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The Most Intriguing Animated Films You’ll Never See

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Among fans of canceled animated film projects — and yes, there is such a fandom, and it’s enormous — “Me and My Shadow” is perhaps the most popular cartoon feature that never was.

Greenlighted in 2010 by DreamWorks Animation, the film boasted a strong voice cast, including Bill Hader, Kate Hudson and Josh Gad, and a team of some of the industry’s top artists and animators. The filmmakers combined computer-generated and hand-drawn animation to create a lead character whose shadow had a mind and physicality all his own, at a time when few studios, including DreamWorks, were doing hand-drawn at all.

“For a long time, whenever I had visitors at DreamWorks, I would pull up sequences from ‘Me and My Shadow’ and other things I was working on, like ‘Kung Fu Panda,’” said Rune Brandt Bennicke, a supervising animator on the film. “Without fail, it was the ‘Me and My Shadow’ stuff where they went, ‘Wow, that was amazing.’”

Five years later, production was halted. “The reason we were given for canceling it was that the studio felt that its potential for box office was not what they wanted,” said Bennicke.

Since then, however, interest in the phantom film has only grown. Would-be fans scour the internet for concept art and clips, post their own fan art and fan-made trailers, and discuss — and grouse about — what might have been. There are numerous YouTube shorts and supercuts about the film; a short collection of unfinished clips and concept art — titled “The CANCELLED DreamWorks Masterpiece …” — has garnered more than 3.5 million views.

“The movie does not exist,” said Jacob Pruitt, the author of the e-book “Drawing for Nothing,” an ode to “canceled and troubled” animated films, including “Me and My Shadow.” “It was canceled a decade ago. But it has an enormous and dedicated fandom.”

Pruitt’s book (in which he uses the author pseudonym Ziggy Cashmere) showcases character studies, 3-D models, concept art and storyboard sequences from a host of would-be animated features. Entries come from some of the most prestigious animation studios in the world, including Disney, DreamWorks and Laika. There are sections devoted to a cinematic reimagining of a groundbreaking 1980s video arcade game (“Dragon’s Lair: The Legend”); a remake of a 1964 Don Knotts gem about a talking fish (“The Incredible Mr. Limpet”); and an animated take on a 1975 Elton John album (“Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy”).

The book currently features a dozen such films, with more in the offing. “There are tons of canceled movies,” Pruitt said. “I discover a random canceled movie at least once a week.”

Animation studios have been shutting down film projects since at least the 1930s. Disney canceled dozens of them during that decade alone, including films starring Mickey Mouse enduring a toothache, joining the French Foreign Legion and tangling with a moonshine-making hillbilly. The studio itself acknowledged their legacy of failed films in the 1995 coffee table book “The Disney That Never Was: The Stories and Art From Five Decades of Unproduced Animation.”

But with the creation of more and more animation studios in the United States, the number of canceled films has exploded.

Stef Choi, an animation artist who worked on the Laika films “Coraline” and “The Boxtrolls,” has labored on several of these abandoned movies. “There are so many projects that aren’t made,” she said. “I feel like most of the work I’ve done may never be shown.”

According to Bennicke, whose credits include “Mulan,” “Lilo & Stitch” and “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” “animation is basically the history of the projects that didn’t get made.”

“Drawing for Nothing” recounts many of the reasons these features get canceled, from the mundane (“executive disagreements and restructuring,” which shut down Disney’s “Joe Jump”) to the tragic (the untimely death of the famed anime director Satoshi Kon during the creation of his planned robot epic “Dreaming Machine”), to the criminal (the conviction for investment fraud of the creator of “Huck’s Landing,” a planned franchise that included a movie-based theme park, a comic book series and a Saturday morning cartoon).

“There are a lot of crazy production histories,” Pruitt said.

Pruitt and his colleagues locate a good portion of the art in “Drawing for Nothing” online, much of it posted by artists like Bennicke and Choi on their personal websites and online portfolios.

“You spend so much time creating something, you put so much of yourself into it, that you want to share it with people,” Choi said.

Choi’s contributions to the book include charming early sketches of the bluebird brothers from the Laika project “Jack & Ben’s Animated Adventure,” done in the style of Little Golden Books. Bennicke’s entries include animation test footage and storyboard sequences of Shadow Dan, the timid hero’s outgoing alter ego in “Me and My Shadow.”

The book has a bittersweet quality, with its pages of imaginative flights of fancy from films that ultimately came to naught. In the case of DreamWorks’s canceled “Larrikins,” the lead characters — a bilby (a cat-size marsupial native to Australia) and an albatross chick — proved so irresistible to the studio that it ultimately revived the pair for “Bilby” (2018), a gorgeous eight-minute short from the French animator Pierre Perifel (“The Bad Guys”). Most projects, however, simply fade away.

Pruitt is currently working on new chapters for his book: one about the 1941 financial flop “Mr. Bug Goes to Town,” a big budget Technicolor film starring singing, dancing insects, and another about “The Shadow King,” a stop-motion passion project by the “Coraline” director Henry Selick, starring an orphan boy with preternaturally long fingers. “Mr. Bug” had the misfortune of opening two days before the attack on Pearl Harbor; “The Shadow King” was canceled by Disney in 2012, after the studio deemed it “too weird.”

“I hope people find inspiration in these movies,” Pruitt said. “A lot of times when you read an article that says, hey, this movie’s being canceled, it’s like you’re reading a grave. I feel like we’re putting them on a pedestal.”

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