A little over ten weeks after Deadline broke the stunning news in April that Disney had canceled his epic $170 million animated film Mouse Guard two weeks before production began, director Wes Ball this week seemed to reconcile that his dream project was really over, at least for now.
He has been fighting over two months to find a new home for the film, but earlier this week he tweeted: “Yes sadly, its true. Our #mouseguard movie is dead. Seems it’s too big a risk. It’s a damn shame really. We had something special. To my hella talented cast/crew: I’m sorry I couldn’t push this one through. The past year with you all has been a blast. May the Guard prevail!”
He also posted around ten minutes of footage from his movie that was done for pre-viz purposes (you can watch above), this before he was able to get the vocals recorded from a voice cast that was to include Idris Elba, Andy Serkis, Maze Runner‘s Thomas Brodie-Sangster, and Crazy Rich Asians’ Sonoya Mizuno.
Deadline caught up with Ball for a postmortem. It’s rare to see such an exceptionally high budget major studio film get unplugged so close to the start line — word in the community is that over $20 million got spent in prep work –and I asked straight away what Ball most regretted about the experience.
“Well, maybe I should have asked permission before I posted that footage,” he said. “I might be in a bit of trouble. But a lot of artists worked very hard here, and it broke my heart that nobody was doing to see their work. I gave up no spoilers, this was a teaser done as a test, and I hoped it might help the movie. But I wish I had asked.”
When Disney backed away, reasons ranged from the idea that Disney already had a signature mouse and didn’t need one that was more like Bruce Lee than Mickey. Other speculation centered around the price tag, for a picture that has the epic action feel of The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, with mice and forest creatures.
“The truth is, it was being done for a modest budget,” Ball said. “Compared to a lot of big animated movies, we were pretty cheap, but now that nobody picked up the tab, we have to reassess everything, as our crew scattered to the wind,” Ball said. “Those budget numbers always get fuzzy, but we had an outside financier committing to half the budget, and we qualified for the L.A. tax credit.”
I’m glad Ball posted the footage. It is one thing to write that a high price tag movie had been unplugged by the new owners of Fox, but the story takes on more depth when you see the ambition and scope presented in these scenes. Ball was asked to swing for the fences, the moment Fox production chief Emma Watts convinced him to take on David Petersen’s Eisner-winning comic book series as a followup to his Maze Runner trilogy.
“Emma has been fantastic through this whole process,” Ball said. “We made three movies together and she has been a huge champion, and the first time she asked what did I want to do next after Maze Runner, I said, something small and she said, make it big and make it cool. They had been talking about the Mouse Guard thing, this mice with swords epic. She asked me to take a look at it, and to think of it like Avatar, and, what would James Cameron do? I took the books home, saw the imagery and locked onto this: Avatar with medieval mice. That’s when it clocked in, when the possibilities presented themselves and the ideas began flooding in.
“She gave us a little money to bring on the Fox Visual Effect Lab, which she and Stacey Snider started. We brought on Glenn Derry, who designed Cameron’s films, with the goal of making a trailer to show what it looked like for mice to really walk around, and to fight. So, 12 or 13 weeks later, we made a sizzle reel, a test trailer, with really good pre-viz. We got WETA involved, we got Dan Lemmon, who did the visual effects on Caesar for Planet of the Apes, for Matt Reeves. We had the best craftsmen, from my point of view, and started down a year and one half road.”
Until they ran out of road, when every Fox film with a green light got reevaluated by the new owners at Disney.
“We kept building out the movie, hiring cast that was about to fly here, and then two weeks out, boom, it just happened,” he said of the phone call. “It just happened, it sucks having the rug pulled out from under you. We had assembled some of the best artists I had ever dreamed of working with, and they wanted to be here. Many of them came up to me in the lunchroom, to say, this felt so different. It wasn’t another superhero movie, or a sequel It was an original, but one that fit the box of those movies, a big mainstream project. The author of these graphic novels created a universe, and it felt like everyday we were making Star Wars, that kind of endless potential. I was on the stage, prepping with the entire crew and the stages were being built out, and I get this call. And I have to try to not tell anyone, and have to go back out there and work. Eventually, I had to come clean with everyone.”
His dream dashed, at least for now, Ball isn’t bitter at anyone.
“Emma was great, she asked Disney to let us shop it around and see if other studios were interested, but it’s a big number for studios that have slates set for years in those kinds of films,” Ball said. The other problem was a difficulty in trying to retrofit a lower cost version of the movie, based on all the top-shelf prep work that had been done.
“You have to understand, the machine was built, and the WETA pipeline, everything had been built out for a year,” Ball said. “If you try to cut it in half, that machine doesn’t work. You can do that with live action, but we were inventing a new technological scope that would have been hard to pull off in a much quicker turnaround than the one we allotted for.
“The concept is refreshing but familiar enough, and our approach was to take a very familiar classic hero journey story, with cutting edge technology,” he said. “The ambition was the spectacle you felt going to those Planet of the Apes movies, where it was stunning to watch this magic trick unfold in front of your eyes. This story was so charming and inviting, a perfect four quadrant movie, and a lot of studios loved it. I was thrilled by what we had done, and the machine we had built. I did get comments like, but it’s an IP nobody knows, or that people might not relate to mice creatures. I got all that, but my argument was that we embraced the blue people in Avatar…”
Ball also held no acrimony toward Disney: “No ill will toward them. They made a decision, we asked are you sure and they were. They had their reasons.”
If there is a consolation here, it’s that many recent sequels have been proven that it is possible for blockbusters to become so well worn, it’s impossible to surprise people over and over. Even blockbuster factories like Lucasfilm and Marvel are having to reinvent themselves.
So when someone decides there is room for a project with original, new IP, with warrior rodents, Ball will be ready.
“Even though the machine has been disassembled, the beautiful thing is there is this digital movie all designed and resting inside a video game engine, and it all exists on a hard drive,” he said. “If we should decide to relaunch, even if we approach it in a different way, all those assets we built are there and we can dive back in. Someone told me 15 years ago, heat comes and goes, but talent never dies. This film will be as relevant in five years as it is now. I have faith in that and maybe the attention [for posting the pre-viz footage] will inspire someone to take this on. All I want is to see the audience in theaters react to all the incredible things we dreamed up here.”
Ball’s repped by Paradigm and Gotham Group.