The Spirit (1980 pencil test trailer)

Posted: June 14, 2015 in Baer, Brad Bird, The Spirit, Will Eisner

**Brian Baer (who’s novel is out now) wrote this look all that survives of one genius’s attempt to adapt another genius’s work. Ah, what could of been…**

The road to feature film adaptations is long and rocky for many comic book characters, and perhaps none longer or rockier than for Will Eisner’s seminal superhero, The Spirit. Also, like many paths to adaptation, that final product (2008’s The Spirit) was rather disappointing.

The character had several brushes with live-action film before Frank Miller’s directorial debut, though. There was a 1987 TV movie, which failed as a back-door pilot for a series, and an aborted attempt from Harlan Ellison and director William Friedkin nearly a decade previously. Between the two, The Spirit nearly became animated.

At the time, a lowly Disney penciler named Brad Bird had been working with fellow animator Jerry Rees on a “proof of concept” which would function as a movie trailer to impress potential investors. Their trailer for The Spirit was unfinished but dynamic, overflowing with the graceful animation and a not-overwhelmingly-“kiddie” tone that was clearly ahead of its time. It gathered the attention of producers Steven Paul Leiva and Gary Kurtz, of Star Wars fame, and meetings were scheduled to acquire the rights to the character.

Will Eisner was very protective of The Spirit, according to Leiva’s 2008 essay for the LA Times’ Hero Complex site. “He had no particular objections to a film version of ‘The Spirit,'” Leiva wrote, “he had just always assumed it would be a live-action film, with, he had hoped, James Garner starring as The Spirit.” After seeing Bird’s trailer, however, Eisner signed off.

Ambiance!

Preproduction crept along slowly for several years, with several talented young animators (including John Lasseter) contributing to storyboards and concept art as Bird finished his script. Eventually, though, The Spirit was deemed unmarketable.

The years around 1980 were dark times for Disney and a low point for animation in general. Box office receipts had dropped off, so studios were hesitant to sink too much money into animation or back anything viewed as too risky.

All of the Hollywood players Kurtz and company approached liked what they saw, but couldn’t understand why they wanted The Spirit to be animated. Cartoons were seen as the vehicle for fairy tales, Leiva remembers, “and we had a sexy superhero noir film of action and adventure, thrills and humor, featuring beautifully illustrated humans and not one talking animal.”

Well, Brad Bird kind of got to animate The Spirit…

The project stalled out and the rights reverted back to Eisner. Shortly thereafter, Gary Kurtz retired. John Lasseter went on to become the Chief Creative Officer for Pixar and Walt Disney Animation. Brad Bird continued as a screenwriter and became a creative consultant on The Simpsons, before directing The Iron Giant in 1999 and joining Pixar. His newest film, the live-action Tomorrowland, was released last month.

Rumors of further adaptations of The Spirit floated around Hollywood long after Will Eisner’s death, finally culminating the 2008 live-action flop. Even before that, speculation has been rampant about the Brad Bird version that might’ve been. This has escalated ever since his other take on superheroes, 2004’s The Incredibles, became such a smash hit.

In April of 2015, Steven Paul Leiva posted a VHS transfer of the original “pencil-test trailer” on YouTube with a short history of project, writing, “As it is a small piece of animation history, I’ve decided to post it here.”

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