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Be Careful What You Wish For – The Story of Robin Williams and Disney Films

In this April 2000 piece from the archives, Jim Hill exposes what really happened with comic genius Robin Williams and the Walt Disney Company's handling of the film "Aladdin" and looks at the tense relationship since.

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Spring 1991: Robin Williams was suited up in green tights and hanging from a wire when he got the call.

It was then Disney Studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg on the line. Realizing that Robin was busy filming Steven Spielberg’s big budget Peter Pan update, Jeffrey apologized for the intrusion. But the Mouse had a real problem with an animated film they had in the works. So Katzenberg was wondering if Williams — who was well known in the industry as a big-time toon buff — might drop by Burbank and offer his opinion of the project.

Given that “Hook” was already running weeks behind schedule, Robin should have said “No.” But Williams had a soft spot when it came to the Mouse.

After all, Robin pretty much owed his film career in the 1990s to Disney.

“Good Morning Vietnam” & “The Dead Poets Society” – Early Robin Williams Disney Films

After starring in a string of cinematic stinkers like “Club Paradise” and “The Survivors,” Williams virtually couldn’t get arrested in Hollywood by the mid 1980s.

Then there was the very public collapse of his first marriage as well as rumors of drug and alcohol addiction.

Things were looking pretty bleak for the comic back then

But — in 1987 — Disney decided to take a chance on Robin. Figuring that the failures of his earlier films were due mainly to a poor marriage of performer and material, Disney sought to create a movie that would be a showcase for William’s gift for comic improvisation.

Katzenberg & Co. spent weeks looking for just the right piece of material for Robin. Finally — when Disney learned that Paramount Pictures had just put in to turnaround a script about an Armed Forces Network disc jockey and his adventures during the early days of the Vietnam War — Jeffrey knew that they had found the perfect vehicle for Williams. So the studio quickly snatched up the rights to “Good Morning, Vietnam.”

Williams — who was grateful for any opportunity to work at this point in his career — jumped at the chance to appear in this film. He even agreed to Disney’s less-than-generous financial terms, getting half of his usual $2 million paycheck to portray DJ Adrian Cronauer.

In the end, Disney’s gamble on Williams paid off handsomely. “Good Morning, Vietnam” proved to be a huge hit at the box office in the Winter of 1988. Both critics and audiences loved Robin’s performance. The role even earned him his first ever Academy Award nomination for best actor.

Disney decided to build on Williams’ success in “Good Morning, Vietnam” by starring the comic in another film for the studio, 1989’s “The Dead Poets Society.” Directed by noted Australian film-maker Peter Weir, this coming-of-age drama was also proved to be a huge hit with the movie-going public. Williams’ performance as devoted teacher John Keating earned Robin his second Oscar nomination as well as established him as a gifted dramatic actor.

Thanks to these two films, Robin Williams’ movie-making career came roaring back to life. All because Jeffrey Katzenberg had decided to take a chance on a semi-washed up comedian.

Which is why Robin Williams thought he would be forever grateful to the Mouse…

Or so he thought.

Saying Yes to “Aladdin” – Robin Williams Becomes the Genie

Anyhow, due to this sense of personal and professional obligation, Robin agreed to drop by Disney Studios on his very next day off from “Hook.” Less than a week later, Williams found himself in a meeting with Katzenberg as well as Disney animators John Musker, Ron Clements and Eric Goldberg.

Jeffrey thanked Robin for dropping by, then explained Disney’s dilemma: Feature Animation had just had one of its latest projects, a new musical version of “Aladdin,” spin into the dirt. The film’s screenwriter and lyricist Howard Ashman had tragically died from AIDS a month or so earlier. The “Aladdin” script Ashman had left behind had a lot of interesting things in it. But — structurally and story-wise — it was a mess.

Katzenberg then explained to Williams that the studio was thinking of junking Ashman’s screenplay. They’d hang on to most of Howard’s wonderful lyrics. But — beyond that — Disney was thinking of taking this animated musical in a whole new direction.

That said, Jeffrey directed Robin’s attention to a nearby TV monitor. There on the screen was an animated Robin Williams — doing a routine from his 1979 “Reality … What a Concept” album. The cartoon Williams announced that “Tonight, I’d like to talk to you about schizophrenia.” The toony Robin then grew a second head, which quickly told the first head to “Shut up! No he doesn’t!”

Williams was thoroughly charmed by the footage. Animator Goldberg — who had personally put together the test animation — had done a masterful job of transforming Robin’s comic genius into toon form. Turning back to Jeffrey, Williams then asked what it was that the Mouse wanted him to do now.

Katzenberg laid it on the line: We’d like you to join the cast of “Aladdin” as the voice of the Genie.

Williams hesitated for a moment. After all, the coming year was going to be one of his busiest ever, professionally. Once Robin finished playing Peter Pan in “Hook,” he’d leap right into work on “Toys.” This whimsical military satire set behind-the-scenes at a toy factory was a project that Williams was really looking forward to — for it would re-unite him with his “Good Morning, Vietnam” director, Barry Levinson. Between all the work he’d have to do to complete these two special effects-laden films, there just didn’t seem to be enough time to squeeze in an animated film for Disney.

But Jeffrey persisted. “Think of your son, Zachary,” Katzenberg said, “Or your daughter, Zelda. Wouldn’t they love to see their dad starring in a Disney animated film?”

That was the argument that finally won Williams over to doing “Aladdin.” Since so many of his earlier films had been rated R or PG, Robin’s children had yet to really see their daddy perform on the big screen. But here now was a movie that Williams could proudly take his kids to see on its opening day.

That was enough to win Robin over to the idea of doing the voice of the genie. However, this is not to say that Williams didn’t have a few conditions he wanted Disney to agree to before formally signing up to work on “Aladdin.”

Conditions for “Aladdin”: Robin’s Other Film -“Toys”

Chief among these conditions was Robin’s insistence that Disney Studio could not use his name or image in any theatrical posters, print ads, movie trailers or TV commercials to promote “Aladdin.

What was the deal here?

Was Robin pulling some sort of silly star trip on the Mouse?

No, not at all. It was just that Williams’ next live action film, “Toys,” and the animated “Aladdin” were due to be released within weeks of one another. “Aladdin” would roll into theaters over the 1992 Thanksgiving weekend, while “Toys” would be released in December.

Robin had agreed to do “Toys” first, so Williams felt that his primary loyalties had to lie with Levinson and his movie. Disney was free to promote “Aladdin” any way that they saw fit. Just so long as they didn’t create the impression that their animated film starred Robin Williams.

After all, the Genie was just a supporting role in “Aladdin.” So Robin asked that all ads for Disney’s film reflect that reality, and not give the false impression that the animated film somehow starred Williams’ character.

Jeffrey smiled and assured Robin that Disney Studios would be happy to meet his conditions.

However, the Mouse also had a few conditions of its own.

As much as Disney wanted Williams to play the voice of the Genie, the studio just wasn’t willing to pick up Robin’s now standard $8 million-per-picture paycheck. Since Disney would only be using Williams’ voice — which the Mouse could record in just a few quick studio sessions — in the movie, would Robin be willing to work for a significantly smaller fee?

Like — say, maybe — scale? Screen Actor Guild minimum. $485 a day.

Williams’ agent — the then all-powerful head of Creative Artist Associates (CAA) Michael Ovitz — thought the deal Disney was offering Robin was absurd. If the Mouse wasn’t willing to pay for Williams’ services up front, Ovitz insisted that the very least they could do was offer Robin a piece of the movie’s back end.

Williams told Ovitz to butt out. After all, he wasn’t making “Aladdin” to make money. Robin was making this movie so that Zachary and Zelda could see their daddy in a Disney movie.

“Besides,” Williams continued, “This is animated. How much money could the movie make, anyway?”

How Much Can an Animated Movie Make in the Early 90s?

From our position (current day), where a “Lion King” can earn a billion dollars at the box office plus a billion more off of toys, games, videos, etc. — Williams’ statement seems awfully naive. But please remember that Robin was talking to Ovitz back in the Spring of 1991. Disney’s latest animated film, 1990’s “The Rescuers Down Under,” had just under-performed at the box office. And while it was true that 1988’s “The Little Mermaid” had earned $80 million domestically, that film’s performance seemed more like a fluke than the start of a trend.

Williams had no idea that Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” was lying out there in the bushes, getting ready to change forever the way people viewed animation. When that film hit theaters in November 1991, it racked up great reviews and huge box office numbers. By the spring of 1992, that movie would gross over $140 million as well as earn the first ever “Best Picture” nomination for a feature length animated film.

$140 million seemed like an extraordinary amount for an animated film to make. But “Aladdin” — with its $217 million gross — did better than “Beauty and the Beast.” And 1994’s “The Lion King” — with its $350 million — did even better than that.

But Williams had no idea that any of this was going to happen. He had no clue that animation was about to become really big money for the film industry. Robin just wanted to make a movie that he could take his kids to see.

But — more importantly — Williams wanted to pay Katzenberg & Co. back for all the kindness Disney had showed him in the mid-1980s. If the Mouse hadn’t taken a chance on him and “Good Morning, Vietnam,” Robin’s film career might still be on the skids. So, if the Walt Disney Company wanted to keep costs down on “Aladdin” by only paying him scale for his recording sessions, that was okay by Robin.

So Williams agreed to Katzenberg’s proposal — working for scale — provided, of course, that the studio honored Robin’s request to keep his names out of all the “Aladdin” ads.

“Hook”, “Toys”, and “Aladdin” – Robin Williams Busy Schedule

Robin kept his end of the bargain. Over the next 18 months, while working on “Hook” and “Toys,” Williams would slip away for a day or two every month for recording sessions on “Aladdin.” At each of these session, he’d start off with just straight readings of the scenes he was given from Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot’s screenplay. But — once those sequences were recorded — Robin would begin to ad-lib additional dialogue for each of these scenes.

Musker and Clements loved the material Williams was inventing for the Genie. So much so that they began reworking “Aladdin” so that the Genie went from a minor supporting role in the film to a part that was almost as big as the title character’s.

This is where things started to get difficult for Katzenberg. All the test screenings Disney Studio held for their still-in-production animated film showed that “Aladdin” was going to be a huge hit. Maybe even bigger than “Beauty and the Beast.”

But — when they polled the audience after each test screening as to who their favorite character in the film was — Disney found that the audience just loved the Genie. The very character that Jeffrey had promised Williams that the studio would do nothing to promote.

Now here was Katzenberg’s dilemma: How could he honor his agreement with Williams and not mention his name in any of the film’s ad, yet still somehow clue people in to the comic’s incredible vocal performance in the movie?

Using the Genie in the Promo Material for “Aladdin” – Robin Williams and Jeffrey Katzenberg Battle

A last minute re-negotiation of Disney’s deal with Williams made Katzenberg’s job somewhat easier. Jeffrey convinced Robin that — since the Genie was featured prominently in 25% of “Aladdin”‘s running length — the character should be featured in 25% of every movie trailer, print ad, TV commercial and lobby poster for the film. After getting Katzenberg’s assurance that all this revamped advertising would not give the audience the false impression that Williams’ character was the star of the movie, Robin okayed the change.

“Aladdin” Theatrical Poster

But — as soon as Williams got his first glance of the original theatrical poster for “Aladdin” — he immediately regretted changing the terms of his deal with Katzenberg. Sure, the Genie was only featured on 25% of the poster. But his big blue face was the largest image on the thing. His smiling mug towered over the film’s title, while infinitely smaller images of Aladdin and Jasmine riding their magic carpet appeared toward the bottom of the poster. While Williams’ name was nowhere to be found on the poster, it was clear to Robin that Disney was trying to get across the message that his character was the biggest thing in “Aladdin.”

Williams complained loudly to Katzenberg’s office about the imagery used in the “Aladdin” movie theater poster. Jeffrey apologized, but pointed out that he had honored the exact conditions of their deal. Robin’s name WAS nowhere to be seen on the poster. More importantly, the Genie’s image did only took up 25% of the surface space of the poster. Katzenberg had honored the language of their agreement, even if the poster’s imagery totally violated the spirit of their deal.

Fearing that featuring his character so prominently in the movie’s posters and ads would sink “Toys” chances at the box office, Williams asked that all the original “Aladdin” advertising material be recalled and new posters be issued. Katzenberg again said he was sorry, but there was no way that was going to happen. Disney had already spent millions launching “Aladdin.” Any changes in advertising imagery would just have to wait till the film’s secondary release, when the studio would create new ads and posters … maybe.

Robin was furious at the way he felt Jeffrey had mislead him in regard to the way Disney was advertising “Aladdin.” And this would not be the last time Williams and Katzenberg would clash over the way the studio chose to hype the the film.

The Genie on Posters at American Bus Shelters

Just after “Aladdin” opened, Williams was driving through downtown Los Angeles and was shocked to see that many of the city’s bus shelters featured huge blue posters of the Genie. No other characters from “Aladdin” were featured in these enormous public advertisements. Just the Genie.

When Williams called Katzenberg to complain about the bus shelter posters, Jeffrey apologized profusely. “Obviously, there must have been some sort of mix-up,” the then-Disney Studio head said. “I’ll have them removed immediately.”

So all 300 of the LA area “Aladdin” bus shelter posters were recalled and destroyed. It was only later that Williams learned that thousands of these huge blue Genie posters had been created and had been installed in bus shelters all over the country, where they remained up for the entire time “Aladdin” was in theaters. Only the big blue Genie bus shelter posters that were in areas where Williams was likely to see them had been removed.

This was typical of Katzenberg’s abuse of his “Aladdin” advertising agreement with Williams. Time and again, Jeffrey would pay lip service to Robin — saying that he was doing everything he could to make sure that Disney’s marketing department honored their deal concerning all aspects of the advertising on “Aladdin.” But, once that phone call was over, Katzenberg would then turn around and tell the studio’s marketing guys that they could do whatever they wanted to help promote the film.

“Toys” Disappointment

Just as Williams had feared, the Thanksgiving release of “Aladdin” totally over-shadowed the December release of “Toys.” Sure, this Barry Levinson film’s chances for success at the box office were hobbled by the vicious reviews this limp comedy received. But — had it been the only Robin Williams film in the marketplace that holiday season — “Toys” might have still done some business.

Unfortunately, for Christmas 1992, movie-goers had two Robin Williams films to chose from. 99.999% of the holiday audience opted to go see “Aladdin.” So “Toys” sank like a stone, barely taking in $23 million (which was less than half of the film’s production costs).

As “Toys” sank and “Aladdin” soared, Williams just didn’t know what to think.

On one hand, Robin was thrilled at “Aladdin”‘s amazing success.

Week after week, it was number 1 at the box office.

On the other hand, Robin felt incredibly guilty, thinking that Disney’s relentless advertising of “Aladdin” had snuffed out “Toys” (a film his friend Levinson had labored for 15 years to get made) only chances of ever finding an audience.

Then there was the performer’s ambivalence toward all the praise Williams was receiving for his work in “Aladdin.” Time and again, people would come up to Robin and tell him his performance in the animated film was his best thing he’d ever done. Initially, Williams enjoyed these compliments — until he realized that people were saying that his very best work was in a cartoon, a medium that only made use of an actor’s voice, not his face. This is the sort of thing that can really start to bug a guy who studied at Juilliard.

Awards and the Final Straw for the Genie

Williams’ ambivalence toward “Aladdin” became public knowledge in February 1993, when he received a certificate of special achievement for his work in the film at the Golden Globes. As he went up on the stage, the clearly uncomfortable Robin didn’t know what to say about this alleged honor. He jokingly asked the celebrities and foreign film critics assembled for the ceremony, “Is this like a coupon I can turn in to get a real award?”

Oddly enough, it was Disney’s attempt to capitalize on Williams’ win at the Golden Globes that proved to be the final breaking point between the Mouse and Mork. Katzenberg okayed a brand new series of print and TV ads for “Aladdin.” Each of these clearly mentioned Williams’ name, prominently playing up the award the Foreign Film Critics Association had honored the comic with.

As the then-head of Disney Studio, Jeffrey thought that he was just doing his job by okaying these ads. After all, the Golden Globes are considered by many in the film industry as a prelude to the Academy Awards. If Williams’ work as the Genie in “Aladdin” had been honored by the Foreign Film Critics Association, maybe the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences could also see their way clear to honoring Robin. Maybe they could even give him a special Oscar for the best vocal performance in an animated film. Hey, stranger things have happened.

However, when Williams saw these new ads, he finally blew his top. This was the last straw as far as the comic was concerned. Robin had deliberately asked Katzenberg to keep his name out of any “Aladdin” advertising. Now here was his name prominently displayed in ads throughout the trades as part of Disney’s Oscar campaign for the film.

Robin phoned Katzenberg and told the studio chief that he had repeatedly broken his word to the performer. As a result, Williams felt that he could no longer trust any executives associated with the Mouse Works. Robin then vowed that he would never again make another film for Walt Disney Studios.

Jeffrey Katzenberg Attempts to Win Over Robin Williams

Jeffrey — who was in the middle of orchestrating a million dollar ad campaign that would hopefully help “Aladdin” win a few Oscars — was horrified by what he called “Mork’s melt-down.” Sure, maybe Katzenberg had gone back on his word a few times concerning the film’s advertising. But couldn’t Robin see that Jeffrey had only done this because he had the movie’s best interests at heart? With a domestic gross of $217 million, “Aladdin” was then the highest grossing picture in the history of Walt Disney Studios. Wasn’t Williams thrilled to just to be a part of that enormous success?

Williams was not. In fact, Williams was beginning to feel like a really big schmuck for having agreed to work for scale on “Aladdin.” In addition, many of Robin’s friends in the industry began bad-mouthing the Mouse for not belatedly cutting Williams in on a chunk of the animated film’s enormous success. A very popular joke in Hollywood at the time went something like this:

Q: Why won’t the Mouse write Robin Williams a check for his work in “Aladdin”?

A: You try holding a pen with only four fingers.

Katzenberg tried to make amends with Williams by sending him a Picasso. Jeffrey made sure that word got out that Disney had spent over $5 million to purchase this belated “Thank You” gift for Robin. Imagine Katzenberg’s embarrassment when it later became common knowledge among industry insiders that the studio had picked up the painting at an estate sale for less than $750,000.

In spite of the lavish gift, Robin still refused to have anything to do with the Mouse. For years, he wouldn’t look at the scripts the studio sent him. He returned all invitations to the company’s premieres and/or theme park events. Things looked pretty hopeless…

Until Joe Roth replaced Jeffrey Katzenberg as the head of Disney Studios.

Joe Roth, Marcia Garces Williams, and “Mrs. Doubtfire”

Just like he used to have for Katzenberg & Co, Williams had a soft spot in his heart for Joe Roth.

Why for? Because — before going over to Disney in early 1992 to start up Caravan Pictures — Roth had been in charge of film production at 20th Century Fox. One of Joe’s last official acts as head of that studio was greenlighting production of Williams’ Christmas 1992 hit, “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

Why would this make Williams feel grateful toward Roth? Because “Mrs. Doubtfire” was the first film produced by Marcia Garces Williams — Robin’s wife. Marcia had long been the butt of many cruel jokes in Hollywood, given the unusual way her relationship with Robin began. (Garces had originally been hired by Robin’s first wife, Valerie, to act as a nanny to their son, Zachary. Williams and Garces had an affair that eventually led to the end of Robin’s marriage to Valerie. Garces then became Williams’ personal assistant before finally marrying the comic in 1989.) But “Mrs. Doubtfire” finally dispelled all those rumors about Marcia being Yoko to Robin’s John Lennon.

That film’s big box office gave Marcia huge credibility in Hollywood. All the cruel jokes ended — all because Joe Roth had greenlighted production of “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

Once Joe Roth took over production at Disney Studios, he learned that Francis Ford Coppola was readying a film, “Jack,” that would be perfect for Robin Williams to star in. So Joe had the script messengered to Williams’ home in Sonoma Valley.

Williams quickly returned the script, along with a note that explained that — while he would love to do a film with Coppola — he was no longer willing to work for the Mouse.

Joe then personally called Robin and asked why he didn’t want to work for Disney anymore. Williams went into a long involved explanation of how he felt he had been betrayed by Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Roth then pointed out that Katzenberg no longer worked for the Walt Disney Company. Robin went on to say that — since many of the people who had helped Jeffrey pull a fast one on the comic were still working for the Mouse — even with Katzenberg gone, Williams just didn’t feel comfortable coming back to for Disney.

But Joe wouldn’t give up. “What if the company publicly apologized to you?” he asked Robin.

Williams hadn’t expected something like that. And he was floored when Joe Roth then held a press conference in 1996, where the then-studio chief explained to the media how the Walt Disney Company had wronged Robin Williams. Roth then went on to offer a public apology for all wrongs previous company executives had committed against the comic.

Roth followed up on this press conference by taking out full page ads in many of the industry’s trade papers, explaining that the Walt Disney Company was sorry that it hadn’t honored its agreement with Robin Williams.

Robin was flabbergasted that Joe would go to all this trouble to try and right Katzenberg’s wrongs. He gladly accepted Roth’s apology as well as his invitation to come work at Disney on Francis Ford Coppola’s “Jack.”

Robin Williams Works for Disney Again

In fact, Williams was so thrilled at Joe’s efforts on his behalf that he even agreed to once again provide the voice for the Genie in a direct-to-video sequel to the original “Aladdin” movie, 1996’s “Aladdin and the King of Thieves.”

In turn, Disney was so thrilled to have Robin back as the Genie that they threw out all the recordings Dan Castellaneta (the Genie’s voice for the “Aladdin” TV show as well as the film’s first direct-to-video sequel, 1994’s “The Return of Jafar”) had already made as well as the third of the film that had already been animated.

With Williams once again on board, the animators started from scratch. All the extra effort proved to be worthwhile. Immediately upon release, “Aladdin and the King of Thieves” became the number 1 best selling video in the country.

Did Disney’s renewed relationship with Robin Williams last? Williams made two films for the Disney Company in 1997: a remake of Fred McMurray’s “Absent Minded Professor” comedy called “Flubber” that was Walt Disney Pictures’ big Thanksgiving weekend release for that year; as well as “Good Will Hunting,” a drama produced by the company’s art house subsidy, Miramax Pictures. Williams’ performance as the depressed therapist in that film actually earned him a “Best Supporting Actor” Oscar at the 1998 Academy Awards.

But there was some storm clouds. Williams is said to be upset at how Disney handled his last film for the company, 1999’s “Bicentennial Man.” First the studio announced the project with much fanfare — heralding it as the long awaited re-union between Robin and his “Mrs. Doubtfire” director, Chris (“Home Alone”) Columbus. Then, well after pre-production is underway, the Mouse abruptly canceled the movie, saying that the film’s projected production budget was too high.

Embarrassed by Disney’s behavior but still anxious to make the movie, Williams and Columbus shaved $20 million or so off the film’s production budget. With these cuts in place, Disney then agreed to put “Bicentennial Man” back into production. The film was finally released Christmas Day 1999 and quickly flopped.

Williams reportedly was upset with the way Disney opted to advertise the film as well as the financial restrictions the Mouse placed on Robin and Columbus while making the movie. The comic felt that the $20 million worth of scenes he and Chris cut out of the script to get the film greenlighted again may have destroyed the “Bicentennial Man”‘s chances of ever winning over an audience.

Equally troubling to Williams was Joe Roth’s decision to step down as head of Disney Studios. Who’s started running the show at the Mouse Works? One of Jeffrey Katzenberg’s former lieutenants from Disney Feature Animation, Peter Schneider.

Oh well. It was fun while it lasted.

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

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Film & Movies

“Khrushchev at Disneyland” – The Film Walt Disney Almost Made

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Khrushchev Disneyland Film
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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.

Nikita Khrushchev stopped by 20th Century Fox studios in Los Angeles to mingle with some of Hollywood's biggest stars.
Credit: PBS

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.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev gestures as he arrives at the Mark Hopkins hotel on Sept. 20, 1959, in San Francisco. | AP Photo
Credit: Politico/AP

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.

LOS ANGELES, Sept. 19 -- Nikita S. Khrushchev's temper exploded today, not long after he arrived here from New York, when he was told that he could not go to Disneyland because security officials could not guarantee his safety.
Credit: NY Times

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.

Eisenhower and Khrushchev
Credit: Past Daily

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.

Josh Gadd and Nikita Khrushchev
Credit: Wikipedia Commons
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How Mattel’s “Men in Space” Toyline Lead to the Creation of Buzz Lightyear

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Buzz Lightyear Origin Story - images of Major Matt Mason, Buzz Lightyear, and Lunar Larry Concept Art
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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.

Credit: Disney

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.

credit: The Toys that made us

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.”

Credit: Vintage Action Figures

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.

Credit: Mattel

“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.

Credit: Disney
Credit: Disney
Credit: Disney
Credit: Disney

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” …

YOU ARE A TOY!!!  You aren’t the real Buzz Lightyear, you’re an action figure!!  You are a child’s plaything!!!

… 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.

Credit: New York Times

This article is based on research for Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor “Episode 178”, published on June 16, 2022. Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.

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“Honey, I Shrunk the Audience!”: Sequel Troubles and New Attractions

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Honey I Shrunk the Audience
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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.

Credit: Walt Disney Company

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.”

Credit: Walt Disney Company

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.

Honey, I shrunk the audience Epcot sign
Credit: Flickr Gary Burke

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.

This article is based on research for The Disney Dish Podcast “Episode 375”, published on May 23, 2022. The Disney Dish Podcast is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.

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