It’s enough to make fans of Disney’s old fashioned artistry weep openly. On 19 June, Sharon Morrill, longtime President of the company’s DisneyToons Studios, was out of a job. Throughout the course of her 13 years as head of said division, Morrill led the animation giant into one of its most profitable – and controversial – ventures ever: the reconfiguration of classic cartoon titles into cheap, easily knocked-off, direct to home video sequels. From Brother Bear II and various configurations of Lilo and Stitch to the complete bastardization of timeless treasures like Bambi, Peter Pan and Cinderella, the studios desire to maximize profitability (and trade on its Good Housekeeping Seal level of reputation) did more to destroy the marquee value of the studios most important asset – it’s heritage – than anything else in its 85 year history.
At least, that’s what John Lasseter and Ed Catmull thought. Back when Disney was courting Pixar for some manner of partnership/revenue sharing agreement, the eventual buyout of the CGI gods brought two of its chief components into brand new roles at the House of Mouse. Lasseter was named Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios, while Catmull was put in charge as President. Both wanted to drastically alter the direction the business was going it. Prior to their taking over, Uncle Walt’s world had just announced a decision to abandon traditional pen and ink cartoons, instead opting for the fading fad of 3D computer creations. But with the box office failings of Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons, the new duo decided to reverse the ridiculous decision. In fact, Mickey’s kingdom made headlines earlier this year when a new 2D title, featuring the first heroine of color in any Disney cartoon, was proposed (it will be called The Princess and the Frog and is set for 2009).
Next on the agenda – the seemingly endless stream of subpar product pouring out of Morrill’s sector. Now, it has to be said that this effective executive is playing scapegoat for a series of practices that has haunted the studio since The Lion King resurrected Disney’s blockbuster realities. Previously, both The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast had reestablished the company’s artistic fortunes, but King’s kid friendly storyline brought in the big bucks – and the suits (including former CEO Michael Eisner) were looking for more. Along with Aladdin, the Mouse House saw a way of quickly and efficiently maximizing their returns. They would take all the left over footage created for their animated films, and make rapid turnaround sequels, striking while the interest irons were hot. Believe it or not, full length cartoons can be completely reworked between the script and drawing stage, and even more changes can occur once test screenings dictate the direction. So it was a win-win for the company. It used up some of the otherwise useless material, and extended a title’s potential payout.
With well received direct to video efforts like Return of Jafar and The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, the stage was set for a whole new revenue stream. And the marketplace was more than eager to open their billfolds. Back in the mid-‘80s, when the VCR became the de facto babysitter for hundreds of blasé boomer parents, Disney was the name everyone turned to. Warners was viewed as too archaic (and violent) while other cartoon wares were dismissed as artificial and driven by commercial considerations (product tie-ins, etc.). No, Uncle Walt and his magical world was the way to go for most enlightened Moms and Dads, and with the company’s oddly effective embargo policies (a famous title would go on sale, only to be pulled from stores a few months later and mothballed for up to seven years) any additional Disney release was greeted with wide wallets.
Thus, the vaults were unsealed, and any and all previous material was up for sequelization. Initially, no one much cared. These were offerings aimed at the wee ones, starter sets, if you will, for unformed minds. The hope was that, as the big budget theatrical releases cemented their status as unpolished gems, the direct to video films would fill in the gaps, appeasing a rabid retail demographic until the sell through hit came along. DVD threw the company a curve ball it wasn’t expecting, and it didn’t win over many fans with its decision to go with the pay-to-play technology known as DIVX. In truth, Disney badly mismanaged the transfer over to digital, and had to try and catch up with the rest of the industry throughout most the late ‘90s. The glut of releases, combined with the fading fortunes of their theatrical efforts (Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet and Home on the Range all tanked) placed the company in a precarious position.
It was Morrill and her division that kept them afloat. It was also her decisions that finally pushed matters over the edge. Since she took over in 1994, DisneyToons Studios produced almost 50 ‘original’ titles. Many took already established series (Winnie the Pooh, The Adventures of Goofy) and continued the franchise. Others were far more questionable, utilizing beloved favorites (Lady and the Tramp, Dumbo, Pinocchio) as jumping off points for narratively inconsistent efforts. While it acted as a cash machine for the company, it also created an artistic impact that few could have envisioned. In essence, the direct to video offerings diluted the original films, making them feel like part of a production line process instead of individual statements of creative pride. Slowly but surely, each new Disney release was viewed through a veiled cloud of cynicism – and it was a suspicion rewarded when, less than a year later, an ‘all new’ sequel was waiting for your mindless consumption.
Granted, it was a brilliant strategy, one based on the inherent disconnect the audience had for the original sources. Kids, by their very nature, are not the most discerning consumers. They will take anything that provides 60 to 90 minutes of bright colored craziness, as long as it satisfies their sugar-rush reality. They could care less if Belle’s Magical World is based on an Oscar nominated masterpiece. They want more anthropomorphic objects and they want them now. So all Morrill did was deliver what the buyer was craving – more and more monotonous eye candy for the children to chew on while forcing Fruit Roll-ups into their craw. They even went so far as to restructure theatrical films into long running TV series – Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers, Tale Spin – anything for a bit more black ink.
But not even Disney could have predicted Pixar’s eventual importance to the genre. It couldn’t have conceived the mainstream hysteria over the smugly ironic 3D offerings from Dreamworks and Fox. Suddenly, Mickey’s Manor was trailing in the artform it helped build from the ground up, and all it had was Lasseter’s computer generated gems to rely on. It tried its own hand at bitmap rendering (Dinosaurs being a decent example), but overall, Walt’s ways were viewed as old fashioned, behind the times, and perhaps worst of all, completely antithetical to the bottom line. Along with soon to be exiting Eisner, Morrill had made the once proud name of Disney into a trademark tainted by nothing but dollar signs.
The final straw was a fairy, apparently. Lasseter’s tenure as Chief Creative Officer was cutthroat from the very beginning. He restarted 2D animation, backed off the company’s CG only stance, and started dropping proposed Morrill merchandise (The Aristocats II, The Ugly Duckling Story) left and right. But it wasn’t until he saw the horrendous (and soon to be released) The Tinkerbell Story that Mr. Pixar was convinced that Morrill had to go. Taking the classic character and trying to cram her into a Bratz like girl power paradigm seemed unthinkable. In addition, this sloppy salvo was just the opening tact in an overall product strategy that seemed based on marketing research and consulting rather than creativity and artistry.
Calling it “unwatchable” Lasseter demanded a change. With pal Catmull at his side, they pulled the plug on Morrill’s tenure, and decided to take DisneyToon’s Studio in a slightly different direction. Instead of pulling from the classics catalog, the sector will now draw from the wealth of content currently available on the Playhouse Disney Channel. There will still be a few left over sequels to contractually cater to (The Little Mermaid III for one), but after that, the House of Mouse will have reformed their warping ways – and for many, it may be too little too late. While the founding father himself must be smiling over the Lasseter/Catmull hire, he has to be worried about the longevity and legacy of the company named after him. Prior to the ‘80s, Disney was known for timeless, quality family entertainment. Today, it’s sneered at, earning a tag of merchandising charlatans, whoring out their traditions for the sake of some extra sales.
But it goes far beyond that. Like many corporate entities in the last two decades, Disney decided to stop making product for the people, and instead, manufactured artifice for its bean counters. Just like Hollywood’s micromanaged motion pictures, purposefully cobbled together out of various clichés and stereotypes to be everything to every paying patron, the business plan didn’t care that its animated films were flopping. They had built in so many potential ways of recouping their costs (between direct to video, merchandising and theme parks tie-ins) that it didn’t matter. Mediocrity could be as lucrative as a masterwork. And with the trend away from 2D animation and the seemingly untouchable magic of Pixar, there was no need to push itself.
Thankfully, Lasseter and Catmull are now in charge, and while they have a long way to go toward achieving the near impossible – rebuilding the company’s creative fortunes – they’ve taken a remarkable first step. There will be those who lament not having another narrative go round with their favorite characters, and parents may wonder what they will do once the Disney cartoon conveyor belt comes to a screeching halt, but for the men behind the recent radical restructuring, protecting this cinematic symbol’s tattered and tarnished reputation seems like a wise executive decision. The House of Mouse may never go back to an impervious icon of quality and family friendly filmmaking, but it can at least reclaim some of its soul. With Morrill’s departure, the process has already begun.