happened to poor John Candy...
Everyone knows that Candy turned in a killer performance as Wilbur, the fun loving albatross in Disney's 1990 animated feature, "The Rescuers Down Under." But how many of you know that John was invited to Disney to provide the voice for yet another bird -- a turkey this time -- only to have his goose cooked when Jeffrey Katzenberg got "Go for the Gold" fever.
It's true. Katzenberg's lust for a "Best Picture" nomination ended up costing Candy his second chance as portray a Disney animated character as well as bleeding a lot of the fun of "Pocahontas." You know, there are still people working at Disney Studios who believe that "Pocahontas" would have been a better movie if "Beauty and the Beast" just hadn't been nominated for "Best Picture" in the 1991 Academy Awards.
Think about it. "Pocahontas" was happily chugging along the development track at Disney. It's shaping up to be a small but fun film for the studio. Its production team had already decided that the legendary Indian princess should be portrayed as a 12 year-old girl who falls in love with John Smith, a 15 year-old English settler. That seemed like the simplest, most innocent way for the Mouse to handle some fairly sensitive subject material.
Then "Beauty and The Beast" hits theaters in November 1991, and hits big. The film gets great reviews and racks up huge numbers at the box office. The critics go on and on about what a wonderful date film "B & B" is, how adults have been won over by this marvelous animated film.
And then -- in February 1992 -- the Academy Award nominations are announced. And there's "Beauty and the Beast," the first animated film to ever be nominated for a "Best Picture" Oscar.
Sadly, "B & B" didn't win. Not for "Best Picture," anyway. (The film did take home three other Oscars that night. Best Song, Best Score as well as a special award in recognition of Disney's development of CAPs, the computer animation production system that the Mouse had used so brilliant during the production of "Beauty and the Beast.")
But Jeffrey Katzenberg had seen the promised land. People were now taking the studio's animated films -- the movies he personally supervised -- seriously. If "Beauty and the Beast" had come close to winning a "Best Picture" Oscar, Jeffrey was now determined to do whatever he had to see to it that another Disney animated film win that award.
So Jeffrey scouted out his competition. Looking back over the history of the Oscars, Katzenberg learned that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences usually gave its "Best Picture" award to films it felt were big and serious, sweeping romantic epics. "If that's the way they play it, fine by me" Katzenberg thought. "Disney's just going to have to churn out the biggest, most serious sweepingly romantic cartoon the world has ever seen."
Since both "Aladdin" and "The Lion King" were too far along in production to get a win-a-Best-Picture-Oscar makeover, Katzenberg pretty much left those films alone. But not poor "Pocahontas."
Here was a film whose development was just getting underway. Here was a story that Jeffrey would have plenty of time to shape and mold 'til it was serious enough and important enough that the Academy would *HAVE TO* take notice, guaranteeing "Pocahontas" a best picture nomination in 1996.
The first thing Katzenberg changed was Pocahontas and John Smith's ages. Now 18 years old, Jeffrey ordered order her animator -- animation master Glen Keane -- to make Pocahontas " the most beautiful creature that had ever walked the earth." John Smith's age was also moved up too. No longer a gawky adolescent, Smith was a robust manly adventurer of 25 years of age.
Now that the film's protagonists were adults, Katzenberg insisted that Pocahontas and John Smith to have an adult romance. This meant passionate kisses in front of large sweeping vistas, meaningful glances against richly detailed backgrounds.
Of course -- to make room for all this adult stuff (ie: Oscar bait) -- Jeffrey had to cut back on Pocahontas' cute little forest friends. The first to go was a talking turkey that was supposed to be the Indian princess's confidant. This character -- then known as Redfeather -- was voiced by John Candy and animated by Nick Ranieri.
Redfeather was originally supposed to have provided much of the comic relief for "Pocahontas." Candy came into his recording sessions for the film and -- in addition to delivering his scripted lines like a pro -- improvised a lot of new, funny material for his character right on the spot. Had Redfeather actually survived to make it into the finished film, "Pocahontas" probably would have been a lot more fun to watch.
But a talking turkey didn't fit into Jeffrey's vision of an Academy Award-winning animated film. No talking animals did. Under Katzenberg's radical revision of the film, Redfeather became Deadfeather -- disappearing completely from the film. In his place came Meeko, the non-talking raccoon and Flit, the mostly-silent hummingbird.
The irony here is that -- by trying to create a movie that was sure to win a "Best Picture" nomination -- Jeffrey profoundly weakened the finished product. He ended up with an animated film that was too serious for kids yet too lightweight for adults. In the end, "Pocahontas" was an artistic failure -- a cartoon that meant well, rather than entertained. People were impressed by its beautiful art direction and somber tone, but rarely got caught up in the action. The films got respectful reviews but did less than half the business "Lion King" had done the previous summer. In the end, "Pocahontas" was that rarest of cartoons: well intended, but not much fun to watch.
The real tragedy here is that -- not too long after John Candy's character got cut from the film -- John passed away. The heavyset comedian died in his sleep in March 1994, while on location shooting a comic western in Mexico. Some of Candy's last work -- perhaps his best work -- is preserved on those Redfeather recording sessions for "Pocahontas." Too bad that we're never going to get to hear them.
Did I mention that some of these stories are really depressing?
And -- while it would be nice to report that Jeffrey Katzenberg learned from the mistakes he made on "Pocahontas" -- anyone who saw Dreamworks' premiere animated feature, "The Prince of Egypt," knows that Jeffrey's still up to his old tricks. It wasn't enough that that new studio's first traditional animated film be entertaining. It also had to be important.
Somewhere along the line, Katzenberg has gotten his priorities a little screwed up. Yes, it's nice when movies -- particularly animated movies -- win awards. But a movie's first goal should be to entertain. Not enlighten. Not inform. But entertain.
Stop chasing after awards, Jeffrey. If you make the most entertaining film possible, don't worry, the awards will find you. On the other hand, if your main purpose for making a movie is win praise and awards, you'll probably get neither.
Just a tip from a guy who likes turkey.
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