Joe Strike looks at Disneys animation cash crop and 2D home at the studio direct-to-video sequels.
Live-action Hollywood has been creating sequels to its hits for years, with mixed results but always with an eye on box office gold. (Or as Mel Brooks succinctly put it, Spaceballs II: The Search for More Money) When it comes to kids and their ability to watch a favorite video ad infinitum, the temptation to sequelize directly to the home video market is irresistible. Universal may have produced two direct-to-video An American Tail sequels and the ongoing Land Before Time franchise, but it was inevitable that the Disney name and its unrivaled library of cartoon titles would make it the dominant DTV player. Now, however, Disney is rising to a new challenge: erasing the cheapquels stigma created by some of its earliest DTV releases.
The foundation for Disneys DTV adventure was set in the mid 1980s when Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and their new management team set out to make the company a major player in original TV animation. At first Disney stayed away from exploiting its classic characters, going instead with shows like the toy-based Wuzzles and candy-inspired Gummi Bears. Then, in 1987, Disney produced its first series for what at the time was a red-hot syndication market. While Duck Tales owed more to Carl Barks legendary adventure comics than Donald Ducks theatrical shorts, the series was a creative and financial success that both Walt and Scrooge McDuck would have been proud of and it convinced the company to give more of its characters a new life on TV.
The Little Mermaid, the film that revitalized Disneys feature animation division became a CBS Saturday morning series in 1992. In the meantime, the company had entered the red-hot syndication market in a big way, with a daily two-hour block of original animation known as The Disney Afternoon. The Afternoons enormous programming appetite (a new series replaced the blocks oldest show every September) led the studio to commission a TV version of its latest theatrical feature, Aladdin before the films release.
Disney assigned Tad Stones and Alan Zaslove to produce the series and shepherd its transition from a self-contained movie to an ongoing series. Stones and Zaslove were already major contributors to the Afternoon Zaslove was one of the driving forces behind Duck Tales and the two had worked as a team on Chip and Dales Rescue Rangers and Darkwing Duck. It was probably Jeffrey Katzenbergs idea to turn the movie into a series, or it couldve been him together with Gary Krisel, the head of the TV animation division, recalls Stones. Wed already done shows based on classic Disney characters and the Mermaid series was a success, so it wasnt a big jump.
The big problem was that the original movie had a happy ending. If kids want to see more of it, they dont mean a married Aladdin who lives in a palace they want to see more of the street rat. They want to see the genie, but he left at the end of the movie how do we bring him back?
Genie did return but Robin Williams didnt. Dan Castellaneta took over the part in both Jafar and the weekly series. We told Dan not to do a Robin Williams impression, Stones explains. He basically split the difference and found a Williams-ish type voice that was gangbusters on its own. Dans another comedic genius, and an improvisational genius.
Now even though the genie was phenomenally popular, I thought the best character in the movie was Gilbert Gottfrieds Iago. He was actually smarter than Jafar the bird had all the ideas. I thought that would be a great character to have in the series. So we came up with a convoluted story that explained everything and that ended up being The Return of Jafar.
At the time, syndicated half-hour cartoons often premiered with a multi-part story to get kids in the habit of watching the show every day. According to Stones, Disney designed theirs to run as a feature that the stations could promote as a family movie special on the Friday night before the series premiere. The fact that it got turned into a video owes a lot to Paul Felix, one of our layout artists who later went onto features as a concept artist and production designer. He was sketching out different ideas for the movie, one of which was a band of thieves galloping across the desert toward this little crack in a mountain, which was their hideout. Alan was really inspired by those sketches and basically had the storyboard person work right off them to capture that feeling.
The sequence went to [the Disney animation studio in] Australia, and that studio had just gotten a relatively new animator who loved horses. Now there was already some talk about releasing this as a video, even though Jeffrey Katzenberg and supposedly even Michael Eisner were worried about diluting the cachet of Disney animated features. But when we screened this very romantic footage for Jeffrey with Ashmans Arabian Nights playing under it, he turned around and said Guys, this looking pretty good. At the time he was used to features taking years and years, and he was like, How did you pull this off?
Zaslove remembers Katzenberg calling things out without stopping at the screening. Change this, this character isnt working, not major things. He thought on his feet and his notes were very impressive. He was very positive on the whole picture, so much so that Gary slapped my back afterwards, which was very unusual for Gary.
Basically, the stars aligned, Stones reflects. The thieves on horseback sequence opened the movie, and sometimes I think that if a weaker studio had animated the first half of the picture it would never have been released on video, and there might not be a direct-to-video business at Disney.
The Return of Jafar cost a microscopic $3 to $3.5 million to produce a sliver of the theatrical Aladdin s budget. By some accounts the video earned over $100 million in the U.S. alone, and a new Disney genre was born. With a larger budget to work with and a home video release already in mind, Stones began work on the second sequel Aladdin and the King of Thieves by assigning the movies sequences to Disneys overseas studios based on their strengths. Japanese animation is more about action and composition, not characterization. Traditionally, its characters hit a strong pose that give a feeling, then their mouths move. This time I made gave all the personality stuff to Australia and sent the big effects scenes to Japan. The overall quality level of the film is much, much better as a result.
Jafar may have returned in the first sequel, but Williams ended a well-publicized spat with Disney for a second go-round as the genie in Thieves. According to Stones, Robin doesnt sell stuff and he felt his character was too heavily merchandised. A McDonalds commercial that was built completely around the genie was the last straw. Disney tried to mend fences with an original Picasso as a gift to Williams, inspiring his famous gibe, Thats me by the side of the road, holding the sign Will work for art. Ultimately, it took little more than an apology and some encouragement from Katzenbergs successor Joe Roth to convince Williams to take on the part once again.
Robin saw some of the finished Thieves footage and immediately began riffing on it. He took stuff we thought was funny with Dan to an entirely new level that had us rolling on the floor, Stones reminisced. Then the problem was how do we structure this raw material into the movie? My solution was to cut it as if it were music, taking a longer gag, then a short one, then short-short-short, then longer That gave us a framework, which we then storyboarded and animated. We re-did at least 2/3 of the entire movie with Robin. I dont think Dan was hurt by it. Hes a professional actor how would you expect the company to do anything else?
Contrary to popular belief, Disney has not given up on traditional, hand-drawn animation. What the company has done is shift those efforts out of its feature animation division, freeing it to compete with the Pixars and Blue Skys of the world in the CGI arena. If anything, The Walt Disney Co. is producing more 2D animation than ever before, thanks to the DTV market.
True or not, the current conventional wisdom is that the public will pay to see CGI at the box office and buy 2D features at the video store. It may be a self-fulfilling prophecy fueled by the continuous flow of direct-to-video titles and the heavily promoted/merchandised event nature of theatrical CGI features, but its the current reality of the marketplace that all have come to accept.
Disneys direct-to-video features actually originate with two separate entities within the company: the TV animation group, and DisneyToon Studios (once part of the TV group but as of 2003 moved within the feature animation division). Its a complex arrangement that all but guarantees an inconsistent look to the films, and just to make matters more confusing, pictures from both divisions occasionally receive theatrical runs prior to their home video release.
As its name suggests, the TV groups main focus is on creating and producing series for Disney Channel and ABC. When a theatrical feature proves popular enough to support a regular series, the DTV sequel introducing the revised premise comes from the group. In the original Lilo & Stitch movie, Stitch is introduced as Experiment 626; the DTV Stitch! details how Experiments 1 through 625 escape into the wilds of Hawaii, leading to Lilo and Stitch: The Series, the pairs weekly hunt for Stitchs cousins. More often though, in films like Tarzan and Jane or the abandoned series Cinderella II: Dreams Come True and Atlantis: Milos Return, a trio of unrelated TV episodes are simply linked by a few original scenes.
The vast majority of the companys animated DTV features are produced by DisneyToon Studios and overseen by its president Sharon Morrill. A driving force in Disneys DTV efforts since Jafar,Morrill has been on a mission both to bring DisneyToons animation indistinguishable from the theatrical features and to get away from the been there, done that feeling of many of the earlier sequels. [See sidebar.] The two Lion King follow-ups have proved DisneyToons capable of the former; as to the latter challenge, DisneyToons recent efforts are exploring an interesting new direction.
Were always looking for new ways to tell our stories, and sometimes doing what we call inbetween-quels is a way of doing that, Morrill explains. A lot of times there are gaps in movies that we all want to say, Hey, what happened there? In Lion King 1-1/2 it was such a fun idea to tell the story from Timon and Pumbaas point of view. Were also doing an inbetween-quel for Tarzan II that recounts his childhood in the jungle.
With no new 2D theatrical features in the pipeline, DisneyToons is exploring the Walt-era classics for inbetween-quels. The first of these, Bambi and the Great Prince of the Forest (due out in 2006) recounts the time between the death of Bambis mother and his return the following spring as an adult deer. Morrill describes it as, a very powerful story about Bambi developing a relationship with his father. At first the prince doesnt understand what fatherhood is all about, but through Bambi he begins to open up and the two find their love for each other.
Would Walt have approved? I have no idea Morrill responds, but I think he would have approved of our story because its everything he stood for. Its very emotional and also very funny and entertaining. I think he would have also approved of the animation and the look of the movie.
Right now we have the Bambi film, Tarzan II, Stitch Has a Glitch, something like eight or nine more 2D movies coming up in the next couple of years, including non-sequel films. And while we usually only send one of them a year to theaters, we make all our movies so they can be released theatrically, Morrill continued.
The overlapping output from the TV group sometimes results in, if not dueling, then overlapping sequels. Case in point Stitch Has a Glitch is my movie, but its not based on the TV series where Stitch has all the experiments Morrill explains. Glitch is really a sequel to the feature film. It takes place right after the end of the feature and before the series begins.
The in-post production Kronks New Groove continues the adventures of the breakout character from 2000s unashamedly cartoony Emperors New Groove. (At the time, one critic called Patrick Warbutons voice work as the kind-hearted but dim-witted henchman the funniest comedy performance of the year.) The DTV is being directed by DisneyToon team Saul Andrew Blinkoff and Elliot M. Bour. According to Bour, The original didnt do incredibly well in theaters but it turns out to be one of those fan favorites that everyone you talk to seems to love. We decided to explore his character even more by giving him a love interest [voiced by Tracy Ullman] and a relationship with his estranged father [Frasiers John Mahoney].
Blinkoff adds, We wanted to make it a heartfelt movie that you could walk away with laughing, but having a good theme stay true to your groove which is actually a song in the movie.
Kronks New Groove has apparently passed the acid test approval from the original films creators. As Blinkoff relates, We had a screening the other day for [director] Mark [Dindal] and [producer] Randy [Fulmer]. We were a little scared in front of them, Ive got to be honest, but they walked out laughing they loved it and told us how much they enjoyed seeing their characters again, and the new things wed created for them; they assured us we were staying true to their original vision
Blinkoff underscores DisneyToons commitment to 2D animation. Elliot and I we were animators on Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Lion King we started in 2D and we have a certain responsibility to it. Contrary to the popular belief in the animation world, Bour adds, Disney has not given up on hand-drawn animated movies.
Bour seems well aware of the sequels need to explore new territory. When we were first coming into this division we felt that films like Pocahontas II and Hunchback II were kind of going through the motions. Sharon has a great vision and she pushes us to do things that are more interesting and more creative; we really strive to create different kinds of sequels not just this happens exactly after the last movie. The only way this division is going to stay successful is to give the audience something that makes them want to continue buying these kinds of videos. Or as Blinkoff puts it, We stand on the shoulders of the first one and make something fresh and new.
Even so, he points out that the biggest animated film of all time was a sequel: Shrek 2. People think of sequels and they roll their eyes, but every Star Wars fan will tell you that The Empire Strikes Back was a better movie. So even though youre making a sequel, the new things youre doing will make all the difference.
Other ideas in development at DisneyToon Studios include a non-TV pilot Cinderella III (built around the stepmother using the fairy godmothers magic wand to turn back time) and a rumored plan to free Mickey Mouse from his corporate icon status with an edgy yet true-to-his-roots CGI update. An announced, promoted on video and then-shelved Dumbo II from longtime DisneyToon producer Jeannine Roussel may still see the light of day. There were story issues, she explains. We hit a little bump with it so we put it back in the oven to bake a little longer until we feel like its ready.
Ive been faced with a lot of those ethical challenges of taking a classic like Lady and the Tramp or The Lion King, Roussel continued. Theres a weight and gravity to making a sequel to those kind of pictures. I dont want to use the word tiptoeing, but you approach a project like a Bambi or Dumbo sequel with a certain amount of reverence.
A Roussel project currently in production is guaranteed to generate a good deal of interest (and in all likelihood, no small amount of skepticism) a Peter Pan inbetween-quel exploring Tinkerbells adventures in Pixie Hollow with an assortment of fairy girlfriends. Whether or not Tinks own story captures the original movies spirit while taking it in a new direction will, like any other Disney DTV sequel, remain a mystery until the disc is spinning away inside your DVD player.
Joe Strike is a NYC-based writer/producer with a background in TV promotion and a lifelong interest in animation. He is writing a childrens novel.
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