Welcome to our tea party! Didn’t RSVP? That’s okay! That’s okay! Honey? It gets curiouser and curiouser when you read “Alice in Wonderland” or see one of the films and realize that there are a lot of connections to creativity principles. Of course, no one ever explains the principles outright. They let you discover them; just as they let Alice discover wonderland.
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will write an extra creativity article. Maybe one of those will have a
reference to “Alice in Wonderland.”
So, elbows down! Pinkies up! That’s the way we sip our cup! (Thanks to Kerli for the “Tea Party” lyrics found on the music inspired by “Alice in Wonderland” CD.)
The Walt Disney Company traditionally rereleased its
animated classics to theaters about once every seven years. Even as video
cassettes were becoming popular, Disney kept its animated classics “in the
vault” and off the shelves. Rereleasing films was profitable because Disney
could fill out its movie slate for the year with a film that had no additional
production costs. The money from the rereleases was almost pure profit minus
the advertising budget.
With pent-up adult demand for something from childhood that
they could share with their children and the importance of introducing the
characters to a whole new generation that would then want to see those
characters in the parks, Disney’s rereleases were more than just profitable.
They kept the company in the news, and they made the attractions in the parks
more relevant to children who otherwise wouldn’t have seen the movies.
The rereleases, in essence, drove profits at the box office
and at the parks, especially during some of the Walt Disney Company’s rougher
periods. It wasn’t enough.
When Michael Eisner took over the company, things changed
drastically as he followed through on Ron Miller’s (the then defunct CEO) plan.
For the first time, Disney classics would be available in their entirety on VHS.
The video series reaped immediate cash rewards and provided a much need capital
input into the company while possibly sacrificing future profits and relevancy
in the process.
Eventually, Disney would return videos “to the vault.” The
announcement would increase demand for the videos because they would no longer
be available for purchase though they would remain on video rental store
shelves until the videotapes wore out. Videos would also be released in
different versions and levels, including Masterpiece, Gold Series and Platinum
series. This strategy kept the profits flowing while also keeping the films and
their characters relevant. It still wasn’t enough.
To drive further interest in its intellectual property and
keep the park characters relevant, Disney offered up direct-to-video sequels.
Unable to rerelease the classics to movie theaters on a wide scale, (Who would
go see “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” on the movie screen when they could
stay at home and see the same movie with the family at a much cheaper price?) the
new videos were often inferior in quality and storytelling, but they were effective
for the price and benefits reaped. On television, other characters made it to
Saturday Morning. “Tailspin,” based on the Jungle Book characters, and “Timon
and Pumbaa”, based on the Lion King characters, were relatively successful and
kept the spirit of the shows (and their related tie-in profits) alive.
Still, Disney needed a way to produce box office profits and
buzz with as little risk as possible. Remaking the classics has accomplished that
In 1994, Disney had a moderate hit ($44 million) with a live
action “The Jungle Book” starring Jason Scott Lee, Cary Elwes and Lena Headley.
In 1996, it had a much more successful live action film ($320 million) in the Glenn
Close vehicle “101 Dalmatians.”
While some may classify Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland”
as a remake, it is really a retelling. It has many elements similar to the
animated classic but is different enough to rate its own story. Still, it’s $1
billion box office take certainly didn’t deter Disney from the remakes. “Maleficent”
($758 million) is another live action film, based on Disney’s telling of “Sleeping
Beauty,” but still different enough to be its own story. Even “Pete’s Dragon” didn’t
stick strictly to the script of the original. “Christopher Robin” (not quite
$200 million) and “Dumbo” ($352 million on a $170 million budget – whoever authorized
that budget didn’t understand why the firs was released) had different
storylines compared to the originals and were considered flops as they didn’t
score highly with critics or at the box office.
“The Jungle Book” (2016), which almost made $1 billion,
featured groundbreaking cinematography and stuck close to the original animated
feature. “Beauty and the Beast” was a lot like the original, too, and this may
be the beginning of the downfall because it brought in $1.2 billion. Why write
a new script if you can just use the old one?
Enter the ultra-busy actor, producer, executive producer, director,
chef and whatever else Jon Favreau. Favreau is responsible for directing “Iron
Man” and for starring as Happy in several of the Marvel films. He’s taken part
in the “Star Wars” movies and shows Disney has/is creating. He is also the producer
and director of “The Lion King” and “The Jungle Book” (2016). He made a cooking
show in his spare time “The Chef Show” because he missed the time that he spent
with the chef that taught him how to cook on his movie “Chef.” Look up his IMDB
and be amazed, and then understand the problem.
Favreau’s box office dominance isn’t in question. His
ability to be original is. When someone is so busy with as many projects as he
is, it’s inevitable that he or she will take the easiest road. Adapting “the Lion
King” from the old script and giving it originality, in addition to wrangling
the photo-realistic “not” animation, would’ve have been too much if it were the
only project on his plate. After all, “The Lion King” made almost $1 billion.
More importantly, it’s beloved by millions of fans the world
over. If he had messed it up by taking a risk to make it more original, he
would’ve seen his career with Disney take a dive. Favreau had no choice but to
fulfill expectations and keep the animals looking live-action rather than
animated. Follow the script and no one gets hurt, except those parts that
living animals couldn’t literally do – like dress in drag and do the hula or
march in fascistic fashion.
Favreau was out in a no-win situation. In order for the “not”
animated “Lion King” to have been a better film, he would’ve needed to cut some
of the fluff (literally and figuratively) out of the film while concentrating
on character and using human expressions to get the animals to show emotion. He
would’ve needed to take a risk in the same way that the gorgeous and expensive
Broadway show took a risk. He would’ve needed to lead the innovation and story
team to bring something new to the screen that would’ve added to the film’s
legacy. He didn’t have the time to do what he needed to do to make the film
better, so rather than create something new, he took the safe road to
profitability. And we’re all creatively the worst for it.
In 2010, the Walt Disney Company released “Alice in Wonderland” starring Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowski, Anne Hathaway, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, Crispin Glover, and Stephen Fry. With an estimated budget of $200 million, Alice went on to make over $1 billion worldwide. It was a hit that many attributed to Depp’s lovable Mad Hatter and the newness of the 3D technology.
Six years later, Disney released “Alice through the Looking Glass” as a sequel focusing on Depp’s Hatter and his family. With an estimated $170 million budget and the addition of Sacha Baron Cohen, the film flopped, making less than $300 million worldwide. Whether this was due to the allegations leveled at Depp by Amanda Heard the week of the film’s opening, Depp’s inability to be a main character when playing an eccentric (see “Mortdecai” and possibly “The Lone Ranger,” which was more about Depp’s Tonto than Armie Hammer’s titular character), or the mundanity of 3D technology that was novel when the first film released, the six years between the two films, or the meandering story line of the film itself, “Through the Looking Glass” couldn’t hold a candle to the original.
Now, in a “hold my (non-alcoholic) beer” moment, Disney’s going to commit the same mistake with four films and a theme park at stake. “Avatar” was released the winter of 2009 and became the biggest grossing movie of all time with $2.8 billion worldwide. (As of this writing, “Avengers: Endgame” may or may not take the top spot.) Disney collaborated with Cameron and added an Avatar-themed land to its Animal Kingdom. It has purchased 20th Century Fox and now owns the rights to the Avatar intellectual properties.
In 2009, 3D was a true novelty, and “Avatar” capitalized on
the effect with its beautiful scenery and amazing alien landscape. The movie
faced scant competition from “The Princess and the Frog” and “The Blind Side”
its first weekend. The next weekend, it faced Robert Downey Jr.’s “Sherlock
Holmes”, and after that it dominated the film competition until February’s “Dear
John.” The story itself is a retelling of the story of Native Americans if they
had actually decided to destroy the explorers that came to the New World. It’s
not exceptionally original with its quasi-back to nature message and its ignoring
of real history.
“Avatar 2” is scheduled to be released in 2021, 12 years
after the first film. While “Avatar” made a lot of money, it’s not a beloved
film. Its main appeal was in the new world’s Cameron was able to bring to life.
The story was trite and untrue. “Avatar 2” won’t be able to capitalize on a pent-up
desire for its characters or world (like Star Wars), and it won’t be able to
rely on a stable of characters people have to come to love (like Marvel).
Instead, it’s a risk with almost no reward. Even if “Avatar 2” scores a billion
dollars, it will be a comparative flop. If it does less than that, it could
sink the three sequels that are to come after it and Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
Whether or not these films are successful will depend on
what Disney expects from them. If the company is okay with decaying box office
totals in the hundreds of millions with the understanding that the films are
keeping its Animal Kingdom in the public eye, maybe box office won’t matter so
much. But an outright flop of the first sequel will create shockwaves that will
reverberate throughout the company without being limited to the movie division.