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Disney sinks 'Captain Nemo'

New chief Rich Ross halts production of the movie, which was once considered to have franchise potential.

November 18, 2009|Claudia Eller and Dawn C. Chmielewski

In his first move affecting a major film project, newly named Walt Disney Studios chief Rich Ross has pulled the plug on a planned $150-million production of "Captain Nemo: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" -- the last project approved by his predecessor Dick Cook.

The family adventure movie -- a high priority for Disney that the studio had envisioned as a potential franchise along the lines of "Pirates of the Caribbean" -- was scheduled to begin shooting in February in Mexico. Disney had already spent about $10 million hiring crews, who were prepping the movie and planning to build elaborate sets in Rosarito Beach. Artwork and construction of models were underway.

"Nemo" is one of many projects that are being reevaluated by Ross and his boss, Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger, in the wake of Cook's forced departure in mid-September.

Disney only recently spent generously to hire writer Michael Chabon to rewrite the "Nemo" script. Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," had just written a draft of the Burbank studio's forthcoming production "John Carter of Mars," an adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel and the first live-action film to be directed by Pixar Animation Studios director Andrew Stanton.

Although it is commonplace in Hollywood for projects to be shelved when there's a management change, Iger earlier this year took the unusual step of publicly criticizing the studio's movie picks and their execution in conference calls with investors. Disney's "A Christmas Carol," starring Jim Carrey, had a softer-than-expected opening two weeks ago but is holding well and has grossed $64 million domestically to date. Next week, the studio debuts its Robin Williams-John Travolta comedy "Old Dogs" in wide release and the animated feature "The Princess and the Frog" in New York and Los Angeles.

One person close to the filmmakers of "Nemo" said that in recent weeks Iger and Ross had signaled that they had serious reservations about moving forward with the project.

On Monday, Ross met with the movie's director McG and producer Sean Bailey and told them that the project was being halted. Neither McG nor Bailey returned calls, but people familiar with their thinking said the duo was disappointed.

According to people familiar with the situation, who were not authorized to speak publicly about it, Disney executives made the choice not to proceed based on concerns that parts of the movie were too dark, among other creative issues. One person with knowledge of the project said the studio intends later to restart development on the Jules Verne classic. Disney first brought "Leagues," about adventurers aboard a submarine as it encounters a giant squid, to the big screen in 1954 with actors Kirk Douglas and James Mason (as Captain Nemo). Disney had previously made overtures to Will Smith to play Nemo but no deal was struck and no actors had been cast.

A successful "Nemo" would presumably have had benefits throughout the Disney kingdom, such as theme-park attractions, video games and merchandise.

This is not the first time Disney has put the brakes on an expensive, high-profile movie that was headed toward production. Last December, the studio bailed out on co-financing the third movie in the "Chronicles of Narnia" franchise, "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," because of "budgetary considerations."

Twentieth Century Fox subsequently stepped up to help fund the picture with Walden Media, which controls the movie rights to the C.S. Lewis children's books upon which the movies are based.

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claudia.eller@latimes.com

dawn.chmielewski@latimes.com

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