Disneyology 201: Live Action Greatest Hits (1980-1993)

What follows will be my fourth and final installment of my Disney Live Action Greatest Hits series and by extension the finale of the Disneyology 201 project.  In previous installments I looked at how Disney first started making live action films in the 50s, how they became a pretty substantial force in live action during the early 60s, and also how they struggled to stay relevant during the 70s.  This installment will look at an even stranger period in their history during the 1980s, a decade when they were slowly struggling to get their animation division back in order and when their live action division was starting to branch out from their usual brand and became a little harder to distinguish from some of the younger skewing content from their counterparts at Universal, Warner Brothers, Paramount, and 20th Century Fox.  Having seen the success of Star Wars and the rise of other such blockbusters from Steven Spielberg and other filmmakers like him Disney increasingly saw value in making movies that could be simultaneously marketed to children, families, teens, and adults and increasingly tried to expand into content that, while still being in the PG range, was not entirely synonymous with young children, and even when they were making movies mostly for kids they tended to have at least a little more of an edge.  This was also the decade where “Touchstone Pictures” was invented as a distribution arm to put out movies that were even more mature, but for the purposes of this series I will be focusing on movies that still do have that Disney branding on them… even when they seem oddly dark for such a brand.

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

If Disney was trying to show increased maturity in their family films going into the 80s you can’t blame them for being too subtle about it as they actually found themselves making a number of films early in that decade that bordered on being works of outright horror.  There was their 1980 film Watcher in the Woods, which I looked at in another series, which I’ve heard many a gen Xer say they were freaked out by as kids and then there was this 1983 film Something Wicked This Way Comes, which really doesn’t feel a thing like their old “house style.”  Of course part of this was that the film was never really meant to be a Disney movie when it was first conceived.  Famed sci-fi/fantasy author Ray Bradbury originally wrote it as a screenplay in the late 50s and when that didn’t work out he converted it into a successful and highly regarded novel.  Later in the 70s the idea of bringing it to the screen was revived by, of all people, Sam Peckinpah.  Eventually the British filmmaker Jack Clayton came on board and it went into production at a company owned by Kirk Douglas’ less famous son Peter and Paramount was going to be on board to distribute.  At some point Paramount was replaced by Disney however and, as interested as they were to break their “kiddie” image there was only so far they were going to take it and they had the script watered down a bit, leading to a fallout with Bradbury.  It seems to have been a fairly troubled production beyond that too with Clayton eventually being sidelined as well and heavy changes being made in post-production, which you can sort of see in the final product but it’s not completely egregious.

Watching the movie the first thing that came to mind was “wow, I bet Stephen King LOVES the book this thing was based on.”  The themes of ordinary people and children fighting a cosmic evil that comes to town that you can see in King’s works like It or Needful Things are all over this movie and presumably its source material.  Is it a “kids” movie?  Kind of, I would say it fits well in the context of something like Poltergeist, which came out the year before and it kind of fits within that “Stranger Things” aesthetic of kids on bicycles taking on supernatural evil.  Speaking of that supernatural evil, the rather dapper avatar of evil here is played by a then relatively unknown Jonathan Pryce and he definitely proves to be a nicely imposing presence in the film and his carnival of evil is pretty cool as well.  Where the film is a lot less strong is with the forces of good.  The kids in this movie just aren’t very interesting either in their writing or in the performances of the young actors and the Jason Robards character’s presence in all this isn’t overly compelling either.  You can also see the hand of the Disney execs in making the evil here from being too evil for their tastes, a little bit more satan in all of this would have gone a long way.  It’s ultimately just a movie that works less well than it’s better images and bits of iconography, but as Disney products go there’s definitely stuff to like here.
*** out of Five

Return to Oz (1985)

Walter Murch is a very important figure in 20th century film.  Murch was a double threat as both an editor and a sound designer; a three time Oscar winner who worked on some absolute classic films including The Godfather trilogy, Apocalypse Now, and American Grafitti and continued to be credited on more modern films like The Talented Mr. Ripley and Jarhead and still occasionally works today.  What’s more he’s credited with a number of technical innovations in his field and holds a number of “firsts” for editing and sound design and his 1995 book “In the Blink of an Eye” is considered a canonical work on the craft of editing.  The man is a legend… which is why it’s so damn weird that he put his editing and sound careers on hold for most of the 1980s to focus on his one and only directorial credit on a weird oddity of a movie that’s mostly remembered for scaring the crap out of Gen X children: the Wizard of Oz pseudo-sequel Return to Oz which is possibly one of the strangest movies ever released by Disney. How?  Why?

Well, in some ways this was a long time coming.  Disney had nothing to do with the making of the 1939 The Wizard of Oz but at a certain point they sort of adopted it.  Seemingly out of a jealous need to own all things family entertainment Walt Disney bought the rights to all of L. Frank Baum’s remaining Oz books and had intended to make a live action movie in the 50s called “Rainbow Road to Oz,” which reportedly got really far into production before being shelved for unclear reasons and being replaced by their Babes in Toyland production.  And of course later on in the early 2010s Disney would once again leverage this old acquisition to produce Sam Raimi’s mostly forgettable Oz: The Great and Powerful.  But the first time they took the plunge into making a was at the convincing of Murch, who proposed the project to Disney and wrote the screenplay, so this is not a situation where an important figure stumbled into some studio head’s misguided project, this was all him.  It should be noted that despite the film’s title this is legally considered not to be a sequel to MGM’s film (though a deal would be struck to let them use the Ruby slippers) but a “separate” adaptation of the literary works of Baum. And it seems that in Murch’s mind this wasn’t just a legal loophole, he seems to have been rather serious about bringing in the new characters and darker themes of Baum’s sequels and that is probably where he went wrong.

By 1985 those L. Frank Baum books were weird relics of the early twentieth century, everyone associated these stories with the 1939 movie and I don’t think there was some rabid L. Frank Baum fanbase asking for anything like this.  So you had all sorts of families showing up to this expecting another fun colorful romp through the land of Oz and instead they got an adventure through a dilapidated world that had been overthrown by a rock monster and repopulated with roving roller people and headless witches and the Tin Man and Cowardly lion replaced by a fat robot and a dude with a jack o’ lantern for a head… it wasn’t the most crowd pleasing approach.  But I must say, as someone watching it for the first time as an adult and with the awareness that this was a cult movie with a reputation I found a lot to enjoy about this.  Murch makes some very creative use of stop motion effects throughout and the film has some very interesting set design to bring his post-apocalyptic Oz to life.  The weird horror elements are present almost from the beginning with one of the first things Dorothy encounters being this deranged gang of people with wheels attached to their hands and feet (very Mad Max) and there is a disturbing potency to some of the characters they pick up along the way.

This isn’t a situation where things seemed to scare kids unintentionally; Murch must have known what he was doing in making things this dark and I’m really not sure how his Disney superiors let this happen.  It’s a real case of someone doing some odd maverick shit on the company dime.  So I was consistently intrigued by this movie’s imagery but I was not so intrigued by its story.  The Dorothy here is really not a terribly compelling lead and the girl they got to play her was no Judy Garland.  I would also say that the cast of supporting characters she picked up intrigued me more visually than they did as personalities (they’re quite bland really).  Also while a lot of the practical effects hold up I’m not sure that it’s kind of drab cinematography does.  So as neat as I find the gonzo vision of all this there are limits to how much I can really call this a “good” movie, it’s just too messy.  Still this is certainly something I’m glad I gave a look and am just kind of fascinated by the fact that it exists at all.
*** out of Five

Flight of the Navigator (1986)

When I was a kid I remember going to see this mostly forgotten movie called Star Kid when it came out in 1997.  Even as a nine year old I remember not thinking it was that great but I at least have some good memories of the outing if not the movie.  Anyway, turns out that in addition to that movie’s general forgettableness it was also kind of a ripoff of the 1986 Disney sci-fi film Flight of the Navigator which was itself not exactly a home run of a movie.  Flight of the Navigator is a movie that’s been pretty well off my radar for a while, in fact I think I was getting it mixed up with The Flight of the Phoenix for a while.  As it turns out the film is only sort of a Disney movie at all, it seems to have been produced somewhat independently as some kind of co-production with Norway though funded by a pre-existing distribution deal with Disney and did not have the Disney branding in several international markets, and I must say the fact that this isn’t a for real Disney production kind of shows as it sure seems like a behind the times copycat moreso than something from an industry leader.

The films looks at a kid who had a close encounter with an alien ship in 1978, blacked out, and then woke up eight years later in 1986 without having seemingly aged a day.  This leads to a lot of in retrospect odd scenes in which this 70s kid is not hip to the new “modern” developments of  the mid-eighties like Twisted Sister and New Coke… things that obviously feel just as antiquated to modern viewers as anything in 1978.  That part of the movie feels a bit inspired by the time traveling antics of Back to the Future but the movie this really wants to be is almost certainly E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial except that the kid befriends a space ship instead of an alien.  There are also shades of The Last Starfighter.  The film used quite a bit of early CGI though I feel like the bulk of the effects here are simpler model work; they look dated, but not horrible.  The whole thing was a pretty passable adventure movie as these things go, but then somewhere in the second half the spaceship’s A.I. (voiced by Paul Reubens) does a brainscan of the kid to adopt to his ways and suddenly starts talking in this weird 80s kid patter with a wacky “attitude” (including that horrid laugh that Reubens does) and the movie got increasingly annoying from there.  I think this movie could have used a more conventional antagonist for the “navigator” to have to deal with, maybe an enemy alien or something?  That might have been a more conventional choice to go with but… this was never exactly going to be The Day the Earth Stood Still so they might have benefited from aiming a touch lower.
** out of Five

The Rocketeer (1991)

So, what ever happened to Joe Johnson?  He made Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011, which you would have thought would be his ticket to the A-List in the coming decade but in the years since all he’s made is a direct to VOD movie called Not Safe For Work and extensive reshoots on The Nutcracker and the Four Realms after they fired its original director.  That’s a pretty lame output for a guy who seems to have been a legitimate but rather unheralded hitmaker between Jurassic Park III, Jumanji, that phase one MCU movie.  He goes pretty far back with Disney as well; his directorial debut was the 1989 film Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, which is certainly considered something of an 80s blockbuster classic even if it’s not quite on the level of something like Back to the Future.  I’ve seen that one before as a youth but did consider re-watching it for this series but ultimately decided to instead focus on the Joe Johnson/Disney collaboration I hadn’t seen, the 1991 film The Rocketeer.

If The Flight of the Navigator was part of a wave of films Hollywood made to get on the E.T. bandwagon, the 1991 film The Rocketeer was part of a wave of pulp tributes they made as a response to the Indiana Jones trilogy and to some extent the 1989 Batman.  It was the same wave that brought us movies like Dick Tracy (also technically a Disney movie), The Shadow, and The Phantom which feel like of like the works of aging studio heads who didn’t get that those characters weren’t really comparable to Batman and Superman, but the resulting movies weren’t necessarily complete whiffs either.  As a youngster I actually quite liked that 1994 version of The Shadow though I have my doubts that it would hold up if I watched it today.  Unlike a lot of those movies The Rocketeer is not based on an actual comic book or pulp product of the early 20th Century, instead it’s based on an indie comic book from the early 1980s that was always a pastiche of those older cultural artifacts.  I don’t think those comic books were ever particularly popular but nonetheless the film rights to them sold pretty quickly and the adaptation was in some level of development for the better part of ten years until it was fast tracked after the success of Batman and Disney specifically got behind it because it “had toyetic potential and appeal for merchandising.”  The original plan was to make it a PG-13 film released by Touchstone but eventually it was a bit more kiddie-fied and released by straight up Disney, which might have been a mistake given that actual children did not give a damn about 1940s pastiche and I know that the Disney label was a big part of the reason I never saw it despite seeing similar movies from other studios.

That being said, I was probably missing out, because while this isn’t some lost gem it is certainly a solid movie that accomplishes most of what it set out to do.  The film’s alternate history 1940s is fun and the Rocketeer himself is a neat looking hero.  The film’s special effects certainly seem a bit basic by modern standards but they are mostly within their means and they don’t distract or stand out as bad.  It was also cool to see Timothy Dalton here as a villain, always nice to see former James Bonds getting work, and the film manages to incorporate Indiana Jones Nazis and Dick Tracy gangsters into its world as the villains pretty seamlessly.  If there’s a problem here it’s probably the protagonist, at least in the scenes where he’s not in costume.  As a character Cliff Secord strikes me as a pretty bland secret identity and he’s not done many favors by the actor playing him, a guy named Billy Campbell (no relation to Bruce Campbell).  Campbell has quietly established himself as a reasonably successful actor, mainly in television, in the years since this movie came out but this was clearly a test to see if he had the “it” factor to become a star and I don’t think he pulled it off.  He’s fine, but he doesn’t leave a big impression.  Other than that there’s not a ton to complain about here; it’s a solid comic book action movie for its time period and it inhabits a fun retro world with real life figures.  You can totally see why they went to Joe Johnson when the time came to bring Captain America to the screen… shame he hasn’t been a voice in the years since.
***1/2 out of Five 

Newsies (1992)

I had at least heard of most of the Disney movies of this era even if I hadn’t seen a lot of them.  I heard about movies like Return to Oz and Flight of the Navigator from the nostalgic Gen Xer  who geek out about them while also talking about movies like The Goonies and I heard a decent amount about The Rocketeer for its status of kind of being an early superhero movie and I remember a lot of these other early 90s Disney flicks from the way they were marketed in my youth, but Newsies was a movie I learned about in adulthood.  In fact I didn’t hear about it until a handful of years ago when I started interacting with a very different kind of geek: former theater kids.  Back in ’92 Newsies was a huge bomb, one of the least successful movies the studio ever released having failed to even gross three million dollars on a fifteen million dollar budget, which probably explains why so few people ever talked about it.  However, it seems that the tiny fraction of youngsters who did show up to see it grew up to join drama club and enjoy singing showtunes and shit.  In that sense this movie has a lot to answer for, but I must say the future theater kids of America circa 1992 might have been on to something because while this movie is far from perfect it’s way better than its real life fate seems to suggest.

This movie was more than likely greenlit almost as an experiment; The Little Mermaid was a big hit, it was a musical, maybe the time was right to try to revive the live action musical as well.  It was not.  We wouldn’t really see the neo-musical hit with any real success until Moulin Rouge almost ten years later and even then it would be a while before they were being made with any regularity and the world clearly wasn’t interested in 1992.  I’m guessing the mandate behind this from the studio was just “see if you can make a musical, any musical, with Alan Menken” because I’m not sure how commercial the subject matter of Newsies would be otherwise.  The film is about the 1899 Newsboys’ Strike, which was a real life bit of makeshift union organizing by a bunch of kids and teens in response to an increase in the price newspapers were being sold to distributors (I.E. the kids going “Extra! Extra! Read all about it” on the street) in New York by Pulitzer and Hearst.  So… it’s a movie about the importance of unions and organized labor… certainly something that infamous strike buster Walt Disney would love having his name on.

There is something nicely subversive about the fact that the people behind this movie managed to get one of the biggest capitalist enterprises on Earth to fund a musical ode to the power of organized labor and the movie is not terribly interested in “both sidesing” this conflict either.  The film also sports some decent production values bringing to life an era of history we don’t see on film all that often, and most of the music is… decent.  Alan Menken was in the middle of a big winning streak when he composed the music here and I wouldn’t say this broke that streak exactly but this is no Beauty and the Beast.  Part of the problem may simply be that this was his first project without his longtime lyricist Howard Ashman, who died of AIDS before he could work on this project, but I think the bigger problem here might just be the performers.  The film stars a very young Christian Bale about five years after Empire of the Sun and I must say I’m not sure he was entirely there as an actor yet and he certainly showed his future probably wouldn’t be in singing.  He’s not terrible but he’s not great either and I can’t say I was super impressed by any of the singing or dancing here.  The more basic acting is also a little questionable.  The filmmakers decided to go all-in on giving these kids thick New York accents and I’m not sure that was the greatest idea.  But that aside I still think this is a pretty fun movie and I have no idea why the critics were so hostile to it at the time and get why it has a cult following.
*** out of Five

Hocus Pocus (1993)

You wouldn’t know it today, but like Newsies, Hocus Pocus was not terribly successful upon its original release.  It didn’t flop as hard as Newsies (which was an absolute disaster) but it only made about $30 million and likely didn’t recoup its marketing costs.  By comparison, Disney made much more from Cool Runnings and The Three Musketeers that year and even The Nightmare Before Christmas (which is also known to be more of a cult film than an instant success) outgrossed it.  Part of the problem may have come down to a bad choice of release date: the movie came out on July 16, 1993 when all logic in the world suggests that the one and only month it should have come out in is October.  In fact the main reason the film is well known today is because it’s become something of a go-to film to bring out whenever a they need a “horror” movie to bring out for Halloween when in a kid friendly environment which will fit with the season but won’t actually freak out the kids.  That box office fate mostly conforms to my own memories from back in 1993, which was pretty much the first year I remember really having film marketing reach me.  It certainly wasn’t as big of a deal as Aladdin but I certainly remember hearing about the movie and seeing its VHS all over the place in Hollywood Video.  I didn’t see the movie, because it looked like it was for girls, but I knew of its existence, then it disappeared for about a decade or two before I started to learn that people in my age bracket actually remembered and cared about it.

The film is set in Salem Massachusetts and is part of an exceptionally long line of movies about witches to imply that there actually were real witches in Salem worth being afraid of, which kind of misunderstands that the thing that’s interesting about the Salem Witch Trials is that witches aren’t real.  I’d long assumed from the marketing and whatnot that the three witches on the film’s poster were the film’s protagonists, but they’re not, they’re villains chasing around these two very bland white teenagers who accidently bring them back to life around town for a while.  Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy are certainly interesting actors to put at the center of a movie for kids like this but I must say, they look kind of ridiculous.  They don’t have even the slightest bit of menace or threat to them and they’re not terribly credible villains even though they are theoretically trying to do some legitimately evil stuff.  To some extent I think that’s part of the goal; they seem to be working really hard to make sure this won’t actually scare kids too much and make their parents not want to take them to it… though they were oddly willing to let sexual innuendo fly in it.  Ultimately I think it’s the general generic-ness of the non-witch characters here that really makes the film feel unexceptional more than anything.  It’s really not a movie that’s meant to be “fun for the whole family,” this is a movie for kids and I don’t think there’s much there to look back on.
**1/2 out of Five

In Conclusion

So, that ends my look at Disney’s live action output in the 80s and 90s and by extension this whole series.  This was kind of a bad time for Disney all around; Spielberg and his imitators were clearly eating their lunch when it comes to appealing to young people in the 80s and they clearly seemed to be rushing to catch up.  As for the early 90s, they were making some moves but it’s obvious the bulk of their attention was on their animation division.  Ultimately it was probably the least rewarding of these installments just because it exposed me to fewer things that felt unique to me and felt like less of a glance into history.  And this is where I’m going to leave my “live action greatest hits” series, it doesn’t really seem to make sense to me to look much more deeply into the movies that came out during my own lifetime, which aren’t going to give me the same kind of perspective into film history.  And this will also be the end of my whole “Disneyology 201” grab bags of topics.  I’ve looked at a lot of the major blindspots I had about this studio and if I were to ever do a Disneyology 301 I’d really have to dig into some deep cuts to do it.


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