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Toon Tuesday : “Wonder Woman” shows how tough yet entertaining a home premiere can actually be

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Toon Tuesday : “Wonder Woman” shows how tough yet entertaining a home premiere can actually be

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I belong to a very small club. That tiny group of people who were saddened when they learned that the Mouse was getting out of the home premiere business.

Okay. So Mickey hasn’t actually stopped making direct-to-video productions. Just last month, Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment released “Space Buddies ” (Which – for those of you who are keeping count – is the 8thAir Bud” film). And then – of course – there are those “Disney Fairies” movies (No. 2 in this series – “Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure” – is due to hit store shelves in October).

But beyond these two series (as well as an occasional long-in-production title like “The Little Mermaid - Ariel's Beginning”), the Mouse has really basically gotten out of the home premiere business. Preferring to concentrate all of its efforts these days on trying to revive Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Ariel's Beginning Logo
Copyright 2008 Disney. All Rights Reserved

Which makes me sad. Not so much because I’ll now never get to see “The Aristocats 2” and/or “Chicken Little II: The Ugly Duckling Story.” But – rather -- because Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment now won’t ever make those movies that it should have made.

To explain: Back in the mid-1990s, Mickey had a very different plan in place for this division of the Company. Which involved producing home premieres that were somewhat ambitious in scope and weren’t necessarily tied to pre-existing Disney properties.

Which is why – in early 1994 – the Mouse made its licensees aware that what-was-then-known-as Buena Vista Home Entertainment was developing two intriguing direct-to-video projects. Which were home premiere versions of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days.”

Return of Jafar
Copyright 1994 Disney. All Rights Reserved

But then “The Return of Jafar” hit store shelves in May of 1994. And when 10.5 million copies of this “Aladdin” sequel were sold … That was pretty much all she wrote. Disney basically abandoned the idea of producing any original direct-to-video animated films. And instead embraced the notion of churning out home premiere sequels to the Studio's more popular animated features.

But not everyone who worked at the Mouse House forgot about this idea. Tad Stones – who worked at Disney for over 30 years on such animated series as “Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers” and “Darkwing Duck”—eventually left the Company in 2004 to go work with Mike Mignola and help create two “Hellboy” home premieres, 2006’s “Sword of Storms” and 2007’s “Blood and Iron.”

Hellboy comics
Copyright Starz / Anchor Bay. All Rights Reserved

The success of the first “Hellboy” direct-to-video title led others in the comic book industry to explore the idea of getting in the home premiere business. Chief among these was Warner Bros. Who – in July of 2006 – launched the “DC Universe” project, a series of original PG-13 animated films built around the DC Comics characters that could then be released through Warner Home Video (WHV).

The first three movies that were produced as part of this WHV project – “Superman: Doomsday,” “Justice League - The New Frontier” and “Batman Gotham Knight” – really raised the bar when it came to home premieres. They featured strong vocal casts, sharply written scripts, and surprisingly intense & well-staged action sequences.

Wonder Woman DVD
Copyright 2009 Warners. All Rights Reserved

So does the fourth film in this “DC Universe” project – “Wonder Woman” (which hits store shelves today) continue that trend? Surprisingly, yes.  “Wonder Woman” isn’t just a good animated home premiere. It’s a good movie, period.

WARNING : There be minor spoilers ahead. So if you don't want to know anything about the storyline of "Wonder Woman," you'd best bail out of this article NOW.

Still here ? Okay. Then let's proceed ...

Produced by Bruce Timm, “Wonder Woman” is an PG-13 version of this character's origin story. And things start off right in the thick of battle with the Amazons going head-to-head with Ares, the God of War (voiced by Alfred Molina) and his unearthly minions. Where the swords swing and the heads fly.

Copyright 2009 Warners. All Rights Reserved

Eventually Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (voiced by Virginia Madsen), is able to defeat Ares. To reward Hippolyta for her heroic efforts, Hera then creates Themyscira, an island paradise where the Amazons can live in utopian bliss hidden away from the corrupt world of man.

Now Ares is on Themyscria too. Kept under lock & key with a continual Amazon guard. Though the God of War vows that he'll eventually escape.

And Hippolyta ... Well, by mixing sand, a little blood and some lightning bolts together, she is eventually able to conceive a child. A daughter, Diana (voiced by Keri  Russell). Who will grow up to become the Amazon’s greatest warrior. While – at the same time – she wonders about what lies beyond that invisibility shield that cloaks Themyscria.

Trevor Captured
Copyright 2009 Warners. All Rights Reserved

Unfortunately for Diana, it’s not all that long before the world of man intrudes on peaceful Themyscria. Steve Trevor (voiced by Nathan Fillion)’s fighter jet is shot down just over the island. This sets into motion a chain of events which eventually lead to Ares’ escape. And as the God of War exits the island and leaves a wave of chaos & destruction in his wake, it’s up to Diana to journey out into our modern world and (with Steve’s help) recapture Ares.

Which – I know – may sound campy and over-the-top. But “Wonder Woman” really isn’t. Thanks to Michael Jelenic’s witty script and Lauren Montgomery’s solid direction, this home premiere serves up characters that you care about & can believe in. Then fold a surprising number of laughs as well an action-driven storyline and you've got a 74 minute-long direct-to-video that's far more entertaining than most summer blockbusters.

Wonder Woman White House
Copyright 2009 Warners. All Rights Reserved

I mean, just wait ‘til you see “Wonder Woman” ‘s climatic battle, which takes places on the Mall in Washington D.C.  There isn’t a live-action director working today who doesn’t wish that he or she could do what Bruce Timm just did. Which is stage an action sequence where Diana and Ares battle in, around, over and through some of the more recognizable buildings & memorials found in our nation’s capital.

Watching “Wonder Woman” … Well, it made me wish that Disney would embrace a home premiere project like Warner Bros. ‘s “DC Universe.” Maybe revive “Gargoyles” as a series of direct-to-video films where (thanks to that new PG-13 sensibility) the show’s writers could then get just as tough, dark & twisted as they wanted. (Though Disney’s creatives would have to work really hard in order to find a way to top Ares’ trips to Hell to meet with his uncle Hades [voiced by Oliver Platt]).

Copyright 2009 Warners. All Rights Reserved

These “DC Universe” home premieres really show what can happen when you don’t play it safe. When you don’t just churn out sequels to already successful animated features. But – rather – take a few chances and then try & create some direct-to-video films that are far more adult in tone & content.

Which is what The Walt Disney Company could have done back in the mid-1990s if they’d just gone ahead with production of those video premiere versions of “Frankenstein” and “Around the World in 80 Days.”

Your thoughts?

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  • "When you don’t just churn out sequels to already successful animated features. But – rather – take a few chances and then reimagine older stories."

    My guru and I will be meditating on the difference between a sequel and a reimagining of a story. That should take a couple months. Then we will contemplate the difference between a reboot and a cash grab. That should be another couple months. Then we're going to contact those fine folks that put out the James Bond series (PG-13 no less) and ask how Dame Judith Dench time travels between Bonds that have a past and then have no past. I should be enlightened just in time for the video release of Up - a fully imagined non-sequel.

  • Being able to produce something cheaper than a theatrical premiere that reaches a paying audience more directly most certainly should encourage this type of risk.

    Wonder Woman was wonderful- something I could see most of my family enjoy watching. Gargoyles would be a great way for Disney to enter this market and I'd be first in line- but I can't quite see why Disney would commission more Gargoyles animation when they didn't get the sales to continue its DVD releases. Winx would be great too. I miss that show.

    I wouldn't mind seeing more creative, sequel-ish projects with good writing (most of the stuff made needed a rewrite or three). I liked Cinderella 3. Mulan 2 was best when Mushu was plotting against her. And I get the sense that Aladdin's dad and Iago had cooler adventures- maybe with the sandwitch and hercules' crazy friend.

  • Gargoyles didn't sell on DVD because the first volumes were a joke.  13 episodes in season one for a full priced DVD season?  LAME.  Fans waited for real collections of the show to come out and Disney misinterpreted it into thinking the show wouldn't sell.  Plus execs (especially Eisner) didn't like the show and thought it was too dark.  Thus we all must wait in darkness patiently for Disney to get a clue.  

    (There IS hope though.  X-Men the animated series is finally coming out and that took FOREVER!  Plus X-Men: Evolution season 4 was released on Itunes as a test balloon and the season was VERY dark.)

    Can't wait to see Wonder Woman.  I've heard nothing but excellent things.

  • Direct to video has always had a stigma. It's not good, the studio didn't think of it enough to warrant a theatrical release. The videos that I have bought over the years has proven that out.

    But as always things are changing. Things are getting better, I think theatrical releases will become a novelty. and the direct to video market will be on a direct download system.

    The one thing I am sick of is the sequel happy Disney. Why waste resources on poor projects, when you could make new subjects. I'm glad Lassiter pulled them, it shows somebody over there has some sanity.

  • I'm not sure that it would be a good idea for Disney to chase the "darker" crowd. Disney (and ESPECIALLY Pixar) has a reputation for being kid/family friendly especially when it comes to animation, unlike most of Disney's competition (Dreamworks, Nick, etc). I will NOT take my kids to see a non-Disney animated feature because I don't trust most of the studios out there. I MIGHT buy it on DVD if I hear good things about it so I can watch it first and THEN let the kids watch it.

    That trust is VERY hard to obtain, but VERY easy to lose. Would a few dollars in DVD sales be worth it?

  • I agree with what jedited said. In fact, in Madagascar 2, I caught a subtly-hidden Iraq War message when King Julien said "If I had only two days to live, I would invade a neighboring country, and force my own ideology on them, whether they wanted it or not.". But WDAS, I can actually trust in not having political messages when I take my little brother to an easy-going time at the movies.

    But they probably won't be getting any teenagers under their Disney label. When they look at the video rental store, they will immediately turn away from the ones with the Walt Disney logo on it and never realize that the back of the DVD says "PG-13". They're probably stuck keeping their teen audience to Miramax and Touchstone.

  • If you're looking for creative and adult animation, maybe you should try anime. The 37th incarnation of Wonder Woman isn't in the same ballpark with FLCL to name just one.

    Personally, when I go to Disney, I'm looking for something the Japanese don't do that well. Namely "wholesome" family entertainment. Something that entertains me on an adult level but lets me forget for a couple of hours the complexities and disappointments of the adult world.  

  • Actually, rufus, WW is one of the most neglected major characters from American comic books.  I'm not sure how you're counting incarnations, but 37 seems really high -- four might be closer to the mark.

  • FLCL? You're siting FLCL as an example of quality anime? Maybe site something that doesn't require hallucinogens to fully appreciate would make your point better. As it stands, I can't even name the four variations of Wonder Woman that Powers alluded to. I can only really think of two, the 70s TV series and the Justice League cartoons. Wonder Woman has really been neglected when it's come to media adaptations. Surprising, considering she's DC's number 3 superhero.

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