Friday, February 20, 2009

Chanticleer and the Fox

In the early 1990s, Disney Press published a series of childrens storybooks derived from unrealized concepts long hidden away in the studio's animation archives. These included a Mickey Mouse version of The Emperor’s Nightingale, Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, and an adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier, that in fact did ultimately make its way into Fantasia 2000.

However, my favorite of this terrific series of books has to be Chanticleer and the Fox, featuring wonderful concept art by Disney studio and Imagineering legend Marc Davis. According to Charles Solomon’s book Disney That Never Was, the stories of Chanticleer the rooster and Reynard the fox combined became “the most fully developed unmade feature at the studio.” Efforts on both characters began as early as 1937. Initially, ideas for Chanticleer were challenged by the belief that it would be difficult to create a rooster who would be likable in both appearance and character. The story of Reynard met opposition from Walt Disney himself, who considered the subject potentially “too highbrow” and felt that the character’s villainous nature would be too difficult to overcome.

The idea for combining the two characters into one story came about in 1945, but was ultimately shelved by the early 1950s. Then, in 1960, it was put on track to be the feature that would follow 101 Dalmatians. Marc Davis and Ken Anderson were put in charge of development, at which point Davis produced the extraordinary artwork featured in the Disney Edition storybook. In a 1998 interview with Disney historian Jim Korkis, Davis reminisced about the project:

"It had been around the studio for a long time and Ken Anderson and I thought we could develop it as the next animated feature after 101 Dalmatians. At the time, Walt was thinking about not doing anymore animated features and we felt if we had this thing done up, it might get him excited and change his mind. I think the concept art is some of the best work I did at the studio."

Sadly, the project was killed by studio financial executives at a time when decisions were being made to cut back on animated feature production. Davis distinctly remembered his frustration over the project's cancellation:

"We had all the artwork up on the walls and we went through this presentation and they were all quiet and some bookkeeper says 'You can't make a good character out of a chicken.' And that's all it took to kill us and that's nonsense. You can make a good character out of a push pin if you want. We thought this had tremendous possibilities. We could have brought this off with interesting characters."

Davis’ distinct style is immediately evident in the book’s colorful and extensive illustrations. The personalities of Chanticleer and Reynard are especially vibrant and well realized. Many of the animal designs would foreshadow elements of the studio’s own Robin Hoodthat would be produced a little over a decade later. Former Disney animator Don Bluth would ultimately produce his own version of the Chanticleer story in 1991 with Rock-A-Doodle, but this Elvis-inspired interpretation was critically blasted and more or less rejected by moviegoers as well.

This is an expansion of a post previously published on 2719 Hyperion in February 2007.


Anonymous said...

Well, it seems that Davis did end up using some designs for a later project. Don't those drawings remind you of a former Disneyland attraction from Tomorrowland?

Anonymous said...

I agree, Nic. Those characters drawings do look rather America Sings-ish.

spokeshave said...

I always thought going by Bill Peet's book that he was the one who said. "You can't make a personality out of a chick'n!" Since he had his own project on the boards at the same time, Sword in the Stone...

Anonymous said...

The late, wonderful Robie Lester (Disneyland Story Reader) told me that she was going to do a principal voice in Chanticleer, on the recommendation of her friend, composer Mel Leven. That's another reason it's a shame the film never happened.