The only constant in life is change. The same goes for animated Disney movies.
But as director Chris Sanders prepared to take on his first live-action film, “The Call of the Wild,” the supposed lack of change in that medium is what most intimidated him.
Coming from the world of animation, Sanders worked on a number of Disney classics, including “The Lion King,” “Lilo & Stitch,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Mulan,” and the director worried about having to “get it right the first time” when working on “Call of the Wild.” Based on the Jack London novel, the movie includes lead character Buck as a CG dog and also stars a very real Harrison Ford.
“In animation, we usually have a lot of latitude to throw out entire sequences, entire acts and just start again, which we really didn’t have that opportunity” in this new project, Sanders said.
To the relief of the filmmaker, he learned the editing process makes live-action a lot more malleable than he thought. It was still intimidating, Sanders said, but because of this malleability, “Call of the Wild” was able to join Sanders’ other Disney films by having one thing in common: dead parents? big changes.
During an interview with HuffPost, Sanders talked about the major changes made to his new film and some of the most cherished Disney classics, including how the ending to “Lilo & Stitch” was completely changed after 9/11 and why a critical “Lion King” issue kept stumping the production.
In the film version of “The Call of the Wild,” Buck was almost a totally different dog.
In the film, Buck is a CG character, so actor Terry Notary plays his stand-in, meaning, yes, Sanders had to direct Harrison Ford petting a grown man’s head.
And if you’re wondering what it’s like to pretend to be Ford’s dog, Notary told us via email, “On the first day of shooting Harrison said, ‘I’m going to treat you like my dog,’ and I replied, ‘That’s great, well, I’m just going to be your dog then.’ From then on, it just felt normal being the man’s best friend. When you play a dog, everyone on the set treats you better than when you are a human!”
Getting a human to be Ford’s dog is easy. Finding what that dog actually looks like is not.
Every dog in “Call of the Wild” has a real-life counterpart, but in the original Jack London story, Buck is a St. Bernard and collie mix. Production quickly learned that was a near impossible breed to find and had originally settled on a Bernese Mountain Dog instead, Sanders said. He didn’t love it.
“I was trying to make him be this amazing thing and, suffice it to say, it just wasn’t coming together,” said the director.
It wasn’t until Sanders’ wife, Jessica Steele-Sanders, was looking for an actual pet for the family that the true Buck came into the picture.
“Lo and behold, she ran across a dog that had been found wandering the streets of Kansas that was an exact match for the breed combination that was described in the book. And the shelter had oddly named him Buckley, so it just seemed too bizarre to be true,” said Sanders.
Buckley cost just $25, according to the director, because no one was buying him. Since he just so happened to be the perfect breed and everyone on set loved him, the director’s real-life pet wound up in the movie.
Before 9/11, “Lilo & Stitch” originally ended with Stitch stealing a plane and bouncing it off of a building.
Sanders is the creative mind behind “Lilo & Stitch,” and he reflected on how the ending completely changed after 9/11, less than a year before the movie would premiere in 2002.
“I think the biggest sequence, and the one that we planned for the longest and had worked very hard on was the idea that once Lilo was kidnapped, Stitch would go to the extraordinary length of stealing a passenger jet to go to rescue her,” Sanders said. “And horrifyingly at one point, he bounces that jet off the side of the building so that he can continue a pursuit. In the film, it was one of our biggest laughs. It was comedy. After 9/11, that wasn’t comedy anymore.”
“I said, ‘We got a problem,’ and both of them said, ‘Yep. We sure do.’ We sat down the very next day and started working on how in the world can we change this,” he said.
Sanders credits his co-director, Dean DeBlois, with figuring out that it wasn’t yet shown how aliens Pleakley and Jumba got to Earth, that they must have had a space ship in the jungle somewhere.
“We went to our digital guys and said, ‘How quickly can you take the airplane and pound it into a different shape?’ They said, ‘We can do it really, really fast.’ So it’s one of the reasons that the spaceship that Jumba flies and that Stitch flies to the rescue in the film has engines that look a lot like a passenger jet engines,” said the director.
“Mulan” was almost a lot more confusing.
Sanders, who served as the story supervisor on “Mulan,” wasn’t a fan of how the movie was originally conceived as more of a romantic comedy. Confusion with the plot was part of the problem, and the filmmaker recalled that one day he “drew a line in the sand.”
“When the war was declared, Mulan left because she wanted to save her father’s life,” he noted. “The problem was that she was also leaving to avoid a marriage that all of us would like to avoid. And that was part of the story. She didn’t want to marry a guy that she didn’t know, and that’s where we had a short circuit in the story. The war became a very convenient way for her to avoid something that she had been fighting against.”
Sanders realized the movie wouldn’t work until there was a substantive and decisive change.
“In order for ‘Mulan’ to work, Mulan has to be OK with the idea of marrying somebody she doesn’t know. I talked to the producer and I said, ‘Until we make that change, her leaving to save her father will not be the alpha reason she’s leaving.’ The reason she’s leaving to go to war has to be one single reason, which is to save her father’s life, meaning she has to be OK with an arranged marriage.”
Not everyone agreed.
“I walked into the story room that day with the writers and I laid it on them. I said, ‘We’re making a change. Mulan from this point out is gonna be OK with an arranged marriage. She has to be. She wants to make her family proud. She wants to fulfill her role,’ and they rankled,” Sanders said. “They were really upset because, again, we’re used to the idea that somebody would fight against that. Nobody would be OK with that. Except in order for this story to work, she has to be OK with it.”
Though Mulan had to be down with the arranged marriage, she didn’t have to be good at it. That’s where the comedy with the matchmaker came in.
“The moment we made that change, suddenly, we got out of the rut, and our story started to work. I’m not sure how the live-action version (due out in March) will approach that same problem, but in the animated realm that was the thing that was the key.”
No one working on “The Lion King” could figure out why Simba thought he killed Mufasa.
Simba and Mufasa have a great father-son relationship until it ends in cold-blooded murder, or so Simba seems to think.
The fact that the young lion cub believes he was responsible for his father’s death is a pivotal point in “The Lion King,” but at first, no one could figure out how to make it work.
“We got a little bit consumed in trying to figure out why in the world Simba would not realize that [Scar] was messing with him,” Sanders said. “How in the world could we have this thing happen and have this little kid think, ‘Oh my gosh, I was responsible for my father’s death,’ but obviously this thing that happened, he had nothing to do with.”
In order to convince Simba that he was the guilty party ― not his uncle who orchestrated a wildebeest stampede to snuff out the king ― two things happened.
“The first thing we did was we had him actually leave the rock that he was standing on. His uncle says, ‘Stay on this rock, don’t leave. And I’ll be back.’ He left the rock to go follow this little chameleon and so you could think later, ‘OK, he kind of messed up. He didn’t follow his instructions.’”
That being said, Sanders admits that following a chameleon is certainly not grounds for taking on the responsibility of killing your father.
“The key to it was the moment where we said if you’re a little tiny kid and your uncle walks up to you after this incredibly devastating thing, this monumentally devastating thing has just happened, and he says, ‘Simba! What have you done?’ He just laid it right on you. He does that, you accept it. And that was a pretty big moment to accept the idea ourselves, that this kid was would take on that responsibility, but it worked.”
"The Call of the Wild" is in theaters now.