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A special "Lucky Rabbit" edition of Why For

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.

A special "Lucky Rabbit" edition of Why For

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First up, Peter R. checks in with an interesting bit of news:

Never would think I would be sending you a questions concerning Monday Night Football, but I guess with ESPN being a jewel in the Disney Sports Crown anything is possible.

What is this that I heard that Al Micheals was "traded" to NBC for Oswald the Rabbit? Could it be that Oswald has indeed come home to Disney after all?!?!?!?

Dear Peter R.

Yep. This story is true. You can read about all the particulars here.

But what I find fascinating is what isn't turning up in any of the official press accounts about the Al Michaels / Oswald the Lucky Rabbit trade. To be specific, how Bob Iger initially got interested in reacquiring this character. More importantly, what Bob plans to do with Oswald now that Disney's got him back.

The story that I've heard from a number of Disney insiders is that it was actually an article that ran on Jerry Beck & Amid Amidi's excellent Cartoon Brew website back in January of 2005 that reportedly put Oswald the Lucky Rabbit on Iger's radar. You see, Jerry & Amid had just done a story about how Oswald merchandise was (for some inexplicable reason) suddenly selling like hotcakes in Japan. And Bob -- while doing his standard every morning routine of trolling-around-the-Internet-while-strolling-on-his-treadmill -- allegedly just filed this factoid away.

Later that same morning, once he actually got into work, Iger supposedly began making inquiries about Oswald. As he tried to find out A) Who now really held the rights to this classic Disney cartoon character and B) what the licensing rights to the lucky rabbit might actually be worth in today's marketplace. Bob's staffers eventually got back to their boss with all the necessary info (I.E. That Universal still held the rights to Oswald. More importantly, that there was some seriously unrealized marketing potential in this classic Disney cartoon character). And then Iger just tucked that info away in his pocket ... and waited.

Copyright Disney Enterprises LLC

Mind you, Bob did reportedly make a few folks aware that he eventually intended to reacquire Oswald. In March of 2005, after Iger was officially named as the Walt Disney Company's CEO-to-be, he supposedly spoke with Diane Disney Miller. According to the AP article, Ms. Miller recalled that their conversation went something like this:

"When Bob was named CEO, he told me he wanted to bring Oswald back to Disney, and I appreciate that he is a man of his word."

Mind you, Iger still had to wait for just the right opportunity to present itself. When Universal really needed something that Disney had. So that Bob could then horse-trade for the rights to the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Get the character back at a fairly affordable price. And this opportunity finally emerged with this Al Michaels trade.

"So now that Oswald's officially back home at Disney, what does Iger actually intend to do with this character?," you ask. Well, you may be surprised by what Bob's got up his sleeve. You see, it's not what all you animation fans think is going to happen (I.E. That now we're going to get a "Disney Treasures" DVD that finally collects all of Walt's versions of the "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit" silent cartoons).

Oh, sure. That product (Or a product like that) will eventually make its way to the marketplace. Perhaps in late 2007 or early 2008. But as for Oswald's first gig as a newly reacquired Disney character ... Well, this lucky rabbit is about to go hi-tech.

To explain: Given that Oswald-related merchandise is still very popular in Japan, Disney's reportedly looking into creating some brand-new animation of this classic cartoon character as he appeared back in the 1920s. So that this lucky rabbit can then make appearances on cellular phones and/or on other handheld devices.

I don't know about you guys. But there are numerous aspects of this Disney-reacquires-Oswald story that I just find to be very pleasing . The fact that it was Jerry Beck's website that supposedly initially brought the Lucky Rabbit to Bob Iger's attention. Meaning that -- because of the efforts of this noted animation historian -- a classic Disney cartoon character from the silent era is now being brought back from the brink of obscurity.

Copyright Disney Enterprises LLC

Or -- better yet -- that this film star of the 1920s is now going to be reborn as a hot commodity in 2006. As a classic cartoon character who will cavort on cell phones in Japan. I mean, you couldn't really make up a story that has bends & twists like this.

But as for Bob Iger ... This particular reacquisition does give us a lot more insight into the way Disney's new CEO actually operates. The way he really views the Disney Company. More importantly, the corporation's future.

I mean, sure. Clearly the guy understood all the good publicity that would be generated by this story. "New Disney boss arranges for long lost character to finally come home." Who wouldn't love a story like that?

But there's more to this reacquisition deal than just the nostalgia factor, people. Iger recognizes that the Walt Disney Company's core strength actually lies in its stable of characters. That if this valuable resource is properly tended during the content-crazy era that we currently live in (I.E. Where characters can not only appear in movies or on television but also on DVDs, on the internet, in handheld games and/or cellular phones), that there are billions upon billions to be made for decades yet to come.

It is this very philosophy (I.E. That Disney needs a steady stream of characters with which to create content. Which can then be moved across a variety of platforms & pipelines in order to produce profits for the corporation) that allows Iger to justify the $7.4 billion the Walt Disney Company just spent in order to acquire Pixar Animation Studios. That -- properly tended -- the Pixar characters will make money for the Mouse House for "infinity and beyond."

Well, I hate to be a spoilsport. I mean -- as much as I enjoy this Mouse-reacquires-Rabbit story -- I still think that Disney seriously over-paid for Pixar. More importantly, given the glut of CG films that we're seeing in 2006, I can't help but think that Steve Jobs may soon replace Mark Cuban (I.E. The web-based entrepreneur who sold broadcast.com to Yahoo for $5.7 billion literally weeks before the dotcom bubble burst) as the poster boy for "Knowing the exact right moment to sell."

Anyway ... While we're talking about ways that the Walt Disney Company can make the most of the characters that the corporation currently has in its stable ... I was wondering: Do you think that it would really kill those guys to find something for the Muppets to do? I mean, besides having Kermit & Miss Piggy appear in commercials for Pizza Hut and Ford.

Next up, Amy writes in to ask:

Dear Jim,

All of the talk surrounding Pleasure Island and it closing reminds me of when it was being built. I was a kid when the walls were errected next to the Empress Lilly and the "Village". But for some reason I thought they were going to put a skating ring in Pleasure Island. I believe that's what was written on the walls that described what was going to be there. Am I wrong? Do you have the original description for Pleasure Island?

Dear Amy --

Ask and ye shall receive. What follows is a somewhat abridged transcript of an official Walt Disney World press release from the Spring of 1989. Which attempted to explain to the world what exactly WDW's Pleasure Island was supposed to be:

Nightlife in spotlight at Pleasure Island, a new Walt Disney World attraction

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Mannequins dance, the "spirits" speak and guests rollerskate back to the future at Pleasure Island, a new themed nighttime entertainment complex rocking with music and high energy at Walt Disney World Village.

Six themed nightclubs, a dozen exciting shops and six innovative restaurants and food courts offer a new kind of nightlife experience starting this summer at the island complex inspired by fabled sailmaking magnate Merriweather Adam Pleasure.

Copyright 1988 The Walt Disney Company

In the Disney tradition of detailed theming, Disney "Imagineers" created this phenomenal waterfront neighborhood by first spinning the legend of Pleasure -- an adventurous wag who moved to the island in the late 19th century to build his sailmaking empire during the rise of the leisure yachting business.

After disappearing at sea during a trip around the world, Pleasure's island industrial complex fell into decay, according to the tall tale. Decades later, Disney Imagineers fashioned a nightlife paradise from more than 120,000 square feet of abandoned lots, warehouses and factories. The result: a fun-filled, themed entertainment park featuring comedy & magic, live dance bands, high-tech video entertainment and a rockin' roller rink.

Copyright 1998 The Walt Disney Company

Guests can dance or rollerskate into the future at the XZFR Rockin' RollerDrome (pronounced "zephyr") -- a novel, high-energy gathering place where revelers can take a dining break to refuel for more fun. The Imagineers' answer to a rock 'n' roll encounter of a futuristic kind, the one-time wind tunnel and laboratory is said to have been used by Pleasure to develop a fantastic flying machine. Members of the club's live band, the "Time Pilots," take flight above the main dance floor in a Starpool vehicle that hovers beneath a giant "mothership." Guests on rollerskates orbit the dance floor on a second-level roller rink.

At Mannequins Dance Palace, visitors are on center stage with mannequins -- animated and live -- that move to the beat of the theatrical world around them. Transformed from the remains of a cavernous warehouse once used to store Pleasure's canvas and sewing machines, the nightclub brings the drama and the magic of the theater to a unique turntable dance floor surrounded by stage rigging, lights and catwalks.

Strange things can happen during an expedition into the unknown at the Adventurers Club, once a salubrious retreat for Pleasure's affluent yachting clientele. Around every corner of this lavish, eccentric hideaway awaits a new surprise: In the mask room, the walls are "alive" with 150 authentic masks brought from Africa and the Far East. In the Treasure Room, guests are startled when the spirit of a beheaded adventurer speaks out.

The voice of "HyperActive" takes over at Videopolis East, a pulsing, high-tech teen club featuring 170 video screens and a colorful menu of non-alcoholic drinks. Doubling as a giant video game controlled by the artificial intelligence of "HyperActive," the club introduces an exciting new concept: members of the teen crowd interact with the video screens to gain access to corners of the club where they control flashing lights and other atmospheric effects.

Copyright 1989 The Walt Disney Company

The flavor of the Southwest tempts visitors at the Neon Armadillo, where long-necked beer and sizzling fajitas are served to the tune of toe-tappin' country-and-western bands. Formerly a greenhouse for exotic plants collected during Pleasure's world travels, this spacious saloon features a balcony lookout and a hot tub packed with ice to keep the beer cold.

At the Comedy Warehouse, an improvisational comedy troupe ignites the laughter that fills the one-time power planet of Pleasure's domain ...

As you can see, Amy, Pleasure Island was loaded with unique clubs and experiences. At least back during this nighttime entertainment complex's first summer of operation.

As to what became of the island's roller rink ... I'm told that that particular aspect of the XZFR Rockin' RollerDrome didn't even make it all the way through PI's first summer. All it took was the first few patrons (Who -- admittedly -- had already had a few too many drinks at one or more of Pleasure Island's other establishments) to strap on skates and then fall down and/or crash into some other skaters and then cause a few injuries ... And Disney's lawyers (terrified by the idea of a never-ending series of lawsuits that were directly attributable to XZFR and the allegedly unsafe operating conditions at that club) quickly ordered the roller rink aspect of this nightclub shut down.

Copyright 1989 The Walt Disney Company

I know of one die-hard Disney fan who was particularly upset when Pleasure Island finally shut the roller rink portion of XZFR's Rockin' RollerDrome down. Michael Jackson supposedly spent hours in the place during the Summer of 1989 (I.E. During the afternoon, when this PI nightclub wasn't actually open to the public) blissfully skating around the second floor. According to what Pleasure Island vets tell me, Michael was devastated in 1990 when he returned to XZFR and learned that Disney's lawyers no longer allowed anyone to skate inside that building.

Anywho ... As I skate over to our last JHM reader letter for this week, Emaneul P. writes in to ask:

Hi Jim,

I was surfing the net when I ran into this article. It's basically about (how) the suits at the Mouse House decided that Pixar is going to go ahead and do "Toy Story 3," with Disney's original story line. Pretty short article. I was wondering 1) is it true? and 2) what is the story behind this project being brought back to life?

I know you have your sources, so i'm sure you can tell us more than this measly article. I absolutely love "Toy Story 1" and "2," so I'm stoked about this.

Your Thoughts?



Dear Emanuel --

Rest assured that -- sometime in the next five years -- the Walt Disney Company, through Pixar Animation Studios, will be producing and then releasing "Toy Story III." The third and final installment of what's-now-being-billed as the "Toy Story" trilogy.

However, when this film is finally made, it will not be the version of "Toy Story III" that Disney's Circle Seven Studios had initially cooked up (I.E. Due to a malfunction with that entire line of toys, every Buzz Lightyear in the world has to be sent back to their factory in Tawain. Where all of these action figures will then be dissembled. Of course, Woody and the gang don't find out about the dissembling part until after Buzz has actually been put in the mail. So now it's up to Andy's toys to try & get to Tawain ahead of Buzz. So that they can then stop their favorite space ranger from being dismantled). But -- rather -- the sequel story that John Lasseter and the late Joe Ranft came up with while they were still working on "Toy Story II."

To be honest, Emanuel, there is very little public information out there about this particular version of "Toy Story III." Other than to say that this proposed film supposedly features a story that's built around Jessie. More importantly, that this film will end with all of the characters in a happy safe place. So that -- as moviegoers exit the theater -- they know that Woody, Buzz and the rest of the crew will indeed live happily ever after.

And let me repeat here: "Toy Story III" will be the last installment of the series. In spite of the fact that -- in earlier press releases hyping Circle Seven Studios -- Disney had previously talked up both "Toy Story III" (which was originally supposed to have been released theatrically in 2008) as well as "Toy Story IV" (No release date was ever announced for this proposed fourth part of the series) .. The folks at Pixar absolutely insist that this next movie will be the very last one to feature Andy's toys.

As for a release date for "Toy Story III" ... Given that this "Toy Story" follow-up is John Lasseter's baby, and given that John's hands are expected to be pretty full for the next 18 months or so ... I don't think that it's very realistic to expect that Lasseter will be able to focus his full attention on this project anytime soon.

However, once Disney Feature Animation & Pixar Animation Studios are fully intergrated and John finally gets a handle on what's really going on with WDI ... Maybe then we'll finally see some progress on "Toy Story III."

If I were a betting man, Emaneul ... I'd bet that we wouldn't see this particular sequel before 2009 or 2010. But -- then again -- given that Lasseter actually has to fill that hole in Disney's 2008 release schedule (You know? The one that he created by shutting down production of Circle Seven's version of "Toy Story III"?) ... Maybe John will fast-track his own version of "Toy Story III."

Let me make a few phone calls and see what I can find out ...

A FEW MOMENTS LATER ... Okay. So far, I don't have a whole lot on "Toy Story III." Though I can confirm that the sequels that Disney had wanted for "Monsters, Inc." and "Finding Nemo" have been cancelled. Though an "Incredibles" follow-up may still make it to the big screen.

Okay. That pretty much does it for this week here at JHM. You folks have a great weekend, okay? And we'll see you all again right here, bright & early next Monday morning.

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