By Drew Taylor | The Playlist April 11, 2012 at 11:04AM
Even aside from his live-action work, Whedon found himself becoming a go-to animation script-doctor even before the success of "Toy Story;" he worked on a pair of Disney animations prior to that film that never made it to the screen, at least in their original form. The first was what Whedon described as “Journey to the Center of the Earth” meets “Man Who Would Be King” (keep in mind this was as EuroDisney was opening, complete with an entire themed land devoted to Jules Vernian sci-fi exploration), a concept that was said to have featured lots and lots of monsters and was exciting enough to get Mike Mignola, creator of “Hellboy,” on board to do design work. That was eventually scrapped and mutated into “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” a creatively compromised work that, despite a few flashes of brilliance (Mignola’s remaining design work and James Garner’s inspired vocal performance among them), is pretty lousy. (Whedon only received credit because he was the first writer on the project.) The other, much more interesting project that Whedon worked on was an animated musical version of “Marco Polo.” According to Whedon in 'Conversations,' the edict from Disney was “do ‘My Fair Lady’ with Marco Polo.” Whedon not only wrote a script but also, years before the musical 'Buffy' episode and 'Dr. Horrible,' wrote the lyrics to three songs that featured instrumentation from noted Broadway stalwart Robert Lindsey-Nassif (who worked with Whedon's beloved Stephen Sondheim on “Bounce”). The “Marco Polo” project was developed at a time when Disney was moving away from the animated musicals that defined the Second Disney Renaissance, just as that became Whedon’s singular goal. “I joined Disney because I wanted to write musicals,” Whedon has said. “I wanted to do what Howard Ashman did” (Ashman was the Oscar-winning writer behind the tunes for "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin," who passed away in 1991). Whedon later conceded: “The animated musical died with Howard Ashman.” “Marco Polo” was barely developed (if at all), sadly. While his later work on Fox's box office failure “Titan A.E.” hasn’t been widely discussed, he has described his work on it in the past as “a great, thundering rewrite” most likely in the interest of merging the visions of two separate directors (notable Disney expats Gary Goldman and Don Bluth) and a small army of screenwriters (like frequent Tim Burton collaborator John August). There are two positive things that Whedon got out of “Titan A.E.,” though – a loose storyline about rogue space travelers that he would adopt for his beloved, frustratingly short-lived “Firefly” television series, and a working relationship with comic book creator Ben Edlund (“The Tick”), who would go on to write for “Firefly” and “Angel” , and work on Whedon’s beloved web series “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog."
While it may not be abundantly clear from his big screen efforts (“Serenity” looks more like a television episode than actual episodes of “Firefly”), Whedon can be an impressive director, particularly when allowing a technical or thematic construct or limitation enter the picture (see the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episodes “The Body” or “Restless”). So it’s not entirely surprising that he would be invited to guest-direct shows on the small screen. In 2007 he helmed two episodes of NBC’s hit sitcom “The Office” (this was a time when the show was particularly concerned with netting big-screen guest directors – others from around this time included Harold Ramis and JJ Abrams). The first, season three’s “Business School,” was written by Brent Forrester, a former “Simpsons” writer who penned the immortal “Lemon of Troy” episode, and featured a sub-plot where the office-dwellers have to deal with a foe very familiar to Whedon – a bat. According to the DVD commentary track for the episode, Whedon was at first reluctant, saying, “Do I have to direct the bat episode?” but eventually got on board. (He’s a friend of the show’s co-creator Greg Daniels and much of the cast.) Whedon was shocked to find that he could change the script as he saw fit and had so much fun that he returned the same year to direct season four’s “Branch Wars,” which was written by cast member Mindy Kaling and centered around Scott’s attempt to foil an attempt by the Dunder Mifflin Utica branch to hire over their beloved Stanley. Less outwardly “Whedonesque” than the bat-riffic “Business School,” it is still expertly snappy and smart (its script was nominated for NCAA Image award) and incredibly well-directed (you can feel Whedon having particular fun with the “panty raid” elements, lifted directly from “Animal House”). Somewhat less surprising was Whedon’s decision to direct a first-season episode of Fox’s breakout musical series “Glee.” Whedon is, as we've discussed, a notable musical nerd, and it was fun to see him apply his musical number staging skills against something that is essentially a jukebox musical (the episode features a whopping eleven cover versions). Series creator Ryan Murphy said of Whedon, “Joss directed one of the great musical episodes in the history of television, so this is a great, if unexpected, fit. I'm thrilled he'll be loaning us his fantastic groundbreaking talent.” For his part, Whedon underplayed his influence, saying, “Hopefully my hands will be invisible on the show.” Well, they weren’t, not exactly. His ‘Dr. Horrible’ star Neil Patrick Harris features as glee club leader Will Schuster’s arch-nemesis, in a role that was specifically timed for Whedon’s episode. But the most blatant Whedon contribution has got to be the staging of the “Safety Dance” number, in which Kevin McHale’s wheelchair-confined Artie gets up and dances around a mall. It’s sweetly surreal and significantly amps up the show’s already dreamlike fantasy elements. It’s also, in true Joss Whedon form, achingly touching.
-- Benjamin Wright & Drew Taylor