With Frank Miller's movie version of The Spirit less than two weeks away, it's time to consider what might have been: An animated version of the character, courtesy of Pixar's guiding lights. I claim do-overs!
This earlier attempt to bring Will Eisner's classic comic strip to movies comes to light via the LA Times' Hero Complex blog, where producer Steven Paul Leiva writes about the Spirit that never was: a 1980s version that would've been written and directed by The Iron Giant and The Incredibles' Brad Bird, with Cars and Toy Story director John Lassiter working as one of the animators on the project. According to Leiva, he was convinced as soon as he saw their test reel:
The pencil test mock trailer was brilliant. Not only in its form and execution — it quickly told the origin of The Spirit and displayed clearly the tone of the proposed film — but it was the finest human character animation I had ever seen. Like Eisner, it was fluid and full of personality, each bit of movement communicating exactly what needed to be said about the characters and the situations they were in. It was not stiff and unreal like Saturday morning limited human character animation, nor weirdly “real” like rotoscoped human animation. It was exaggerated, pushed, caricatured movement that seemed perfectly real, or, better said, perfectly true. It was the best example I could imagine of a point I had been making to anyone who would listen, that good character animation was not a graphic art, but a performance art. It was great acting expressing a range of emotions. “Who are these guys?” I asked David with dropped jaw. “I’ve got to meet them as soon as possible.”
Ultimately, the project - which has the approval of Spirit creator Will Eisner - was a victim of lack of funds and lack of vision:
Gary [Kurtz, producer] shopped the project to all of the Hollywood majors. The screenplay was praised, but they couldn’t understand why we wanted to make it an animated film. There was no magic, no young and yearning fairy tale royals, no funny animals.
Hollywood was filled with the sound of executives scratching their heads. At least one offered to make it as a live-action film — an option Brad would not consider and the rest of us would not support. The whole idea was to make an animated film so different, so revolutionary, it would alter forever the art form.
Stupid us, thinking Hollywood would ever back an artistic revolution.
While I've been somewhat skeptical about the potential of Miller's take on The Spirit, the lost potential of this particular version of the character is heartbreaking - but makes for a fascinating article, and curious game of "What if" - After all, if Lassiter and Bird had ended up making this movie, would there ever have been a Pixar?
'The Spirit' movie that could have been [Hero Complex]