When it comes to investigating and researching the remains of a defunct animation company, Vanguard Animation continues to be a mysterious, unique, and endlessly fascinating case. Once headed up by Shrek producer John H. Williams, who has recently launched 3QU Media, it seemingly vanished somewhere around 2010-2011, leaving only a website in its trace. However, it’s ‘about‘ section also leaves behind a diverse, incredibly ambitious and rather insane development slate, one that would have made Vanguard Animation a big-league player in another time and place.
But before I get into a detailed account of the movies lined up in their pipeline, I feel it’s important to mention the man responsible for putting together this kind of lineup. Kung Fu Panda co-director John Stevenson had, for a time, held an important role at Vanguard, essentially acting as a John Lasseter-type figure who was a key adviser in different faucets of the company. He’s mentioned as being a major contributor to what was their current slate at the time, and at one point, he was attached to either produce and/or direct six projects at Vanguard.
It all sounds like a good deal, and the projects I’m about to list actually would have had potential. Too bad their lifeline was cut short by their mediocre to downright-awful reception of the films they did release (Happily N’ever After remains the worst-reviewed animated film of all time). It’s clear something went horribly wrong for all that promise to wash away, but for now, let’s take a look at what kind of projects they had store.
1. Alien Rock Band
The first project in the pipeline, and the first with John Stevenson as director, is Alien Rock Band. It appears to be exactly what it says in the title: an animated Sci-Fi film about intergalactic rock bands. Right away, this already sounds awesome, and it helps that the concept art sells that awesomeness even more.
The plot revolves around a garage band from earth as they travel across the galaxy to compete with other alien bands for the chance to compete at the Intergalactic Starmaker talent search event. They face competition in the form of four-armed guitarists and face-tentacled, punk-rock octo-drummers for a chance at intergalactic superstardom.
It’s one of the weirdest and most out there concepts for an animated film (a running theme throughout this slate). It’s a shame they didn’t get to this one. It could have been awesome.
2. Galaxy High
Keeping with the theme of outer space, we have Galaxy High. Written by Ross Venouker (who is now writing and directing Charming for 3QU) and co-developed by Chris Columbus, the story concerns two earth students being sent to attend an intergalactic high school as part of a galaxy-wide exchange program. This appears to play with a more conventional premise than Alien Rock Band, but its outer space setting would have provided some opportunity for clever subversions of well-worn high school comedy tropes.
3. In The Night Kitchen
An adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s controversial 1970 children’s book, it focuses on a young boy named Mickey and his surreal dream journey through a baker’s kitchen where he assists in the creation of a cake. It would have also been directed by John Stevenson, produced by John Carls (of Rango fame) and written by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot, War Horse). Apparently this version would have had Micky traveling through a dream version of New York City. Again, strange material for an animated feature film. And it only gets weirder…
4. Oz Wars
The best way to describe Oz Wars is exactly The Wizard of Oz, but set in a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-style setting. Directed by Mike Johnson, a stop-motion animator who co-directed Corpse Bride with Tim Burton, what little we are told about the film concerns Dorothy coming back to Oz with a pair of boots that possess untold powers.
5. The Twits
Based on Roald Dahl’s book of the same name, this film would have been directed by Conrad Vernon (Shrek 2, Monsters Vs. Aliens, Madagascar 3, Sausage Party), and oddly enough it’s the only film with a stated production budget ($50 million). The film would have told the story of Mr. and Mrs. Twit, who announce a plan to steal the village’s most precious artifact. Standing in their way are the Mugglewumps, a family of monkeys who plan to stop them with the help of a policeman.
Another strange yet interesting project, Dino-Riders is based upon a little-known Mattel/Tyco toy property from the late 80s and was also another project with John Stevenson in the director’s chair. The premise focuses on the Valorians, a future race of humans who are at war with the frog-like, humanoid Rulons. To escape the assault on their home, they use their ‘Space Time Energy Projector’ (S.T.E.P) machine to do so, but in the process they (and the Rulons following them) end up on Prehistoric Earth.
Using their AMP necklaces, the Valorians are able to telepathically communicate with the Dinosaurs and befriend them. Thus, the Dino-Riders are born.
As you can tell from the concept art, it’s an absolutely bonkers idea: people riding on dinosaurs who fire lasers. How this film would have been received by the general public is a mystery, but their take on it looks awesome and having a director who’s done an animated action film before is actually a stroke of genius.
7. Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland
The last project showcased on the page is Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland. Based on the comic strip created by cartoonist visionary Winsor McCay, it too would have been directed by John Stevenson. There’s no specifically-described plot, but it probably would have involved Nemo having an adventure through the fantastic landscape of his dreams. The strip itself was notable for it’s experimentation with the comics form, so it would have been interesting to see how the avant-garde stylings of the source material would have translated to the medium of film.
If there was anything positive you could say about how Vanguard operated, there sure bursting at the seams with vibrant and risky ambition. They certainly had the resources and talent lined up to prove it (just look at the studios and production partners they listed):
But that doesn’t even begin to describe how high their sights were set. The page after that shows an extensive list of as many as 48 fully-developed intellectual properties they had in their inventory, both original creations and adaptations of other properties (Geronimo Jones is on this list!):
I have one final note to make. Notice that one of the properties on their page lists a very familiar name. Charming.
The mere presence of the name most definitely confirms that at least one particular property was carried over to 3QU Media (it would also explain the appearance of Vanguard’s name on the movie poster). Whether that’s a sign that other Vanguard properties would also be carried over still remains to be seen.
As for the studio itself, who know what could have happened that broke everything down. Alas, we can only guess.