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Say "So Long !" to direct-to-video sequels : DisneyToon Studios tunes out Sharon Morrill

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Say "So Long !" to direct-to-video sequels : DisneyToon Studios tunes out Sharon Morrill

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This past Tuesday afternoon, the news traveled around the Disney lot at lightning speed. PAs saw it displayed on their pagers, while executives read all about it on their Blackberrys. Sharon Morrill -- the long-time president of DisneyToon Studios -- was out.

Morrill -- who (it's said) had made billions of dollars for Mickey in the past 13 years by becoming the driving force behind the company's direct-to-video division -- was out of a job because ... Well ... Times had changed. More importantly, because tastes had changed in Disney's executive suite.

You see, John Lasseter (Who became Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios when the Mouse purchased Pixar in January of 2006) had made it very clear that he wasn't a big fan of Morrill's work. To be specific, he felt that the steady stream of cheaply made video premieres that DisneyToon Studios had produced over the past decade had severely undercut the perceived value of the full-blown animated features that WDAS was producing.

DisneyToon Studios President Sharon Morrill
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Which is why -- almost from the moment that John arrived on the Disney lot -- he began using his influence to pull the plug on various DisneyToon projects. First "The Aristocats 2," followed by "Chicken Little 2 : The Ugly Duckling Story" and "Meet the Robinsons 2: First Date." Lasseter also derailed "Disney's Dwarfs," a new direct-to-video franchise that hoped to capture the hearts of the "Lord of the Rings" crowd.

But of all the projects that DisneyToon had in its production pipeline, the one that seemed to upset Lasseter the most was "The Tinkerbell Movie." This home premiere (Which was said to be Morrill's baby, with the DisneyToon president having lots of input on this movie's storyline) was an awful mess. With this CG film having little if anything to do with the 1953 Disney film that inspired it.

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After watching a work-in-progress version of this home premiere, John then reportedly told Bob Iger that "The Tinkerbell Movie" was virtually unwatchable. That -- if the Walt Disney Company really wanted to use this direct-to-video release to help move their new "Disney Fairies" franchise out into the mainstream -- its story would need a complete overhaul.

Iger then agreed to follow Lasseter's suggestions. And -- as a direct result -- some $30 million worth of animation had to be scrapped.

And at that point ... The handwriting was on the wall. Morrill's movies (Which had once been celebrated for the huge profits that they generated for the Walt Disney Company) were now viewed as being somewhat problematic. Mostly because the home premieres that DisneyToon Studios was producing were now thought to make the really-for-real animated features that WDAS were making seem that much less special.

If John (With the help of Ed Catmull, Lasseter's longtime Pixar colleague as the new president for Walt Disney Animation Studios) really was going to turn this situation around, then a break had to be made from the past. And fast.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, LLC. All Rights Reserved

And since Sharon was pushing to put a "Disney Princess Enchanted Tales" DVD series (Which would feature all-new adventures of classic Disney characters like Aurora from "Sleeping Beauty" and Jasmine from "Aladdin") into production (Which John & Ed worried might then undercut audience's interest in "The Princess and the Frog," that new feature that was supposed to revive traditional animation at the studio) ... Clearly a change had to be made at the very top of DisneyToon Studios.

So first Lasseter & Catmull got the "Disney Princess Enchanted Tales" line cancelled (The first -- and now only -- installment of this new series, "Follow Your Dreams," goes on sale in September). Then they got Disney management to remove Morrill herself.

And with that, DisneyToon Studios was now officially out of the sequel business. Oh, sure. There are still a few high profile productions like "The Little Mermaid 3" yet to be burned off. As well as "The Tinkerbell Movie" (along with that trio of sequels that are also supposed to support the "Disney Fairies" franchise) that have yet to be completed & released.

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But beyond that ... According to company insiders that I've spoken with, from here on in, DisneyToon Studios will concentrate on creating home premieres that help support various "Playhouse Disney" franchises. So look for this division of the company to now make DVDs that star the characters from "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse," "My Pals Tigger & Pooh" and "Handy Manny."

As for Ms. Morrill ... According to a company spokesperson that I exchanged e-mails with late yesterday, Sharon will " ... take on new duties at The Walt Disney Studios." For the time being, Ms. Morrill's old boss, Alan Bergman (I.E. President of The Walt Disney Studios) will oversee day-to-day operations at DisneyToon Studios. With significant input from John Lasseter & Ed Catmull, or so I'm told.

And with that ... A controversial era ends at the Walt Disney Company. One where the Mouse made an awful lot of money, while -- at the same time -- seemed to strip-mine its own creative legacy. Here's hoping that Lasseter & Catmull made the right call. That -- by shutting down production of all of these home premieres & direct-to-video sequels -- that the new animated features that WDAS will soon be producing will once again seem that much more special to today's audiences. And -- as a direct result of this change -- then perform better at the box office and earn higher profits for the corporation.

But what do you folks think ? Did John & Ed make the right decision here ? Or was it wrong to force Sharon out ? After all, Ms. Morrill had only been following the orders that she had been given by Mouse House managers. Which was to create a series of low-cost animated features that would then generate huge profits for the company as well as extend many of Disney's pre-existing brands & franchises ?

Your thoughts ?

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  • Hmm, it's an interesting debate.

    I mean, I'm not in favor of "whoring out" the classic Disney films all the time, but some the sequels are actually good, Return of Jafar comes to mind.

  • Rant alert - spoilers ahead

    Poor Sharon - she was only following orders. Now where else have I heard that in the history books?

    That's the kicker though - she's not even that good at following orders. After reaching out to Lasseter (to be politically correct and try to save her job), she didn't change the film as per his instructions. She continued production on the version that wasn't working - behind Lasseter's back. That should be enough to get her fired, not reassigned.

    An interesting review of the problems can be found:


    Starting with a product (princess or fairies junk) and reverse-engineering a movie from those products is what you get when your executives are "managing by spreadsheets."  It doesn't stimulate creativity or future success.

    She's not even a fan of animation - she outsources to the cheapest bidder, and doesn't listen to people with actual animation experience.  Why is she even on the lot?

    Oh that's right - she's made billions of dollars for the company. Isn't this the same company that routinely fires talented animators and imagineers that directly create the characters and rides that actually do make the company billions of dollars? I had no idea she was a one woman show. Set her up with a suite at the Red Roof Inn and let her make her masterpieces. They will be suitable for viewing in the conference room there.

    Rant over

    My avatar is courtesy of Google Images

  • Disney's getting their dignity back.

  • Well, at least she still has a job at the company. But I think "effectively closing" DisneyToon Studios, or at least the direct-to-dvd-division, is one of the few things Lasseter/Catmull get right. It seriously has damaged the image and prestige of Disney films, and well, considering "Meet the Robinsons" has flopped (in my mind), it shows. Oh, of course, the movie itself wasn't all that neither, but people who don't know the background information of it all, just don't know when they're watching a feature animation (damn Lass/Cat for changing the name) or cheap direct-to-dvd-film.

    What I don't get is why they're not closing DisneyToon Studios? They're resuming with current projects, okay, but what after that? What will be their function in the company?

  • Call me idealist.... but maybe people will start taking their kids to theaters again.

    I think for the most part Lasseter and Catmulls decisions as of late rock.

    I couldn't be happier about this news. All of these stupid video sequels may in fact be what caused the premature demise of the traditional animation to begin with. Here's hoping that The Frog Princess" (or whatever they are going to call it) will bring it back.

    I also don't think the animated features should be made into Saturday morning cartoons... but I feel more forgiving in this area than I do with the other.

    I know I am minority here ... but my only gripe with Lasseter may be in the over promotion of Pixar at the theme parks. While I love Pixar ..... They still just don't feel 100% to me like "Walt Disney" ... I don't know why. Pixar is simply ... Pixar.  

    I'm thinking that based on what I have been reading this week... maybe the Rat will change my opinion in this area.

    Now if PIXAR would just bring back and make a sequel to PETES DRAGON .... That would be heaven. Imagine PIXARS first live action / animated masterpiece.... a new tale featuring Elliot.

    Man ... if only I were working at the Mouse house ...

  • These direct to video sequels are what turned me off of Disney for quite a while. They were just poor re-hashes of usually good stories. This was not the Disney I grew up with and loved. Props to John and Ed and Bob for continuing to clean house. In a sense, this seems to be an "evolved" form of rebirth, similar to when Eisner and Wells came in (although this seems to be better than the former). Heres to hoping for better quality product, in both movies/animation and theme park attractions!

  • There were a few DTV's that I liked. The animation was getting increasingly better too, but honestly, overall I think this is a very good thing. Disney shouldn't resort to second best and thats what they were doing by rehashing stories with animation on a tight budget. Return to the glory days, make your movies an event that all have to witness. Great move on their behalf.

    I do agree with Rluke, though. I don't really like how many Pixar attractions are going into the Disney parks. I read one interview that said "Ratatouille" is the first animated movie made with adults in mind first. And therein lies the problem for me: Disney movies are about appealing to the child at heart, it doesn't matter if you're 8 or 80. Of course thats cliche, but there is something Disney captures that Pixar isn't able to. I like Pixar and a number of their films, but I don't want them to oversaturate the theme parks.

  • If you wanna make an omelette, you have to break a few eggs. If you want to make the company great again then of course there's going to have to be layoffs and isn't this type of decision the type of thing that Iger paid 7 billion dollars for anyway? In my mind the DTV sequels have been the single most damaging element within Disney's demise over the past decade and I'm so happy that the division responsible has been clamped down.

    I fully support any decisions Iger, Lasseter and Catmull make because so far they seem to be doing everything right.

  • I have mixed feelings on this. On a personal level, I certainy cheer the demise of the DTV films. I wouldn't argue one bit that they cheapened the Disney name and undercut some interest in the "real" animated features.

    But on the other hand, my daughter really enjoys a lot of the DTV movies. In fact, she prefers some of the sequels to the originals. And I know all the animation purists here will rip my head off for saying this, but I'm going to say it anyway ... shouldn't these films be focused on the kids?

    I guess I can't help but feel that there might have been some happy medium to this whole thing ...

  • a fabulous, fabulous thing!!!

  • not the removal of of Sharon.  Just the end of the cheapquils!

  • In the long run, this is a good thing.  

    While I enjoyed some of the straight to video sequels, (Bambi 2 and Lion King 1 1/2 come to mind as the best of them) there were some of them that were both unnecessary and downright lame.  

    However, does this mean we won't get something like the simply wonderful and funny Three Musketeers again?  That's what they should do.  Original and new content with the "fab five" characters that is for both kids and adults.  Not the cheapquel which, quality wise can run the gamut of really great to well, crap...

  • There actually were some decent sequels in there. Those seem to be found primarily at the beginning and end of the sequel frenzy. Aladdin's "sequel" didn't have II/2, and it was done to lead into the series, which I watched faithfully. They can have their uses and kids love spinoffs. I think a lot of grief could have been avoided if, instead of doing official sequels with a "2," they had just released new stories on tape. We can undestand a lower-budget little spinoff cartoon; those had been done before, if I recall correctly. However, that "2" just puts such a damer on things, as it forces us to recognize it as an official continuation of the canon and hold it to higher standards and inevitably by disappointed. I mean, how can you not say "Bambi II" and feel dirty? Of course, if it had been titled "Bambi and the Great Prince" it might feel different.

    So, actually, I think the Disney Princess Enchanted Tales would have been a good way of going about doing this sort of thing: They're little extra stories released as such and not as sequels. They're short, easy to swallow, and better accepted than a full-blown movie that bills itself as an official continuation. The bad sequels take some half-baked idea and make bland full movies surrounding it. Perhaps Scamp's Adventure would have been more if it had just been a little half-hour bit about an energetic puppy. This way, I theorize, you wouldn't have to worry that much about plot, you could release as many as you wanted to cash in on the fans while not offending so many people.

    Either way, it's the end of an age I won't miss.

    (Was it Lasseter who decided that the fairies in that Tinkerbell movie would be completely different from the ones in the books and the Disney Fairies line? I find that a very bad choice that would throw the children into the Fairies line off and possibly alienate it from the franchise it's supposed to cash in on. Besides, I rather like the characters illustrated in the books)

  • Oh, mark this week down in Disney history!!!  Who can't be happy that these poorly written, poorly animated, and poorly scored direct to DVD suckquills are no longer going to confuse the non-Disenyfiles in WalMart.  I'm so glad to see that the brand "Disney" will no longer be associated with low quality.  It's so good to see that the Eisner era continues to be paved over.

  • I'm actually kinda happy.

    Sure, some of the DTVs weren't all that bad, but you know what they say about bad apples ruining a bunch. (By that I mean there were far more rubbish ones than good) Here's to hoping we'll get more quality work in the future from this division.

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