More Disney Films You'll Probably Never See

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

More Disney Films You'll Probably Never See

I received a very nice response to a recent column about the Greatest Disney Documentary You Will Never See (link) about The Sweatbox, a documentary about the making of the Disney animated feature "Kingdom of the Sun that later was revised into "The Emperor's New Groove." Hopefully, with new leadership at the Walt Disney Company, they might review the situation and reconsider releasing this interesting film or at least decide to compile some of the "lost" footage of Kingdom of the Sun into a special edition.

Perhaps "The Sweatbox" might even make a good Disney Treasures DVD edition although I fear for the future of that DVD brand after the release of the three Disney Treasures DVDs coming out this holiday season. However, if the Disney Company was looking for some other "lost" footage to amaze hardcore Disney fans who have seen just about everything, I would recommend the following three films that are completed and ready to go but have been rarely seen by anyone outside the Disney Company.

The Little Mermaid's Island

After the success of the 1989 movie The Little Mermaid, the Disney Company planned to produce a children's television series for its Disney Channel entitled The Little Mermaid's Island.

This series would be done in partnership with Jim Henson as Disney was in negotiations with Henson at the time. The Little Mermaid's Island would have used a live actress as Ariel interacting with puppets created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop. Using a green-screen process, the film would eliminate the puppeteers and allow for some elaborate backgrounds, including some underwater scenes. The show would be aimed at the preschool demographic like Playhouse Disney.

A half-hour pilot episode was filmed with a lovely young actress wearing a fake mermaid tail that swished around as she sat on a rock by the water's edge on her tropical island. For the underwater scenes with the mermaid, a rod puppet was used for the long shots and these shots were intercut with medium shots and close-ups of the live actress for reactions and dialog.

In the pilot, Ariel and her friends (Sebastian, Scuttle and Flounder) visited the "Admiral," a comic opera naval officer in full regalia, portrayed by actor Clive Revill. I assume he would be a continuing character and sort of an "eccentric uncle" type that Ariel would go to for advice and information.

The pilot was shot approximately two months before Jim Henson passed away. While the post-production and special effects were completed and the completed production delivered to Disney in the Fall of 1990, complications arose with the negotiations with the Henson family after Jim Henson's untimely death. When the proposed acquisition of the Henson Company by Disney fell apart, this charming project also disappeared.

In addition at the same time, the success of the video release of the animated feature The Little Mermaid encouraged the Disney Company to develop an animated weekly series for the CBS network featuring the adventures of Ariel and her friends before the events in the movie.

The Dreamfinder Films

When Epcot opened in 1982, the Journey to Imagination pavilion featured two characters who captured the heart of audiences: Dreamfinder, a bearded character (physically designed after Imagineer Joe Rohde) who was a combination of Santa Claus and the Wizard of Oz, and his little purple dragon companion, Figment (who was a literal representation of the famous "figment of the imagination").

The pavilion was to feature an attraction featuring the characters and a 3-D film titled "Magic Journeys" directed by Murray Lerner. However, there was some concern that the film might not be ready in time for the opening of the pavilion so Imagineering decided to prepare a back-up plan.

They contacted film maker Mike Jittlov, who was well-known for his 1979 short film, "The Wizard of Speed and Time." For the Disney Company, Jittlov also produced the short film "Mouse Mania," creating and animating the first stop-motion Mickey Mouse, along with at least 1,000 other Disney toys marching around a psychiatrist's office. Jittlov starred as the man living in a Mickey Mouse world. In addition, Jittlov produced a segment of an animated satellite shaped like Mickey Mouse's head that appeared when the Disney Channel premiered.

Jittlov was asked to produce a seven-minute live-action film featuring Dreamfinder that could be used to introduce some clips from "Magic Journeys" in case the entire 3-D film wasn't finished in time.

Actor Ron Schneider had just been hired to be the live action "walk around" Dreamfinder at Epcot when he received a call that he was needed for filming, even before he had a chance to think about his approach to the character or had been fitted for costume and make-up.

There was one day of filming in Florida and two days in Tujunga, California, at WED. The film, titled "Dreamfinder Run," had the character running around in a sped-up manner looking for various elements at Imagineering.

The final scene has Dreamfinder collapsed on a floor surrounded by film cans. He picks one up and looks at the camera and says "Roll the film!" At that point, some completed clips from "Magic Journeys" would be shown. (There is a small soundless moment in the film with the puppet Figment, but the film focused primarily on Dreamfinder and not the interaction with Figment, which would become the hallmark of the character.)

Lerner, who was directing "Magic Journeys," found out about this back-up plan and rushed to finish the film, it premiered on time so "Dreamfinder Run" was never shown in its entirety.

However, a small clip from that film was shown in the television special "Epcot Center: The Opening Celebration" shown October. 23, 1982. Danny Kaye and a very young Drew Barrymore meet Dreamfinder and his puppet Figment outside the original attraction transitioning into about eight seconds from the film.

Jittlov claims that the Disney Company still owes him $30,000 for the film. While Schneider enjoyed working with Jittlov, who he considered a genius, he was horrified at how he looked as Dreamfinder and was not disappointed that the film was never shown. Schneider went on for several years being the only Dreamfinder costume character at Epcot.

During this time there was another "lost" Dreamfinder film. Shortly after Epcot opened, the Disney Channel was born and despite the backlog of Disney cartoons and shows and films, the Channel wanted to provide original programming. So that first year, they aired three episodes of a Dreamfinder show, with actor Jack Kruschen performing the character. The episodes only ran once and were never rerun. They are not even listed in Bill Cotter's comprehensive and excellent book on Disney television, The Wonderful World of Disney Television.

Kruschen was a well-known character actor who received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for his 1960 role in Billy Wilder's comedy The Apartment and might be remembered by some as having played the Greek grandfathers in the 1980s sitcoms Webster and Full House.

When the Disney Channel thought about originating programming from the Disney theme parks, Ron Schneider tried to get the Disney Company interested in another Dreamfinder television series involving storytelling, but once it went to committee, the simple concept suddenly became overblown and unworkable.

Hansel and Gretel

Born in Burbank on August 25, 1958, Tim Burton studied animation at California Institute of the Arts and left in 1979 whereupon he went to work immediately at the Disney Studios.

However, he was never really happy about being assigned to work on the Disney animated feature, The Fox and the Hound.

"I couldn't draw those four-legged Disney foxes. I just couldn't do it. I couldn't even fake the Disney style. Mine looked like roadkills," he claimed.

However, Burton's work caught the attention of producer Julie Hickson and the head of creative development at Disney at the time, Tom Wilhite. It was Wilhite who came up with the $60,000 so that Burton could produce the stop-motion short, "Vincent," about a boy who wanted to grow up to be Vincent Price.

Burton's next project was a 45- minute retelling of "Hansel and Gretel" shot on 16mm on a budget of $116,000 for the Disney Channel. This was Burton's first professional live-action project, although the film also contained segments of stop motion, front projection and all sorts of imaginative gadgetry. It was scripted by Hickson based on Burton's ideas. The entire amateur cast was Japanese and the film was shot off the Disney lot to avoid studio unions.

Burton made the children's father (Jim Ishida) not a woodcutter but a toymaker so Burton and Rick Heinrichs, who he had worked with on "Vincent," had fun creating unusual toys including some Japanese-inspired Transformers-like toys. Some of these imaginative toys, along with a brief discussion with Burton and Heinrichs, were shown on a 1983 Disney Channel special Backstage at Disney hosted by animation historian John Culhane. (That "lost" special should also be released as a Disney Treasure since it features pre-production art and test animation for Disney's original version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit many years before the Robert Zemeckis version.)

The finale features a kung fu battle with Hansel and Gretel against the witch (Michael Yama), who was a male in full Kabuki garb with white face (along with a foot-long candy cane nose). The witch's house had walls that oozed like jelly doughnuts.

Tim Burton remembered the project: "It follows the fairy tale fairly closely except that it's done with Japanese people. I have always been drawn to the Japanese sense of design. Growing up with the Godzilla movies, their sense of design and color really appealed to me, and it has a slight martial arts twist. It was pretty amateurish, but that was more to do with me than with them. But I enjoyed doing it, and I learned a lot from it. Being an animator, early in my life I rarely spoke to people. I was not a good communicator.

The film only aired once, at 10:30 p.m. on Halloween night October 1983. Burton then went on to his next project, the live action short Frankenweenie.

"When I did Frankenweenie, I had already learned a lot of stuff from 'Hansel and Gretel' in terms of how to deal with people. I don't recall having an extreme toy fixation or toy fetish. I always saw them as an extension of my imagination-at least that's the way I used them, as a way to explore different ideas. There was a little duck toy that turns into a robot and a gingerbread man. ("Dan, Dan, the gingerbread man," a hand puppet with a voice imitating actor Peter Lorre). He was a weird little puppet who forces Hansel to eat him. I think it showed one night, Halloween at 10:30 p.m., which for The Disney Channel is like the 4:30 a.m. slot. So, that one didn't go over too big. But there are little moments in it that I like. It was like one of those scary children's shows I grew up watching."