Three Disney Movies that Started out Totally Different

When you make a movie, there’s a lot that can happen between concept and final production. Studio mandates can interfere. The producer may pull funding unless you make it the way they want it. Writers, directors, and actors can just up and quit and be replaced with people with different agendas. Current events can force clumsy rewrites. You have to make a million compromises just to make the movie happen. And what starts out as your vision of a Oscar-worthy retrospective of the human condition can turn into CGI-riddled schlockfest featuring kaiju monsters with Nic Cage as a wisecracking robot sidekick (dibs! Copyright!)

But even the great Disney studio isn’t immune to this. Movies like Aladdin, The Jungle Book, Pinocchio, Beauty and the Beast, Alice in Wonderland, Lady and the Tramp, and Lilo and Stitch all started as one concept that transmogrified – some over a period of time, some in a single afternoon – from one concept to another. Yet these movies stayed pretty much the same. Mostly.

These three movies began as something completely, totally NOT they ended up being. And their stories are weird.

1. American Dog

Henry is your typical Hollywood star. Only thing is, he really doesn’t get the real world. The plot of American Dog dropped him off in the middle of the Nevada desert and he thinks he’s on a reality show. But helping get back home and keeping him grounded is a cat with an eye patch and a giant, radioactive rabbit.

This was the treatment as put forth by Chris Sanders. If the name sounds familiar, he was a story artist for The Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Mulan. But he became Disney’s golden boy after Lilo and Stitch. Not only was the alien based off a long-forgotten sketch he drew that was tucked in a drawer from 1985, not only did he paint numerous watercolor concept renderings to evoke the feel he wanted, and not only did he co-write and co-direct the movie with friend Dean Deblois, but Chris also provided the voice of the titular Stitch. Chris was a bit of an oddball, and Lilo and Stitch was a godsend in the 2000 – 2008 dark age of Disney animation. The films in this era were either mediocre successes or box office failures, and the sudden success of the 2002 film made Disney go nuts. Stitch was as popular as Roger Rabbit was in the late eighties, or Elsa was after Frozen. Thus he was tapped to work on his next project, American Dog, which utilized Sanders’ off-kilter sense of humor and style.

This project became: Bolt (2008)

One person who didn’t care for where the story was headed was John Lasseter, who came on board as Chief Creative Officer and executive producer of Disney Animation in 2007. After Michael Eisner’s resignation in 2005, Bob Iger repaired the strained Disney-Pixar relations and brought the clearly-successful Lasseter on board to fix the animation department. When the Pixar co-founder stepped aboard, he saw Sanders’ project, and he didn’t like it.

Lasseter would later elaborate that he didn’t care for Sanders’ quirkiness and wanted more emotional sincerity in the film. Sanders, naturally, was pretty perturbed about being fired as director from the project. Perturbed enough to quit Disney and be hired at Disney’s main rival at the time, Dreamworks. Byron Howard and Chris Williams were hired and soon, Sanders’ offbeat characters were replaced by Bolt, Mittens the cat, and Rhino the hamster.

But don’t feel too bad about Chris. He and his buddy Dean Deblois would later go on to create the How to Train your Dragon franchise as well as a The Croods. Ever wondered why Toothless and Stitch look so much alike?

And if you want to know what the one-eye cat was going to be like, check out Chris Sanders’ online comic, Kiskaloo, here.

2. Kingdom of the Sun

Immediately after the smash runaway success of The Lion King in 1994, co-director Roger Allers and writer Matthew Jacobs began working on an Incan-based feature that wove in all the rich tapestry of mythology, lore, and culture of Latin America. Involving even a trip to Machu Picchu, the script involved a Prince and the Pauper-style plot, a budding romance between the emperor (Then named Manko) and a peasant girl, a talking rock named Huaca, and the villainess Yzma, who plotted to steal the sun, convinced it was what made her age. Singer Sting was brought on board to write numerous songs for the project, and his wife, Trudie Styler, a noted documentarian, was allowed to film the creative process.

This project became: The Emperor’s New Groove (2002)

Eventually, the storyboards, concept art, songs, and test animation reached the office of Thomas Schumacher, who was not impressed with the movie that was in progress. Mind you, they got as far as getting Owen Wilson to play Pacha (The pauper character) and recorded Eartha Kitt singing her villain song, “Snuff out the Light”, which sadly never made it to the final film. Schumacher claimed the story was too complicated, too esoteric in Incan lore, and overall uninteresting.

Sting was pretty annoyed to find all the songs he wrote were discarded and was being called back to write and record more, and Trudie was capturing every moment on film. When production stalled in 1998, Disney pressed Allers to hurry up. Marketing and licensing deals had to go through for a summer 2000 release, so time was not on his side (The final product came out that December, so Disney bought extra time with Dinosaur). Allers quit and the new director, Mark Dindal, was left with a shell of a movie and two weeks to fix it. A new writer, David Reynolds, pitched a lighter, wackier movie that focused on the buddy element and less on everything else. Sting came back and wrote “Perfect World” and “My Funny Friend and Me”, a paltry two songs compared to the eight he wrote for the previous version.

Trudie eventually made all her footage into a documentary, called The Sweatbox. Named after the stuffy projection room where Walt used to screen his movies, it perfectly encapsulates the drama that arose from the screening with Schumacher. The problem is that Disney didn’t like the idea of a documentary that showed the ugly side of filmmaking, and now The Sweatbox is the only movie harder to find copies of than Song of the South.

Way to go, guys.

3. Sweating Bullets

After directing 1995’s Pocahontas, Mike Gabriel wrote a proposal that took place in the Wild West, a setting that had been largely untouched since Disneyland opened the gates to Frontierland in 1955. As various notes online suggest, it was a supernatural ghost story about a city-slicker (in one character model sheet, he was named Darlin) who encountered the ghosts of Alameda Slim and the Willies in a ghost town, who all died years ago in a cattle stampede. The project impressed Feature Animation President Peter Schneider, and shortly thereafter, the project was titled Sweating Bullets.

The story project went through numerous tweaking, and eventually became the story about a bull calf named Bullets, who wanted to be like horses on the ranch. Also pitched were mariachi butterflies.

This project became: Home on the Range (2004)

Maybe it’s because this movie isn’t one of Disney’s most renowned or even liked animated feature, but information on this one is hard to find. I can’t seem to find any real information as to why it went the direction of the three cows-turned-bounty hunters story that it did, but it obviously happened.

But if I had to speculate, i think it must have been a cost-cutting measure.

Much like Kingdom of the Sun, the project out as a much grander story and epic before getting reduced to a Tex Avery-style comedy. But in 2004, Disney Animation was close to death. Even with the success of Lilo and Stitch, Disney worried CGI was going to render them obsolete, all thanks to companies like Dreamworks, Blue Sky, and even Pixar. Eisner had little patience for business facets that weren’t profitable, and went through numerous measures to shut down Animation, from firing key people to closing the satellite branches in France and Orlando. By the time Home on the Range was released in April of 2004, Disney was consumed in making Chicken Little, wanting to prove to Pixar they could make good computer animated films, too. So much hinged on Chicken Little that Eisner couldn’t care less about the dying hand-drawn studio, declaring famously that “2D is dead”, and making sure everyone knew the Home on the Range was the last hand drawn film. No last hurrah. No curtain call. No great goodbye. It was time to drop 2D like hot rock and move on to the next big thing.

At least on the audio commentary, they explained that the original title sounded cool in english, but, you know, idioms don’t do well in other languages. They joked about the movie being called “Bullets Coming out of your Skin”. Sounds like another Saw entry, if you ask me.

Which one would you have liked to see most?

Author: TAP-G

Writer, former podcaster, entertainment enthusiast. Movies and media have the power to shape our world and vice versa. Let’s take a deeper look at them.

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