From hero to zero

Sunday, 7 August 2005 — 5:37pm | Animation, Film

As of today, the Save Disney experiment is not only merely dead – it’s really most sincerely dead. In a way it’s been over since Stanley Gold and Roy Disney made amends with the House that Walt Built a month ago, if you can really call it a mutual armistice and not a conditional surrender once you examine the details of the agreement, as Jim Hill does in this article. It’s a raw deal for Roy and Stanley, and they’d be even worse off did Roy not bear the good fortune of the Disney name.

For my part, as a Save Disney wellwisher from the beginning, I’m glad to see that at the time of this writing the website is being left online, if no longer updated. Since the movement started to wane last year after falling just a few percentage points short of ousting Eisner (coupled with his surprise resignation not long after), a lot of the articles have taken on a more positive spin, reminiscing about the Disney legacy and leveraging it as a more oblique criticism of what the Eisner regime carelessly discarded.

So what are we going to see under Bob Iger now that this very public check and balance against the Disney boardroom is out of the picture? I expect some positive change, but I think a lot of it will be forced by market circumstances.

Now, I don’t know or care much about the Disneylands and licensing mania – I’m all about the films. So let’s take a look at the problems Disney needs to address from the perspective of an avid motion picture consumer.

First of all, Disney’s DVD strategy is not working, unless it was specifically designed to irk the serious collector. As far as availability goes, it’s atrocious. Sure, there have been some good moves, like finally restoring Song of the South for next year, but most of the classic Disney library is under wraps and schedule for one-a-year Platinum Edition releases that are promptly pulled off the shelf to make room for the next one. You can imagine the consternation when I lost my treasured two-disc Beauty and the Beast last year only to discover that it had been out of print since early 2003. I did eventually hunt down another copy, but life need not be so difficult.

I’m a latecomer as far as Disney fans go, in spite of being a child in the midst of the studio’s Renaissance of the early nineties, smack in the middle of their target demographic. I never initially took to The Little Mermaid and especially not Aladdin, which I thought mistook caricature for archetype on far too many an occasion (or however it is a seven-year-old would phrase an equivalent critique). But that’s what happens when you grow up exposed to a universe ruled by Don Bluth and his Three Laws: 1) There are no cats in America. 2) Three-horns never play with long-necks. 3) All dogs go to heaven (corollary: goats go to hell).

In retrospect, I missed out – hence the appeal of going back and realizing that it was in this era that Walt Disney Feature Animation was at the top of its game, the best it had been since its namesake passed away. Certainly the threepeat of Mermaid, Beauty and Aladdin represented some of the very best direct musical writing for film in decades, and I wonder if Disney ever truly realized what a treasure they had in Ashman and Menken. I’d love to go back and watch all the Disney features again, all forty-four of them from Snow White to Home on the Range, because I know but a third of them and only comfortably remember a quarter. But they’re making it very, very difficult.

Kids these days don’t even have a Disney to grow up on. They can’t even see The Little Mermaid on anything but shoddy full-frame VHS, because it’s not scheduled for release on pristine DVD until 2008. There was a brief DVD edition printed around Christmas 1999, but it was pulled two months later.

Disney has the Platinum Edition line charted out all the way to 2010. Something’s wrong with this picture, especially when you consider that the first wave of DVD-killer formats arrives less than a year from now, with Sony pushing the Blu-ray high-definition standard in the PlayStation 3. Which means that if Disney switches gears, and comes to see DVD as a stepping-stone format, a good chunk of their films will never make it to the medium. While I think studios are putting the high-definition cart way before the horse and punting it down the hill, Disney is missing boats. I know restoration work takes a lot of time and effort, but this is ridiculous.

Next grievance: Pixar sequels. I don’t side with Disney’s interests here. I think the most important bargaining term in any talks with Pixar – and I think Steve Jobs is on the same wavelength here – is that Pixar acquires all sequel rights to their film library.

Disney would be crazy, batty, nuttier than Chip ‘n Dale to make that concession. But speaking as a moviegoer, it’s a non-negotiable deal-breaker. Because right now, I’m very concerned about what Disney thinks it’s up to with Toy Story 3. For a while now, the persistent rumour has been that this is all a big power play to bring Jobs back to the bargaining table, but with increasingly tangible evidence that this is moving ahead – promotional posters, pre-production art, testimonials from excited animators working on it – read this article, also by Jim Hill, for details – I think they’re serious.

The concept they have for a third story – the Buzz Lightyear product line being recalled to Taiwan – isn’t in itself a bad one. And I don’t think that the people working on projects like these ever actively seek to make anything less than a good movie, though I think the record shows that there are limitations to working on a board-driven franchise-milker, especially in recent years when Disney has been shunting projects like Return to Neverland out of direct-to-video and into theatres. But I have a problem with a Toy Story 3 without Pixar involvement the same way I’d have a problem with someone acquiring the rights to Star Wars and doing something ridiculous like making Episodes VII, VIII and IX. It doesn’t ease my mind one bit that the man with directing credit, Bradley Raymond, comes straight from the DTV sequel production line.

I’m going to be very clear about this: I want Pixar to intercept this project before it gets too far along. Whether it cancels it or reworks it into something that tastes of the true hopping-lamp vintage is their decision. If the Pixar properties fall back into their own hands, I would sleep better at night. I have a lot more confidence in the discretion they apply in terms of when sequels are necessary and when they aren’t. You don’t have the board-level micromanagement that Disney did under Eisner and may yet have under Iger, and the folks actually working on the movies have a more direct hand in the decision-making process.

On traditional animation (i.e. not all-CG): I think Iger’s going to be forced back into approving it sooner or later, and I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if the first project greenlit to follow Rapunzel Unbraided is not a CG production. The overcrowded CG market is beginning to show some exhaustion, and it just isn’t smart business for Disney to make their films look and feel like everybody else’s.

The wildcard at this point is what kind of box-office reception Chicken Little gets when it opens 4 November. For my part, my opening-night commitment that weekend is V For Vendetta, even though I don’t have total confidence in that film either. But staying on topic: if Chicken Little is anything less than a roaring success – that is, if it ends up under the $200M mark, which even Madagascar is struggling to hit in spite of opening in DreamWorks’ treasured late May slot – Disney has something to worry about.

But as much as I want them to awaken to the fact that traditional animation is still very viable given the right coordination of good ideas and marketing support, both geared towards an interest in making, you know, classics. I’m not saying that I want Chicken Little to fail; in fact, I hope there’s a lot more to it than the hyperactive craziness that has been sold in the trailers so far, the kind of attempts at pop appeal that have hampered many a Disney film in the past ten years because at the screenplay level there isn’t a delicate boundary between the amusing and the outright silly. Let’s remember these are just the trailers, and even Pixar’s trailers have gone for the same approach at times, which might be why the movies pack such a wallop when they reveal themselves to be fugal exercises in unfettered genius.

Regardless of whether or not Chicken Little tanks as either a moneymaker or as a movie worth watching at all, we still have a lot to look forward to. I’m positively stoked about American Dog (and you would be too after seeing some of the shots from SIGGRAPH), curious about A Day With Wilbur Robinson and delighted to hear that Rapunzel Unbraided is going to have a completely different visual style modeled after oil-on-canvas, though I hope it doesn’t try too hard to be all hip and Shrek-like. See, I don’t mind one bit that Disney’s producing CG features, as long as they try to be something different, and not play catch-up with other studios who have already carved out certain stylistic territories for themselves.

I want to see Disney go back to being a leader, not a follower. I want to see these movies succeed, but I don’t want their success to send Iger the message that ditching traditional animation was in any way the right decision. It wasn’t.

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