Aug 28, 2012

"My Peoples": The Disney Movie That Almost Was

In late November 2003, I was rather busy putting together college applications, which were due on the first day of the new year.  So focused was I, as a college senior, on essays, SAT scores, and recommendations, that I didn't even notice the seismic changes that were happening at the Walt Disney Feature Animation (WDFA) studios in Orlando.

I've written before about my obsession with that studio as a kid.  Having gone to Disney World in second grade and seen the animators at work on The Lion King is still one of the highlights of my life.  Later trips gave me a chance to see some work done on Tarzan, Mulan, and The Emperor's New Groove.

However, there was another film in production at that time, which sought to recapture the older feel of the early Disney films.  It was a simple and sweet story about a boy and girl in the hills of 1940's Appalachia entitled "My Peoples."

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.  All rights reserved.

The idea originally came in the mid- or late nineties from the mind of Barry Cook, as a retelling of the short story "The Ghost & His Gift", itself a retelling of Oscar Wilde's short story "The Canterville Ghost", but infused with the music, culture, and lore of Cook's native Appalachia.

Cook had already worked at Disney for almost twenty years, on films as varied as Tron (an effects animator) and Mulan (as a co-director).  In fact, it was the success of Mulan, the first real animated 'hit' since The Lion King, that gave Cook the chance to figure out his next film.  After working for five straight years with barely a break, he took a five month sabbatical, figuring what he would do next.

"My Peoples" was the result of that time (Cook had actually had the earliest ideas for the story years before, but had shelved it).  The film was pitched as a low-cost, simple movie, similar--production-wise--to Dumbo, which had been made very cheaply by Walt Disney during World War II, when many of his artists and animators were off fighting.  Cook proposed making the film for $45 million (that's cheap??), which was the cost of The Lion King, a film that brought in over $700 million.

The story was about a man, Elgin, and his love interest, Rose, being united by a gaggle of children, and it was liked by both Disney CEO Michael Eisner and head of Feature Animation Thomas Schumacher.  However, they felt that, as it had been pitched, the story didn't need to be animated; it could be done more cheaply and easily as a live-action feature.

So, Cook went back and tried to figure out what could make his story less "human" and more likely to get the nod as an animated feature.

What he discovered was a long history within the Appalachian Mountains of folk dolls, made from everyday items by people in rural areas.  Cook even found that his own grandmother had made a few.  He asked himself what would happen if these dolls came to life.  Then he realized he had the makings of an animated film.

The children in the original story were jettisoned and replaced by a series of folk dolls.  The story was revised as well, into a (somewhat convoluted) Romeo & Juliet story.  As AnimatedViews explained, "My Peoples" became:

...the story of Elgin Harper, a young man who makes the folk art doll Angel out of a flour scoop as a gift to woo Rose McGee. Unfortunately for Elgin, Rose happens to be from a family feuding with his own. Nonetheless, the young man decides no feud can quench his love, determining to deliver Angel to Rose. But a spell from Rose’s father, Old Man McGee, backfires, bringing Angel to life. And Angel, as it turns out, does not want to do her job; she has no desire to be a gift of love or an “olive branch” between the families. With a will of her own and a bad attitude, Angel refuses to fulfill her purpose and embarks to leave town.

In order to convince Schumacher of the film's potential, Cook planned something special.  He went out and bought an old violin case and had one of the Disney artists create a maquette of Angel to fit inside.  Then he had an assistant to Schumacher deliver the case with the plot synopsis.  Upon finishing the synopsis, Cook had written that Schumacher should open the case, which he did.

The move was enough to greenlight the project.

The Angel maquette that Cook sent to Thomas Schumacher.

Realizing the nervousness of executives over the rise of CG films, Cook had the idea to lower costs by having the human characters animated traditionally and the dolls animated digitally, estimating that about 70% of the film would be CG and 30% would be 2D.

The Dolls

The different characters for the different dolls are pretty great, in my opinion.  They included, of course, Angel, made from a wooden scoop, feathers, and some fabric and paint.

The others were also fun and original.  Crazy Ray was a prisoner doll, carved from an old tree stump.  Good O' Boy was made of car parts and had the character of loveable redneck (mentioned as being similar in character to Mater from Pixar's Cars).  Blues Man was a musician, made from a broken mandolin.  Ms. Spinster was carved from a prosthetic leg and foot.  Cherokee Boy was made from an old workman's glove.  My favorite, Honest Abe, had a broken brush for a head (with bristles as his beard).  He would go around, like Buzz Lightyear, thinking that he was the real Abraham Lincoln.

Well, long story short: the film wasn't to be.  After disappointing returns for Treasure Planet and Brother Bear, and after losing Thomas Schumacher to the Disney Theatrical Division, the execs shut down production.  Before that, the story had been altered substantially, turning the dolls into possessed ghosts, helping Elgin and Rose on their way, and it had been renamed numerous times, with "A Few Good Ghosts" being the final choice before the shutdown.

That was late November 2003.  A few short months later, the entire Orlando operation was scuttled.  A few animators were offered jobs in the Burbank studio.  Barry Cook wasn't one of them.

The Future?

Disney still owns the rights to "My Peoples"/"A Few Good Ghosts," and since the leadership transitions of the last few years, the feature animation department has been looking back at ideas that never made it to the big screen during the Eisner era.  For example, "Wreck-It Ralph", which opens in theaters on November 2 of this year was first pitched around 2000, before being brought back in the last few years.  Could the same happen to "My Peoples"?

Here's a selection of the concept and development art from the film, along with an animatic and a few demo reels from animators that worked on the film.  It's cool to see the look as it came into being.

Rose and Elgin

CG Blue Man
CG Cherokee Boy
Lincoln ghost

Angel ghost

Cherokee Boy ghost

Ms. Spinster ghost


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McCoy said...

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