Walt Disney created a vast empire around his brand of wholesome animation. But, says Brian Pendreigh, Disney is having to reinvent itself to survive in the modern marketplace.
For almost half a century Walt Disney has been turning movies into rides... and toys, and lunchboxes, and latterly big-budget stage musicals, computer games and just about anything on which they can stick a picture of a cartoon character, short of nuclear warheads.
Thirty-six years after the death of its founder, the Walt Disney Company has extended his vision of a grand day out to theme parks in America, Europe and Asia, including a new one next to Disneyland Paris, now Europe’s No 1 tourist attraction, while hundreds of stores around the world are packed to the roof with cuddly, expensive Mickeys and Simbas.
Disney expanded into films for older audiences years ago through its Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures divisions and its purchase of Miramax, the Oscar specialists behind Shakespeare in Love et al. A network of TV and radio stations beam its message across the airwaves. Disney even has a professional ice hockey team, the Mighty Ducks, named after one of its movies. Just imagine Manchester United as the Ratcatchers or Glasgow Rangers as the Glasgow Bravehearts.
What's up, doc?
Disney is the second largest media conglomerate in the world, behind AOL Time Warner.
But all is not well in the Empire of the Mouse. Its fortunes were built on the success of its cartoons and traditional animation has been in decline in recent years. Atlantis: The Lost Empire, looked flat and old-fashioned last year alongside the new generation of computer-animated films and it sank beneath a wave of audience indifference on both sides of the Atlantic.
Disney has looked increasingly reliant on its partnership with Pixar, the computer animation company that made Toy Story and Monsters, Inc., though Pixar lost out in the race for this year’s inaugural Oscar for best animated feature to DreamWorks, whose founders include disenchanted ex-Disney boss Jeffrey Katzenberg, and his film Shrek, which took a sly dig at some popular, but non-copyright, Disney characters.
At the end of Shrek, Snow White and Cinderella are seen fighting over the wedding bouquet of DreamWorks’s feisty interloper Fiona. Disney has traditionally relied on fairy tales and children’s classics. Its heroes, and particularly its heroines, have sometimes seemed bland and rather too wholesome for these more cynical times - fine role models, but not the sort of people you want to spend time with.
Alien to the rescue
Disney have stuck to traditional animation with their latest feature, Lilo and Stitch. Lilo is a pretty Hawaiian girl, with a passion for cute animals, and Stitch, with his huge eyes and a curiously familiar set of oversize ears, will have everyone going A-a-ah. So far, so samey.
But the joke is that Stitch is really a homicidal alien on the run from intergalactic police.
Disney’s old favourites have made a fortune on video in recent times and Return to Never Land was intended as the latest in a series of sequels made specifically for video, but the studio decided to give it a run in cinemas and it looks like it will be one of its most profitable films of the year.
On the one hand that is good. On the other hand it is distinctly worrying. Return to Never Land was made by Walt Disney Television Animation at a fraction of the cost of the usual animated features, while Walt Disney Pictures has been cutting animators’ jobs and salaries. Disney will now release The Jungle Book II and Piglet’s Big Movie in cinemas too. But they will be cheap, aimed at very young audiences and are unlikely to break new artistic ground or challenge for Academy Awards.
Lilo and Stitch was a gamble, but Disney needed to do something to maintain its position as market leader in a market it invented. The gamble has paid off with over $128 million in US box office receipts after a month.
Rides to riches?
But it is not just a question of producing a decent cartoon again to rival the classics from the early years and the early Nineties renaissance that spawned Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. Disney’s ABC television network has been struggling, and September 11 had an obvious negative effect on business at the theme parks and their associated hotels. There has been staff unrest and even rumours of a possible takeover.
It has not been all doom and gloom however. Someone had a bright new idea that could boost cinema admissions, theme parks and merchandising at the same time, with a possible spin-off for television. It is so simple it might just be brilliant - if you can turn a movie into a ride, why not turn a ride into a movie?
Many of the Disneyland rides were inspired by movies in the first place, but not quite all. Why not make films starring the ones that have not already been movies?
Why not make a film about the swings, roundabout and chute across the road in the local park, you might ask. "Personally I’m surprised that there’s a story in any of those things, but that’s just my lack of imagination," says Patrick Frater, international editor of the trade paper Screen International, with possibly a hint of sarcasm.
Do they have a beginning, a middle and an end? Do they have engaging characters? Disney is convinced the answer to that last question is yes, at least as far as The Country Bears are concerned.
Here come the bears
The Country Bears will be familiar to anyone who has visited Disney’s American parks, but will mean little to most others, but that is going to change. The Country Bears is not a ride, but rather a show. Imagine The Beverly Hillbillies having a good old hoedown, but with Jed, Granny and Elly May as singing, stomping animatronic bears and you will have a fairly good idea of what this long-established attraction is like.
Disney’s writers have come up with a storyline in which the Country Bears are a veteran C&W group, in other words themselves, who reunite for a benefit concert for a good cause. It mixes live-action and animatronics and involves the talents of Haley Joel Osment, Christopher Walken and the Henson Creature Shop.
It is being described as "weird" and once again the buzz is positive. The studio is so convinced that it is onto a winner that, even before The Country Bears opens in the US, it has commissioned the script for a sequel and has given the go-ahead for two more films based on Disneyland rides.
Pearl Harbor producer Jerry Bruckheimer is making Pirates of the Caribbean, inspired by one of Disney’s most celebrated rides, while Eddie Murphy, who voiced the donkey in Shrek, has been in discussions to star in a film version of Haunted Mansion.
"Disney has been in quite a lot of trouble recently," says Frater. "People queue hours to ride on these things. It’s not very romantic, it’s not very creative in the auteur sense, but they know that there’s a demand for these things. Companies the size of Disney see these things in terms of brand extension and maximising the assets they’ve got."
It may just be a matter of time before we see the big-screen version of It’s a Small World (and the inevitable sequel After All). And what about the shops? The Main Street Emporium - surely that could be turned into a soap opera.
It's been tough before
There have been signs of strain in the partnership between Disney and Pixar, but Disney recently announced the next three films under the deal, while executives at the Touchtone Pictures division have been in talks with the Coen Brothers, the critically acclaimed writer-directors of such offbeat movies as Fargo. They are looking at the possibility of a remake of the Ealing classic The Ladykillers, a deliciously dark comedy, the Shallow Grave of its day.
Disney has been through rough times before. Industry commentators thought the old man was mad, in the Thirties, when he suggested audiences would sit through a cartoon lasting 80 minutes, there were raised eyebrows when Disneyland was proposed, and the opening was a fiasco. "Walt’s dream a nightmare," said one headline. But the empire has lasted a lot longer than its founder and its critics.
Far from being fixed in its moralistic and anachronistic worldview, the conglomerate that now bears the name Disney seems ready to consider just about anything, no matter how wacky or surreal, to ensure its future. Now, about that idea about Sammy the Swing and Roger the Roundabout...