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"Once Upon a Time," Disney wasn't always so careful when it came to the licensing of the Company's characters

"Once Upon a Time," Disney wasn't always so careful when it came to the licensing of the Company's characters

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I'm sure -- by now -- that you're heard that "Once Upon a Time" teased that Elsa from Disney "Frozen" will be coming to Storybrooke for Season 4 of this hit ABC series.


Copyright American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved

Now some of you out there (I'm sure ) will see this as a naked cash grab. The Mouse finding yet another way to make money off of this mega-hit Walt Disney Animation Studios release. But that's really not what happened here. As Edward Kitsis, one of "Once Upon a Time" executive producers revealed to Time Magazine yesterday, this "Frozen" character crossover has actually been in the works since last November. More importantly, that it took months of meetings before Disney's Brand Management would finally give Kitsis and his co-producer, Adam Horowitz, permission to make Elsa part of the "Once Upon a Time" universe.

And I gotta tell you folks that Kitsis & Adam have had to do this sort of thing ever since they first pitched this series to ABC. I got to interview Edward & Adam back in August of 2011, a few weeks prior to "Once Upon a Time" 's premiere on the Alphabet Network. And at that time, they told me all sorts of stories about the stuff that Brand Management had to sign off on (EX: Snow White wielding a sword. Given that Disney's first princess had never before portrayed as an action hero, it took a little while to persuade Company executives that "The Fairest One of All" had mad skills when it came to blades, bows & arrows).


Ginnifer Goodwin gets ready to do battle. Copyright American Broadcasting
Companies, Inc. All rights reserved

Now I know that the very idea that The Walt Disney Company has a Brand Management office may be off-putting / over-controlling to some. But trust me, folks. There's a reason that Disney has executives whose main purpose is making sure that the characters stay true to themselves. Because it wasn't all that long ago that the Company making some pretty questionable decisions when it came to Disney characters.

And no, I'm not talking about Mickey Mouse Disco ...


Copyright 1979 Walt Disney Productions.
All rights reserved

... the Company's clumsy attempt to piggyback on Paramount Pictures' 1977 smash, "Saturday Night Fever."


Copyright 1977 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved

Or worse than that, "Totally Minnie," Disney's 1983effort to reimagine Mickey's longtime girlfriend ...


Copyright Walt Disney Productions. All rights reserved

... as a kind of a family-friendly version of Madonna.

And I'm not even talking about that Mickey Mouse gas mask that Walt himself helped develop during World War II.


Copyright Walt Disney Productions. All rights reserved

As the story goes, the Sun Rubber Company only produced a thousand of these back in 1944. And though the Company threw a lot of its promotional might behind the launch of this personal safety product (Hence the photo below of a senior military official demonstrating how this child-sized gas mask works to Charlie McCarthy & Edgar Bergen).


Copyright Walt Disney Productions. All rights reserved

I actually got to see one of the few surviving masks in person back in the Summer of 1983. I was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri back then. I had just finishing up basic training. And before the U.S. Army shipped me off to Fort Benjamin Harrison to begin journalism training, I found myself with an afternoon to kill. Which is why I wound up touring the United States Army Chemical Corps Museum. Which is where I discovered -- grinning up at me out of a dusty display case -- one of the scariest Mickeys that I'd ever seen.

And if the above image doesn't haunt your dreams tonight ... Well, you're made of stronger stuff than I am.

No, the period of Disney Company history where -- me personally -- I think that the Mouse was somewhat lax when it came to character integrity / quality control was late 1937 / early 1938. Which was right as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" was being released to theaters.

Given that Walt had spent $1.5 million on the production of the Company's first full-length  animated feature (which was 10 times what Disney originally thought it would cost to produce "Snow White"), the Studio was very eager to recover that cost. Which is why Company officials made some pretty questionable licensing decisions.

Don't believe me? Okay. Then let's take a look at Showplace, the official magazine of Radio City Musical Hall (By the way, if you'd like to page through this entire publication, be sure and head on over to Brian Sibley's delightful Decidedly Disney website. He has all sorts of cool Mouse-related curios on display there).

Look, don't get me wrong. I don't have an issue with the Snow White-themed toys that Saks Fifth Avenue had on sale at that time.

Or the Snow White charms that Cartier was selling.


But when Helena Rubenstein began offering Snow White-themed make-up session (which started with a liberal application of " ... Snow Lotion ... which spreads a film of loveliness over your face") ...


... and Rockefeller Center used the Dwarfs to promote that year's version of their skating pond, things were starting to get a little weird.

But then when Disney's licensing department actually allowed the Rogers Peet Company to use Grumpy & the Dwarfs to promote that store's line of men's wear ...

... or when they allowed Dopey (the one character in "Snow White" who didn't talk) to be turned into a ventriloquist dummy ... You just know that Kay Kamen & Co. were trying to wring every possible dollar out of the licensing of this animated feature.

Mind you, Dopey did talk. Once. But that was in the stage version of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" that Disney Legend Robert Jani staged at Radio City Musical Hall in the Fall of 1979.

And if you'd like to learn more about that live stage version of Disney's 1937 animated feature or many of the other shows that the Mouse has staged in NYC over the past 35 years ... Well, you may want to come along on the walk-and-talk that I'll be presenting this Saturday in Times Square with the help of Evan at ETC Custom Events. For further information on this presentation, please click on this link.

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  • Nice article as always, Jim... but I think you engaged in a little bit of misdirection here.  You said "Because it wasn't all that long ago that the Company making some pretty questionable decisions when it came to Disney characters."

    But then the questionable decisions you talk about were in 1937/38!  That's nearly eighty years ago now.  I'm curious what metric you're using to judge that as "not all that long ago"...

  • It would seem like Disney was way too slow to do the live action fairy tale adaptions. Disney didn't take advantage of a revival of live action movies like the two Snow White movies (Mirror Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman), Cinderella (Ever After). They were side tracked with the Chronicles of Narnia adaptions that were a rip-off of the Tolkien Lord of the Rings phenomenon. The recent Disney adaptions of Alice in Wonderland and Oz The Great and Powerful were adequate, but not quite the same as they seemed more like sequels. I'm looking forward to Maleficent, which seems to have made the right choice of starring Angelina Jolie; however, less known is the adult Sleeping Beauty as played by Elle Fanning (not merely Angelina's child in the role of young Aurora).

    I will mention that I don't watch "Once Upon A Time". The series is inconsistent and the quality of the storytelling is just facepalming bad at times. My preference is NBC's "Grimm". Now, that's a show worth watching.

  • "And no, I'm not talking about Mickey Mouse Disco ..."

    Oh I don't know, it seems pretty groovy to me. ;-)

    "Or worse than that, "Totally Minnie," Disney's 1983effort to reimagine Mickey's longtime girlfriend ..."

    Jim, sometime you really have to write up an article on Disneyland's "Totally Minnie" parade and the "Totally Minnie" TV special featuring Suzanne Somers. (As I understand it, this TV special marked the first time that Russi Taylor voiced Minnie Mouse.)

    I remember that Radio City Musical Hall production of Snow White very well, because when I was younger, my family had a VHS Beta tape of one of the performances. and I would watch it often. Yes, Dopey did indeed talk at the very end of the production, saying (after a slow, stuttering start) "Goodbye Snow White!"

  • ...Oh, and just to clarify, the stage performance of Snow White from the VHS was recorded from a television special.

  • TomG: "They were side tracked with the Chronicles of Narnia adaptions that were a rip-off of the Tolkien Lord of the Rings phenomenon."

    I assume you know that Narnia was written before LotR.  So I can only assume you think the adaptations ripped off the Jackson films.

    I'm curious how you would adapt Narnia to the screen in such a way that you wouldn't characterize it as a "rip-off".

    EDITOR'S NOTE: I think -- to be fair here -- it's worth noting that one of the main reasons that Michael Eisner initially felt compelled to partner with Walden Media on the "Chronicles of Narnia" film series was because Harvey Weinstein had originally brought "The Lord of the Rings" movies to Disney. Eisner clearly didn't understand the cinematic potential of that material (At one point, he actually asked Peter Jackson to take the three Tolkien books and turn them into two films). But Michael quickly changed his mind once he saw how much money the "Lord of the Rings" films were making for New Line.

    So maybe that's the point what the original poster -- in a some clumsy fashion -- was trying to make. That it was the huge financial success of the "Lord of the Rings" films that prompted Disney to "rip them off" (i.e., launch a similar series of action-adventure movies that featured all sorts of swordplay, visual effects, fantastical settings and magical creatures).

  • I clearly wrote  "rip-off of the Tolkien Lord of the Rings phenomenon."

    I wasn't referring to "Lord of the Rings" itself, but the LOTR phenomenon.

    So how would Narnia not be rip-off of the LOTR style? Perhaps if it was more true to the actual story and not emphasize the action sequences. I quite enjoyed Narnia when I read it as a child. The movie did a pretty good job of it, but the action sequences were clearly much too stylistically similar to LOTR.

  • Here's a "not too long ago" licensing decision that still leaves me scratching my head:  "Disney's Old Yeller Dog Food" sold by Kroger. I know Kroger and Disney do exclusive licensing deals pretty frequently, but this one still strikes me as odd.  Can you imagine if they did advertising campaigns for this?

    "Old Yeller Dog Food - The taste dogs go crazy for!"

    "Old Yeller - Makes your dog foam at the mouth!"

    "Drive your dog wild with Old Yeller!"

    From the actual press release that announced it's creation:  "Disney's Old Yeller dog food is for those dogs that are part

    of the family."  

    As Claire Huxtable once said, "They SHOT Old Yeller!!"

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