There was a flurry of activity in the animation building that Thursday afternoon back in the early sixties. This was the Walt Disney studio, and final preparations were being made as last minute sketches were hastily pinned to story boards and secretaries readied their notepads and sharpened their pencils. The afternoon meeting was a very big deal. Many saw the future of their craft hinging on how well this presentation might be received. Disney's best and brightest had labored on this project for months and this afternoon's meeting would determine whether their work had been in vain. The team gathered in the large story room in 2F. This is a wing on the second floor of the animation building where Disney's best and brightest had worked for nearly six months. Top story men, background artists, designers, and animators filled the room. They joked amongst themselves and made an attempt to appear casual and relaxed. Still, there was no mistaking the palpable tension filling the room.

Suddenly, the outer door of the wing burst open, and a hunched figure strode heavily down the hallway. The loud cough signaled the arrival of the man all had been waiting for. As Walt Disney entered the room we scattered and headed back to our drawing boards. This meeting was not for the likes of us. This was the Disney Studio in the sixties when balding, grey haired old men ran the company. Unlike today’s cartoon business, unproven youngsters like ourselves knew that our presence would not be welcome. It was rare a new project should garner so much attention at the Mouse House. Suddenly, the sixties were on us and some feared that the Disney staff was growing old and stodgy. With the completion of 101 Dalmatians and The Sword in the Stone, the Disney brain trust was getting bored. They needed a fresh new project - something they hadn't done before. A movie that would get the old creative juices flowing again. Not surprisingly, top Disney animator Marc Davis came to the rescue. Marc had discovered a story he knew would deliver the goods. Chanticleer and the Fox, was a popular fairy tale, as well as a Caldecott winner. The Caldecott was the prestigious book award and Marc Davis knew this was the project to re-light the creative fires at Disney.

It was clear that Marc Davis had been inspired by this animal tale. A fanciful story that could be traced all the way back to The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. Davis began by producing stacks of inspired sketches of the proud rooster and fox who would be his undoing. In time, Davis was joined by conceptual artist Ken Anderson who brought further embellishment to the presentation. The walls of 2F wing were soon filled with some of the most inspired Disney art seen in years. Word quickly spread throughout the Disney studio that an amazing new movie was being developed. This was to be a film unlike anything we had seen before. Throughout the development process, Marc Davis continued his role as creative leader. Other artists had been added to the crew to put the final polish on the presentation. Those of us who labored “at the oars” down below, envied those chosen to work on the project. We could only hope that if we worked hard enough, one day our turn would come. In the meantime, we contented ourselves with sneaking upstairs to get a peek at the forthcoming movie that would change animation forever.

Though it was a quiet Thursday afternoon, tension was beginning to grow downstairs. A few artists left their drawing boards and moved out into the hallway. “Heard anything yet?” One artist would ask. “No, not a word,” was the reply from another artist who surveyed the hallway for any signs of life. “Looks like they're still in the meeting.” “Don't sweat it,” said one of the older guys. “Didn't you see that kick butt artwork on the walls? This one's a slam dunk.” "Yeah,” replied another artist. “Walt would never turn down a guy like Marc Davis. No way.” Suddenly, we heard the outer door of the wing slam open and a bunch of the old guys made their way down the hallway. We couldn't make out what they were saying, but it sure didn't sound good. The most outspoken of the group, a vociferous directing animator known for his temper tantrums could be heard over the others. “Well,” he grumbled. “What the hell can you expect from a tired old man?” While some complained loudly, others went back to their drawing boards with a look of resignation on their faces. My young colleagues and myself had no need to ask what had happened. It was more than clear that Chanticleer was a movie the Walt Disney Studios would never make. 

Yet, this story doesn't really end on a sour note. Walt Disney animation went on to begin work on a film that did make tons of money at the box office, and give animation a new lease on life. The film showed that there was indeed life in the old guys, and their inspired work on The Jungle Book proved just that. As for Marc Davis, he put down his animation pencil forever, and moved over to Walt Disney Imagineering where he was the creative inspiration on dozens of theme park attractions including the incredible Pirates of the Caribbean. However, Chanticleer would remain only as a fanciful tale told by Disney oldtimers. Those who remember that fateful afternoon when the boss, Walt Disney made a decision. And, when Walt made a decision…that decision was final.

We were all impressed by the wonderful Marc Davis concept art. Walt Disney - not so much.

We were all impressed by the wonderful Marc Davis concept art. Walt Disney - not so much.

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AuthorFloyd Norman