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"It's a Small World" ... The movie?!

"It's a Small World" ... The movie?!

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Given the surprising success of Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie (which to date has grossed over $295 million during its initial domestic run), you have to wonder why the Mouse didn't think about doing something like this before? I.E. Turning the company's most popular theme park attractions into fodder for feature films.

Well, as it turns out, the Walt Disney Company HAD tried to do something like this before. And -- no -- I'm not talking about that lame "Tower of Terror" movie that ABC ran on "The Wonderful World of Disney" back in October 1997 or that less-said-about-it-the-better "Country Bears" flick that Walt Disney Pictures released to theaters last year. But rather, a ride-based feature film that one far-sighted Disney Productions executive actually tried to get the studio to produce back in the mid 1970s.

"And what -- pray tell -- was the proposed title of this ride-based movie the Mouse missed out on making?" you ask. Would you believe ... "It's a Small World?"

I sh*t you not, folks. "Small World - The Movie."

Promotional poster for It's a Small World movie

Now, I know. That sounds like a really unlikely premise for a feature film. But ... you know what, gang? I've actually read the screenplay for "It's a Small World." And it's not half bad. In the hands of the right director, this script could have been turned into a charming little feature.

Now who was it exactly who came up with the idea of turning Disney's "It's a Small World" attraction into a major motion picture? Well, some of you may already be familiar with Larry Pontius. He's the writer who dreamed up "Waking Walt," that extremely entertaining fantasy novel that was bouncing around the Web for a while before the nice folks at Writers Club Press finally published Pontius' book.

Well, back in the mid-1970s, Larry was the head of marketing at Walt Disney World. And Pontius was doing such a nice job with his campaigns for the WDW resort that the boys in in Burbank decided that they needed a guy like this back in the home office. Which is how Larry eventually found himself on the main Disney Studio lot with a brand new job title: Director of Creative Concepts.

"(This) was a new position that (then-Walt Disney Productions Chairman) Card Walker had invented (for me) when he decided to bring me back to Burbank," said Pontius in a recent interview with JimHillMedia.com. "My (assignment) was to put some zing into the creative end of the company's marketing projects ... and anything else that I could think of. That's why (Card) insisted that my (job) title not be restricted to (just) marketing."

So Larry hit the ground running. And he did help turn around Disneyland's flagging attendance levels by cooking up clever ad campaigns like "It Could Only Happen at Disneyland" and "What's Gotten into the Matterhorn?"

But when it came to Disney Studios itself, Pontius knew that this was where the real challenge lay. Now some of you may recall the dismal quality of the films that the Mouse Factory was churning out during this pitiful period. But -- for those of you who don't -- let me lay a few titles on you: "Gus," "No Deposit, No Return," "The Shaggy DA" et al.

You get the idea? The studio side of Walt Disney Productions seemed to have run out of ideas. Creatively, this part of the company was running on empty. Which why Larry decide that it was high time that somebody did something to turn this awful situation around.

"I was casting around for a new idea," Pontius continued. "Something unique. That only Disney could do ... I knew that Walt had used the (studio's) film library as a source for (Disney's) theme park attractions right from the beginning. So why not do the reverse?"

So Larry began looking over all of the attractions that the Imagineers had dreamed up for Disneyland and Walt Disney World. And -- eventually -- he settled on "It's a Small World."

Why "It's a Small World?" Pontius explained that "The reason that I picked 'It's a Small World' is simple. More people have seen it, either at Disneyland or in Florida, than any other attraction ever built. (Plus it was) something that we could market."

So -- beginning in September 1977 -- Larry began working up a treatment for a film that was (loosely) inspired by the "Small World" attraction. And its story ... well, to quote from its synopsis:

Imagine (that) it's the day afternoon tomorrow, with the constantly escalating tensions of the world raised to fever pitch. (When) even the smallest spark can start a fire. And then it does.

The spark's name is Aleksei, the nine-year-old son of the Russian Consul General in Paris. Full of curiosity and the stories that he's heard about the "evil" Chinese, the boy ventures across the boulevard and over the fence to the Consulate of Communist China -- where he is caught by Chinese security guards who take him into custody. When the Russians learn of Aleksai's capture and detention, they demand his immediate release and, naturally, are refused. The rankled tempers become a shouting match of spying and kidnapping accusations.

And -- when the story of Aleksai hits the media -- millions of people hear (about) it. (And resulting media firestorm brings Red China and the U.S.S.R. to the very brink of war.)

Suddenly the "Aleksai Affair" is an urgent matter for the United Nations. However, it quickly becomes clear that -- while there may be calmer heads here -- (there is fuel being thrown) on the fire. There are people (in the world) who would like to see a conflagration for their own profit. Particularly Alexander Bashillian, the despotic ruler of a small nation in a backwater of the world that only has one major industry -- munitions.

Into this desperate situation walks a most unlikely group of heroes: the students of the United Nations school, a special educational facility for the children of U.N. Ambassadors. They're a small group of kids of different races, from different countries and ethnic backgrounds that -- (when they're) forced together, have found that they can get along just fine.

These kids are young enough to think that the world should do as they do. But what can the children of the U.N. Ambassadors do keep the world from blowing apart?

Disappear.

When they do, in a faked mass kidnapping plot hatched by the son of the U.N. Ambassador from Iceland and the daughter of the U.S. Ambassador, the "Aleksai Affair" is instantly old news. Forgetton by everyone ... except for Bashillian, the munitions despot.

Alexander tries to stir the fires (of war) by casting blame for the crime on one -- or both -- of the nations entangled in the original affair. When that fails, Bashillian sends his agents to join the thousands already on the hunt. But with a dark goal in mind: to find & kill the children of the U.N. Ambassadors. With the hope of making a bad situation worse.

But the United Nations' children have other plans. Not just to stop Bashillian and his evil agents. But to stop the world as well. To bring our planet back from the brink of disaster.

This is just a bare-bones version of the plotline of Pontius' proposed picture. His actual screenplay for "It's a Small World" is loaded with charm. Lots of great little moments that really make this somewhat simplistic sounding story truly come alive.

Take -- for example -- the role of Alexander Bashillian, the double-dealing munitions dealer who is the villain of the piece. The way Larry wrote this character, First Citizen Bashillian could have become one of Disney's great comic villians. It's a part that Peter Ustinov would have loved to have sunk his teeth into.

So -- with a fun script that was based on a Disney theme park attraction -- why didn't "It's a Small World" go into production? Well, it wasn't for lack of trying on Pontius' part.

You see, Larry hand-delivered copies of his "Small World" script to many of the movers and shakers at Walt Disney Productions. "Irving Ludwig, then President of Buena Vista Distribution ... got a copy," he explained. "I know that Card Walker got a copy of the treatment. He copied me on a memo (that Card had) sent to Ron Miller about (my proposed "Small World" movie. Walker's note on that memo read) 'Interesting idea.' Something like that."

And Pontius saw to it that Ron Miller -- Walt Disney's son-in-law, the man who was then in charge of the studio side of things at Walt Disney Productions -- was also given a copy of his "Small World" script. With the hope that it might help improve the project's chances, he even had Bob Moore -- the artist who created the posters for many of Disney Studios' feature releases during the 1970s -- create a prototype poster for the picture.

(That explains the photograph above. That was a picture of the proposed "It's a Small World" movie poster. Which Larry Pontius still has in his Disneyana collection. Anyway ...)

But Pontius' proposed "Small World" project never went any further along Disney's development track. Why for? Because -- at that time -- the studio side of Walt Disney Productions was in turmoil. Audiences just weren't turning out to see the Disney films they way they used to. Which is why movies like "Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo" and "The Cat from Outer Space" were performing so miserably at the box office.

So Walt Disney Studios -- rather than being an industry leader (which is what Walt Disney Productions really was when Walt was in charge) -- became a follower of trends. 20th Century Fox's Summer 1977 release "Star Wars" made a ton of money? Okay. Then Disney would quickly crank out a sci-fi epic of its own, 1979's "The Black Hole." Universal's gross-out comedy "National Lampoon's Animal House" made a fortune in the Fall of 1978? Then fine. The Mouse would swiftly slap together its own gross-out college comedy, "Midnight Madness."

You see what I'm saying here? Back in the mid-to-late 1970s, the studio side of Walt Disney Productions really lost its way. And -- in trying to quickly update the company's image, to make it appears as if the Mouse was suddenly "hip" and "with it" -- Disney deliberately began to try amd distance itself from its heritage. Which is why a sweet little comedy like "It's a Small World" -- something safe for family audiences that still had a bit of a social message -- never really had a chance.

Mind you, his "Small World" setback didn't throw Larry Pontius off his stride. He soldiered on at the Mouse Factory. In late 1977, he was appointed Vice President of Marketing for Disneyland and Walt Disney World. And in 1979, Larry took on the added responsibility of corporate communications. Which means that Pontius wrote speeches for Art Tatum and Card Walker, the then-heads of Walt Disney Productions, as well as writing the company's annual report.

But he also kept trying to get the company back on the creative track. Which is why Pontius would periodically pepper Disney company executives, constantly urging these guys to take some risks. Put some really ambitious projects into production. Among the many ideas that Larry pitched to Mouse House officials in the late 1970s was "Fantasia II."

Yep, a sequel to the studio's 1940 animated classic. And Pontius was trying to put this film into active development a full 12 years before Roy Disney ever even toyed with the idea of Walt Disney Feature Animation producing a follow-up to this ground-breaking animated feature.

But the suits in Burbank nixed that idea as well. Which is (perhaps) why -- in 1980 -- Larry finally left the Walt Disney Company. He returned to Orlando, where he started up his very own advertising and video production house.

Mind you, that doesn't mean that Pontius totally left the Mouse behind. I mean, he took all of those great stories that he'd heard from Disney Company officials about the way Walt Disney really behaved and used them to help create the title character for his book, "Waking Walt."

And Larry never entirely forgot about his idea of a Disney movie that could be based on "It's a Small World" either. Which is why -- back in the Spring of 2001 -- when the Walt Disney Company announced that it was putting a film that was based on "The Country Bear Jamboree" into production, Pontius threw a note at his old friend, *** Cook. Who -- over the years -- has risen through the ranks to become Chairman of Walt Disney Studios.

Seeing as it looked like the Walt Disney Company was finally getting into the films-based-on-theme-park attractions business, Larry reminded *** that the script for "It's a Small World" was still probably sitting in Disney's files. But Cook (sadly) never responded to Pontius' e-mail.

Still, Larry hasn't lost all hope. Even though Disney CEO Michael Eisner said -- in an interview last week with the New York Times -- that the upcoming sequel to "Pirates of the Caribbean" would be the very last ride-based film that Walt Disney Pictures will ever put in production ... Pontius knew that -- should the movie version of Disney's "The Haunted Mansion" prove to be a big enough hit when this Eddie Murphy film finally hits multiplexes on November 26th -- that Eisner may change his mind. And that Uncle Mike would then send his minions scouring through the vaults, looking for other ride-based film ideas. And that's when (perhaps) Disney will finally realize that it has had "It's a Small World" sitting in its files all along. All ready to go.

Me personally? I'm not entirely sure that Larry's "It's a Small World" script really has what it takes to become a full-blown feature film for Walt Disney Studios nowadays. Back in the 1970s, sure. But today ... I'm not entirely sure that those oh-so-cynical Disney execs could actually get behind a picture that was this upbeat. That had such an uplifting message.

But -- that said -- I also think that (with a wee bit of a rewrite) that Pontius' screenplay would make one hell of a project for the folks over at the Disney Channel. Given that 90% of the roles in this proposed film could be filled by actors under the age of 12, Larry's "Small World" script would be a natural for that tween hungry cable channel. Which is why this might be a nice project for that arm of the Walt Disney Company to take under its wing.

So here's hoping that some enterprising development executive over at the Disney Channel actually reads this story and then decides to give Larry a call. I mean, wouldn't it be funny if -- 25 years after the fact -- that Pontius is finally proved correct? That he gets to show the world that there really is a fun film to be made out of Disney's "It's a Small World" attraction?

Here's hoping that actually happens.

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