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The Mouse Factory gets back to basics

The Mouse Factory gets back to basics

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Remember the touching scene in "The Lion King" where Mufasa speaks to his son from the hereafter? The words, "Remember who you are," were a reminder to the adult Simba -- the troubled son who had lost his way. Isn't it ironic that Disney, after releasing this spectacular animated motion picture that entertained audiences around the world and made tons of money, would have forgotten this all-important message?


Copyright 1994 Disney Enterprises

If you happen to be up on the latest news from the Mouse House, you'll be aware that the Disney Company recently had a major layoff. While I take no delight in hundreds of people being given pink slips, please forgive me if I say, this is a good thing. If you're not sure where I'm going with this, let me explain. This layoff is a good thing because it signals that the Disney Company has finally come around to realizing that they've been doing something wrong, and they've been doing it wrong for quite a while. The fact that the powers that be have decided to make corrections is a sign that at last they're finally getting it.

Let's go back to the nineteen sixties and a story meeting with the Old Maestro himself. The writer and director of the film were pitching a sequence in an upcoming motion picture to Walt. The male lead and his female companion had accidentally been moved into a very funny, but somewhat adult situation. The director, knowing that the situation would ultimately prove to be innocent, felt safe in pitching the rather sophisticated scene to Walt. In case some of you are unaware, let me state that Walt Disney was no prude. As a matter of fact, Walt thought the "business" was cute and funny, and laughed out loud at the gag. Not known for effusive compliments, the boss thought that the idea was good. And then -- he cut it from the picture.

Walt Disney knew his audience and what they expected from a movie that bore his famous name. He knew that his audience would be made up of everyone from junior to grandma, and he wasn't about to risk making anyone even slightly uncomfortable while viewing this movie. The scene was cut from the film because Disney was the final arbiter of taste at his company, and he took that responsibility seriously. It had taken decades to build the Disney name. A name that people knew meant quality, creativity and most of all, family entertainment. Why would anyone risk damaging something so important? Why alienate the market the master storyteller took so long to build? Why try to be something you're obviously not?

When the "smart guys" took over in the early eighties they thought Disney could be all things to all people. In their MBA wisdom, they saw the Mouse House restricting itself to primarily one market. Why settle for one market when you can have it all? Clearly, they were on dangerous ground, and those other deeply coveted markets never did yield what was promised. Unfortunately, what was gained was a lot of disenchantment from the Disney faithful who saw their beloved family company inching ever closer to the "Dark Side." While I have no beef with brilliantly conceived films such as "Pulp Fiction" and "Sin City," would Walt Disney have made them? As for those who say, those cutting edge films were not released under the Disney label, your point is well taken. However, I wonder how any many of you would have felt comfortable pitching those ideas to Walt?


Copyright Floyd Norman

Of course, staying ahead of the competition is something all companies have to deal with. I'm sure you're well aware of another nameless animation house that always seemed to have a movie somewhat similar to the mouse's offering. Well, a few years ago I sat in a meeting as two hyped up Disney executives explained how they were going to blow away the competition by doing something that would catch the "copy cats" by surprise. Disney was going to move in a bold new direction. They were going to explore new ideas and techniques, and catch the competition totally off guard. They came up with a bold new movie all right, and true to their word it was unlike anything we had seen before. Unfortunately, in doing so they headed in the wrong direction. A sad fact the filmmakers learned the hard way when Roy Edward Disney shut their picture down. When working for Disney, one might be advised to make a Disney movie.

Today, an idea conceived back in the sixties is bringing in tons of money for the Disney Company. I was next door to Marc Davis when the Disney Master began doing his first sketches for a proposed theme park ride called, "Pirates of the Caribbean." Eventually, Marc Davis left D-Wing and moved to Walt Disney Imagineering in Glendale where this incredible attraction was brought to life by hundreds of talented Disney artists, craftsmen and technicians. But, the magic didn't end there. Decades later, "Pirates of the Caribbean" found new life as a Disney motion picture bringing in even more money for the Mouse House. Perhaps this, more than anything else was the wake up call Disney needed. Why waste time pursuing seedy adult films when there is a waiting and eager market for family themed entertainment? Add to that, these projects generate all kinds of additional product that enhance the bottom line. Toys, music, books, and apparel are only the tip of the iceberg. Isn't it clear that when Disney does what it does best, good results are bound to follow?

So, even though layoffs are always sad news, the upside is the Mouse House is now going to focus on their core business. With "Cars" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" proving to be definite summer hits, family friendly films seem like a pretty good idea, don't you think? It's almost as though some executive popped a copy of "The Lion King" in the DVD player and heard Mufasa tell Simba, "Remember who you are." Good advice for a company that momentarily lost its way, but now sees the light. Provide quality family entertainment and the audience will always be there for you.

Of course, Walt Disney could have told you that over thirty years ago.

Did you enjoy Floyd's column today about how the Walt Disney Company seems to be remembering what it is? Well, if so ... Then you need to remember that Mr. Norman has three (count 'em -- three!) great collections of his cartoons currently on the market. All of which take an affectionate look at his career in animation.

These include Floyd's original collection of cartoons and stories -- "Faster! Cheaper! The Flip Side of the Art of Animation" (which is available for sale over at John Cawley's excellent www.cataroo.com web site) as well as two follow-ups to that book, "Son of Faster, Cheaper" & "How the Grinch Stole Disney." Which you can purchase by heading over to the Afrokids.com website.

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  • Bravo. Right on target.
  • Great article Mr. Norman but what was the 60's film Walt cut the idea from? 101 Dalmatians? I'm pretty certain the other film Roy shut down was Wild Life though. What a horrid idea that was! (Hint hint hint! In depth article by Jim...)
  • wonderful as always, Mr Norman.  One day, I'm going to have to meet you face to face, maybe one of these years when I actually do get to attend the SD Comic-Con.

    I'm also wondering about that 60's film as well, though in my mind, I keep thinking of a scene from Sword in the Stone.

    Also, Disney's had a pretty decent summer.  Sure, 'Cars' didn't beat 'Nemo' (I hate all the people who think that because a film doesn't make more than $300million is bad), but this weekend it surpassed X3 and is so far the #2 film of the summer.  Apparently, Cars had better legs than X3.
  • Take the pledge--Raise your right hand:
    "I solemnly swear that I recognize that the Disney Studios and Miramax films are separate entities despite their corporate ownership, that Harvey and Bob Weinstein were largely responsible for their own artistic decisions to produce Miramax films (like anyone could stop them), apart from their distribution of independent films....I promise never again to say dopey things like 'What was Disney thinking when they released [controversial art film]?'"

    ...Good work, friend--Have a glass of bottled water.  You've just taken your first step.
  • Uncle_Ed said:
    Great article Mr. Norman but what was the 60's film Walt cut the idea from? 101 Dalmatians? I'm pretty certain the other film Roy shut down was Wild Life though. What a horrid idea that was! (Hint hint hint! In depth article by Jim...)
    ----
    I couldn't place the film, and I'd kind of like to know that too:
    Because without any possible context for the one factoid that the rambling article's point to depend on (uh, there was a point, wasn't there?), we have no idea whether Walt simply cut the scene for the one OTHER thing Walt was an instinctive genius for--Dropping dead scenes that didn't work at moving the momentum of the story.

    But, until we do, that information is locked away in Floyd's head, where he can make generic and vaguely-linked wishful assumptions about just about darn near everything.
    ("Now they're doing good stuff, which isn't like the time they did bad stuff, and it must because of some old stuff!")
  • Floyd never wrote the words "animated film." Just film. Remember, Floyd also has written about aspects of the live action films Walt produced. (Remember the piece on why the monkey in Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. was named what he was?) So it also could have been a live action film that Walt cut the scene from.

    In any event, I hope the company can pull it off. Producing the kinds of films that appear to the whole family are just not that easy to make. If they were, there would be more of them around. Not only from Disney but every other major studio.

    Producing quality family entertainment takes great talent and patience (i.e., patience to find the right idea/concept, patience to develop and keep rewriting the script, patience to wait for the right director and star(s) to be available, etc.) And, that patience usually requires a lot of money. I hope Bob Iger and Dick Cook have a lot of both.
  • Thank you, Mr. Norman, for the great (as always!) article!  I think that Disney should stick with family entertainment; as you said about "Pirates", it's what the company is best at.  The younger cast members working for Disney are of the same generation as the younger employees of the other studios; they all grew up with entertainment increasingly pushing the buttons.  Disney doesn't need to push any buttons; people expect something special from Disney, and that something special is what Disney should strive for.  I'm also glad that "Wild Life' got cut, and that's what I was thinking when I read that part.  I'm thinking like Uncle_Ed; if it was an animated film that got a scene cut, I was thinking "101 Dalmatians", since, in "Lady and the Tramp" there was a scene of...that, but it wasn't in-your-face obvious.  Anyhoo, thanks again, Mr. Norman!!!
  • I agree for the most part, although I still find it odd calling Pirates "family themed entertainment."


    Would Walt have gone for all the rotting corpses hanging about?  The prostitutes?  Well, as I write those two, I somewhat remember the ride, although it's been decades.  I believe it had both of those, no?

    But the innuendos and sexual tension between Jack and Elizabeth?


    I also think that Disney can keep making other films, and profiting off them, under another label.  But it needs to be more hands-off with it.  Finance it, profit from it, but let it run itself.
  • I read this site all the time and have for a couple years now -- I really enjoy Floyd Norman's articles. He has a history with the Disney Co. and in the animation industry that gives his articles a certain "authenticity."

    I just wanted to ask, What is DerekJ's problem with every single article anyone ever writes on the site?

    Sorry -- had to get it out of my system. Great article!
  • I disagree with the fact that Disney should continue making other pictures under other labels. Disney has lost it's way because of the Eisner era's egotistic belief in diversification of a company. I'm all for growth in a major corporation, but let's think about what the company could've done in the past 10 years if they focussed on animation, family centered fims, and family theme parks and hotels. In other words, what they do best.
    Instead they distracted themselves with ABC, ESPN, Family Channel, a hockey team, a baseball team, and other movie companies like Miramax, Touchstone, Hollywood and Buena Vista. All the while, as they competed in this ego-pissing contest with all the other big shots, the main product is weakening and becoming lost to the public.  Why spend a dime of Disney's money making Pulp Fiction a fantastic movie, and take something as important to the company's history as The Haunted Mansion and make it a piece of crap?
    It's not just Disney, this seems to be the goal of most big companies. Own a little bit of everything, make it all mediocre and try to squeeze as much $ as you can out of all of it.
    I know it's unpopular to take the What Would Walt Do angle on these boards, but let's face it, he was a good example to follow. I don't think Walt would've bought a hockey team and financed Pulp Fiction, albeit indirectly, while at the same time losing his edge on animation, family films and theme parks.
  • I've also had this theory for a while now. If Disney were still being run in a Walt-like manner over the past 20 years, Disney would've and should've been Pixar, not buying Pixar. Walt was always looking for the next thing in technology and in animation. Disney should've been the one's thinking up Pixar's technology and making ground breaking animated films like Toy Story, not partnering with another company who thought of it first.

    Just a theory.
  • Great article, but why all of the vaugeness? I would like to know what that suggestive scene that Walt cut out was, as well as what that film cancelled by Roy was.
  • I agree with MosquitoControl about Pirates. My one concern is that Disney will push the envelope of "family entertainment".
    In regards to K-Man, most studios don't produce family films because they want to be "cool" and "cutting edge" and win Academy Awards (family films rarely if ever win MAJOR awards), however those kinds of movies are ALMOST always money losers. In the top 20 movies of all time (domestic) there is only one rated R movie (the Passion) and 2 G rated movies (considering that there are only a handful of G rated movies released each year, that's a VERY good return).
    DerekJ, we can all PRETEND that Disney and Touchstone and Miramax are not "Disney" companies, but people are NOT stupid. Disney CANNOT pitch Narina to a largely Christian audience (a movie that made $700+ million) while producing Pulp Fiction ($213 mil), Sin City ($158 mil) and Deuce Bigalow ($92 mil). It is disingenuous. And Narina is a franchise (that will probably have 6 more movies) that Disney can exploit in their theme parks and other divisions. I haven't heard of the Sin City action figures or the Pulp Fiction ride coming to Disneyland.
  • I'll weigh in - although I was berated for having an opinion last time, but that's what I thought this was for...Good article Floyd.  You are close to acurate on most things you write (twenty+ years in the Mouse House tells me so).

    "Aaron H said:
    I read this site all the time and have for a couple years now -- I really enjoy Floyd Norman's articles. He has a history with the Disney Co. and in the animation industry that gives his articles a certain "authenticity."

    I just wanted to ask, What is DerekJ's problem with every single article anyone ever writes on the site?"

    Clearly, DerekJ is an animator with significant history at the Disney Animation Studio (hopefully not just laid off) and speaks/writes with the clarity/dexterity of an expert.  

    His world should be taken as GOSPEL.  or not.  

    Let's wait to hear what askmike1 has to say.
  • "DerekJ, we can all PRETEND that Disney and Touchstone and Miramax are not "Disney" companies, but people are NOT stupid. Disney CANNOT pitch Narina to a largely Christian audience (a movie that made $700+ million) while producing Pulp Fiction ($213 mil), Sin City ($158 mil) and Deuce Bigalow ($92 mil). It is disingenuous. "

    Disagreed.  Disingenuous?  Disney isn't saying they're a Christian company, they're just making a product that has certain interests.
    If Proctor & Gamble makes a product for constipation and a product for diahrrea is that "disingenuous?"  No.  Different people want different things.  Just because the two things compete doesn't mean one company can't provide both.


    How many people really know that Touchstone and Miramax are Disney companies?  Not too many.  How many really care one way or another?  Not too many.  

    There's a strong market out there for non-family films.  Profiting off of them under another label is a pretty decent idea, but keeping it very separate from the Disney company itself is probably a smart move.

    There's only so much money to be made in family movies, unless Disney really starts innovating.  Pirates worked so well because everyone could enjoy it.  Pixar movies work so well because everyone can enjoy them.  After that, family movies tend to not do as well.  They need to be done on a tiny budget, and unfortunately it's been the script that usually gets scrimped on.

    Honestly, how many Tim Allen movies can we stand in a year?
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