Only once in its entire history has Pixar announced a feature and then had to cancel it – here’s the story of Newt, and what went wrong.
Pixar’s extraordinary run of box office success – even its lesser box office hits clear nine figures – is all the more remarkable for the fact that every single movie it’s released has done solid business at least. Over a billion dollars at best.
From the outside looking in, it’s a firm that’s yet to outright ‘fail’ with a movie (whatever you define failure as). And it makes it all the more interesting then to discover the film that never was. The only movie to date that it’s announced, and subsequently cancelled.
It went by the name of Newt, and the film was first officially revealed by Disney in 2008. It came in the midst of a collection of projects being announced, including the movie then known as Rapunzel (in most countries in the world it’s now known as Tangled), The Bear And The Bow (that changed its name to Brave) and the return of Lightning McQueen and Mater in Cars 2.
Newt was interesting from day one. It was set to mark the directorial debut of Gary Rydstrom, the Oscar-winning sound designer and editor (with a CV covering the likes of Terminator 2, Saving Private Ryan, Jurassic Park and Star Wars). He’d by this stage directed the short Pixar movie Lifted, that was released in 2006 and subsequently nominated for an Oscar as well. And off the back of that, he got the greenlight to pursue an idea he had for a movie.
As Ed Catmull wrote in his book Creativity Inc, the project was “based on a terrific idea that originated in the mind of one of our most creative and trusted colleagues (but, notably, one who had never directed a feature film before)”. That’d be Rydstrom.
“He wanted to tell the story of what happens when the last remaining male and female blue-footed newts on the planet are forced together by science to save the species—but they can’t stand each other”. Catmull describes that when Rydstrom stood in front of the Pixar management team and pitched the concept: “we were blown away”.
It was a strong idea at a point Pixar wanted to try something a little different, both creatively and culturally. Aware that films were getting more and more expensive, and that a slight corporate culture was setting in for better or worse, Catmull describes how the Pixar management at the time was looking “for an opportunity to change it up, to create our own little startup, within Pixar and yet separate from it, to try to tap back into the energy that permeated the place when we were young and small and striving”.
As such, the Newt team was located a short physical distance from Pixar’s main campus, with a team including outsiders to the company recruited to help bring it to life. This was called ‘the Incubator project’, a potentially different way of working for the studio. To split it away from the main base of operations. Some were cautious about the idea, but also keen to give it a go.
So confident was Pixar, that the movie was presented to the press as part of a formal announcement, and the response was enthusiastic. An official synopsis was released too, that reads as follows:
What happens when the last remaining male and female blue-footed newts on the planet are forced together by science to save the species, and they can’t stand each other? That’s the problem facing Newt and Brooke, heroes of newt, the Pixar film by seven-time Academy Award winner for sound Gary Rydstrom, and director of Pixar’s Oscar nominated short, Lifted. Newt and Brooke embark on a perilous, unpredictable adventure and discover that finding a mate never goes as planned, even when you only have one choice. Love, it turns out, is not a science.
But behind the scenes, the movie soon hit trouble.
As much as the concept worked, the story itself wasn’t gelling. The latter segment of the movie – where the two lead characters had to head off into the real world – in particular wasn’t coming together, and time wasn’t solving the issue. As the clock ticked, the movie wasn’t improving.
Furthermore, because the crew of the film was isolated from the main Pixar team, it was struggling away from plain view. By the time it was really noticed how much, it was clear there were big problems.
More experienced hands from Pixar were sent to work with the Newt team, but by that stage, the firm had invested a lot of time and resources into the project, and it wasn’t coming together. The new team had been brought in too late to realistically turn it around, and in May 2010, the plug was pulled after at least two years of development work. The amount spent on the project wasn’t revealed, but it’s a fair bet it wasn’t on the cheap side.
At least Pixar had a cover story when it pulled the film from its schedules. John Lasseter was out doing promotional work for Cars 2 the following year, and the closure of Newt was pinned on Fox’s hit movie, Rio. As Lasseter told IGN, “we’ve put movies into development and some get further than others and then we feel like things just aren’t quite ready we put them to the side and that’s just been put on a shelf and we’ll see where that goes in the future”.
He added that “its story was very similar to a movie that’s out in theatres right now with a blue parrot. Oh my! Wow, we were like … no, there was no … great minds think alike, I guess. It was really pretty similar”.
Rio had been a big box office success for Fox and Blue Sky, so it all sounded plausible.
But it was only with the release of Catmull’s book a few years later that the real story came out. That Pixar had tried a different way of working, and as a consequence, it failed to spot in time that a big project wasn’t working.
Newt was dead in the metaphorical water.
For Rydstrom, he would get to direct a full animated feature, but not for Pixar. After he’d completed the short film for the studio Toy Story: Hawaiian Vacation (that he also scripted), he was hired by George Lucas to direct one of his passion projects, Strange Magic. The story behind that one is an article and a half in its own right.
As for Pixar? Well, since Newt it’s very much kept its projects behind closed doors until it’s got certainty they’re going to be completed. Even a notoriously troubled film such as The Good Dinosaur got to the point where it was thoroughly retooled rather than abandoned outright. And whilst there are bound to have been more than a few films that never made it out of development at Pixar, the story of those has been kept under lock and key.
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