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Hey, kids! Sorry to have fallen off the map for so long. Back in early November, I took a brief trip down to Orlando to dig up some new stories for the site. I started right back for New Hampshire to file my report about the latest doings at Walt Disney World but … well … I knew I shouldn’t have taken that left turn at Albuquerque.
Forgive me for slipping into Warner Brothers-ese there.
I realize that mostly you read about Disney on this site. But I’ve just got to tell you folks about this incredible show: “Chuck Jones: Extremes and In- Betweens, A Life in Animation.” This “Great Performances” special does a superb job of summing up the career of an animation giant.
Why should Disneyana fans get all excited about a TV special that covers the career of a guy who turned out toons for Warner Brothers? Just listen to who turns out to sing Chuck’s praises: Master Disney animators Glen Keane and Eric Goldberg, Pixar’s resident genius John Lasseter, “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening, “Lion King” director Rob Minkoff. Plus Robin Williams, Steven Spielberg, Whoopi Goldberg, Ron Howard, Leonard Maltin, Stan Freberg, June Foray …
These folks — just like me — are huge fans of Chuck Jones’ work. They eloquently describe the influence that Chuck’s masterful cartoons have had on their careers. How his skillful sense of staging and split second timing of gags inspired them to become better at their craft. The special uses ample excerpts from Jones’ incredible cartoons to illustrate the stories Keane, Goldberg et al tell. I guarantee that you’ll learn a lot — and laugh a lot — once you sit down to watch this great show.
If there is a flaw to this wonderful show, it’s that the program doesn’t touch on a truly intriguing moment in Chuck’s career: that four month period in 1953 when Jones left Warner Brothers to go to work for Walt Disney.
You heard right. Chuck Jones at Walt Disney Studios. Working on “Sleeping Beauty” no less.
Chuck Jones worked on Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty”
Strange but true, kids. The story goes something like this. Jack Warner — owner of Warner Brothers Studio — became convinced that the 3D format was going to do to traditionally made motion pictures what talkies did to silent pictures: which is change the industry overnight. (Don’t believe me? Check out Page 277 of Chuck Jones’ excellent autobiography, “Chuck Amuck.” published by Avon Press in 1989. ) So — to come up with the cash he’d need to change the entire studio over to making 3D films — Jack knew that severe cuts were in order. That’s why Warner decided to shut down the studio’s entire animation unit.
So in early 1953, Jones — along with dozens of other talented Warner Brother artists — suddenly found himself out on the street. Since he had a family to feed, Chuck placed a call to the only other major animation operation in town — Walt Disney Studios — and asked for a job.
Even back then, Jones had a reputation for being a great animation director. So — right after his phone call — Chuck received an invitation to come over to Burbank and join the team at Disney Feature Animation. Chuck arrived on the lot in late July 1953. And then … nothing much happened.
Problems with “Sleeping Beauty”and Nothing for Chuck Jones
What went wrong? To be fair, the summer of 1953 was a really bad time to begin working at Disney Feature Animation. All the jobs on the studio’s next animated release — 1955’s “Lady and the Tramp” — had already been assigned. So Chuck found himself looking for something to do on the feature that was supposed to follow “Tramp” : 1959’s “Sleeping Beauty.”
The trouble was that — at the time — the “Sleeping Beauty” project had really hit the skids. The story guys just couldn’t come up with a way to breath life into Charles Perrault’s tired fairy tale. Plus Walt’s insistence that the film use the music from Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty” ballet had saddled the project with an unnecessarily ponderous tone. Disney’s development team labored mightily to turn this ungainly source material into a fun animated film. They kept hoping that Walt would show up and tell them how to fix the story.
But Walt was too busy to be bothered with any animated projects that summer. He was putting all his time and energies into selecting a suitable site for Disneyland. It wouldn’t be ’til August ’til Disney finally decided to buy that orange grove in Anaheim.
So picture poor Chuck Jones. He had dreamed all his life of working for Walt Disney Studios. Many of his early “Sniffles the Mouse” cartoons were obvious attempts to ape the artistry and stylings of Disney’s “Silly Symphonies.” And here he was, finally a really-for-real employee of the Mouse Factory. Only no one could find anything for him to do.
So Chuck sat in his office and waited for an assignment. It’s been rumored that — during this period — Jones did some of the early concept sketches for Malificent’s goons. Given the zany appearance of the sorceress’s minions in the finished film, it’s not too hard to imagine that Chuck’s unique drawing style had some influence over the final look of these “Sleeping Beauty” characters. But no one I’ve talked at Disney Feature Animation has ever been able to provide me with definitive proof that Jones actually designed Malificent’s goons. So this story — entertaining as it might be — will unfortunately have to remain in the rumor column.
Leaving Disney – Chuck Jones Heads Back to Warner Bros.
What is known is that — after four months — Chuck got tired of idly sitting around the Mouse Factory. He was also reportedly upset with the salary he received at Disney: $360 a week. This was the exact same amount that Jones had been paid when he was working at Warners. Given how eager Disney had seemed to hire on his talents ‘way back in July, Chuck had expected to receive some sort of raise when he came on board in Burbank. No such luck. Walt had personally called Jack Warner to find out what Jones had been paid prior to leaving that studio. And that was the salary that Disney agreed to pay Chuck once he started work at Feature Animation.
Speaking of Jack … by the fall of 1953, the head of Warner Brothers Studio had finally realized that 3D films were not going to revolutionize the industry. It was now obvious that 3D movies were just a passing fad. And — since the exhibitors were already clamoring for new Looney Tunes — Jack thought it would be prudent to start up the studio’s animation unit again.
So Warner sent out word in mid-November that the studio would be getting back into the toon business as of January 1, 1954. He offered to take all of his old animators back at their old salaries. To get Jones to return to Warners, Jack offered his star director a measly 40 more dollars a week — bumping his salary up to $400 a week. Tired of twiddling his thumbs at Disney, Chuck jumped at Jack’s offer.
And that’s how Chuck Jones’ illustrious career at Walt Disney Studios ended. Four months of employment — with nothing tangible to show for that time in Burbank.
Chuck Jones and Walt Disney
That wasn’t Jones’ last dealings with Walt, however. In his second memoir (“Chuck Redux,” published by Warners Books in 1996), Chuck revealed that — when he was just beginning his career in animation — he wrote a letter to Walt Disney. This was in the early 1930s, mind you, right after the release of “The Three Little Pigs.” Jones wrote to Disney himself, saying how much he admired the “Pigs” short. To Chuck’s surprise, Walt wrote back.
This personal letter from Disney allegedly expressed the hope that Jones would continue to work in animation and that — perhaps someday — his work would be good enough to inspire the people at Disney Studios. Little did Walt know that — some 60 years later — his wish would come true.
Jones was reportedly very proud of that piece of paper. He “carried it around in my back pocket and showed it to everyone until I wore it out.”
On a more touching note, in November 1966, Chuck — then an Academy Award winning director — dropped Disney Studios to pay a social call on Walt. He was told by Disney’s secretary that Walt was across the street at St. Joseph’s hospital getting a check-up. (Little did anyone realize that this trip to the hospital that would reveal the lung cancer that eventually did Walt in.)
So Chuck wandered over to the hospital and found Disney alone in his room. Walt seemed in a reflective mood and — grateful for the company — these two animation giants reminisced for a while. Eventually, Jones turned the conversation toward that letter he’d gotten from Disney some 30 years early and how much it had meant to him. Chuck then asked him what it was that had compelled Walt to personally answer that note from some kid just starting out in the animation business.
Walt replied that “It wasn’t difficult. You were the only animator who ever wrote to me.”
Disney died six weeks later.
Chuck Jones in Early 2000s
In 2000, Chuck Jones — 88 years old — was still going strong. He regularly churned out images of his classic Warner Brothers characters, which his daughter Linda offers through her Chuck Jones Studio Galleries. A character that Chuck has created exclusively for the web — Thomas T. Wolf — came to life as part of a 13-episode online series offered exclusively on Warner Bros. Online and Entertaindom.
So “That’s not all, folks.” The magic and genius of Chuck Jones lives on. Check out that PBS “Great Performances” special and then ponder that great “What if.”
What If Chuck Jones Worked for Disney?
What if the Walt Disney Company actually had found something exciting for Chuck Jones to do back in the summer of 1953? What sort of impact would Chuck have had on Disney’s Magic Kingdom?
I’ll say this much. “Sleeping Beauty” would probably be a hell of a lot more fun to watch.
“Khrushchev at Disneyland” – The Film Walt Disney Almost Made
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Did you ever hear about … “Khrushchev at Disneyland”?
It was back in October of last year that Disney+ revealed that they were now working on a film about the creation of Disneyland.
Given that Evan Spiliotopoulos – who crafted the screenplay for the Company’s live-action reimagining of “Beauty & the Beast” (which then went on to earn $1.26 billion at the worldwide box office back in 2017) – is reportedly writing the script for this yet-to-be-titled film, I have high hopes for this movie about the making of The Happiest Place on Earth.
After all, if we go by “Saving Mr. Banks” (i.e., That 2013 Walt Disney Pictures release about the making of “Mary Poppins,” where Emma Thompson played “Poppins” author P.L. Travers and Tom Hanks turned in a masterful performance as Walt Disney), this company-of-storytellers has already proven that it can turn its own history into entertaining motion pictures.
But that said, if The Walt Disney Company is now actively looking for moments from its past that it can possibly turn into motion pictures … Well, might I suggest a moment that Walt himself might make one hell of a movie. And that’s Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s non-visit to Disneyland.
Khrushchev’s US Visit (1959)
I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the details surrounding this incident. Which occurred during Khrushchev’s 11-day trip to the US in September 1959. The Soviet Premier and his entourage arrived in Washington D.C. and — after making a brief stop at the UN in New York City — flew out to LA … And that’s when all the trouble started.
The Los Angeles leg of Nikita’s nationwide tour really did get off to an awful start. By that I mean: As the Premier’s motorcade sped away from LAX, the limousines were actually pelted with tomatoes.
Then Khrushchev was taken to 20th Century Fox, where he and his family were supposed to be feted at a luncheon that featured hundreds of Hollywood’s top stars. Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Shirley MacLaine, David Niven and Maurice Chevalier were there.
Which (you’d think) would have been enough to entertain the Soviet Premier.
Not Nikita. He stood up at this luncheon and — in front of the entire Hollywood press corps — had a hissy fit. Here’s an excerpt from the remarks that Khrushchev made that afternoon:
We have come to this town where lives the cream of American art. And just imagine (that) I, a Premier, a Soviet representative, when I came here to this city, I was given a plan. A program of what I was to be shown and whom I was to meet here.
But just now I was told that I could not go to Disneyland. I asked ‘Why not? What is it? Do you have rocket-launching pads there?’ I do not know.
And just listen – just listen to what I was told – to what reason I was told. We, which means the American authorities, can not guarantee your security if you go there.
What is it? Is there an epidemic of cholera there or something? Or have gangsters taken over the place that can destroy me? Then what must I do? Commit suicide?
This is the situation I am in. Your guest. For me, this situation is inconceivable. I can not find words to explain this to my people.
Visiting the “Happiest Place on Earth”
Truth be told, the Soviet Premier was somewhat mistaken. The original itinerary for the Los Angeles leg of his U.S. tour called for just Khrushchev’s wife and children to tour the “Happiest Place on Earth,” while Nikita was scheduled to tour a housing development out in Granada Hills. But when the Russian leader learned where his family was headed, he reportedly told his State Department handlers “Well, I wanna go to Disneyland too.”
This — unfortunately — was just impossible to pull off on such short notice. Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker immediately put the kibosh on Khrushchev’s request. Citing the difficulty of providing adequate security for the Soviet Premier and his motorcade all the way out to Anaheim.
Walt Disney Interested in Khrushchev Visiting Disneyland
Now where this gets interesting is that — somewhere along the way, as US officials were preparing for Khrushchev’s arrival in America — Walt Disney was told that the Russian Premier and his family were interested in visiting Disneyland. And Walt (of course) immediately saw this official state visit as a huge opportunity to generate some publicity for his then-four-year-old theme park.
Disneyland’s PR staff envisioned creating a photo opportunity by having Walt and Khrushchev stand on the “Submarine Voyage” ‘s loading dock as all eight of the ride’s faux subs floated by. Disney’s gag writers even provided a quip for Walt to casually toss off at this photo op. As Nikita looked out at all of those subs, Disney was supposed to say: “Well, now, Mr. Khrushchev, here’s my Disneyland submarine fleet. It’s the eighth largest submarine fleet in the world.”
Walt was — of course — disappointed when he learned that, due to security concerns, only Mrs. Khrushchev and the kids would be coming out to the Park that afternoon. So imagine Disney’s delight when this firestorm of publicity suddenly rose up when the Soviet Premier was told that he wouldn’t be allowed to go to “The Happiest Place on Earth” too.
Disneyland Trip Cancelled for Nikita Khrushchev
Because — once Nitika learned that his own trip out to Anaheim had been axed — he fell into a truly foul mood. In a fit of pique, the Soviet Premier declared that — since it wasn’t safe for him to go to Disneyland — then it wasn’t safe for his wife and children to go out to Anaheim either. So their long planned Disneyland excursion got canceled ASAP.
Immediately after the luncheon broke up, Khrushchev was taken to a nearby soundstage where the Russian Premier observed the filming of a scene from a forthcoming 20th Century Fox musical, “Can Can.” But — rather than being titillated by the sight of Juliet Prowse flashing her 19th century bloomers as she performed the film’s title number — Nikita reportedly declared the whole episode “horribly decadent.” Which embarrassed State Department officials as well as offending the Soviet Premier’s Hollywood hosts.
From there, Khrushchev’s motorcade was taken to Granada Hills, where the Russian Premier was supposed to tour model homes along Sophia Avenue. But — since Nikita was still sulking about not being allowed to go to Disneyland — he refused to even get out of his limousine.
As he pouted inside the car, Khrushchev reportedly told his State Department handlers that “… putting me in a closed car and stewing me in the sun is not the right way to guarantee my safety. This (not being allowed to go to Disneyland) development causes me bitter regret. I thought I could come here as a free man.”
To add insult to injury, four Soviet newsmen (who had been assigned to cover Khrushchev’s US trip) slipped away to Anaheim for the afternoon. They spent four happy hours touring Disneyland, then told US reporters that they believed that the Russian Premier and his family would have really enjoyed the theme park.
Later that evening, Khrushchev gave a speech at a Los Angeles area hotel. But there was, understandably, very little written about whatever remarks the Soviet Premier made at that long-forgotten dinner. Given that the next day’s newspapers devoted page after page to coverage of Nikita’s very public tantrum once he learned that he was not going to be allowed to visit Disneyland.
Khrushchev and his party tried to put some distance between themselves and the Disneyland debacle by quickly boarding a train and heading up to San Francisco. From there, the Russian Premier flew off to Des Moines and eventually returned to Washington D.C. Where Nikita spent a few days at Camp David with President Eisenhower talking about Cold War-related issues.
Which (you’d think) would be how history would remember the Soviet Premier’s 1959 trip to the United States. That Khrushchev & Eisenhower actually sat down and then tried to find a solution to their Germany & Berlin problem. But (picture John Belushi saying this) N-O-O-O-o-o-o. All the US press corps could talk about is how upset Nikita seemed when he had been told that he wouldn’t be allowed to visit Disneyland.
Media Covers Khrushchev’s Disneyland Denial
Within a day or so, there were political cartoons in newspapers nationwide that made fun of the Premier’s very public tantrum. Even Bob Hope eventually got into the act. As part of his annual Christmas television special, Hope stood in front of hundreds of military personnel at a U.S. Air Force base in Nome and quipped: “Here we are in America’s 49th state, Alaska. That’s halfway between Khrushchev and Disneyland.”
And of course, all this talk about how upset the Russian Premier was about not being allowed to visit “The Happiest Place on Earth” generated tons of positive publicity for Walt’s theme park. Newspapers around the world printed article after article about this amusing international incident. Even Herman Wouk (best known as the author of “The Caine Mutiny” and “The Winds of War”) chimed in: “I really don’t blame Khrushchev for jumping up and down in a rage over missing Disneyland. There are fewer things more worth seeing in the United States or indeed anywhere in the world.”
And Walt just didn’t want this fun to end. He kept looking for ways to perpetuate the story. Which is why Disney insisted that clippings highlighting the whole Khrushchev affair be included in the official Disneyland press kit for a number of years after this incident.
Movie About Khrushchev’s “Disneyland Trip”
But as the 1950s slipped into the 1960s and Khrushchev was forced from power by Leonid Brezhnev in October 1964, this story lost some of its charm. But still Walt loved to tell the tale of Nikita’s tantrum. And Disney began to wonder: might there be a way that his company could continue to capitalize on this incident? Like perhaps by maybe making a movie that would put a comic spin on the whole “Khrushchev denied access to Disneyland” incident?
So Walt turned to his very best producer, Bill Walsh (best known these days as the guy who wrote and produced “Mary Poppins,” “The Love Bug” and “Bedknobs & Broomsticks”) and told him to create a screenplay for a live-action comedy that would then be based on this infamous incident. So Walsh got together with his long-time collaborator, Don DaGradi. And eventually the two of then crafted a script or a film they wanted to call “Khrushchev at Disneyland.”
This screenplay (at least for the first 30 pages or so) pretty much follows how the real-life events played out. It recounts — in a light, breezy manner — how the Soviet leader had supposedly flown over to America to meet with President Eisenhower. But — in reality — Nikita had actually traveled all this way because what he really wanted to do was go to Disneyland.
So Khrushchev flew into Southern California, all excited that he was finally going to get his chance to visit “The Happiest Place on Earth.” Only to discover that — due to safety concerns — the State Department had canceled his trip out to Anaheim. Moviegoers were then supposed to see a slightly comic take on the Soviet Premier’s infamous tantrum at 20th Century Fox. And then …
Well, then the film morphs into your typical Walt Disney Productions live-action comedy of the 1960s. First Khrushchev is seen moping around his hotel suite in downtown Los Angeles later that evening. Then the Premier realizes that Disneyland is only 30 miles away. More importantly, that the theme park is open ’til midnight that night.
So Nikita decides that he’s going to sneak out of his hotel and somehow make his way out to Anaheim. Using a goofy disguise, he gives both his Soviet security detail as well as all of his State Department handlers the slip. Then Khrushchev somehow makes his way out to Disneyland, with all of these US & Soviet officials in hot pursuit … and hilarity ensues.
Okay. Admittedly, we’re not talking about “Lawrence of Arabia” here. Walt wasn’t really looking to make a historically accurate film based on this amusing, relatively minor international incident. Disney, Walsh, and DaGradi envisioned “Khrushchev at Disneyland” as being a film that would be very similar in tone to “That Darn Cat!” A comedy caper picture that was aimed straight at the family audience.
So — once this script was completed — how close did “Khrushchev at Disneyland” actually come to getting made? So close that Walt had already lined up an A-List actor to play the Soviet Premier. And that was Academy Award winner Peter Ustinov.
If all had gone according to plan, “Khrushchev at Disneyland” would have been Peter’s follow-up project for Disney Studios once work was completed on “Blackbeard’s Ghost.” Bill Walsh was slated to produce the picture, while the prolific Robert Stevenson would be directing.
By the fall of 1966, all of the necessary pieces were already in place. Disney Studio had a script in hand that was ready to shoot. They also had an A-List actor that was positively eager to get in front of the cameras and then do his impression of the Soviet Premier. Not only that, but Disney’s top producer was slated to ride herd on this project and the studio’s very best director would be helming this picture.
“Khrushchev at Disneyland” Movie Halts Production
So why didn’t “Khrushchev at Disneyland” get made? Well, because Walt Disney died before production could officially get underway. And given that all the studio execs that Walt had left behind were … Well … The polite term for them is “cautious corporate citizens.” The not-so-polite term is “gutless wimps.”
Anyway, these guys shied away from this project. Largely because they were concerned that there would were film fans out there who wouldn’t see the humor in “Khrushchev at Disneyland.” Their genuine fear was – because of Peter Ustinov’s sure-to-be-charming performance as Nikita Khrushchev – there were certain segments of the US population that would then accuse Walt Disney Company of corrupting America’s youth / of going soft on Communism by suggesting that – GASP ! — the Russian people were actually a lot like us. That they too like to do fun things like – say – go to Disneyland.
Of course, the real irony here is that one of the main reason that Walt really wanted his Studio to make “Kruschchev at Disneyland” was because he’d already seen that a Russians-are-people-too family comedy could succeed at the box office without controversy.
“The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming”
I’m talking – of course – about “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.” Which MGM had released to theaters in May of 1966 and had then gone on become the seventh highest grossing film of the year at the North American box office.
And I know for a fact that Walt was well aware of “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming” for a couple of reasons.
- This Norman Jewison movie starred Brian Keith, who – just 5 years previous – had co-starred in Disney’s “The Parent Trap” along with Hayley Mills & Maureen O’Hara
- The year after Disney’s “Parent Trap” had been released to theaters, Jewison had directed “40 Pounds of Trouble.” Which was the first live-action film that Walt had ever allowed to be shot on location at Disneyland Park.
- For the entire Summer of 1966, “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming” and Disney’s own “Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N.” were duking it out at the North American box office. Seeing which family comedy would then go on to sell more tickets domestically. In the end, Disney came out on top. With that Dick Van Dyke movie selling $22 million worth of tickets in North America, while MGM’s Russians-are-people-too picture sold $21 million worth of tickets domestically.
This is why – when Walt made his very last trip to the Disney lot in November of 1966 – “Khrushchev at Disneyland” was very much on his mind. As far as Disney was concerned, this project was a go. Something that his Studio would start shooting in 1967 and then release to theaters the following year.
This is why Walt made a point of dropping by the set of “Blackbeard’s Ghost” that November morning. He wanted to let Peter Ustinov & Bill Walsh know how much he was looking forward to “Khrushchev at Disneyland.” And Ustinov … Well, Peter was supposedly even more excited about this back-then-soon-to-begin-shooting-movie than Walt was. Ustinov reportedly told Disney that – to insure that he look as much like the Soviet Premier as possible – this acclaimed actor was actually planning on shaving his head.
Ustinov then cracked up Walt by saying that he was thinking of basing his portrayal of Khrushchev on Peter’s mother back in England. As Disney laughed, Ustinov insisted that his Mom was a dead ringer for Nikita. “I didn’t know that your Ma was bald,” Walt replied.
Having really enjoyed his visit to the “Blackbeard’s Ghost” set, Disney then quietly excused himself and left the soundstage. Once Walt had left, Walsh and Ustinov quietly talked amongst themselves about how pale and gaunt the studio head had looked.
Of course, neither Peter or Bill knew that Walt had – just days earlier – been diagnosed with lung cancer. Or that – at this point – Disney had just weeks left to live.
And when Walt Disney died in December of 1966, “Khrushchev at Disneyland” pretty much died with him. In spite of all the preparation that had already been done on this project up until that point, Walsh and DaGradi’s script got shelved. And I’d imagine that this screenplay is now stashed away in some filing cabinet, where “Khrushchev at Disneyland” has been gathering dust for over five decades now.
Potential for “Khrushchev/Disneyland” Film
I bring up this project today … Well, for a couple of reasons.
- Disney+ has this unending appetite for new content. And wouldn’t it be cool if the Studio were to revive a project that Walt himself once wanted to make and then make that movie available to customers of the Company’s subscription streaming service.
- Given what’s going on in the Ukraine right now and how the Cold War keeps threatening to become a hot one … Well, while I am no fan of Vladimir Putin, I think that a movie which reminds us that the Russian people (NOT the Russian government, mind you. But the Russian PEOPLE) are people too … That might be a smart, hopeful message to put out in the world these days.
Making-of-Disneyland Movie on Disney+
Anyway … If the Company is looking for a follow-up for that making-of-Disneyland movie they’re prepping for Disney+ …
By the way … Interesting side note: The gentleman that Disney has tapped to direct this movie is David Gordon Green. He directed last year’s smash hit horror film, “Halloween Kills.” Which might make David seem like an odd choice to helm a film about The Happiest Place on Earth.
But then again, Gordon also executive-produces “The Righteous Gemstones.” Which is this wonderfully funny TV series about a family of televangelists who also own & operate a theme park. Which perhaps makes Mr. Green the perfect person to direct a movie about the creation of Disneyland.
Anyway … If Disney+ is looking for the perfect follow-up for their making-of-Disneyland movie, might I suggest that someone dig out a copy of “Khrushchev at Disneyland.”
More to the point, someone go ask Josh Gad if he’d be willing to shave off all those curly locks so that he could then play a certain Soviet Premier.
How Mattel’s “Men in Space” Toyline Lead to the Creation of Buzz Lightyear
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Angus MacLane’s “Lightyear” is supposed to be … Well, not exactly an origin story for Buzz Lightyear, the action figure that we know from all of the “Toy Story” films. But Rather an explanation of why Andy is so excited at his birthday party in the first “Toy Story” movie when he gets that Buzz Lightyear toy.
You see, Andy’s seen the movie that this action figure was based on. Which is supposed to be this huge Summer blockbuster. Which is why Andy & his friends at that party react the way they do. As far as they’re concerned, the movie that spawned the Buzz Lightyear action figure line was the greatest film they’ve ever seen.
Of course, because I’m a nerd and an animation history buff, I can’t help but think about how Buzz Lightyear – the character from the “Toy Story” films, rather than the really-for-real space ranger that Chris Evans voices in “Lightyear” – really started out. Which honestly wasn’t supposed to be a spoof on Captain Kirk from “Star Trek” or Gil Gerad’s Buck Rogers from the TV show. But – rather – as a riff on a space-themed toy line that Mattel produced in the mid-1960s called “Men in Space” which was then built around a character called Major Matt Mason.
Now how we got to the “Men in Space” toy line is kind of convoluted. This story actually starts over 60 years ago when Mattel sent two dolls out into the world, Barbie & Chatty Cathy.
Doll’s For Boys – Mattel’s Space Action Figure
Mattel made money hand over fist from sales of these two products. Which then made Mattel’s competitors stand up and take notice. They too wanted in on this mass-produced plastic toy market. Which is what prompted Hasbro to do something bold in 1964. Which was to license a concept that Stanley Winston had been developing. Which is a military-themed doll for boys.
Hasbro’s G.I. Joe
Just so you know: The executives on the marketing side of Hasbro knew that that nomenclature – “dolls for boys” – wasn’t going to fly. Especially with the Dads of the 1960s. So this is why the phrase “action figure” came from.
Anyway, Hasbro introduces G.I. Joe, “America’s movable fighting man” (because – again – you can’t call this toy what it actually is. Which is a poseable doll for boys) in 1964. And it’s a huge hit right out of the box.
Marx “Best in the West” Cowboy Dolls
And Hasbro & Mattel’s direct competition, Marx, sees what going on with G.I. Joe and decides that … Well, we want in on the “dolls for boys” market … So they come up with the “Best of the West” line. Which is this series of G.I. Joe-sized poseable cowboy dolls. Those arrive in the marketplace in 1965 and are also hugely successful.
Mattel Introduces “Men in Space” Toyline
So now here’s Mattel. Which has cornered the market when it comes to dolls for girls with its Barbie & Chatty Cathy lines. But now that Hasbro & Marx have blazed this brave new trail – poseable dolls for boys – with their G.I. Joe & “Best of the West” action figures, Mattel wants in too.
But now that soldiers & cowboys are the exclusive property of Hasbro & Marx, Mattel has to find some sort of hook for its new “dolls for boys” line. So rather than looking back to World War II or the glory days of the America West, Mattel decides to take a chance on what’s going on in the real world at that exact moment. Which is the space race.
Which is why – just in time for the holiday buying season of 1966 – Mattel rolls out its “Men in Space” toy line. Who is headlined by Major Matt Mason an astronaut-themed action figure “ … who lives and works on the Moon.”
Major Matt Mason – Astronaut-Themed Action Figure
Now what was kind of interesting about Major Matt Mason is that the toy line that he headlined was based in reality. As in: A lot of the outfits & ride vehicles that were created for Mattel’s “Men in Space” line were direct lifts of publicity images that NASA had already put out there of space vehicles that they envisioned building once man actually made it to the moon. Which brought up some interesting copyright-related issues at that time.
Now I have to tell you that Mattel’s “Men in Space” toy line had problems right from the get-go. Instead of the sturdy 12-inch-tall poseable action figures that G.I. Joe and Marx’s “Best of the West” toys were … Major Matt Mason was half that size. Also, instead of hard plastic, Mattel used a rubber-like substance called Plastizol when it was making its “Men in Space” toys. That material was poured into a mold that had a wire armature inside.
Which wasn’t the sturdiest thing on the planet. Typically, after a few months of playing with your Major Matt Mason, the wire armature inside of this “Men in Space” action figure would break and it would then no longer be poseable.
Mind you, this was a deliberate choice on Mattel’s part. Their thinking was – by making Major Matt Mason half the size of G.I. Joe and then making this action figure out of cheaper material – … Well, that could then help them keep the cost of their “Men in Space” toy line down. Which would then – in theory, anyway – make these action figures far more affordable and make it possible for consumers to eventually purchase the entire playset.
Major Matt Mason’s Astronaut Friends
Oh, yeah. Did I forget to mention that Major Matt Mason had friends? Well, co-workers really. Sgt. Storm, Chip Davis, and Jeff Long (who was an African-American astronaut). Who could all lived & worked together with Matt inside of a three-level lunar base and then got around the moon’s surface by using space sleds and jet propulsion packs.
“Men in Space” Toy Sales
Mind you, Mattel’s “Men in Space” action figures didn’t sell nearly as well as that toy company had hoped they would over the 1966 holiday shopping season. And the thinking initially was that this was because Major Matt Mason & Co. didn’t have anyone that they could battle with. So – in much the same way that Buzz Lightyear has his evil nemesis, Emperor Zurg – the “Men in Space” team then found themselves (just in time for the 1967 holiday shopping season) dealing with evil aliens like Captain Lazer, Callisto, Scorpio and Or.
Unfortunately for Mattel, interest in the space program began to wane as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s. Which is why they decided to discontinue their “Men in Space” toy line in 1970.
Lunar Larry – The Original Buzz Lightyear
So when it comes to Buzz Lightyear, where’s the Major Matt Mason / “Men in Space” connection? Well, if you take a look back at the original concept art for Woody’s nemesis in the first “Toy Story” movie, he isn’t this G.I. Joe sized action figure. But – rather – a six-inch-tall poseable astronaut doll who (I kid you not) is called Lunar Larry.
Tom Hanks, Robert Zemeckis, & “Men in Space” Film
FYI: If all had gone according to plan back in 2011, there would have been an even stronger “Toy Story” / “Major Matt Mason” connection. This was when it was announced in the Hollywood trades that Tom Hanks (that’s right. The voice of Woody) had co-written a movie based on Mattel’s “Men in Space” toy line. Not only that, but Hanks was trying to persuade Robert Zemeckis (who Tom had worked with on “Forest Gump,” “Cast Away,” “The Polar Express,” and Disney+’s live-action “Pinocchio”) to come direct the “Major Matt Mason” – the man who lived & worked on the Moon – movie.
Wait. It gets better, Hanks himself reportedly wanted to play Major Matt Mason.
I’m not entirely sure whatever became of Tom Hanks’ “Men in Space” movie. This past February, Hanks & Zemeckis announced that they’ll be re-united with Eric Roth, the writer of “Forest Gump,” on a film adaptation of “Here.” Which is Roth’s graphic novel.
Supposedly sometime over the past 10 years, Paramount Pictures acquired the rights to make a “Men in Space” movie. Hanks is still allegedly attached as a producer for this project. But given that Tom will be turning 66 next month, I doubt that he still wants to play Major Matt Mason.
Which is kind of a shame. Given what Woody once said to Buzz in the original “Toy Story” …
… I would pay good money to see Tom Hanks play one of the original action figures: Major Matt Mason, the man who lived & worked on the Moon as part of Mattel’s “Men in Space” toy line.
“Honey, I Shrunk the Audience!”: Sequel Troubles and New Attractions
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This article is part of a series documenting the story of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” and Disney Science-Based movies. Be sure to check out our additional research on the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”.
On the heels of the enormous success of the original “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” movie (which was released to theaters in June of 1989) — Disney Studios made plans to release a whole series of science-based gimmick comedies based on the “Honey” characters. A number of the titles that the Studio copywrote as possible follow-ups to that film:
- “Honey, I Sent the Kids to the Moon”
- “Honey, I Swapped Brains with the Dog”
With the plan here being that — from here on in — every two years, just like clockwork, a brand-new “Honey” movie would arrive in theaters (ideally in early June) and then clean up at the box office. Just like the original “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” did in June of 1989.
“Honey, I Blew Up the Baby”
We now jump ahead to June of 1992. Which is when “Honey, I Blew Up the Baby” finally arrived in theaters.
Now if you’re halfway decent at math, you’ll immediately notice that — hey — the follow-up to the original “Honey, I Shrunk” film didn’t arrive in theaters two years later (like Disney originally planned) but three years later.
“And why was that?,” you ask. Well, at it turns out, it was a lot harder to develop a suitable sequel to the original “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” than anyone at Disney had thought it would be. The Studio went through dozens of drafts before executives at Disney finally threw up their hands and said “We give. Let’s just go buy someone else’s script and then turn it into a ‘Honey, I Shrunk’ movie.”
And that’s exactly what Disney did. They found this script called “Big Baby.” Which was originally supposed to be a parody of all those Godzilla movies. Only — in this case — instead of a giant radioactive lizard rising up out of Tokyo Bay and then laying waste to the city, the monster in this movie was a toddler who’d accidentally been made 200 feet tall. And who was now disrupting Rush Hour because he kept picking up cars off of the freeway and then making them go “Vroom Vroom.”
Very cute idea for a movie. Definitely something there that could then be used for a “Honey, I Shrunk” story. But here’s the thing: At this time, the State of Nevada was offering movie studios in Hollywood a huge tax break if they came and shot movies in that state.
Filming in Las Vegas, Nevada
And given that the movie that Disney was then calling “Honey, I Blew Up the Baby” was going to be hugely expensive to make (what with all of these elaborate special effects scenes of that giant toddler wandering around that regular-sized cityscape) … Well, Mouse House executives then began to think “Could we switch the location of ‘Honey, I Blew Up the Baby’ from a generic Southern Californian suburb to — say — the Las Vegas Strip? Which has all sorts of famous, recognized-around-the-globe super-sized icons like Vegas Vic, that giant neon Cowboy who’s been a fixture on the Las Vegas Strip since 1951.
The only problem is that a story that’s set in Las Vegas doesn’t exactly scream “Family friendly.” Of course, the real irony here is that — while “Honey, I Blew Up the Baby” was actually in production in June of 1991 was when Las Vegas was beginning its initial flirtation with becoming a more family-friendly destination resort. This is when we saw resorts like the Luxor first announced. Heavily themed hotels & casinos which would also have rides & attractions incorporated into their designs that would then appeal to kids.
From Blowing up the Baby to Blowing up the Kid – Movie Name Change
Disney didn’t initially realize that setting “Honey, I Blew Up the Baby” in Las Vegas would then have an impact on this “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” sequel. They were more concerned with what focus groups were telling them about the title of this “Honey” sequel. As is: They didn’t want to take their children to see a Disney movie where babies got blown up. That was cruel & gross sounding.
Disney’s marketing team tried to explain to the people in these focus groups that no babies would actually be harmed over the course of this sequel. That — when they said “Blew Up” — they didn’t mean “exploded.” But — rather — made bigger.
It didn’t matter. According to what Disney learned from all those focus groups, “Honey, I Blew Up the Baby” was the sort of film title that turned people off. It sent the wrong message to would-be movie-goers. So they would up trashing the thousands of teaser posters that had already been printed for this project as a new title was crafted for this “Honey, I Shrunk” sequel. Which would now be known as “Honey, I Blew Up the Kid.”
Box Office Troubles for Franchise
The new title didn’t matter. To this day, no one at Disney knows what exactly went wrong here. Whether it was the movie’s title or that decision to take advantage of the tax credit that the State of Nevada was offering and changing the story’s location to Las Vegas … But long story short, “Honey, I Blew Up the Kids” cost almost twice as much as the original “Honey, I Shrunk” did to shoot and only did 2/3rds of the original film’s ticket sales.
Which then sent the message to Disney film executives that perhaps this was NOT the studio’s next big film franchise. More to the point, that the enormous success of the first “Honey, I Shrunk “ movie may have had more to do with “Tummy Trouble” (the new Roger Rabbit short that had been placed in front of this film when it went out into theaters back in June of 1989) more than audiences falling in love with the antics of Wayne Szalinski.
So the idea of creating any further theatrical releases based on the “Honey, I Shrunk” characters was temporarily tabled as execs at the Mouse House regrouped. Debated about what should happen next with this franchise.
More “Honey, I Shrunk…” in the Disney Theme Parks
Whereas the Imagineers, they had no such qualms when it came to the “Honey, I Shrunk” franchise. They had seen how popular the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure” was with Guests at Disney-MGM Studios. Likewise the Flying Bumble Bee vignette in the Special Effects Workshop of the Backstage Tour at this theme park.
And given that — starting in August of 1993 — accusations had begun to surface about Michael Jackson and some of his younger fans, the thinking at Imagineering (at that time, anyway) was that maybe it was time to start working on a replacement for “Captain EO” (which had first opened at the Parks in the Fall of 1986).
And given that “Captain EO” was being presented in 3D theaters that were located in Future World at EPCOT and in Tomorrowlands at Disney Parks around the globe, the thinking was that a new movie that featured characters from a Disney-produced science-based gimmick comedy would be the perfect replacement for this Michael Jackson movie.
“Honey, I Shrunk the Audience” – Hiring Eric Idle
So production began in earnest in the Fall of 1993 on this new 3D movie. But “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience” almost stopped before it even began. Monty Python vet Eric Idle likes to tell the story about how — one afternoon — he walked into a hotel bar in Los Angeles and found actress Marcia Strassman sitting there, nursing a drink. Eric noticed that Marcia looked a little down and asked if he could join her.
Anyway, Idle eventually asked Strassman why she looked so depressed. And Marcia — who played Diane Szalinkski, Wayne’s wife in the “Honey, I Shrunk” film — explained that they were supposed to begin shooting “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience” (a new 3D movie for the Disney Parks) that morning. But that — just before shooting was to begin — the actor who was supposed to play Nigel Channing in that film had dropped out. And now the whole project was on hold while Disney scrambled to find a new actor to play the host of that show’s “Inventor of the Year” ceremony.
It was then that Eric Idle supposedly said “Well, I’m not doing anything for the next couple of days. Do you think that Disney would consider me for this part?” And Marcia said “Let’s find out,” and then asked the bartender for the house phone.
And the very next day, Eric Idle is on the set for “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience.” As director Randall Kleiser walked this Monty Python vet through this hugely-difficult-to-shoot / FX-filled production. Kleiser — by the way — got this gig because the Imagineers thought that he’d done an amazing job with the direction of that “Honey, I Blew Up the Kid.”
And speaking of doing a great job, the Imagineers were so pleased with Eric Idle’s performance as Nigel Channing, the MC of the “Inventor of the Year” Awards that — when it came time to redo the “Journey into Imagination” ride — they reached out to Idle again and asked if he’d be willing to reprise that character. Which he was. So now Eric Idle is an established fixture at Future World … I mean, World Nature.
“Honey, I Shrunk the Audience” – Attractions Around the World
“Honey, I Shrunk the Audience” finally opened at EPCOT in November of 1994. And it proved to be so popular with WDW visitors that Oriental Land Company execs (They’re the folks who operate Tokyo Disneyland & Tokyo DisneySea) insisted that they get a clone of this 3D movie for the Tomorrowland theater at their Disneyland.
The Tokyo version — which went by the name of “MicroAdventure!” There’s an exclamation point at the end of that attraction’s name, by the way) opened in April of 1997. It was so well received that the original Disneyland Park in Anaheim — which was in the process of designing its second New Tomorrowland (which would open for the Spring of 1998) — said “Hey, we want a clone too.”
So the Anaheim version of “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience” opened in May of 1998, going into the exact same theater that Disneyland’s version of “Captain EO” had been screened in. And then — the following year — Disneyland Paris got its own version of “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience.” Which opened at that theme park in March of 1999.
Closing for “Captain EO”
All four versions of “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience” then screened at theme parks around the globe the next 11 years. Until May of 2010 arrived. Which was when — within one month’s time — all four versions of this 3D attraction shuttered.
Michael Jackson had died back in June of 2009. And since Disney believes firmly in death being the ultimate disinfectant, the Summer of 2010 was deemed to be the perfect time to begin screening “Captain Eo” at the Parks again.
“Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves” & “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: The TV Show”
In May of 1997 — Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment releases “Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves.” Which was a home premiere extension of that film series which marked Rick Moranis’ last appearance as Wayne Szalinksi.
In September of 1997, “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: The TV Show” debuts in syndication. This hour-long adventure comedy series ran for three season. With Peter Scolari (formerly Tom Hanks’ co-star on “Bosom Buddies”) now playing the role of Wayne Szalinski. A total of 66 episodes were produced, with the last one airing May 20, 2000.
Next Steps for “Honey, I Shrunk” Film Franchise
On May 13, 2019 , a“Honey, I Shrunk” reboot was announced. To star Josh Gad playing Wayne Szalinski’s son Nick. Josh persuaded Rick Moranis to come out of retirement to play Wayne again & recruited Joe Johnston — the guy who directed the original “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” more than 30 years earlier to come back and direct the sequel.
Joe was done in Atlanta in March of 2020 directing the construction of the sets for “Shrunk.” That’s what this sequel (which will air of Disney+) will be called. Just “Shrunk.” When the pandemic happened. Production suspended.
Good news. “Shrunk” is now back on. Can’t reveal where it’s going to be shot. But Josh & Rick are slated to go before the cameras next year. Can’t wait.
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