A wave of family-friendly alien movies were released in the 1980s following the success of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extraterrestrial. From Starman to Explorers to Mac & Me, Hollywood seemed to agree with Steven Spielberg’s idea of peaceful beings from beyond the stars, and it made for a refreshing change of pace from the Cold War paranoia movies that were commonplace in the genre before then.
One of the most charming Spielbergian alien movies to emerge during this time period, however, was Matthew Robbins’ Batteries Not Included, which revolves around mechanical being helping some apartment tenants keep their homes. While it wasn’t directed by the legendary filmmaker, it was produced by his company, Amblin Entertainment, and it’s very much in line with the cutesy family-friendly sci-fi of E.T. and other like-minded movies. These days it is largely forgotten, but the history behind its creation is quite interesting.
Batteries Not Included marked the (credited) screenwriting debut of Brad Bird, and the project came about because he was fired by Disney over creative differences with the studio. Bird wasn’t a fan of the direction the House of Mouse’s films were heading in at the time, and he didn’t have enough sway to change things. But being fired left him without opportunities to create animated films and shorts since Disney was the only worthwhile game in town at the time.
Bird was then forced to create a portfolio from scratch and started working on several animated projects, one of which was Family Dog. He presented the idea to Spielberg and was given a small amount of money to storyboard it. Spielberg liked what he saw, but Family Dog was pitched as a short, and since that format wasn’t economically viable, the project was shelved for a while.
This wasn’t to be the end of the collaborations between Bird and Spielberg, though, and that’s how Batteries Not Included was born. According to Mick Garris, who was a staff writer and story editor for the original Amazing Stories television series, the story was originally conceived by Spielberg as a possible episode of the anthology show. Furthermore, the episode’s working title was “Gramps and Grammy and Company,” which is much cooler than Batteries Not Included.
Spielberg then decided to turn it into a movie and asked Garris to write the script. Spielberg rejected the original draft, but the second was much better and Robbins was subsequently brought in to direct the movie. As is commonplace in Hollywood, however, the director wanted to make some changes, so he hired Bird, Brent Maddock, and S.S. Wilson to rewrite the screenplay.
Bird seems to have a different recollection of how the movie came about, though. While speaking to Nancy Cartwright, he said he was hired to write a live-action episode of Amazing Stories, which was presumably the one that became Batteries Not Included, unless he wrote another script for the show that never got made.
Batteries Not Included has a sense of wondrous optimism that would have made for a perfect Amazing Stories episode. Still, the movie that came about instead was a hit at the box office and it helped launch the careers of some talented writers, so the decision to turn the idea into feature paid off for everyone in the end.
The film’s success also resurrected Family Dog, which became an Amazing Stories episode before going on to become a television series in its own right. Bird then went on to make his feature directorial debut with the Warner Bros. animated feature The Iron Giant. Afterward, Disney even welcomed him back into the fold when they acquired Pixar, and the rest is history.