Welcome to ‘Forgotten Gems of Animation’! Here, we’ll discuss animated shorts, full-length films, and other animated relics that have fallen through the cracks over the years. If you have any suggestions for future installments, let us know in the comments below!
Let’s get into the time machine and go back (“way back,” as Mr. Peabody would say) to 1980. The animation world was far different than the one we know today. Don Bluth and 11 other animators had just left Walt Disney Animation, leaving the studio in a state of disarray. In fact, the whole animation world was struggling to maintain its audience. Fortunately, though, there was a special group of animators waiting in the wings (said “wings” being CalArts), ready to revolutionize animation forever. Those animators included John Musker, Ron Clements, Brad Bird, and John Lasseter, among others. There were others waiting with that special CalArts class, people already working at Disney Animation, people like Glen Keane and Jerry Rees.
In order to take their rightful places in the animation world, these young animators needed a big project to put them on the radar of executives everywhere. After some searching, Brad Bird came up with the perfect source material: The Spirit.
The Spirit was the creation of Will Eisner, who is to comics what Walt Disney is to animation. He revolutionized the comic-book world in a lot of ways, but his most famous contribution is that of Denny Colt, a detective who is saved from an attempted murder by being placed in suspended animation. After his revival, Colt decides to fight crime as a masked vigilante. He takes on the moniker of The Spirit, dons a mask, gloves, and a red tie, and takes to the streets, dispensing two-fisted justice to the underworld of Central City.
Brad Bird had loved the property ever since he was a kid. In a 2005 interview, he says:
“The Spirit” is the only comic-book crime fighter I would say I know well. I got interested in that because I was interested in movies. I read an interview somewhere with a film director that I liked [who] talked about “The Spirit” being “cinematic.” So I started to read it, and I thought, wow! It was cinematic. I loved the angles, the use of shadow, and the fact that its characters were expressive; they didn’t have the rigid facial expressions normally associated with superhero comics. It was kind of cartoony, especially in the years 1946, ’47, ’48. Eisner also had all the draftsmanship chops. They were like short stories; often the Spirit only came in at the beginning or the end. I liked that; I felt like it was weird and unpredictable and interesting.
After choosing The Spirit as the property to adapt, Bird and company set to work. According to a comment from John Musker in this Cartoon Brew article, he worked on storyboards for the film, while Glen Keane worked on character poses. Meanwhile, Musker, Bird, and Jerry Rees animated scenes. After five months of hard work, this pencil-test trailer was produced.
After finishing the trailer, Bird set out shopping the project to every big-time producer in Hollywood. The history of the project during this time is a little fuzzy, but we do know that Steven Spielberg, the King of Hollywood himself, expressed some interest. We know this because of this letter, sent from Bird to Spielberg (image courtesy of slashfilm.com):
Unfortunately, Spielberg decided not to pursue the project, as did every other producer. Therefore, Bird shelved the project, and there it still sits, gathering dust. It doesn’t look we’ll be seeing the finished film anytime soon either, according to Bird. In the same 2005 interview we mentioned earlier, Bird says:
I blew a lot of energy and time on it, and I kind of think in my mind it should always be a hand-drawn thing, and right now, Hollywood idiocy being what it is, that’s considered the kiss of death. I don’t think you could get any money for a big animated feature if you insisted on it being hand-drawn.
Even if we never see the finished Spirit film, though, all of us Rotoscopers owe the project a huge debt. Looking at the trailer, it’s easy to see lots of stylistic touches that found their way into The Incredibles (the scene on the train tracks particularly reminds me of Mr. Incredible rescuing the El train at the beginning of the 2004 film). On top of that, the film seems to have been an effective proving ground for many of animation’s movers and shakers today, including Musker, Rees, Bird, and Keane.
Ultimately, even though The Spirit was never finished, the animation world would not be what it is today without it. And, for that reason, The Spirit is a huge milestone in the history of animation.
What do you think of The Spirit trailer? Is it truly a Forgotten Gem of Animation? What other Forgotten Gems should we talk about?
AJ's love of movies began when his mom took him to see The Lion King on a warm California day in 1994. He left the theater with his mind blown and with a strong desire to become a filmmaker. AJ's fascinated with films of all kinds, but animated films have always held a special place in his heart, particularly Disney animation, the work of Chuck Jones, and Bill Melendez and Lee Mendelson's Peanuts specials. His favorite animated films include (but aren't limited to) Frozen, Beauty And The Beast, Surf's Up, The Bugs Bunny/RoadRunner Movie, and Toy Story 3. Along with films, AJ also loves pop and rock music, hiking, the beach, comic books, traveling, writing, acting, and baseball.