The Internet started buzzing last Thursday when the blog Newlywed in Dubai reported that Chris Sanders (LILO AND STITCH) had been “fired” as director of Disney’s AMERICAN DOG (scheduled for release in 2008). Many people, myself included, have really been looking forward to this film, and it’s hard to believe that Disney, under the new enlightened leadership of John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, would remove a talent like Sanders from his pet project. But that’s exactly what has happened and it may not be such a bad thing.
Last Wednesday, December 13, Disney’s feature animation division experienced layoffs that affected all departments from artistic to production support. That is not news. The announcement that the studio was laying off approximately 160 people had already been made a few weeks before. What surprised many though was that on the same day, Chris Sanders was relieved of directing duties on AMERICAN DOG.
Having spoken to some people who are close to the production, the decision to separate Sanders from his “baby” most likely came from John Lasseter and Ed Catmull. Even though MEET THE ROBINSONS (scheduled for release in March 07) will be the first film released during the the new Lasseter/Catmull era, it was in production long before they arrived and neither of the Pixar bosses will be under scrutiny for how it performs. AMERICAN DOG, on the other hand, has fallen clearly under their creative supervision, and they know that their first outing at Disney Feature Animation has to result in a high-quality, commercially successful product.
It’s unclear exactly why Sanders wasn’t allowed to stay on the picture. Last October, Jim Hill suggested on his site that Lasseter thought the film was “too quirky for its own good” and had asked Sanders to make significant story changes. Or perhaps the pre-Lasseter/Catmull management had fiddled around with it too much and the film had deviated from Sanders’s original vision. Whatever the reason, Lasseter and Catmull apparently felt that the best way to get the project back on track was to start with a clean slate, much like what happened with Pixar’s upcoming RATATOUILLE when Brad Bird took over directorial duties from Jan Pinkava.
One Disney artist I spoke to suggested that after everything Sanders has had to put up with on AMERICAN DOG, he may be feeling a bit of relief knowing that he no longer has to deal with this project. At this point, there’s still every reason to be hopeful for AMERICAN DOG. It’s unfortunate that it won’t be Chris Sanders’s original vision, but when Lasseter and Catmull remove an unquestionable talent like him, one has to assume that they are doing it in the film’s best interest. As for Sanders, I certainly don’t think he’ll have any difficulties getting a new project off the ground, whether it’s at Disney or elsewhere.
UPDATE: An individual who knows a lot about the situation wrote to take issue with the statement that Chris Sanders felt “relief” at being taken off AMERICAN DOG. Sanders had apparently been informed before last Wednesday that he was no longer going to be the director, and according to this source, was deeply disappointed, hurt and angered. The source also writes, “Chris felt like his heart had been ripped out, and he didn’t expect if from someone (Lasseter) who always talks about a director-driven studio model. This was totally Chris’ project from the start, he was pouring himself into it, and now he’s fired.”
UPDATE #2: Animation director Mark Mayerson writes on his BLOG about the AMERICAN DOG situation: “I do not expect Pixar to make any public statements about this, but I think they should. If they don’t, Pixar’s reputation within the business may be seriously damaged.”