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Disney's Little Big Screen: Turning Animated Features Into TV Series

Mike Lyons takes a look at Walt Disney Television Animation's proven strategy for adapting the company's animated features as television series such as the upcoming Hercules.

The Further Adventures of Dumbo? Fantasia Frolics? Bambi: the Series? If television had been around in the Forties, would these titles have been a reality? Difficult to tell how far Walt Disney would have gone, but today's popular Disney animated features go on to live forever--not only in the memory of generations who will enjoy them for years to come, but also any child up early enough on Saturday mornings. As the studio's animated features become increasingly popular, audiences clamor for more. To answer the call quickly and efficiently, Disney has taken to adapting some of their more recent animated films to a format once foreign to the Mouse House: television. Hits such as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Lion King and even the classic 101 Dalmatians have spawned TV siblings. With their characters and stories so entrenched in the mainstream, creating new weekly situations is the first and usually most daunting task.

This fall, WDTVA will debut Hercules, an animated series on ABC's Saturday morning line-up. © The Walt Disney Company. All Rights Reserved

A New Genre

Roy Price, director of development and current programming for Walt Disney Television Animation (WDTVA), used this analogy: "It's sort of like if you wanted to take the theme of a symphony and transport it into a rock and roll song. You could do it, as they showed in A Whiter Shade of Pale, but you have to be aware that the demands of the medium, or the genre, are a little different. If you just tried to play the symphony for minutes at a time, it won't be satisfactory. It won't please the symphony lover or the rock and roll aficionado. So, you have to be more sensitive to what works in the shorter time frame and the different demands of the medium." Disney has indeed met these demands, as Television Animation has become a strong arm of the company since its inception over a decade ago with shows like Adventures of the Gummi Bears and The Wuzzles. One of the people there for the flash point was Tad Stones, an animator who began his career at Disney in feature animation in 1974. Later he moved to television and went on to serve as executive producer of the series Aladdin, as well as director of the film's two lucrative direct-to-video sequels. He stated that adapting a popular feature for the small screen comes with inevitable hurdles. "No matter what you do, no matter how much you spend and put into it, you're not going to be spending as much as a feature film," admitted Stones. "Everybody understands that this is a TV series, but they still compare it directly to the feature films. So, basically we're getting something done on a television production schedule, albeit a lush one, compared to something that was four years in the making and is lavished with computer effects and digital ink and paint. That hurts us too, because it's daunting when someone overseas is drawing something `off-model.' We give them notes and we try to refine something, but there's only so much that we can do."

Timon and Pumbaa. © The Walt Disney Company. All Rights Reserved.

Adapting for the Tube

These limitations, however, have not stopped Disney from experimenting and taking some chances with its characters. Case in point is Timon and Pumbaa, a series based on the comic sidekicks from Disney's behemoth of animated blockbusters, The Lion King. Instead of re-creating the lush, lyrical mood of the film week after week, supervising producers Tony Craig and Roberts Gannaway decided to shape Timon and Pumbaa in a more Tex Avery-ish vein. "What we tried to do, to keep it fresh, was expand on their personalities as a comedy team," noted Gannaway, "in the tradition of good comedy teams like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby or Martin and Lewis. The other thing that we did to try and keep it interesting was to not have them locked into the Serengeti, but allow them to travel the world and meet different kinds of animals."

Gannaway and Craig have also translated one of Disney's most beloved films, 101 Dalmatians (which recently got a new 'leash' on life thanks to a popular live-action remake), for the small screen. "The animated feature and the live-action film are really about the human characters," noted Gannaway. "The objective of the TV series was to make a show about the puppies' individual personalities. This isn't really explored in the movie beyond a `tagging' of the different types."

In addition, the producers have given the new Dalmatians it's own highly stylized look, different from that of the original film and have even tackled what many would have thought verboten: Disney's most popular screen villain, Cruella DeVil. "We needed to expand her so that she would become more of a greedy character," said Gannaway. "It's been daunting, because she is such a great villain." This fall, WDTVA will again place their own distinct stamp on a new series, when Hercules, Disney's loopy feature from last year, makes its way to ABC's Saturday morning line-up, as a weekly animated series. "What we've done in Hercules is what we've always tried to do in every series which is keep the tone," said Stones, who will also be serving as executive producer for the new show. "We look at the feature film and we say, `What do people like?'"

The answer to this was the original's irreverence and the producers of Hercules, the series, found that the best way to capture this was through what they call a "mid-quel." That is, the events that take place on the show, take place not before or after those of the film, but at a point within the story. So, instead of taking the safe route and relaying Herc's exploits as a strong-man here among mortal earthlings, the series will focus on the character during his teenage years, allowing the show to tackle issues of romance, teen angst and a main character still struggling to find his place in the world. As Stones noted, "By ignoring continuity and trying to stay true to the elements of humor and adventure in the film, we came up with a much stronger series that really stands on its own." Most of the original voice cast from the film will return, including a real surprise: James Woods in his blisteringly bad role of Hades. With Woods signed on, the producers suddenly found that there was a flood of recognizable names who wanted to be part of the show. "Every episode was cast as if it was a feature film," says Stones of this unexpected luxury. The new show will boast over 150 celebrity voices including: Seinfeld's Jason Alexander as Poseidon, Mike (Mannix) Connors as the hard-boiled cop, Chipacles, Regis Philbin as the voice of Typhoon and game show host Wink Martindale, somewhat typecast as Sphinx Martindale. In addition, a majority of the show's 65 episodes will also feature songs.

Working With Other Divisions

When films such as Hercules make the leap to the small screen, the producers usually get little else but the blessing of the artists and filmmakers from the original film. "They don't worry about a series when they're doing movies," noted Stones. "They're worried about the movie and that's it." In fact, the proliferation of animated features into series has inspired some good nature ribbing at the studio. As Stones remembered, "When [directors] Ron Clements and John Musker were developing Hercules, they said, `Hey Tad, we're doing a pilot for a series.'" The feature-to-series trend has also opened up a controversy, however, as many animation purists now believe that Disney is "cheapening" its own product. "To me, I don't think it's a taste thing," admitted Stones. "I don't see how a spin-off of any kind takes away from the original. When Disney did `Dance of the Hours' [in Fantasia] people complained because they couldn't listen to that piece of music without seeing dancing hippos. Maybe they did ruin that music, but then so did Alan Sherman, when he did `Hello Mudda, Hello Fadda.'"

Mouse Works. © The Walt Disney Company. All Rights Reserved.

"I think the good thing is that it extends the life of the characters," said Gannaway. "It keeps the characters out there for the audience to enjoy." Gannaway and his partner, Tony Craig, have recently been entrusted with Disney's first big screen star, Mickey Mouse. The `Big Cheese' will come to television this fall in his first animated series, Mouse Works, proving that no one under the Disney umbrella is safe from the lure of television. The show has been produced under the guidance of Walt's nephew, vice chairman of the board, Roy E. Disney, who has been keeping a careful eye on the classic characters, now also known as company icons. "He's looking at all the scripts and all the storyboards," noted Gannaway. "Roy is watch-dogging the show and this relaxes a lot of other executives." It's actually very fitting that Disney's biggest hero of the big screen would make his way to the small screen in such a top-notch manner. After all, it was Walt himself, who in the 1950s, pioneered the idea of quality family television with such shows as Disneyland, Zorro and The Mickey Mouse Club. Like those classic shows, the features-to-series evolve on their own, becoming creative and entertaining variations on an original theme, not just cogs in a corporate machine. "Everyone always says, `Oh, you guys also have to worry about the merchandising and the dolls and everything.' You don't. All you're concerned with is, `Am I putting a good story on the screen?,'" noted Stones, adding, "You're really just focused on your project, you're not thinking, `Is this going to be a good Disneyland ride?'" Mike Lyons is a Long Island-based freelance writer, who has written over 100 articles on film and animation. His work has appeared in Cinefantastique, Animato! and The Disney Magazine.