The Greatest Disney Animated Feature Never Made: Chanticleer

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Did you ever wonder why the Disney Studios made an all-animal version of the legend of Robin Hood with such appealing character designs or where some of the Audio-Animatronics figures like the fancy dressed singing chickens in the America Sings attraction (that were later used in Splash Mountain) originated?

They all came from a 1960 proposed animated feature film that would have recounted the story of two well-known French characters that Walt obtained decades earlier.

Here is that tale of two tails.

In the 1930s, Walt was interested in two French properties, Reynard the Fox and Chanticleer, but both presented story challenges because of generally unsympathetic main characters.

Chanticleer was a 1910 play by Edmond Rostand who also wrote Cyrano de Bergerac and it was meant to be a satirical commentary on society using talking animals as surrogates. It centered on a vain rooster who thought his crowing each morning caused the sun to rise. Walt initially liked the idea of doing a big barnyard comedy with a cast of pretentious roosters and chickens in fancy feathers with lots of gags perhaps as a reminder of his Silly Symphonies series.

Reynard is a group of French, Dutch and German fables, novels and poems by multiple authors (the most well-known version is by Goethe) collected around the 11th century. They were used as moral tales for children and parodies of medieval literature as well as biting political satire for adults.

Marc Davis' drawing of Reynard the fox.

Because of the popularity of the Reynard stories, renard became the standard French word for "fox," replacing the old French word for "fox," which was goupil.

Reynard was put into development as a possible animated feature film as early as 1937. Another appealing aspect for Walt was that the stories of Reynard were in public domain so he would not have to pay any royalties. The fox was an unrepentant villain and trickster, known for his many disguises and quick wits and was charged with many crimes.

When he does not show up in court for his trial, the King, who is a Lion, sends a huge bear to bring in the scoundrel. Reynard tricks the bear into going after honey and the bear gets badly stung. Next, the King sends a cat who Reynard tricks into chasing mice and the cat gets badly beaten and loses an eye.

Finally, the King resorts to using Reynard's cousin, who brings the fox to court. Once there, to save himself from punishment, Reynard tells the story of a hidden treasure. The greedy King sends Reynard to bring him the treasure and to assure that it happen sends along the Hare and the Ram. Reynard ends up killing the Hare and putting the head in a bag that he gives to the Ram to take back to the King mistakenly thinking it is the treasure.

The angry King wants Reynard's head now and Reynard is once again captured and brought to the palace but is pardoned by another tale of treasure. However, the Wolf challenges Reynard to a duel and through trickery, Reynard wins and is made an adviser to the King. Definitely not a Disney story.

Walt assigned his story people Dorothy Blank (who had worked on Snow White) and Al Perkins to come up with a treatment.

In this version, Reynard is already at court but is literally hiding in sheep's clothing and being amused by the proceedings. For the fox, any means justify the end. He is eventually captured and brought to the King who sentences him to be hanged.

At the end, on the gallows, Reynard confesses that his father once tried to overthrow the King…with the help of the Wolf. The Wolf is imprisoned and Reynard spins a tale of his father's vast wealth hidden in a volcano.

When the King and his subjects go to the volcano, it explodes and many are killed, but the King escapes. He frees the Wolf who challenges Reynard to a duel that the fox wins through trickery and demands a royal ball be thrown in his honor. As everyone is celebrating, he steals the royal treasury. When captured, he begs not to be banished to the volcano very much like B'rer Rabbit pleading not to be thrown in the briar patch. Once he is exiled to the volcano, Reynard looks down on the village with a sly smile and digs up all the treasure.

While the treatment is faithful to the original stories, it is certainly still not a "Disney" version. In a meeting at the Disney Studio on February 12, 1938 that included story people like Bill Cottrell, Ben Sharpsteen and Otto Englander, Walt raised some concerns.

"I see some swell possibilities in Reynard but is it smart to make it?" asked Walt. "Our main character is a crook, and there's nothing about him having a 'Robin Hood' angle. We have such a terrific kid audience…parents and kids together. That's the trouble. It's too sophisticated. He's not to be a murderer under any circumstances. He shouldn't take advantage of anybody but a stupid individual."

In one treatment, Reynard steals all the King's rings by kissing his hand, a gag that would be later done in Robin Hood (1973).

It was suggested making Reynard a good guy who was pretending to be bad. Walt responded, "We've always accused the fox and maybe we could prove that he is really not that type – started out all right, and then we show how he goes wrong – really innocent but the law has always been after him and he's had to live by his wits."

"The Hays Office is down on glorifying crooks because of churches and so on. They have a terrific influence. Even Cock Robin (the 1935 Silly Symphony Who Killed Cock Robin?) ran into things all over. We got letters from all over. A lot of people don't think that's the right kind of thing we should do…trying to be too smart."

In May 1941, Walt purchased the rights to Rostand's play Chanticleer for $5,000 and then discovered that Paramount owned a half interest in the play and it was unclear whether that included the motion picture rights.

Walt assigned story people Ted Sears and Al Perkins to develop a treatment.

As work was developing on Reynard and Chanticleer, as well as other films including a feature based on Don Quixote that also went through multiple treatments, the Disney Studio found its financial resources strained because of its work for the war effort during World War II and so these and other possible films were put on hold.

In 1945, writer Clifton Johnson tackled a treatment of Reynard. Johnson found that "perhaps the story has more undesirable qualities than desirable ones for picture purposes". Johnson described Reynard as "very wicked, sly, self-sufficient, clever, orator".

His version is much closer to the traditional version than the first treatment. In Johnson's version, Reynard causes the Cat to lose an eye, eats the Hare and tricks the Ram into taking the Hare's head back to the King in a bag under the assumption that it is the treasure. Through his trickery, Reynard ends up High Chancellor to the King.

In 1947, three different treatments were prepared. By then, the Disney Studio Library had amassed a large collection of different versions of the story. Walt himself checked out a copy of Rogue Reynard by Andre Norton.

The first treatment is dated January 28, 1947. It was hoped to get French actor Charles Boyer as the narrator or someone similar in tone. The King is now a comedic figure, constantly combing his mane while admiring himself in a hand mirror.

Now the story revolves around the Wolf, Bear and Cat in some sort of conspiracy plot against the King, primarily an attempt to steal the King's treasure. The Wolf tells the King of the many complaints against Reynard and the King sends the Bear who is depicted as slow-witted and a bit of bumbler just like B'rer Bear.

Reynard is not depicted as a scoundrel but as a "free spirit" who enjoys having fun at other people's expense. He easily tricks the Bear into getting stung searching for honey. Then the fox disguises himself as a woman and flirts with the bear only to sneak out of a loving bear hug and reappear as himself shouting the accusation, "My wife!" and pummels the Bear with a club in a scene that is actually more amusing than violent.

The Wolf tells the King that only the royal lion himself is smart enough to capture the fox. In actuality, the Wolf and his compatriots plan to kill the King and blame it on Reynard. Flattered, the King accepts the challenge and disguises himself. However, when he arrives at Reynard's, he is indeed attacked by the three villains but is rescued by Reynard.

However, because of the confusion, Reynard is falsely accused of leading the attack. On the gallows, he is able to clear himself of all charges and prove the guilt of the three villains.

The next two 1947 versions are from animator Norm Ferguson, famous for his work on the character of Pluto among other accomplishments. It is apparent that Ferguson did not use any of the original source material or the books in the studio library, but based his version on the first 1947 version where the Wolf, Bear and Cat are in league against the King.

In his first treatment, Ferguson focuses on a series of mysterious crimes that have taken place and an initialed handkerchief with an "R" on it always left at each scene. Of course, the assumption is that it is Reynard who fails to show up for his court appearance and is defended by his friend, a badger.

Paralleling this action is another court in session with small animals in a large cavern. This court is addressed by Reynard who tells his subjects that he is aware of the crimes and vows to uncover the real perpetrator. A song, It's Reynard, is sung by his subjects.

The story is filled with accusations, disguises, Reynard always barely escaping capture and finally him using the promise of treasure to reveal the true conspirators.

In his second treatment, Ferguson emphasizes more humor and relies on flashbacks. In fact, the film starts with Reynard on the gallows with the Wolf listing in great deal the crimes Reynard has done.

Reynard applauds after the Wolf's presentation and adjusting the noose around his neck like a tie, proceeds to tell the real truth behind all the accusations, including how the Wolf, Bear, Cat, Ram and Hare failed to bring back the treasure. He reveals the conspiracy between these animals.

Reynard is so convincing that the King and the crowd decide to free Reynard and hang the other animals. Ferguson depicts Reynard as an "English gentleman" and includes a song, We're Hanging Reynard Today.

In fact, animator Frank Thomas told writer and historian John Cawley that three films were under serious consideration for the next animated feature: Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella and Reynard. Cinderella was chosen with Alice a close second.

Walt Disney had liked the fact that Song of the South (1946) featured three animated segments that helped advance the story in the live-action film. In addition, they had received the most positive recognition.

So when planning Treasure Island (1950), he thought of including three animated segments for Long John Silver to tell the cabin boy Jim Hawkins. The first short would have been Reynard and the Golden Apple where even though Reynard steals the King's golden apple, it was to protect it from the real thieves. The moral would have been that things are not always what they seem.

Later, when Jim is captured by the pirates, Silver prevents Jim from being killed by telling the story of How Reynard Saved Grimbert's Life that suggested if the pirates killed Jim it would make their own deaths a certainty.

Finally, at the end of the film where Silver is captured, he tells the tale of Reynard's Death and Confession to affirm that one should always use one's wits for good not evil.

In 1956, animator Ken Anderson did some storyboards. However, he never came up with a full story and the boards depict some scenes of Reynard on the gallows and several concept sketches for characters. At the same time, animator Bill Peet did a couple dozen concept sketches including for a fox princess, a lion king and rhinoceros guards in hooded uniforms.

However, Anderson did come up with a script in 1960 working with animator Marc Davis. As 101 Dalmatians (1961) was finishing up work, Walt assigned Anderson and Davis who had made such significant contributions to the film to tackle the problem. Walt had told them both to scrap all previous material and just start fresh, an approach he would later take with The Jungle Book (1967).

Their solution was to combine the stories of Chanticleer and Reynard by making the fox the antagonist in the story that would avoid having to twist his deceptions into something noble.

In 1960, Walt said, "Go for the fun stuff! We should really have a ball with this type of picture. The Fox represents the conniving element; he's always misleading people. Chanticleer represents the good solid citizen. Get personalities into the minor characters. When you see a dog, you don't need anything. But you take a rooster…you don't feel like picking a rooster up and petting it."

Marc Davis' drawing of Chanticleer the rooster.

In addition, Davis was excited about turning the film into the style of a big Broadway musical. Davis said, "What we're doing here is a takeoff of a musical comedy. Have your chorus line; have people setting out tables like you'd stage a musical comedy. Then Chanticleer enters (and walks through the town)."

The opening scene is Chanticleer crowing and waking up the sleepy little 1800s French farm village as it prepares for the day. In a song called Chanticleer with lyrics by Mel Leven and music by George Bruns that might remind some people of the opening song about Belle and the later praise-filled song about Gaston in Beauty and the Beast (1991), the animals sing:

"Who brings up the morning sun?
"Who makes all the chickens run?
"Who is loved by everyone?

"Over whom do we all fuss?
"Whom does every girl discuss?
"Someone who's so good to us

The song writers had composed two other songs: You No Good Reynard (sung by Reynard's wife about how all his vaunted promises never materialized for their family: "Always clever and deceiving; Always getting caught at thieving; Always packing up and leaving; You no good Reynard!") and Yesterday is Over (that the fancy Pheasant would sing to Chanticleer to assure him that the other animals would not ostracize him because his crowing does not bring up the sun).

Chanticleer was vain because he thought his crowing every morning caused the sun to come up. Despite his flaws, the farm villagers loved him as he strutted around. He was so popular that they made him the mayor which was a big mistake. He became very authoratative, increasing the egg quota so that the hens worked from dawn to dusk without a break.

One morning, the sly fox Reynard who was hungry came upon the farm village hoping to snatch a hen or two. A flatterer and smooth talker, he soon discovered the town's dissatisfaction with Reynard as mayor. He found that election day was coming up but people were afraid not to vote for Reynard because the sun would not come up.

Reynard rounded up his band of night creatures (vultures, weasels, owls, cats and more) and brought them into town to perform as a carnival for his candidacy for mayor. He campaigned for "Fun! Fun! Fun!" instead of Chanticleer's "Work! Work! Work!"

Chanticleer ignored the foolishness until he saw everyone was partying all night at the carnival and chores were left undone including egg production. Reynard brought in the infamous Senor Poco Loco, a never defeated fighting cock.

A beautiful Pheasant named Henrietta constantly tried to get Chanticleer's attention. Reynard gave her an extensive makeover so that she could distract Chanticleer and she caught Chanticleer's notice. Reynard set her up with a date with Senor Poco Loco.

A jealous and angry Chanticleer challenged Senor Poco Loco to a pre-dawn duel with swords. Earlier that evening, as a party for his forthcoming election victory, Reynard and his cohorts had raided the henhouse and they sat watching the event with full bellies.

Despite battling bravely, Chanticleer was no match for the superior skill of Senor Poco Loco. However, much worse, while they were dueling, the sun rose without Chanticleer crowing. Sergeant, the village police dog, had discovered the destruction in the henhouse and charged in to arrest Reynard and his crew who fled to the hills never to return.

Chanticleer felt ashamed and humiliated and spent the next three days in bed. The sun continued to rise but the villagers did not. Chanticleer's crowing had been their alarm clock.

Chanticleer tried to sneak out of the village forever but was stopped and reminded by Henrietta that no one in the village is more important than anyone else. Everyone had a job to do. They must work or the village will not run but there needs to be time for play as well.

So Chanticleer continued to crow every morning to wake everyone up but he also crowed at 4:30 p.m. in the late afternoon to remind them to stop working and go and play.

In 1961, money was once again tight at the Disney Studio especially with Walt's elaborate plans for a new entertainment venue in Florida. There were two animated features fairly along in development but Walt decided there was only enough money to make one of them. Bill Peet had developed The Sword in the Stone based on T.H. White's story of young King Arthur and Anderson and Davis had spent a year developing Chanticleer with Reynard.

Davis remembered, "We had all the artwork up on the walls, and the money people came in like it was a funeral. They sat in the front and Walt sat at the back which was unusual. We went all the way through the presentation and met with silence. They all filed out and that was the end of it."

There were some people at the studio who felt a rooster and chickens were unsympathetic. In Peet's autobiography, he claims that he was the one in the back of the room who yelled out, "You can't make a personality out a chicken!"

Walt decided it would be less expensive to make Sword in the Stone especially with its fewer characters, that it reminded him of his current favorite Broadway show Camelot, and that the story was more heartwarming and identifiable for an audience with the underdog Wart struggling to prove himself.

Davis stated, "I think that I did some of my best drawings at the studio for Chanticleer".

In 1981, storyman and artist Mel Shaw proposed a story treatment for Chanticleer that would depict the titular rooster as "the most macho chicken in all of France" making him obviously heroic. He would be debonair, elegant, fearless, protective of his hens and inspired by Maurice Chevalier. Shaw did a set of pastel and watercolor conceptual drawings. However, the management at the Disney Studios was no more receptive to the proposal. Don Bluth who had been working at the studio and was familiar with the material made his own musical animated feature called Rock-a-Doodle (1991) after he left the Disney Studio.