Monday, July 24, 2017

Don't Touch The Books!: Why Does Modern Disney Animation Mostly Avoid Adaptations?

A thought crossed my mind when re-evaluating the latter period of the Disney "Renaissance" on my more personal, alternate blog on WordPress...

Walt Disney Animation Studios doesn't really adapt literary classics outside of fairy tales anymore...

The last Disney animated feature to be based on a book that isn't a fairy tale or a Marvel comic was made ten years ago... Meet The Robinsons, based on William Joyce's A Day with Wilbur Robinson. In fact, adaptations were sparse in the post-Renaissance/pre-Lasseter years, too! The Emperor's New Groove, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Lilo & Stitch, Brother Bear, and Home on the Range aren't based on any pre-existing IPs. Brother Bear was at one point going to be an adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear, the early versions of Home on the Range, when it was called Sweatin' Bullets, had Pied Piper elements in it, as does the finished film.

Walt Disney Animation Studios' current run and future is mostly free of adaptations, again, outside of fairy tales. The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and Frozen are extremely loose re-imaginings of the tales they're based on. They used some core ideas and elements, and built their own original narratives around them. Walt Disney worked similarly, stripping a story down to its basic structure and characters, and then - with his story men - adding their own material. Moana draws on some Polynesian folklore, but uses it to service the story it's trying to tell.

Only one anomaly stands out amongst this current line-up: Big Hero 6. A very loose adaptation of a relatively obscure Marvel comic, so loose that it could almost pass as an original animated feature if not for the characters' names, Big Hero 6 was adapted into a Disney animated movie for an obvious reason. Marvel is a goldmine, and there are plenty of characters that Marvel Studios wouldn't use for the MCU, so that gives Disney's other wings their share.

What's the reasoning? Why do they avoid adaptations now? I surmised that it was this...

During the Renaissance and afterwards, Disney had gotten flack for their adaptations of certain stories. Some of which were certainly not family-friendly in any sense, whether it's Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame or Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan stories. Both of these properties were adapted into live-action movies during the days when Hollywood's little censorship thing, called the Hays Code, ruled the industry. Walt adapted several family-unfriendly stories outside of fairy tales during this era as well, but did so in a way that didn't insult the intelligence of the audience. No one seemed to mind that something like Snow White or Bambi was stripped of graphic violence or horrific imagery you wouldn't show to someone under the age of, say, ten.

In the 90s? No.

I think this was because Disney's executives got a little too arrogant. Few sneered about The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin being Disney-ified, but the company was literally asking for it when tackling Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. American history and a very dark novel about the hypocrisy of the church... Perfectly fine material for G-rated Disney animated adaptations!

With Pocahontas, former chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg was aggressively trying to chase that Best Picture Oscar that Beauty and the Beast was denied. Remember folks, Beauty and the Beast was not only the first animated feature to get a Best Picture nomination, but also the second-ever Disney feature film to get one, the first being Mary Poppins. Beauty and the Beast lost for obvious reasons, the Academy staff supposedly had a meltdown over an icky cartoon being in the running in the first place. Katzenberg was determined, and thought a meshing of Dances with Wolves and the Disney Renaissance formula was the company's ticket to a winning prestige event. Katzenberg jumped ship when it was in production, but the movie bears all of his stamps.

Michael Eisner, then CEO of the company, treated The Hunchback of Notre Dame the same way. That was his pet project through-and-through, and that would be the last animated feature that would be something of a quasi-prestige (pun not intended) picture for Disney Feature Animation. They got the directors of Beauty and the Beast back to do it, producer Don Hahn was on board, this was a surefire shoe-in, right? While Hunchback didn't end as disastrously as Pocahontas did, it has still split the audience and fans down the middle. One side sneers about how much of a bastardization it is of the original novel, the other side really digs it. I actually really love that movie, and my only real issue with it is the gargoyles, everything else I'm big on... As an adaptation of the novel? It probably fails, but who am I to say? I'm taking it as a movie on its own.

It's an understandably rocky debate, should Disney had even touched those stories or not? Disney slowly backed away from this problem altogether towards the end of the decade. Aladdin directors Ron Clements and John Musker did not want to do a movie like Pocahontas or Hunchback. An interview with Tad Stones from the period, I feel, summed up their attitude at the time:

“What Ron said was that the whole line of features that they were talking about like Pocahontas, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Aida (the opera that eventually premiered as a Broadway show instead) were about things that he and John didn’t want to work on. We are not the Miramax of animation. We kind of do what mainstream America would like to see so let’s put that kind of entertainment on the screen. Disney’s done quite well with that. It really did shock Jeffrey into realizing that he was pushing animation to an Art House formula. He started asking, ‘Who is the audience for this?’”

Ron and John took on Greek mythology with Hercules, but made a very loose adaptation that played out more like a superhero origin story. Something that could be molded into the Disney Renaissance formula that the executives aggressively clung onto. Mulan focused on the titular heroine's struggle, war is part of it, but it's not overt. Tarzan plays off the man-vs-nature element and turns it into a Romeo & Juliet-type story with lots of blockbuster action. All of these movies received criticism for "Disney-ifying" the source material, and were also dubbed "politically correct."

After that, we entered the experimental period that sadly turned out to be a bust for the most part. It was here that we only saw a few adaptations, Treasure Planet being a pretty good space opera retelling of Treasure Island - which Walt Disney adapted into his first-ever fully live-action picture some 52 years prior - and Chicken Little being... Chicken Little. Meet The Robinsons is the bridge between the Eisner years and the current era, it's a solid adaptation, but the source material was a children's book, so there wasn't much of an uphill battle there.

Like I said, outside of fairy tales and Marvel comics, nothing else... As if Disney Animation's runners are now too afraid of even touching a literary work, perhaps out of fear that those same people will come out and deride them for even touching said source material?

But the wounds have healed, and there are plenty of age-appropriate novels and stories that Disney Animation can option and adapt, now that the studio is not run by people like Eisner and Katzenberg anymore. I can imagine John Lasseter's Disney Animation doing a bang-up job on an adaptation of something like The Chronicles of Prydain, which Disney adapted into The Black Cauldron back in the mid-1980s, when the studio and company was a mess not far removed from where it was during Eisner's final years. If they locked into a multi-book series like that, they wouldn't have to worry about having to make sequels to things like Tangled, Frozen, and whatnot.

They almost got there in the modern era. After finishing The Princess and the Frog, Clements and Musker wanted to adapt a novel called Mort, the fourth book in the Terry Pratchett fantasy series Discworld. Problem is, there was a rights issue. Apparently Disney had to get the rights to the whole series, Ron and John only wanted to adapt Mort. The picture was cancelled by the end of 2010, so the dream duo pitched three stories, John Lasseter okayed the Polynesian-set story they pitched, rest is history.

The studio's future is mostly a mystery, the only officially-revealed projects are sequels and a fairy tale adaptation: Ralph Breaks the Internet, Frozen 2, and Gigantic. Dean Wellins' cancelled sci-fi movie was an original story, it is unknown what he's working on now, or what Stephen Anderson's new movie is, or what Byron Howard's new Lin-Manuel Miranda project is. Disney's live-action department, when they're not assimilating the animated classics, mostly does adaptations: A Wrinkle in Time, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, John Carter of Mars, and things Disney Animation probably would've never touched. Things like Prince of Persia and The Lone Ranger.

Now I'm not asking for Disney Animation to do more adaptations, I'm okay with them continuing to do original stories, because we need more of that in a movie marketplace that's mostly made up of adaptations or sequels/reboots/remakes/this/that. Good original stories, at that. But part of me would like to see Disney Animation try again, and acquire a really imaginative pre-existing IP that begs for an animated adaptation. I see live-action - with the aid of photorealistic CGI - adapting all these things, things that I think would work terrifically in animation, why can't animation have that? Forget the giggling tictacs, I want to see a fully-animated Valerian and Laureline movie. Or a fully animated Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Where's my animated adaptation of something like a great sci-fi novel or a great fantasy graphic novel? Most PG-13 blockbusters I see, I always think, "Imagine how amazing that would be if it were done in animation!"

Of course, Disney Animation would have to seek out age-appropriate novels, comics, novellas, and such... Adapt them in a way that makes them fresh and new, respect the audience both young and old, and they'd have a pretty strong movie and potential series on their hands. I would love to see an animated feature spawn a great saga, something like a Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings-type equivalent. That's much more exciting than the umpteenth sequel to a silly, risk-averse comedy romp. If the live-action department wants to pass up things like Artemis Fowl and The Stuff of Legend, then... Give them to Disney Animation! In fact, it'd be cool if they took those stories on!

Heck, Pixar specializes in original stories, what if they were to break the code and do an adaptation? They almost did! You know the Blue Sky animated movie Epic? Chris Wedge wanted to adapt the source material - William Joyce's The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs - at Pixar, until it was declined, and he shopped it back to his home studio. With Pixar and adaptations, that's another story for another day.

Whatever Disney Animation chooses to do, it's fine by me, but I still think the whole adaptation thing should be considered...

What say you?


  1. I think while what Disney is doing right now is great, I agree with you that they should try and adapt lesser-known material and hand it to their animators to bring them to life. Executives like Eisner and Stainton did indeed hold back the full potential of these hard-working and ambitious men and women in the late 90s-early/mid 2000s, but with guys like Lasseter at the helm, anything is really possible.

  2. Though in fairness, concerning Musker and Clements, the serious stories like "Hunchback" or "Pocahontas" - stories such as those, they aren't exactly their modus operandi as they're usually known for the movies they've directed that feature rather goofy off beat humor as seen in "Aladdin" and "Hercules".
    The closest they get to being "serious" is with "Treasure Planet" (too bad that movie came out of the 2000s rut the company was going through).

    1. Where did I suggest in the article that Clements and Musker previously specialized in movies like those?

    2. It was just a theory I had as to why they didn't want to work on "Pocahontas" and "Hunchback"; as Tad Stones mentioned that those stories were about subject matter that they didn't want to bother with.

    3. Got it. Ron and John's style has a looseness, and is often irreverent (as seen in 'Moana' recently), so it's no surprise that they were particularly at odd ends with Eisner and Katzenberg's decision to make New Age-y, grandiose, "prestige" pictures like 'Pocahontas' and 'Hunchback.'