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Former Disney Animator Speaks Out Against Management

In 2006, Animator Chris Sanders was forced out of Walt Disney Animation Studios when John Lasseter removed him as director of the American Dog movie, which eventually became Bolt. Sanders had previously directed the beautiful and touching Lilo & Stitch and many fans were looking forward to his take on the tale of a dog who crossed America looking for his true self. But we’ll never get to see that film.

It’s important to remember that Chris Sanders had a long history at Walt Disney Feature Animation working on projects like Beauty & The Beast, The Lion King, and Mulan. A couple of those films were produced turning a tumultuous time for Disney animation and the Disney Company in general. It saw Roy E. Disney start a shareholder revolt that eventually ended in Michael Eisner’s ouster, and before that Sparky Katzenberg was kicked to the curb and later set up his own animation studio–Dreamworks. The studio where Sanders is current producing amazing films like How to Train A Dragon.

The chief complaint I heard from animators was that management was sticking its nose in places it just didn’t belong and muddying the story. As it turns out Chris Sanders had his own take on that. But it remained mostly unknown until now.

For what looks like a company retreat or meeting circa 1989, Sanders wrote and illustrated a story called “The Big Bear Aircraft Company.” It’s a smart piece that takes aim at exactly the sort of interference Sanders believed to be the cause of Disney’s mediocre slate of animated features. Someone found a copy of the story inside an old “Illusion of Life” book and has graciously scanned it and put it online for all of us to read and learn from.

Have you read it yet? I’ll wait.

Considering this was likely penned back in the mid-90s (although some say as late as 1996), it looks like Chris Sanders was worried about competition from Don Bluth. Bluth’s 1986 film An American Tail had just scored the best non-Disney animated box office ever and 1989 saw All Dogs Go To Heaven, a critical and fan favorite but a gentle player at the box office. Alas, the rest of the Bluth library did not perform as well. So perhaps Sanders didn’t have so much to worry about after all.

(Note: If the document was written in 1996, the competition would have been Pixar. Which was just as valid. )

On the other hand, Disney’s string of mediocre hits in the 90s, at the same time Pixar was cranking out hit after hit, lends a lot of credence to Sanders’ complaint (particularly the same plane with a new coat of paint complaint). What’s your take on the current state of Walt Disney Animation Studios? How do they recapture the magic?

Update: In a comment on CartoonBrew, Chris Sanders confirms this was from him and was written around the time of Mulan‘s production (so circa 1996-97). He talks about the complexity (or lack there of) of Disney’s films, and how a debate about the death of the villain at the end of Mulan inspired a lot of his thinking. It also inspired him to completely reverse the usual villain arch in his film Lilo & Stitch.

(h/t CartoonBrew)

Previously: Chris Sanders lands at DreamWorks Animation.

15 thoughts on “Former Disney Animator Speaks Out Against Management”

  1. See also The only reason the near perfect Lilo and Stitch made it out okay is that Chris did it on his own at home and brought it in virtually ‘done’ so the suits didn’t have the chance to mess with it too much. (according to my sources.)

  2. Bolt and Brave are both two movies that make me sad knowing I’m never going to see them made the way the original director would have wanted them. Did you know Brenda Chapman was kicked off of Brave also? Really disheartening news, makes me not want to work with anything involved with Disney later on if this is how they handle things.

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  6. I can’t say that I know too much about the current internal affairs of the Walt Disney Animation Studios, but judging by their output the last couple of years , I’d feel comfortable saying that things are a lot better there now than they were.

    I think that John Lasseter and Robert Iger are much more capable leaders than Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner, but Roy E. Disney’s death in late 2009 was surely a huge loss.

    I know that tastes vary greatly, but I think that “The Princess and the Frog”, “Tangled”, and “Winnie the Pooh” are respectable films, and infinitely better than many of the other movies produced earlier in the 2000s. However, I fear that their lineup for future films isn’t exactly composed of movies destined to be classics. They should stay on the path of traditional hand-drawn animation, and leave the computer animation to Pixar, in my opinion.

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  12. That’s the best told story of how Disney did things back in the day that I’ve ever read. It was so cleverly written that I’d pay to see that as a feature animation instead of some of the stuff that came out a decade ago. It actually “bears” a slight resemblance to the decline of Hughes Aircraft which I think struggled with the same overmanaged style of leadership before it was sold off. Thank you Chris!

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