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Jim Hill

Jim's musings on the history of and rumors about movies, TV shows, books and theme parks including Disneyland, Walt Disney World. Universal Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood.

Why For?

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Greetings from Seat 21A - United Flight 211. Currently cruising at 28,000 feet.

As I mentioned at the tail end of yesterday's column, I'm currently en route to Southern California. Winging my way west so that I can be on hand when my darling daughter, Alice, turns the big 1-0 minus 1.

I won't lie to you folks. Being a long distance daddy sucks. It's a life that's made up of too few hugs and too many phone calls. As well as lots and lots of plane trips like this. Flying solo to Southern California so that I can get some significant face time with Alice.

FYI: For those of you who may be wondering, this IS a really interesting time to be traveling. Pre-war jitters seem to have put any awful lot of people off the idea of flying. My flight from Manchester down to Washington D.C. as well as the leg from D.C. out to S.D. was extremely under-populated. Which meant that there was plenty of room to spread out on the plane (which is a good thing). Even though the 5-hour-plus trip out west did get a trifle lonely.

Anywho ... one of the advantages of flying on United is that the plane's on-board audio programming features a Walt Disney Records channel. This time around, I was able to preview the soundtrack for "Piglet's Big Adventure" which is due out in theaters on March 21st. What's kind of unusual about the latest "Winnie the Pooh" feature (which was actually produced by the folks over at Disney Television animation, not the crew at Disney Feature Animation) is that it features Carly Simon. The '70s era songstress reportedly wrote and performed several new songs for "Piglet's Big Movie," in addition to performing the classic Sherman Brothers "Winnie the Pooh" song.

Mind you, the "Piglet's Big Movie" soundtrack doesn't actually go on sale 'til March 18th. But -- based on what I was able to able to preview on the plane today -- Carly does an okay job with the classic Sherman Bros. tune. As for the rest of the film's score ... well, truth be told, I only got to hear just one new Simon song: "With a Few Good Friends," the tune that Carly wrote to underscore the moment in the movie where Pooh and pals build a new house for Eeyore. It seemed nice enough. Sweet. Simple. Though -- given that I've already forgotten what "With a Few Good Friends" sounded like -- I guess that I can't say that the song was all that memorable.

Now the audio programming has slide into a section that features highlights from the soundtrack of "Jungle Book 2" ... "What highlights?," I hear all you cheapquel haters saying.

Look, I agree that it's unfortunate that the Walt Disney Company now feels that it has to undercut its own artistic legacy by producing all of these unnecessary sequels to the studio's animated classics. (Coming soon to a theater near you: "Bambi II." Seriously, folks. I sh*t you not!)

That said, I am really getting tired of seeing all these alleged animation fans going out of their way to bash the artists who actually work on these movies. Sure, the stories for these projects aren't what they should be. But the actual animation that's being done on these video premieres -- particularly the stuff that's being done by Walt Disney Television Animation - Australia -- is very good. Almost as good, in fact, as the stuff WDFA was doing back in the mid-tolate-1980s with "The Great Mouse Detective" and "Oliver & Company."

This uptick in animation quality may explain why WDFA execs are reportedly toying with the idea of giving the Mouse's Down Under Crew its very own really-for-real animated feature. Not another direct-to-video "Lion King" sequel (Though -- that said -- I have been hearing that the Aussies did a really nice job with "Lion King III," which is due to hit store shelves sometime later this Fall), but an actual film of their very own to produce.

Sort of similar to what happened with Disney's Paris studio. When that group of animators did such a nice job with "The Goofy Movie" that they were given a shot at the big leagues with "Tarzan." Of course, the exemplary work that Disney's French animators did on that 1999 feature didn't stop WDFA execs from eventually shuttering their Parisian satellite.

Maybe Disney's Australian animators better keep that in mind before they begin celebrating their coming promotion to the big show. When it comes to the Mouse these days, it's important to remember that no good deed goes unpunished.

Radically changing the subject here ... the Walt Disney Records audio programming of United Airlines' Channel 12 has now segued into a series of songs from a soon-to-be-released recording, "O Mickey, Where Art Thou? : The Voices of Bluegrass Sing the Best of Disney." Given the CD's title, is it really a surprise to hear that this album is sort of a riff on the best selling "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack?

But you want to hear the really funny part of the story, kids? "O Mickey, Where Art Thou?" ain't half bad. Songs like "Circle of Life," "You'll Be In My Heart," "Baby Mine" and "When She Loved Me" are rendered simply and sweetly with banjo, guitar and fiddle. More to the point, Disney's recruited some of country's top talents to warble these classic tunes. Folks like Ronnie Milsap, Sonya Issacs and Collin Raye provide inspired vocals for this recording.

In fact, I'm enjoying "O Mickey, Where Art Thou?" that I'd go and pick a copy of this recording right now ... if it weren't for two small things:

1. I'm currently flying at 40,000 feet.
2. "O Mickey, Where Art Thou?" doesn't actually go on sale 'til April 1st.

Okay, enough with the self indulgent "Look at me! I'm writing a column while I'm flying in an airplane" crap. Let's finally get around to this week's "Why For?" shall we?

First up, Roger has a question that relates to "Spy Kids 2":

Dear Jim,

I just listened to Robert Rodriguez' fascinating commentary on the "Spy Kids 2" DVD, and was very interested to learn that he originally planned to shoot the opening sequence at Disneyland. When he asked about it, though, he was told that Disney doesn't allow any movies to be shot at Disneyland, not even their own (which SK2 is, indirectly). His main regret was losing one of his jokes (Carmen was to have said "I'm tired of these Mickey Mouse assignments," while tossing off her Mouse ears. Instead of [saying] "rinky dink" while tossing off her propeller head cap). But it did allow (Rodriguez) to come up with whacked rides that ended up in the film.

I'm curious, though, especially after reading your "Khrushchev at Disneyland" article. How come Disney won't let movies (be filmed) in their theme parks.

Thanks,

Roger

Wait a minute. Rodriguez was actually told that Disney doesn't allow movies to be shot in their theme parks? By who?

The reason I sound surprised is that I know of at least three motion pictures that have been shot at a Disney theme park. The most recent one -- "Marvin's Room" -- was actually shot in WDW's Magic Kingdom in 1997. By Miramax Pictures, the parent company of Dimension Films, the studio that actually produced Robert Rodriguez's latest "Spy Kids" opus, "The Island of Lost Dreams."

And the Disney World section of this Jerry Zacks film wasn't just a throwaway, Roger. Miramax flew the film's stars -- Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton and Leonardo Dicaprio -- down to Orlando. The "Marvin's Room" production team spent several days filming in the Magic Kingdom. Including a scene where Diane Keaton faints and is rescued by a WDW cast member dressed as Goofy.

And Disneyland -- the very park that Rodriguez reportedly wanted to shoot "Spy Kids 2"'s opening sequence in -- that theme park has also been as a key setting for a major motion picture in the not-so-distant past. By a non-Disney studio, no less.

Back in 1995, the Walt Disney Company gave 20th century Fox permission to come into the Park and shoot a sequence for "That Thing You Do" in and around the Matterhorn. This film (which Academy Award winner Tom Hanks made his directorial debut on, by the way) featured a sub-plot where a musician (Giovanni Ribisi) who was about to make his network television debut. But -- once he was out in Hollywood -- Disneyland's siren song proved to be too much for the musician. Which is why Ribisi's character ditched rehearsal and made his way out to Anaheim ... where he ended up sharing a bobsled with a Disneyland cast member dressed as Mickey Mouse.

You see what I'm saying here, Robert? Each of these films had key sequences that were shot right inside a Disney theme park. With scenes that featured central players interacting with the Disney characters. Yet the Walt Disney Company supposedly suddenly said "No" when Robert Rodriguez came calling. A guy who had just directed a big hit picture for the corporation. Something doesn't seem quite right about this story.

Truth be told, the Walt Disney Company has been allowing various film production companies to come into its theme parks for over 40 years now. Oh, sure. The Mouse can be pretty particular about who they allow on property with motion picture camera. (I've heard that Walt personally turned down offers from 20 different producers before he finally allowed a film to be shot inside of Disneyland. That movie -- by the way -- was a 1962 Universal Pictures release. "40 Pounds of Trouble," starring Tony Curtis and Susan Pleshette.

I suspect that the real reason that Disney turned down Rodriguez when he went to the Mouse, seeking permission to shoot "Sky Kids 2"'s opening sequence at Disneyland, had more to do with the film's script. You recall that the scene that we're actually talking about here, Roger, had the President's daughter deliberately sabotaging an attraction at "Troublemaker" theme park. So that the ride would malfunction and her daddy -- the President of the United States -- would have to come rescue her.

On the heels on those extremely high profile accidents involving Disneyland guests who were injured while riding "Roger Rabbit's Car Toon Spin" and/or while waiting to board the "Columbia," I would imagine that the Mouse wasn't all that eager to have the Grand Dame of the corporation's theme park chain portrayed as a place where a little girl could easily circumvent all of Disneyland's safety protocols. Which is why (I'm guessing here) Mickey opted to politely turn down Robert's request to shoot "Spy Kids 2" on location in Anaheim.

Of course, the really ironic part of this whole story is that -- in the not-so-distant future -- Disneyland may actually have a "Spy Kids" themed attraction. I've recently heard from several WDI insiders that the Mouse is giving some very serious thought to using the 3D sequence that serves as the centerpiece of "Spy Kids 3" (which is currently shooting in Texas, by the way) as the leaping off point for a new 3D attraction for the company's theme parks.

So Rodriguez may not have been able to shoot his movie inside Disneyland. But -- in the not-so-distant future -- Robert may find himself working closely with WDI to create an all-new "Spy Kids" film that can only be seen inside of the Anaheim theme park.

Funny how life works out sometime, isn't it?

Next up is an e-mail from ... Dang, I can't read the name. (The turbulence on today's flight has been something fierce. So much so that my glass of water just up-ended into my briefcase. Which caused the type to run on some of the print-outs I brought along on this trip.)

So let's just say that this is a letter from Mr. A. Nonymous, who writes to ask:

Hi There Jim:

Ok, a poser for you. Do you have any info on possible alternative Fantasyland rides planned for WDW in the 1970s. I heard once that (the Imaginers) were thinking of new rides before they decided to just build duplicates of DL faves. I never heard any confirmation of this ...

... and then the rest of this e-mail is just one blurry blob.

Sorry, whomever. Let me see if I can try and answer Mr. A. Nonymous's question.

To the best of my recollection, the Imagineers really had hoped to put three brand new dark rides into Fantasyland at WDW's Magic Kingdom. These would have been:

A "Sleeping Beauty" dark ride. This was supposed to have been the Florida theme park's "Pretty Princess" ride -- something similar to Disneyland's "Snow White's Scary Adventure." In that it was supposed to have started out fairly sweetly with Princess Aurora dancing around with her forest friends and then ended fairly intensely ... with several encounters with an increasingly scary Malificent. The next-to-last room of the ride was to have show Prince Phillip triumphing in battle with an enormous Malilicent-as-a-dragn AA figure. Followed by the obligatory "... And They Lived Happily Ever After" scene where Prince Phillip and Princess Aurora dance on their wedding day.

The "Mary Poppins" ride. This was supposed to have been WDW's "Magical" ride. Similar in feel and effect to Disneyland's "Peter Pan Flight." Though -- instead of boarding a miniature Spanish Galleon and flying off to Neverland -- guests were supposed to have climbed into giant up-ended umbrellas (4 guest per umbrella). Then these WDW visitors were supposed to have been whisked through several three dimensional recreations of memorable moments from the 1964 Academy Award winning film.

Among the scenes that were supposed to have been in this proposed Disney World attraction was the film's pop-into-a-chalk-painting sequence, tea at Uncle Albert's as well as Mary's memorable arrival at Cherry Tree Lane.

And finally, Disney World was also supposed to have gotten a "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" ride. This was to have been WDW's scary / thrilling kiddie ride. Similar to Disneyland's "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride." Guests were supposed to have boarded giant hollowed pumpkins for a trip through the gloomy forest that the Headless Horseman haunted. WDW visitors were supposed to have had several close encounters with this grisly ghoul as their pumpkin twisted and turned its way through this weird wood.

The finale of WDW's proposed "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" was supposed to have been particularly thrilling. With the Headless Horseman's black stallion rearing up, threatening to slash Disney World visitors with its hooves, as the fearsome fiend fired a flaming jack-o-lantern right at their heads.

So why didn't any of these cool new rides ever get installed in Florida's Fantasyland. I'm sure that this will come as no surprise to regular readers of this website, but (All together now! With feeling!) Disney Company execs ultimately decided that this particular project cost too much. Which is that they decided to cut the budget.

The Disney World resort had originally been budgeted for $100 million. By the time October 1, 1971 rolled around, Walt Disney Productions had poured $400 million into the project. So, in a desperate attempt to get WDW's spiraling construction costs under control, Roy O. Disney told the Imagineers to forget about doing something new for WDW's Fantasyland and just go with what Disneyland already had.

Of course, the Imagineers being the quality conscious bunch of guys that they are, they couldn't just go ahead with recycling the same old shows that had been done for Disneyland's Fantasyland back in 1955. So even though WDW's Magic Kingdom DID end up with a "Snow White" ride, a "Mr. Toad" and a "Peter Pan Flight," these were NOT cloned attractions. If anything, WED / WDI rethought and restaged each of these classic Disney dark rides ... with an eye toward doing everything they could to improve the original attraction.

So -- in a way -- WDW's Magic Kingdom did end up with some all-new rides for its Fantasyland area. But -- instead of being really original (like those proposed "Sleeping Beauty," "Mary Poppins" and "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" rides that the Imagineers had really wanted to build) -- they were radically reworked versions of those Disneyland favorites: "Snow White's Scary Adventure," "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride" and the "Peter Pan Flight."

I hope this answers your question, Mr. whoever-you-are. Please drop me a note so that I can give you proper credit for the interesting question you came up with.

Finally, Peter H. writes in to ask:

Jimbo:

I'm sure you've already heard about this, But Reuters is reporting that the Walt Disney Company is making another bid for the Jim Henson Company.

This time around, the Mouse is supposedly offering $70 million for the rights to all of Jim Henson's Muppet characters (excepting the "Sesame Street" crew, of course) as well as 600+ hours of TV shows and movies from the JHC's film library.

As for the rest of the company - the Jim Henson Creature Shop as well as the corporation's Chaplin Studio complex on LaBrea ... Well, I have heard that the Mouse is taking a pass on all of that stuff this time around. All Mickey really wants are the Muppets.

Since you've got such great sources inside Henson as well as the Walt Disney Company, I was wondering if you could tell us what's going on with these negotiations.

Thanks,

P.H.

Give me a couple of days in Southern California, Pete, okay? I'd like to gather a wee bit more info before I officially file a report on this proposed acquisition.

Just so you know, though: based on the stories that I've been hearing, the sale of the Jim Henson Company isn't actually expected to go through 'til the end of April.

More importantly, just because the Mouse is getting the lion's share of the press coverage right now, don't overlook the fact that there are other entertainment companies out there -- eager to swallow up Kermit & Co.

In short, P.H., Disney's acquisition of the Muppets is far from a done deal. So don't beak out those party hats just yet. EM.TV's sale of the Jim Henson Company is a long and twisted saga ... and it ain't over yet. My advice is to not actually count your Miss Piggies before they've been poked, okay?

Alright. The flight attendant just made the "We're descending into the San Diego area" announcement. So I guess that it would be best if I closed here. Folded away my tray table. Put my seatback in a full and upright position.

Thanks for keeping me company during the long flight out to Southern California. I promise that I'll check in again early next week, after I get settled in with Alice and Michelle in Poway.

Oops. Almost forgot. Just prior to leaving on this trip, I found out that a few folks who had signed up for next weekend's JHM's Disneyland tours had to regretfully back out at the last minute. Which has left me with a couple of openings on my 10 a.m. tour on Saturday, March 22nd as well as my 2 p.m. tour on Sunday, March 23rd.

So -- if you're going to be in Southern California next weekend and would like to try and get in on the fun of the inaugural run of the JHM Disneyland tours -- drop me a line at my [email protected] address and I'll see what I can do, okay?

Well, it looks like we're about to touch down. So I guess that's it for today. Thanks for tagging along on my flight west.

Talk to you all again next week, okay?

jrh

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