Henry Bevan on Disney’s sci-fi efforts…
Those who have read James Stewart’s The Disney War will know that the company creates its most ambitious work when it shies away from filmmaking formulas. The Neo-Disney period (or the post-renaissance or second dark age or whatever) that followed the fabled Disney Renaissance, and contained animated wonders like Lilo and Stitch and Atlantis: The Lost Empire, was marked out by expensive and ambitious flops. Many believe this fruitless period led to the dismissal of Michael Eisner as CEO, the man who along with Jeffrey Katzenberg revitalised company in the late ‘80s and the ‘90s by going back to formula. The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King were modernised versions of Walt Disney’s magic that captivated audiences in the company’s Golden Age.
When Bob Iger replaced Eisner, he immediately stopped the experimentation that occurred during early-2000s and played it safe with a series of calculated buyouts: Pixar; Marvel; Lucasfilm; and now 20th Century Fox. Iger understood that people judge Disney on its cinematic output even if it accounts for a tiny amount of the company’s turnover. After the Pixar purchase John Lasseter was placed in charge of all of Disney Animated assets and, before he went on a six-months leave for “unwarranted hugs”, he guided the Walt Disney Animation Studios into the Disney Revival by reverting back to the formula. Like the Disney Renaissance, Frozen, Moana and Zootropolis stick to the successful formula and take modernisation one step further. The results have been spectacular: Frozen and Zootropolis have both grossed more than $1 billion. Lucasfilm has fired directors who strayed too far from the Star Wars mould. At Marvel, many directors, most famously Edgar Wright, left because they struggled to match their vision with Marvel’s house style.
Ava DuVernay turned down Black Panther to make A Wrinkle In Time. The reviews leading into opening weekend haven’t been kind. Many have praised DuVernay for attempting to adapt a difficult novel, but most admit the film is a mess. For all the company’s focus on formula, someone forgot to tell the live-action wing of Disney’s empire. Sure, Beauty and the Beast was one of 2017’s highest earners, but smuggled among the live-action reimaginings are flicks like Tomorrowland: A World Beyond.
The company famously gave Damon Lindelof a blank cheque. His choice to adapt a section of Disneyland no doubt excited the boardroom. This could have been another Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and started a new franchise starring the bankable George Clooney and rising star Brit Robertson. Lindelof’s script was a structural mess. He was the architect who designed the foundations and the penthouse but forgot about the floors in between. Still, Lindelof’s blueprints have some nice touches — smuggled within its commercial packaging are interesting observations about utopia, about the inherent hope found in the idea of a perfect world and how people will be selective about who gets to experience this perfection.
Tomorrowland was a certified rotten folly. Yet, isn’t it better to have a flawed but ambitious movie than something just playing the greatest hits? Never forget, the film’s story starts with the discovery of a magical pin and has a zany sequence where George Clooney sets the home appliances against some robot invaders before escaping in a rocket bathtub. It’s bonkers, and it should be protected at all costs. Disney has a blind spot: untameable science fiction.
On paper, A Wrinkle in Time makes more sense than Tomorrowland. It is based on a popular children’s book, and has a director who has been positioned as one of the saviours of black cinema. DuVernay’s has gained the title of visionary on her third film, but it’s going to be difficult to make a film whose main antagonist is a giant brain who wants to control the entire universe, or at least I interpreted Madeline L’Engle’s villain to be a giant brain. The novel is obtuse. A Wrinkle in Time may end up being a big grosser, and I hope it is. These type of films should continued to be made, and who would have thought Mickey Mouse would be hosting the house party that makes it possible.