TliE REVIVAL of the Disney studio over the last few years has been hailed as among the most remarkable of turnarounds in cinematic fortunes. Ten years ago, with profits dropping fast and a string of poorly received films, it looked as if the Disney cartoon was on the verge of extinction. However, the injection of fresh blood in 1984 helped revive what was becoming an increasineg lifeless corporate body, and Disney’s three most recent features - The little Mermaid (1989), Beauty And The Beast (1991), and now Aladdin - have thoroughly restored the studio’s respectability (and bank balance). Beauty And The Beast proved to be one of the year’s top grossers (as well as earning an Oscar nomination for Best Film) but, as its own poster shrilly announces, Aladdin has outdone even that, notchlng up over $200 million at the US box office.
What’s the secret of their success? According to Peter Schneider, the fresh-faced Head of Animated Features, there’s been a wholesale change of creative and commercial philosophy behind the scenes. ‘The Black Cauldron was the acknowledged low point, in my opinion, for Disney. When I came in, without any experience of animation, the one thing i took comfort in was that no one could do a worse movie. But our goal for the last eight years has been to take
the art of animation up to the level of the art form of live moviemaking. We want the same reaction from the public as to a live-action movie - we want people to say it’s a movie that happens to be animated, rather than say it’s animation which happens to be a great movie.
‘What we’ve tried to do,’ he continues, ‘is examine Bambi, Pinocchio and Snow White to see what made them so good, and try and reinvent it today. We’ve got four basic principles: tell a great story, tell it with great characters, try and push the boundaries of animation, and tell it with music. We’ve had the same team for the last eight years or so, and we think we’ve come up with the goods.’ These might sound like a reiteration of the words of Big Walt himself, but Schneider instantly refutes the idea that they are merely copying their founder’s style. ‘Today you lust can’t make a story with Snow White in the kitchen singing about how lovely it is to clean up. We’re making different kinds of stories now - a little more aggressive, a little more action- orientated, a little more ms.’
The last film that Walt himself oversaw was The Jungle Book, back in 1968, and while the current management are raking in the moolah from carefully timed re-reieases from the back catalogue, Schneider reveals that, following Disney’s death, his clout from beyond the grave proved more a burden than an inspiration to his immediate successors. ‘The fundamental problem was that there was no leadership; after Walt died, the feeling was always, “What would Walt have done?” With the lack of visionary leadership, most of the artists had gone away or didn’t exist; what’s more, the business hadn’t been passed on. There’s a whole generation of
artists that have gone missing. We decided on very aggressive training, and put the artists back in charge. The best analogy is to the film- school “brats” like Spielberg and Lucas, who felt they could do it better than the generation before.’
It is impossible to doubt that Aladdin has been successful in consolidating Disney’s new-found dynamism and selling it to a huge audience. Despite the wholesome image though, there are still one or two question marks. There’s the matter of Aladdin’s opening song - re-dubbed after being considered somewhat racist - and, of course, Disney’s perennial problem at the Oscars. ‘Getting Beauty And The Beast nominated was a triumph in itself, up against four big-time movies, but i think there was a backlash against it from the Actors Guild. They were very vocal about the fact that it wasn’t a “real” movie - even though that’s doing a disservice to the people who did the voices.’
iiauiing in an actor like ilobin Williams has ensured Aladdin’s appeal to what Schneider calls ‘the Saturday-night date crowd’, and allowed it to compete with subsidiary labels Touchstone and lioiiywood, set up by Disney to produce non-animated fare like The Hand That Rocks The cradle and Sister Act. With projects such as The iiunchback Df iiotre Dame in the offing, Schneider is looking at a full production slate and zillions more in the bank. Despite the easy confidence though, he’s not unaware of the responsibility of Disney’s reborn popularity. ‘The message that you put out there,’ he concludes, ‘that is what is most daunting. Basically, you have influenced, whether you like it or not, an entire generation of chlldren.’ Ci
The List 3—l6 December I993 1