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Feature Film

The Spirit That Never Was

Thank you Mark Evanier for pointing us towards a must-read L.A. Times article by former Chuck Jones/Bill Melendez/Richard Williams publicist-turned-animation producer Steven Paul Leiva (Space Jam), about his ill-fated attempts to bring Will Eisner’s The Spirit to the screen. The story tells how Brad Bird, John Lasseter, John Musker, Jerry Rees (and other Hollywood bigshots) tried to make a potentially ground-breaking animated feature over 20 years ago (Leiva is pictured above left, in 1981, with Brad Bird (center) and Will Eisner at right). Read it now!

  • Bugsmer

    That was a very interesting and informative article. I like the author’s speculation. Perhaps Bluth leaving Disney gave the company some much-needed competition, making The Little Mermaid possible. Everyone mentioned went on to later greatness, but this “what if” article really makes one wonder how history could have indeed been different.

  • Marc G.

    Wow, I’d heard of Mr. Bird’s attempted “Spirit” project, but it was great to finally get the whole story. I’d love to see some of that preproduction art – or even the famous pencil test!

  • Its kinda funny how in the begining it goes on about getting tired of talking animals and such in american animation, then goes on to praise Ratatouille at the end. It’s also way pretentious to call something that never got started an “artistic revolution”.

  • Regardless of whether such a project would’ve killed Disney (which thankfully it didn’t), it’s still a tell of how American animation always seem to miss the boat when a chance comes to revolutionize it. Disney’s worst example was with The Black Cauldron, where they took away a lot of the cool stuff they WANTED to do with it, only for it to fail miserably. And the film was supposed to be the formal debut of the new school animators.

  • Gary Kurtz , when I interviewed hiin in 2004, he indicated that he and Brad Bird were still interested in doing The Spirit as a 2D animated film. This was, of course, before the Frank Miller version was announced.

  • Jerome

    Now I want to see that pencil test ! It would be a great Brew TV episode !

  • Victor

    Pity, seems like history really does repeat itself…how very sad.

  • Gerard de Souza

    Where’s the animated mock trailer? WHo wouldn’t love to see that?

  • To assume that everything would have worked out if only… completely misses the point. It takes years of failure to make great animated films. If success came right out of Cal Arts, I doubt that the recent films would have had the depth that they do.

  • Saturnome

    That was a great read, really.
    Now, like anybody, I’d love to see the pencil test!

  • Killroy McFate

    A friend showed me the mock trailer on VHS, years ago. Infinitely more in the “spirit” of Eisner’s work than Miller’s take appears to be. The trailer also included short bits of developmental art for what eventually became “Family Dog”, as well as a project called “Villains”.

    Jerry Rees has never received, nor sought, the credit he deserves for being among the first to tout the virtues of many of the computer tools we all take for granted today.

  • Wow, I haven’t read such a well written article on animation for a long time.

    Despite all the sadness to see that Spirit is now in the hands of Frank Miller, and the curiosity to watch that trailer directed by Brad Bird, I find the whole story very inspiring when you realize that even with the “what if” alternative path being missed, all the great talented people involved in the end did turn out to play an important rule in animation anyway, and have contributed, and still are, to direct animation towards that intended revolution – perhaps more slowly, but I hope it’s possible yet!

  • I’d love to hear Mr. Bird’s thoughts on this article and perhaps some of his memories as well (he does show up on this board from time to time, NO?). And lo how I’d love to see the pencil tests as well!

  • Chris J

    I weep for what could have been. There’s no telling if this “Spirit” would have been any good, of course, but at least I feel certain that Brad Bird probably didn’t turn all of the female characters into prostitutes.

  • A very interesting read. But if this “revolutionary” film had been made, there’s no telling how far changed feature animation would or would not have diverged from its path for the next twenty-five years… speculation is speculation. …as Half stated, you only reach creative success after any number of personal and professional failures.

  • Anyone else remember that live action, made-for-TV Spirit film from two decades ago?

  • Sam Filstrup

    I don’t know why I never saw the influence of his Spirit esque characters in Brad Birds films. Like many it would be a treat to see that pencil test, and man would it be cool to see a 2D version of the Spirit. Even if it were produced for a television movie similar to the production quality of New Frontier or Gotham Knight being produced by DC / Warner Brothers.

  • W. Pardlow

    Like a lot of those who read this article. I also love to see this pencil test. Being a fan of quality animation and cartoonist.
    Brad Bird doing Eisner’s Spirit would seem heaven sent.
    Like a number of people,I’m finding Frank Miller a travesty to comics and cinema in general. A once promising talent who’s become an exalted joke.
    I can’t stand that he’s tarnishing Eisner’s’ baby,after being trusted to do a proper job.
    We can only hope and pray that B.Bird may yet still have interest in doing a animated film.
    If not him,someone else.

  • Mike Fontanelli

    My old professor at SVA, Will Eisner once told me he was approached by director Wm. Friedkin (The FRENCH CONNECTION, The EXORCIST) who was interested in making a live-action SPIRIT movie. For whatever reason the project never sold, but Will expressed hope (this would have been around 1982 or ’83, before the TV movie) that a SPIRIT film, preferably an animated one, would get off the ground some day.

    Will thought animation would afford him more creative control, but was open to a live-action interpretation as a second choice. When I asked him who he’d pick to play the title role, he immediately said James Garner. (Garner was actually approached to play the part once, but Will said he didn’t seem interested. I think this happened during MAVERICK, Garner’s TV western from 1957 to ’62.) In any case, I can’t even sit through the Frank Miller trailer. Yeeesh! It has about as much to do with Will Eisner’s work as DELGO does.

    By the way, Will was as great a teacher and friend as he was an artist, storyteller and innovator. I miss him. His work will survive Frank Miller. Like the Spirit himself, Eisner’s well-deserved reputation is virtually indestructible.