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The Sad Tail … I mean “Tale” … of the stalled Roger Rabbit sequel

In this piece from the Jim Hill archives, learn why you shouldn’t expect a return trip to ToonTown anytime soon…

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Now that Peter Schneider — former head of feature animation — is the new chairman of Walt Disney Studios, does that mean his old buddies at Feature Animation will get preferential treatment?

Not bloody likely.

Schneider is a true corporate creature, folks. The moment he took over for former Disney studio head Joe Roth, all loyalty to Disney Feature Animation [DFA] ended abruptly. Now Peter leans hard on his former charges to keep production costs down and productivity up.

Which is a shame. Because for a while there, some DFA staffers thought Schneider might do something positive with his new-found power.

Like — say — finally green-light a film that animation fans have been waiting twelve years for.

But don’t hold your breath, folks. “Roger Rabbit II” isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Though the key pieces are already in place (A script — featuring five new Alan Menken songs — has been written. Menken himself has agreed to serve as the film’s executive producer. Master Disney animator Eric Goldberg has committed to supervising the animation of this project. Disney Feature Animation’s Florida unit even had staffers working on test footage last spring), this long awaited sequel to the 1988 blockbuster stalled out again last summer.

What happened? How is it that a film like “Roger Rabbit II” — a project that’s almost guaranteed to make money — keeps failing to get made?

Part of the problem is cost. Then there’s that deal Eisner made with Spielberg. Plus all the personality conflicts involved.

*Sigh* It’s a long story, folks. (I know, I know. ALL my stories are long stories. Sorry. I guess — when it comes to the history of the Walt Disney Company — there are no neat, short answers).

But — to understand why it is that a guaranteed blockbuster like “Roger Rabbit II” can’t get made — you have to go back over the unlikely chain of events that lead up to the original film getting produced in the first place.

Roger Rabbit started on the road to screen stardom away back in 1980, when then-Disney Studio head Ron Miller got a hold of the galley proofs for a soon-to-be-published novel. This book — Gary Wolf’s “Who Censored Roger Rabbit” — was a clever spoof of all those old hardboiled detective novels. It was a twisted tale set in a film noir never-neverland; a Hollywood where humans and toons lived and worked uneasily side by side.

Miller thought that Walt Disney Productions could make something really special out of Wolf’s book. He brought the story to the attention of then-Disney CEO Card Walker. Walker was less than impressed. Finding the novel weird and dark, Card told Ron to pass on the project.

Miller didn’t. In fact — over Walker’s objections — Ron paid $25,000 for the film rights to “Who Censored Roger Rabbit.” Miller then handed the project off to a young Disney production executive, Mark Sturdivant, for development. Sturdivant hired two former advertising copywriters, Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman, to work up a screenplay. He also assigned Disney animator Darrell Van Citters to begin roughing out character designs as well as pencil tests for the project.

Seaman and Price wrote ten different drafts of their Roger Rabbit screenplay before they finally got the story right. In the process, the screenwriters chucked out most of Wolf’s original storyline, while retaining most of his character names as well as the book’s core concept.

What made Seaman and Price’s final version of their Roger Rabbit screenplay so much fun is that they decided to go whole hog with Wolf’s “toons are real” idea. So they wrote a murder mystery set in 1947 Hollywood, where private detective Eddie Valiant didn’t just interact with Roger, Jessica and Baby Herman. He also had to rub elbows with Betty Boop, Bugs Bunny and tons of other established cartoon stars before he could solve the murder of R.K. Maroon.

It was a daring idea for a Disney film. One that that Miller and Sturdivant were sure Walt himself would have loved. But it was also a potentially pricey project. In order for the film to work, the Mouse needed to get clearances from several other Hollywood studios to use their classic cartoon characters.

Now please remember that this was ‘way back in the early 1980s. Disney was not the media giant we know today. It was still an entertainment industry also-ran, best known for its fine theme parks and lame-ass movies.

Miller had Sturdivant approach Warner Brothers, Paramount and Universal about contracting their classic cartoon characters out to appear in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” They all just laughed, said no and/or asked for such ridiculously high fees that they made making a deal impossible.

In spite of this setback, Miller still had Sturdivant and Citters continue work on “Roger Rabbit.” He ordered that live action footage be shot, so that pencil test animation could be layered over these scenes — to see if a toony Roger Rabbit could convincingly interact with a live action Eddie Valiant.

Early subscribers to the Disney Channel actually got a chance to see this footage on an April 1983 broadcast of “Disney Studio Showcase.” Hosted by animation historian John Culhane, this program (which also hyped the then-in-production film “Baby – Secret of the Lost Legend” as well as Tim Burton’s TV version of Hansel & Gretel) included a preview of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”

The test footage featured an unknown actor standing in for Eddie Valiant. After exiting an alley, Eddie is suddenly accosted by a giant cartoon police detective. He’s then shown drinking at a bar with an early version of Jessica (Who at this point in her development, wasn’t quite so voluptuous. This Jessica — who was supposed to be the villain in this version of the film — looked a lot like Cruella De Vil-gone-Hollywood). The segment ends with Culhane exiting the Roger Rabbit production offices, just before a fully animated and painted version of Roger strolled through this live action setting.

Miller was determined to get this film made. He sent the test footage as well as the Roger Rabbit script to Steve Spielberg, Robert Zemekis and Joe Dante for their review. Each of these directors was intrigued by the project. But they also doubted that tired old Disney Studios had what it took to get this sort of special effects extravaganza off the ground. Miller offered to put up a budget of $25 million. All three directors still passed on the picture.

Even in the face of these high profile rejections, Miller still pressed ahead with his plans for a Roger Rabbit feature. He had a picture of Roger placed in the 1983 Walt Disney Productions annual report, its caption reading “Work continues on the live action – animated Roger Rabbit.” Miller also authorized Citters to begin auditioning talent to voice Disney’s latest creation. Citters eventually selected a then-unknown comic from LA’s “Groundling” improvisation troupe. His name? Paul Reubens (a.k.a. Pee Wee Herman).

Miller kept plugging away at “Roger Rabbit,” trying relentlessly to get the movie made. He kept faith in the project right up until September of 1984, when the Walt Disney Company suddenly lost faith in him. That’s when Miller was unceremoniously forced out and Michael Eisner became the Big Cheese at the Mouse Factory.

Quick cut to 1986: Eisner has been on board at Disney for a year or so now.

Having quickly thrown together a few live action films like “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “Ruthless People” that made money for the company, Uncle Mikey is anxious to do something more ambitious.

What does Eisner want to do? He wants Disney to produce a major motion picture. A film with a huge budget and tons of special effects. The sort of project that makes critics as well as moviegoers sit up and take notice. Something that could win awards as well as offer lots of opportunities to generate cash (toys, games, soundtrack albums, etc) for the company.

Eisner wanted to make something that would send a message to the rest of the entertainment world that Disney was no longer a Mickey Mouse operation.

In short, an event film. A blockbuster.

But where do you find a blockbuster? Particularly when you have next to no dough to develop such a thing?

Actually, then-Disney Studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg (a.k.a. the Golden Retriever) uncovered just such a project one day while reading through some old scripts Disney had previously put into development. ‘Way down deep in the pile, he discovered Seaman and Price’s screenplay for “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Sensing he’d struck the mother lode, Jeffrey quickly brought the script to Eisner’s attention.

Eisner read the “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” screenplay and immediately realizes that this was the film he was looking for. Here was the ideal movie for Disney’s new production team to tackle as their first big budget project. Roger Rabbit had something for everyone: animation to draw in the small fry and their families, plus enough sly wit and action to keep adults and teenagers happy. This project had blockbuster written all over it. The big question was: Could Disney pull it off?

The only stumbling blocking for Eisner and the revived Roger Rabbit project was the same thing that tripped up Ron Miller: Getting the clearances from all those other Hollywood studios for use of their classic cartoon characters. Without those non-Disney 1940s era toons for Eddie to interact with, Roger Rabbit wouldn’t be special. The film would just fall flat.

But Eisner had a secret weapon: his personal and professional relationship with movie maestro Steven Spielberg.

Back in 1980, Spielberg and George Lucas had been looking for a home for their dream project: a big budget remake of the old Saturday matinee serials. It featured exotic locations, elaborate stunts as well as an unlikely sounding hero: Indiana Jones.

Based on Lucas and Spielberg’s box office reputation, every studio in town (including Disney) wanted a shot at producing “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” But none of them dared to take on the project, after they learned about the film’s projected budget as well as the outrageous financial terms Spielberg and Lucas were asking. Only Eisner — then head of production at Paramount Pictures — dared to make the deal.

That gamble had paid off handsomely, both in its profits for Paramount as well as Eisner’s friendship with Spielberg. So now — six years later — Eisner had his own dream project that needed help. So he called Steven at his Amblin production offices over on the Universal backlot, asking him to come on down to Burbank for a little confab.

Spielberg — of course — remembered the Roger Rabbit script and shared Eisner’s enthusiasm for the proposed film. But Steve also knew that this ambitious mix of animation and live action would be an expensive and time consuming project. It was almost too much film for one studio to make.

That’s when Eisner proposed that Disney and Amblin produced “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” together. Disney would lend its animation expertise to the project. Steven would bring in his buddy, George Lucas and his wizards at ILM to handle the film’s special effects. More importantly, Spielberg could use his considerable clout to persuade the other Hollywood studios to allow the Mouse to use their classic cartoon characters in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”

Steven was willing to take Uncle Mikey on his offer — with one condition: Disney and Amblin had to share the copyright on any characters that were created for the film. That meant that the two companies would split everything right down the middle. 50 / 50. That included merchandising revenues, sequel and spin-off rights, any theme park projects, basically the whole ball of wax.

Eisner was so desperate to get his event film made that he quickly agreed to Spielberg’s terms. That may have been the last time Michael and Steven agreed on anything relating to “Roger Rabbit.”

The actual production of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” is a classic Hollywood horror story.

A troubled film right from the start, its budget started at $30 million, then quickly escalated to $50.6 million.

Work on the movie fell so far behind schedule that — in February 1988 — it looked Roger Rabbit might miss its June 24th opening date. Since Disney had already signed multi-million dollar promotional deals with McDonalds and Coca Cola that keyed on Roger Rabbit opening on that day, missing the film’s opening date was not an option. So Uncle Mikey forced then-Disney studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg to personally take charge of the project. Jeffrey did everything he could think of — kicked, cried, screamed, cajoled — to get the Roger Rabbit team into meet their production deadline.

The one aspect of the project that did not go over-budget was the licensing deals Spielberg worked out for use of the non-Disney classic cartoon characters to be featured in the film. True to his word, Spielberg persuaded the other Hollywood studios to lease their toons to the Mouse for a ridiculously low fee: $5000 per character.

Of course, there were a few conditions. Warners insisted that — if Bugs Bunny were to appear in the film — he could only appear in scenes where he performed directly opposite Mickey Mouse. And — when the characters spoke — Bugs had to have the same exact number of words of dialogue that Mickey did.

(Warners’ insistence on a similar arrangement for Donald and Daffy Duck actually resulted in one of the best scenes from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Since Donald and Daffy had to appear together, director Robert Zemekis threw them on stage as a team at the Ink and Paint club. Their loony dueling pianos rendition of the “Hungarian Rhapsody” was one of the real highlights of the first film.)

With Katzenberg cracking the whip, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” did actually make it into theaters on June 24th. The film immediately became a box office sensation — grossing over $154 million in its initial domestic release alone. Overseas, Roger Rabbit was even more popular, taking in $174 million at the international box office.

Disney and Spielberg had created a hugely popular movie. Consumers snatched up mounds of Roger Rabbit merchandise, then clamored for more. The film won four Academy Awards. Fans screamed for a sequel.

But now — twelve years later — Roger languishes in limbo.

The follow-up to this hit motion picture is almost a decade overdue. Plans for sure-fire Disney theme park attractions based on the characters (other than the one-off “Roger Rabbit’s Cartoon Spin” at Disneyland’s ToonTown) just lay around WDI, gathering dust.

What the hell happened? The answer lies in that 50 / 50 deal Eisner made with Spielberg. Both Disney and Amblin own half of the copyright on the characters created for “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” That means — before any project involving Roger can move forward — both sides have to agree exactly on the exact terms of the contract. Every time Roger appears in a film or a theme park attraction or even on a toy, there’s a lengthy negotiation between Disney and Spielberg’s lawyers involved.

As you might imagine, this sort of micro-management takes up a lot of time — which is why Roger Rabbit’s career has been on hold these years past ten years.

Mind you, it wasn’t always like this. Back in 1989 — right after “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” was released to universal acclaim and the film did boffo business at the box office — both Disney and Spielberg were anxious to cash in on the film’s popularity.

So, hoping to keep the character fresh in the public’s mind, Disney quickly put a new Roger Rabbit short, “Tummy Trouble,” into production. Spielberg okayed the idea, as well as the Mouse’s plan to fold elements from the hit film into their then still-under-construction Disney-MGM Studioa Theme Park.

Guests who visited that park during its first year of operation may remember how prominently Roger Rabbit and friends were featured at the studio theme park. Folks who took the backstage tram tour rolled past many of the props used in the film, including Eddie Valiant’s roadster and a “Red Car” trolley. They even encountered a recreation of the Acme Warehouse, where they were menaced by the Dipmobile.

After exiting the tram, guests followed Roger’s large footprints into the Looney Bin. There, they could play among the props in the Acme Gagworks or have their picture taken cuddling with Jessica and / or careening around ToonTown inside Benny the Cab. Other “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” props were featured prominently inside the Special Effects workshop.

That summer, “Tummy Trouble” debuted in theaters nationwide. Audiences flocked to see the new short (as well as the feature film that followed it: “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”). Given the response at the box office, it was obvious that Roger was no one hit wonder.

Properly handled, it looked this rabbit could be a perennial. A character with legs. Someone like Mickey or Donald who could stay popular with audiences not for just a year, but for decades at a time. An evergreen money machine.

That was Disney’s goal, anyway. So — with the hope of keeping the “Roger Rabbit ” gravy train rolling — the Mouse quickly cut a deal with Spielberg to co-produce a sequel to the first film. They then announced that they’d be following up “Tummy Trouble” with a whole new series of Roger Rabbit shorts. The next installment, “Roller Coaster Rabbit,” would actually be produced at its Disney / MGM animation studio in Florida.

It all seemed too good to last.

It was.

It was actually the next short that started all the problems.

Spielberg wanted “Roller Coaster Rabbit” to be shown in front of a film Amblin was producing for the Walt Disney Company. (A little side note here: That film, “Arachnophobia,” was actually the first title to be released through Disney’s Hollywood Pictures division). On the other hand, Disney just blew $45 million making Warren Beatty’s troubled summer blockbuster, “*** Tracy.”

Knowing that Beatty’s big screen comic book was going to need all the help it could get to make back its production costs, Disney wanted to put “Roller Coaster Rabbit” in front of “*** Tracy.” (Why? Because — the previous summer — Disney’s “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids ” had made $124 million. Some people thought that the film had become a hit on its own. But there were an equally large number of folks at the studio who felt that “Honey” only did as well as it did because it had a new Roger Rabbit short showing in front of it.)

In the end, Disney got what it wanted. “*** Tracy” — thanks in part to the Roger Rabbit short that ran in front of it — wasn’t exactly a hit, but it did make back its production costs. On the other hand, “Arachnophobia,” despite some great reviews, under-performed. (Making just $52 million, the movie barely covered its promotion and production costs.) It became obvious that that “Arachnophobia” could have really used the extra box office juice that would have come from having a new Roger rabbit short in front of it. But “*** Tracy” and the Mouse had won that time …

Spielberg — a man who is used to getting what he wants — was upset at what he perceived as Disney’s slight. As a co-owner of Roger Rabbit, he felt that he should have had more of a say in how the character was being used — particularly concerning which short got put in front of which movie.

So Spielberg decided to make his position regarding Roger Rabbit and Disney clear. He waited ’til Disney actually had a new short, “Hare in My Soup,” in production. Then Spielberg announced “I don’t like the story for the new short. Without my approval, you can’t go forward with this film. Shut down production.”

Given that these were indeed the terms of the Roger Rabbit deal, Disney reluctantly halted work on “Hare in My Soup.” None of the other story ideas for shorts the Mouse pitched to Spielberg met his fancy either. As a result, there was no new Roger Rabbit short that year. (Not so co-incidentally, the film “Hare in My Soup” would have appeared in front of — “The Rocketeer” — which went on to under-perform at the box office. It could have really benefited from all the excitement having a new Roger Rabbit short.)

It would be two years before Spielberg would allow work to proceed on a new Roger Rabbit short, “Trail Mix-Up.”

By then, Steven was also holding up production on a proposed sequel to the original feature film. Its title was to have been “Who Discovered Roger Rabbit?”

Steven’s explanation for stalling the Roger Rabbit feature length follow-up was that he had issues with Nat Mauldin’s screenplay. The script (which, by the way, wasn’t a sequel, but a prequel: its storyline took place well before the events featured in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”) dealt with Roger’s early days in Hollywood as he struggled to make it as a star.

There are several different storylines that ran through “Who Discovered Roger Rabbit?” One covered Roger’s courtship of Jessica. Another dealt with his search for his long-lost mother. And — because the film was set during World War II — still another story-line dealt with a popular radio host that Jessica worked for who was eventually revealed to be a Nazi spy.

Now keep in mind that we’re talking about Steven Spielberg circa 1993 here. This is a guy who’s just had a major spiritual awakening due to his work on “Schindler’s List.” Having embraced his Jewish heritage, Spielberg announced that — due to the atrocities his people had suffered during the Holocaust — he could no longer allow *** to appear as stock villains in his films.

Okay. I can respect that. (Though — if I were a mean and petty person — I might point out that less than four years later, Spielberg did another film called “Saving Private Ryan.” And weren’t the villains in that movie, well, ***? But I digress.)

Anyway, Spielberg says “No more Nazi villains in my movies.” Disney has to honor the request of the co-owner of the Roger Rabbit copyright. So they began reworking Mauldin’s script. The Nazi sub-plot got cut, but so did the film’s Hollywood setting. The time period shifts back a few years and…

Presto Changeo! What was once a World War II comic adventure was now a Busby Berkley movie musical. Now set in New York City during the depths of the Depression, “Who Discovered Roger Rabbit?” was the story of Roger as a young toon bumbling around Broadway — looking for his big break.

Mind you, not everything from Mauldin’s story had been changed. Roger still courts Jessica while searching for his long-lost mother. Only this time around, he lands a job on the stage crew of the musical Jessica performing in. One night, Roger’s trapped on stage as the curtain goes up and… a star is born.

This story line might sound a bit shopworn and tired. But the new version of “Who Discovered Roger Rabbit?” (reworked by Sherri Stoner and Deanna Oliver) is actually a funny and affectionate tribute to those old movie musicals. There are lots of great jokes as well as some fun character moments for the toons. Best of all, it retains Mauldin’s terrific end gag for the film: revealing the identity of Roger’s long lost father.

This version of the script (Which – for a short time – was considered as a direct-to-video project) impressed a lot of people at Disney. In fact, someone liked the screenplay so much that they slipped a copy to Disney’s house composer, Alan Menken. Menken was so impressed with what he read that in addition to writing five songs for the film, he signed on as executive producer.

This brings us up to 1997.

The Mouse is anxious to finally get production underway on their Roger Rabbit prequel. But now there’s another hitch. Jeffrey Katzenberg now works with Spielberg at Dreamworks SKG. Given Jeffrey’s animosity toward Disney in general (and Eisner in particular), Uncle Mikey worries that Katzenberg could deliberately bad-mouth the project, compelling Spielberg to pull the plug on the prequel.

But Eisner has a plan. He recruits two of Steven’s long-time Amblin associates — Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy — to serve as producers on the Roger Rabbit prequel. Surely Spielberg won’t say “no” to a film shepherded by his loyal former assistants. Particularly given that Marshall and Kennedy are planning on using the Roger Rabbit prequel project to establish themselves effective producers outside of Amblin.

Eisner’s ploy works. Though Spielberg does have reservations about the revised script, for the sake of Kennedy and Marshall’s big break, he keeps his mouth shut and allows pre-production work to proceed on “Who Discovered Roger Rabbit?”

However, since the original Roger Rabbit feature had gone so horrendously over-budget ‘way back in 1988, the Mouse was determined to keep costs down this time around. Before committing to full-scale production on the prequel, Disney wanted to do a production test. Their mission was to see whether all the new animation techniques the studio had developed in the 1990s would have a positive impact (read that as “show us a cheaper way”) to combine live action and animated footage

This test quietly got underway in the spring of 1998 at Disney Feature Animation in Florida. Master animator Eric Goldberg (who actually got his first opportunity to work for the Mouse when he was hired to animate Roger in the original movie) put together a new model sheet for the wacky rabbit, making Roger younger looking as well as easier-to-draw. (After all — since “Who Discovered Roger Rabbit?” was set a full decade before “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” — it stood to reason that Roger should look younger, shouldn’t he?)

The test footage Disney put together was deceptively simple. A live action actor — playing a big-time Hollywood agent — sits behind at a desk in his office. Suddenly, the door flies opens. Two menacing weasels enter, armed with Tommy guns.

The weasels “persuade” the agent into letting their friend, Roger Rabbit, come in for an audition. Roger now burst into the room and — surprise, surprise — thoroughly destroys the office. Papers fly off the desk and knickknacks get shattered as he dances on the desktop. It’s just another day in ToonTown.

The purpose behind this particular test was to see if traditionally animated characters and computer animated props could fit together cohesively on top of live action footage. So the machine guns that the weasels aimed at the agent were CGI, as was a small table Roger breaks while trying to demonstrate an ill-conceived magic trick.

Unfortunately, the computer generated props and the more traditionally animated rabbit and weasels didn’t exactly mesh with each other in the initial test footage. So the Feature Animation folks in Disney-MGM took another pass at the test. This time around though, both the characters as well as the props they handled were done using computer animation.

This version of the “Who Discovered Roger Rabbit?” test was initially met with a lot of enthusiasm back in Burbank … at least until someone slipped Eisner a projected budget for the film. Using computer animation to do all the toons in the film would drive the cost of the Roger Rabbit prequel well north of the $100 million mark. As soon as he heard that, Uncle Mikey pulled the plug on the project.

According to Eisner’s way of thinking, $100 million was just too much to pay for a sequel for a twelve-year-old movie.

Now don’t blame Eisner.

Disney has learned the hard way about waiting too long to produce follow-up films. The studio’s “Another Stakeout” — coming six years after the 1987 original starring Richard Dreyfus and Emilio Estevez — died a dog’s death at the box office. “The Rescuers Down Under” — released thirteen years after the original animated feature — also under-performed. And let’s not even get started on “Return to Oz.”

There is also a general rule of thumb in Hollywood concerning sequels: Follow-up films rarely make more than 2/3 of what the original film grossed. Since production costs on “Who Discovered Roger Rabbit?” had been projected to go well over $100 million, while its estimated box office take looked to be well under that amount, it just didn’t make sense for Eisner to go forward with development of the feature.

So — with the project’s age and projected cost weighing against it — all pre-production work was suspended in the summer of 1999. Eisner took the money he had been earmarked for the Roger Rabbit follow-up and shifted it over to another event film Disney had in development: “Tennessee.” (Now known as “Pearl Harbor,” this is Michael Bay’s big budget blockbuster for the summer of 2001. An epic romance set in the early days of World War II, this massive motion picture — initially budgeted at $140 million — has been described as “Titanic” meets “Tora! Tora! Tora!”)

So is the Roger Rabbit sequel really dead?

One learns to never say never in Hollywood. If there were suddenly a bunch of movies that featured animation and live action that hit it big at the box office, Disney would definitely take another look at doing “Who Discovered Roger Rabbit?”

Co-incidentally, there are two films coming out this summer that mix live action and animation. The first is 20th Century Fox’s “Monkeybone,” a dark fantasy starring Brendan Fraser. Directed by former Disney stop motion guru Henry (“The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “James and the Giant Peach”) Selick, this film’s currently slated to bow in May.

Then in June, Universal unleashes “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle” This film mixes — just as “Who Discovered Roger Rabbit” was supposed to — CGI cartoon characters with live actors.

I’ll say this much. The “Rocky and Bullwinkle” production team at least have the good graces to acknowledge their debt to “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” In the teaser trailer that hit theaters over the holiday season, a William Conrad-esque announcer breathlessly described the forthcoming film as “the most spectacular mix of live action and animation Hollywood has ever attempted.”

There’s now an abrupt switch to live action footage. Boris (Jason Alexander), Natasha (Rene Russo) and Fearless Leader (Robert DeNiro) stride purposefully down a corridor, with their evil minions in tow. One of the henchmen says to Fearless Leader: “But isn’t this just like that Roger Rabbit movie?”

Fearless Leader turns ferociously on this disrespectful oaf. Slapping his riding crop down on his thigh, Fearless Leader snarls: “This is NOTHING like that movie.”

Funny, funny bit.

Anyway — if either “Monkeybone” or “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle” films make big dough at the box office this coming summer — look for Disney to make one more try at resurrecting “Roger Rabbit.”

Unless — of course — Steven Spielberg won’t let them.

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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Jens Dahlmann of LongHorn Steakhouse has lots of great tips when it comes to grilling

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Sure, for some folks, the Fourth of July is all about fireworks. But for the 75% of all Americans who own a grill or a smoker, the Fourth is our Nation’s No. 1 holiday when it comes to grilling. Which is why 3 out of 4 of those folks will spend some time outside today working over a fire.

But here’s the thing: Though 14 million Americans can cook a steak with confidence because they actually grill something every week, the rest of us – because we use our grill or smoker so infrequently … Well, let’s just say that we have no chops when it comes to dealing with chops (pork, veal or otherwise).

So what’s a backyard chef supposed to in a situation like this when there’s so much at steak … er … stake? Turn to someone who really knows their way around a grill for advice. People like Jens Dahlmann, the Vice President and Corporate Executive Chef for Darden Restaurant’s LongHorn Steakhouse brand.

Given that Jens’ father & grandfather were chefs, this is a guy who literally grew up in a kitchen. In his teens & twenties, Dahlmann worked in hotels & restaurants all over Switzerland & Germany. Once he was classically trained in the culinary arts, Jens then  jumped ship. Well, started working on cruise ships, I mean.

Anyway … While working on Cunard’s Sea Goddess, Dahlmann met Sirio Maccioni, the founder of Le Cirque 2000. Sirio was so impressed with Jens’ skills in the kitchen that he offered him the opportunity to become sous-chef at this New York landmark. After four years of working in Manhattan, Dahlmann then headed south to become executive chef at Palm Beach’s prestigious Café L’Europe.

Jens Dahlmann back during his Disney World days

And once Jens began wowing foodies in Florida, it wasn’t all that long ’til the Mouse came a-calling. Mickey wanted Dahlmann to shake things up in the kitchen over at WDW’s Flying Fish Café. And he did such a good job with that Disney’s Boardwalk eatery the next thing Jens knew, he was then being asked to work his magic with the menu at the Contemporary Resort’s California Grill.

From there, Dahlmann had a relatively meteoric rise at the Mouse House. Once he became Epcot’s Food & Beverage general manager, it was only a matter of time before he wound up as the executive chef in charge of this theme park’s annual International Food & Wine Festival. Which – under Jens’ guidance – experienced some truly explosive growth.

“When I took on Food & Wine, that festival was only 35 days long and had gross revenues of just $5.5 million. When I left Disney in 2016, Food & Wine was now over 50 days long and that festival had gross revenues of $22 million,” Dahlmann admitted during a recent sit-down. “I honestly loved those 13 years I spent at Disney. When I was working there, I learned so much because I was really cooking for America.”

And it was exactly that sort of experience & expertise that Darden wanted to tap into when they lured Jens away from Mickey last year to become LongHorn Steakhouse’s new Vice President and Corporate Executive Chef. But today … Well, Dahlmann is offering tips to those of us who are thinking about cooking steak tips for the Fourth.

Photo by Jim Hill

“When you’re planning on grilling this holiday, if you’re looking for a successful result, the obvious place to start is with the quality of the meat you plan on cooking for your friends & family. If you want the best results here, don’t be cheap when you go shopping. Spend the money necessary for a fresh filet or a New York strip. Better yet a Ribeye, a nice thick one with good marbling. Because when you look at the marbling on a steak, that’s where all the flavor happens,” Jens explained. “That said, you always have to remember that — the higher you go with the quality of your meat — the less time you’re going to want that piece of meat to spend on the grill.”

And speaking of cooking … Before you even get started here, Jens suggests that you first take the time to check over all of your grilling equipment. Making sure that the grill itself is first scraped clean & then properly oiled before you then turn up the heat.

“If you’re working with a dirty grill, when you go to turn your meat, it may wind up sticking to the grill. Or maybe those spices that you’ve just so carefully coated your steak with will wind up sticking to the grill, rather than your meat,” Dahlmann continued. “Which is why it’s always worth it to spend a few minutes prior to firing up your grill properly cleaning & oiling it.”

Photo by Jim Hill

And speaking of heat … Again, before you officially get started grilling here, Jens says that it’s crucial to check your temperature gauges. Make sure that your char grill is set at 550 (so that it can then properly handle the thicker cuts of meat) and your flattop is set at 425 (so it can properly sear thinner pieces of meat).

Okay. Once you’ve bought the right cuts of quality meat, properly cleaned & oiled your grill, and then made sure that everything’s set at the right temperature (“If you can only stand to hold your hand directly over the grill for two or three seconds, that’s the right amount of heat,” Dahlmann said), it’s now time to season your steaks.

“Don’t be afraid to be bold here. You can’t be shy when it comes to seasoning your meat. You want to give it a nice coating. Largely because — if you’re using a char grill — a lot of that seasoning is just going to fall off anyway,” Jens stated. “It’s up to you to decide what sort of seasoning you want to use here. Even just some salt & pepper will enhance a steak’s flavor.”

Then – according to Dahlmann – comes the really tough part. Which is placing your meat on the grill and then fighting the urge to flip it too early or too often.

“The biggest mistake that a lot of amateur cooks make is that they flip the steak too many times. The real key to a well-cooked piece of meat is just let it be, “Jens insisted. “Of course, if you’re serving different cuts of meat at your Fourth of July feast, you always want to put your biggest thickest steak on the grill first. If you’re also cooking a New York Strip, you want to put that one on a few minutes later. But after that, just let the grill do its job and flip your meat a total of three or four times, once every three minutes or so.”

Of course, the last thing you want to do is overcook a quality piece of meat. Which is why Dahlmann suggests that – when it comes to grilling steaks – if you’re going to err, err on the side of undercooking.

“You can always put a piece of meat back on the grill if it’s slightly undercooked. When you over-cook something, all you can do then is start over with a brand-new piece of meat,” Jens said. “Just be sure that you’re using the correct cut of meat for the cooking result you’re aiming for. If someone wants a rare or medium rare steak, you should go with a thicker cut of steak. If one of your guests wants their steak cooked medium or well, it’s best to start with a thinner cut of meat.”

Photo by Jim Hill

As you can see, the folks at Longhorn take grilling steaks seriously. How seriously? Just last week at Darden Corporate Headquarters in Orlando, seven of these brand’s top grill masters (who – after weeks of regional competitions – had been culled from the 491 restaurants that make up this chain) competed for a $10,000 prize in the Company’s second annual Steak Master Series. And Dahlmann was one of the people who stood in Darden’s test kitchens, watching like a hawk as each of the contestants struggled to prepare six different dishes in just 20 minutes according to Longhorn Steakhouse’s exacting standards.

“I love that Darden does this. Recognizing the best of the best who work this restaurant,” Jens concluded. “We have a lot of people here who are incredibly knowledgeable & passionate when it comes to grilling.”

Speaking of which … If today’s story doesn’t include the exact piece of info that you need to properly grill that T-bone, just whip out your iPhone & text GRILL to 55702. Or – better yet – visit  ExpertGriller.com prior to firing up your grill or smoker later today. 

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Tuesday, July 4, 2017

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Brattleboro’s Strolling of the Heifers is a sincere if somewhat surreal way to spend a summer’s day in Vermont

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Some people travel halfway ‘around the planet so that they can then experience the excitement of the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. If you’re more of a Slow Living enthusiast (as I am), then perhaps you should amble to Brattleboro, VT. Where – over the first weekend in June – you can then join a herd of cow enthusiasts at the annual Strolling of the Heifers.

Now in its 16th year, this three-day long event typically gets underway on Friday night in June with a combination block party / gallery walk. But then – come Saturday morning – Main Street in Brattleboro is lined with thousands of bovine fans.

Photo by Jim Hill

They’ve staked out primo viewing spots and set up camp chairs hours ahead of time. Just so these folks can then have a front row seat as this year’s crop of calves (which all come from local farms & 4-H clubs) are paraded through the streets.

Photo by Jim Hill

Viewed from curbside, Strolling of the Heifers is kind of this weird melding of a sincere small town celebration and Pasadena’s Doo Dah Parade. Meaning that – for every entry that actually acknowledged this year’s theme (i.e. “Dance to the Moosic”) — …

Photo by Jim Hill

… there was something completely random, like this parade’s synchronized shopping cart unit.

Photo by Jim Hill

And for every piece of authentic Americana (EX: That collection of antique John Deere tractors that came chugging through the city) …

Photo by Jim Hill

… there was something silly. Like – say – a woman dressed as a Holstein pushing a baby stroller through the streets. And riding in that stroller was a pig dressed in a tutu.

Photo by Jim Hill

And given that this event was being staged in the Green Mountain State & all … Well, does it really surprise you to learn that — among the groups that marched in this year’s Strolling of the Heifers – was a group of eco-friendly folks who, with their  chants of “We’re Number One !,” tried to persuade people along the parade route not to flush the toilet after they pee. Because – as it turns out – urine can be turned into fertilizer.

Photo by Jim Hill

And speaking of fertilizer … At the tail end of the parade, there was a group of dedicated volunteers who were dealing with what came out of the tail end of all those cows.

Photo by Jim Hill

This year’s Strolling of the Heifers concluded at the Brattleboro town common. Where event attendees could then get a closer look at some of the featured units in this year’s parade…

Photo by Jim Hill

… or perhaps even pet a few of the participants.

Photo by Jim Hill

But as for the 90+ calves who took part in the 2017 edition of Strolling of the Heifers, once they reached the town common, it was now time for a nosh or a nap.

Photo by Jim Hill

Elsewhere on the common, keeping with this year’s “Dance to the Moosic” theme, various musical groups performed in & around the gazebo throughout the afternoon.

Photo by Jim Hill

While just across the way – keeping with Brattleboro’s tradition of showcasing the various artisans who live & work in the local community – some pretty funky pieces were on display at the Slow Living Exposition.

Photo by Jim Hill

All in all, attending Strolling of the Heifers is a somewhat surreal but still very pleasant way to spend a summer’s day in Vermont. And that’s no bull.

Photo by Jim Hill

Well, that could be a bull. To be honest, what with the wig & all, it’s kind of hard to tell. 

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Sunday, June 4, 2017

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Looking to make an authentic Irish meal for Saint Patrick’s Day? If so, then chef Kevin Dundon says not to cook corned beef & cabbage

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Let’s at least start on a positive note: Celebrated chef, author & TV personality Kevin Dundon – the man that Tourism Ireland has repeatedly chosen as the Face of Irish Food – loves a lot of what happens in the United States on March 17th.

“I mean, look at what they do in Chicago on Saint Patrick’s Day. They toss all of this vegetable-based dye into the Chicago River and then paint it green for a day. That’s terrific,” Kevin said.

But then when it comes to what many Americans eat & drink on St. Paddy’s Day (i.e., a big plate of corned beef and cabbage. Which is then washed down with a mug of green beer) … Well, that’s where Dundon has to draw the line.

Irish celebrity chef Kevin Dundon displays a traditional Irish loin of bacon with Colcannon potatoes and a Dunbrody Kiss chocolate dessert. Photo by Tom Burton. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“Green beer? No real Irishman would be caught dead drinking that stuff,” Kevin insists. “And as for eating corned beef & cabbage … That’s not actually authentic Irish fare either. Bacon and cabbage? Sure. But corned beef & cabbage was something that the Irish only began eating after they’d come to the States to escape the Famine. And even then these Irish-Americans only began serving corned beef & cabbage to their friends & family because they had to make do with the ingredients that were available to them at that time.”

And thus begins the strange tale of how corned beef & cabbage came to be associated with the North American celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day celebration. Because – according to Dundon – beef just wasn’t all that big a part of the Irish diet back in the 19th century.

To explain: Back in the Old Country, cattle – while they were obviously highly prized for the milk & cheese that they produced – were also beasts of burden. Meaning that they were often used for ploughing the fields or for hauling heavy loads. Which is why – back then — these animals were rarely slaughtered when they were still young & healthy. If anything, land owners liked to put a herd of cattle on display out in one of their pastures because that was then a sign to their neighbors that this farm was prosperous.

“Whereas pork … Well, everybody raised pigs back then. Which is why pork was a staple of the Irish diet rather than beef,” Dundon continued.

So if that’s what people actually ate back in the Old Country, how then did corned beef & cabbage come to be so strongly associated with Saint Patrick’s Day in the States.? That largely had to do with where the Irish wound up living after they arrived in the New World.

“When the Irish first arrived in America following the Great Famine, a lot of them wound up living in the inner city right alongside the Germans & the Jews, who were also recent immigrants to the States. And while that farm-fresh pork that the Irish loved wasn’t readily available, there was brisket. Which the Irish could then cure by first covering this piece of meat with corn kernel-sized pieces of rock salt – that’s how it came to be called corned beef. Because of the sizes of the pieces of rock salt that were used in the curing process – and then placing all that in a pot of water with other spices to soak for a few days.”

And as for the cabbage portion of corned beef & cabbage … Well, according to Kevin, in addition to buying their meat from the kosher delis in their neighborhood, the Irish would also frequent the stores that the German community shopped in. Where – thanks to their love of sauerkraut (i.e., pickled cabbage) – there was always a ready supply of cabbage to be had.

“So when you get right down to it, it was the American melting pot that led to corned beef & cabbage being found in the Irish-American cooking pot,” Dundon continued. “Since they couldn’t find or didn’t have easy access to the exact same ingredients that they had back in Ireland, Irish-Americans made do with what they could find in the immediate vicinity. And what they made was admittedly tasty. But it’s not actually authentic Irish fare.”

Mind you, what Kevin serves at Raglan Road Irish Pub and Restaurant at Disney Springs (which – FYI – Orlando Magazine voted as the area’s best restaurant back in 2014) is nothing if not authentic. Dundon and his team at this acclaimed gastropub pride themselves on making traditional Irish fare and then contemporized it.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“Take – for example – what we serve here instead of corned beef & cabbage. Again, because it was pork – rather than beef – that was the true staple of the Irish diet back then, what we offer instead is a loin of bacon that has been glazed with Irish Mist. That then comes with colcannon potatoes. Which is this traditional Irish dish that’s made up of mashed potato that have had some cabbage & bacon mixed through it,” Kevin enthused. “This heavenly ham – that’s what we actually call this traditional Irish dish at Raglan Road, Kevin’s Heavenly Ham – also includes some savory cabbage with a parsley cream sauce as well as a raisin cider jus. It’s simple food. But because of the basic ingredients – and that’s the real secret of Irish cuisine. That our ingredients are so strong – the flavors just pop off the plate.”

Which brings us to the real challenge that Dundon and the Raglan Road team face every day. Making sure that they actually have all of the ingredients necessary to make this traditional-yet-contemporized Irish fare to those folks who frequent this Walt Disney World favorite.

“Take – for example – the fish we serve here. We only used cold water fish. Salmon, mussels and haddock that have been hauled out of the Atlantic, the ocean that America and Ireland share,” Kevin stated. “Not that there’s anything wrong with warm water fish. It’s just that … Well, it doesn’t have the same structure. It’s a softer fish, which doesn’t really fit the parameters of Irish cuisine. And if you’re going to serve authentic food, you have to be this dedicated when it comes to sourcing your ingredients.

Copyright Mitchell Beazley. All rights reserved

And if you’re thinking of perhaps trying to serve an authentic Irish meal this year, rather than once again serving corned beef & cabbage at your Saint Patrick’s Day Feast … Well, back in September of last year, Mitchell Beazley published “The Raglan Road Cookbook: Inside America’s Favorite Irish Pub.” This 296-page hardcover not only includes the recipe for Kevin’s Heavenly Ham but also it tells the tale of how this now-world-renown restaurant wound up being built in Orlando.

On the other hand, if you happen to have to the luck of the Irish and are actually down at The Walt Disney World Resort right now, it’s worth noting that Raglan Road is right in the middle of its Mighty St. Patrick’s Day Festival. This four day-long event – which includes Irish bands and professional dancers – stretches through Sunday night. And in addition to all that authentic Irish fare that Dundon and his team are cooking up, you also sample the fine selection of beers & cocktails that this establishment’s four distinct antique bars (each of which are more than 130 years old and were imported directly from Ireland) will be serving. Just – As ucht Dé (That’s “For God’s Sake” in Gaelic) – don’t make the mistake of asking the bartender there for a mug of green beer.

“Why would anyone willingly drink something like that?,” Dundon laughed. “I mean, just imagine what their washroom will look like the morning after.”

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Friday, March 17, 2017

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