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Observations and Analysis of Disney in the News

News Commentary from October 15 - October 22

Disney Theater, What's Next?

Sue Kruse

In an October 19th article from The Daily Telegraph, celebrating the second year anniversary of The Lion King in London, writer Charles Spencer discusses his take on what makes Julie Taymor great; as well as what's next for Ms. Taymor and the Disney Company.

Spencer compares Disney's first theatrical effort, Beauty and the Beast, to the second, The Lion King, describing Beauty and the Beast as a re-staging of the original cartoon with humans that did little to change the theatrical landscape. He goes on to say that The Lion King is inspired and joyously inventive. If you have read my MousePlanet columns on the subject, you probably already know what I say to that. I have a feeling Mr. Spencer has been blinded by all that beautiful spectacle and while I would agree that The Lion King is indeed glorious to look at, I don't think it offers anything more inventive as far as the story goes and certainly, to use Spencer's own criticism of Beauty and the Beast, is not much more than a pretty re-stage of the original cartoon.

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Promotional art Disney - Photos by Joan Marcus of the original Broadway production
These photos are of desktops you can download at the official site - click on this LINK or the photo above to go to it

The article is not all about The Lion King though; Spencer brings us a glimpse of Taymor's next theatrical venture for Disney. She is working on bringing Pinocchio to the stage. With the events of September 11th in mind, Taymor told Spencer she feels the story of the little wooden boy to be especially relevant. "We must stop isolating, we must embrace the other," Taymor said. "Pinocchio is a story about what it means to be human."

Working with long-time partner Elliot Goldenthal, Taymor's plans for Pinocchio are to distinguish it from The Lion King by giving the show a completely different look. She hopes to make it a funky, commedia dell'arte show with a nasty edge. I believe she tried that tact with her show, The Green Bird, which didn't last all that long on Broadway and was one of the few Broadway shows I've seen where I wished I hadn't wasted my time. Taymor's film, Titus, was a brilliant staging of Shakespeare's tragic play, though. If she can bring one-tenth of the talent found in that film, hopefully, she will succeed with Pinocchio and we will all have something to watch that truly is inventive and inspired.


Too Strong For Its Own Good?

Alex Stroup

This past week brought a couple of stories that stand in a long line of similar Disney stories. First we had Disney announcing that it was re-examining its deal to purchase Fox Family. Earlier this year, Disney had come to terms with News Corp. and Saban Entertainment to purchase the channel (and related properties) for $5.3 billion in cash and debt assumption. Though it was a move questioned by many (you can see a detailed analysis of the deal by MousePlanet's Dan Steinberg here) things quickly solidified. Disney's announcement was apparently a surprise to News Corp., and they claimed that Disney has no wiggle room on the deal. Later in the week, though, News Corp. announced that they were going to knock $100 million off the price (but Disney has to buy the rust- proofing).

The other story involves Pixar, Disney's only source of strong box- office animation for quite a while now. In what is essentially a continuation of an old story, the contract between Pixar and Disney may prevent a Toy Story 3 from ever being made. After the success of the original Toy Story, Disney and Pixar settled on a five- picture deal; a deal in which sequels were explicitly said to not count against the promised five movies.

This wasn't expected to be a big deal at the time because any Toy Story sequel was expected to go straight to video. It wasn't until people saw just how good Toy Story 2 was, that plans changed and it was released theatrically. Pixar had, essentially, given Disney a freebie. An extremely lucrative freebie, but a freebie nonetheless. Steve Jobs, chairman of Pixar, is saying that it isn't going to happen again. Either Disney allows Toy Story 3 to count towards Pixar five- film commitment, or it doesn't get made until a new deal has been reached, after the conclusion of the current deal. Something that isn't going to happen for many years, if ever. With Pixar's track- record, they are going to be a very popular player when they enter the free agent market; there is no guarantee they will continue with Disney after the five films. There has been no official response from Disney, but all indications are that Michael Eisner would try and hold Pixar to the original contract.

Now, I personally don't care if Toy Story 3 ever gets made; I'd prefer to see new stories every time. However, if both Disney and Pixar agree that it is a movie they would like to make, then Disney should make sure it gets made. These two stories are part of a larger Disney history: Disney as Strong Arm Negotiator.

Michael Eisner at Disneyland last month
Michael Eisner at Disneyland last month

There is nothing wrong with trying to get everything you can, for as little as possible. It only makes sense. At times, Disney has reaped some incredible rewards from this - for example, early in his tenure, Eisner's emphasis on budget turned Disney's live- action studio into a cash cow - but they have also suffered severe consequences. When Disney has twisted an arm to hard, they have damaged some very fruitful relationships. There are actors, producers, and directors who won't work with a Disney studio because of perceived slights in the past. Many feel that manhandling by Disney has soured the relationship with George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and the Henson family to bad effect.

When times are good, who needs friends? The money is practically falling of trees and you can afford to cast an occasional ally to the side of the road. Unfortunately, many signs indicate that economic problems are going to continue for a while. Disney is going to have to hope that when they really need allies, they can still find some.


Dumbo 2, Audience 0?

Al Lutz

This week's release of Dumbo on DVD not only brings you the movie, but in what must be an all time record, there are ten (yes ten!) previews of coming film & video releases (plus various TV shows) on the disc. What's especially stunning is the massive parade of sequel trailers on this disc, Peter Pan II, Dumbo II, Cinderella II, Hunchback of Notre Dame II. (This of course in addition to past releases such as three Aladdin sequels, Little Mermaid II, Lady and the Tramp II - you get the picture.)

While Michael Eisner loves to crow about how much these "franchise extensions" rake in for the company - all I can think of is how they seem to take the quick road to a profit today, at the long term expense of some of the company's most prized intellectual properties - their classic characters. (Toy Story 2 is the exception to this rule, and that was really Pixar's thing.)

What is really depressing for me is some of the new plot lines and characterizations in these follow ups - where suddenly stories go in directions that are always politically correct, but have nothing to do with the original. For example in the Cinderella II preview there is a clip showing Cinderella actually counseling one of the evil step sisters as to the proper approach to life - while in the trailer for Hunchback II (in which over half the footage shown is of the original film - very misleading to say the least) we get to hear Jennifer Love Hewitt sing a big bland KOST Radio style ballad and express her feelings about Quasimodo's new teenage love. Goodness, do they go to the high school dance too?

Hunchback II promotional art © Disney
Hunchback II promotional art Disney

Meanwhile, Peter Pan II in its preview basically looks like the live action Hook story told all over again - we won't even go into the inexplicable change in era to WWII for the story, Smee's apparent new Robert DeNiro- type personality, or the fact the massive battleship- sized computer- generated pirate ship looks more like a renegade from a Star Wars sequel than what was in the original classic. And I'd tell you about the Dumbo II preview - but it is clear that they haven't even made the film yet as of the time they put that trailer together. I found it utterly amazing to watch all the animators holding up Dumbo II concept art sketches and discussing a story that they *think* may end up being the movie.

Lord, what's next Michael? Beyond the Seven Dwarfs (Snow White II) where our seven loveable little guys are all caught up in a huge matchmaking scheme by Snow - ending up in a CGI enhanced septuplet wedding at the end? Or how about Pinocchio II - starring his son Matchstick, a real boy who longs to be the sawhorse his father never was (with the seemingly now mandatory big Star Search / key change- style sappy ballad hit single tenderly performed by Ricky "shake your bon bon" Martin)?

The original Disney flagship films all did one thing rather admirably, they introduced characters that would stay with children for lifetimes - until they then could introduce them to their own offspring. These movies were the perfect showcases for these characters, where a lot of time, labor and care were put into them to make for some of the most special storytelling moments in childhood.

I think it's pitiful that today's children are more likely to now be first introduced to these classic characters via these much lower quality video sequels, Saturday morning spin-offs or inexpensive theatrical releases. None of them have even an ounce of the charm of the originals, nor would they inspire anyone to discover anew the Disney magic once ever so carefully shepherded in the original film releases.

Walt Disney one time in his career tried to make a sequel - exhibitors begged him to continue the story of the three little pigs. Despite his reluctance he did it, and it was a big flop. When asked about the subject of sequels afterwards he said, "I've never believed in doing sequels. I didn't want to waste the time I have doing a sequel; I'd rather be using that time doing something new and different. It goes back to when they wanted me to do more pigs." Here's another quote on the same subject: "By nature I'm an experimenter. To this day, I don't believe in sequels. I can't follow popular cycles. I have to move onto new things. So with the success of Mickey, I was determined to diversify."

How ironic that Michael Eisner now praises Walt's vision, and raves about Disney quality, in the new 100 years film presentation at Walt Disney World, while at the same time he loots the rich creative legacy the company has to bring in the quick buck.

Hey, come to think of it, do you think that maybe those problematic Disney Stores he has would do better if they had something new, fresh and MEMORABLE to regularly merchandise and sell, rather then recycling the same characters over and over again? I do.



ABOUT THIS COLUMN

One of the lesser-known features of MousePlanet is our News headlines in our MousePad discussion forum, where we try to direct you to any important news stories about the entire Disney company.

One thing we can't provide in that resource is an idea as to how those stories, generally about very specific portions of the company, may fit into the larger Disney picture. Towards that end, the Reporter's Notebook provides brief comments on those recent stories that are of interest.

We welcome your questions and comments, but keep in mind that all submissions to the Reporter's Notebook become property of this Web site. They may be edited for length or style and in consideration of a family readership. Questions may also be quoted on other parts of the site.

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