Jun 20, 2013

Disney, Old Vs. New

It's easy to forget that there are different generations of Disney films, and hence Disney fans. As I was born at the end of the '60s, it was the films Uncle Walt made in that decade, and that his studio churned out for a few years after his death in 1966, that loom largest for me: Mary Poppins, Robin Hood, The Aristocats, 101 Dalmations, and of course The Jungle Book. I also got a healthy dose of the studio's classics from the '30s, '40s, and '50s, of course, all in re-release in actual theaters (they were not very freely or ever shown on TV, if I recall correctly) and dutifully followed its late '70s efforts (Pete's Dragon, anyone?).

For millennials and younger, of course, it's the second wave of Disney animated musicals, starting with The Little Mermaid and cresting with The Lion King, that loom largest, which is one reason that post-1990 catalogue is what Disney Theatrical Group has seemed most intent on turning into stage musicals (Aladdin will be flying its carpet to Broadway sometime next year), and the older stuff not so much, apart from Mary Poppins, which was already a fully realized live-action musical on film. (The Pixar films are arguably an even bigger deal for many millennials and after, and in fact there is a Toy Story musical with tunes by Groovelily, out roaming the high seas on Disney Cruise Lines, that may one day make it to land).

So that's one reason that Mary Zimmerman's new adaptation of The Jungle Book at the Goodman and Huntington Theatres is such a big deal. There are a host of other reasons, too, most of which I hope I covered in my new feature for the New York Times.

But in my reporting for that piece I was fascinated to learn that the Disney folks, while they're excited by and open to the possibilities of these older "properties," don't quite view them with the reverence or sanctimony you might expect.

"We can love it, but I defy you to sit here and tell me the story [of The Jungle Book]," said Tom Schumacher, head of Disney Theatricals, when I interviewed him. "They're all these vignetted stories that, in this picaresque way, become the story of Mowgli, and because of that, kids bond with it. The movie has a very clever trick, by the way: They say the character's names all the time: 'Where are you going, Baloo?' 'Come with me, Mowgli.' Which is good, because who could remember them?"

When I mentioned that the two Disney films that loomed largest in my childhood, largely thanks to LP records with songs and dialogue excerpts (this is how we endlessly replayed our movie experiences before we had VCRs, let alone Netflix), were Robin Hood and Jungle Book, Tom said bluntly, "Robin Hood is not a good movie." When I began to stammer in protest, Tom helpfully offered, "I have nostalgia for 'Quick Draw McGraw,' but it's not good animation." (Fair enough, though what I chiefly love about Robin Hood is Roger Miller's laconic score; Tom challenged me to sing some of it, and I haltingly obliged with a little "Oo-De-Lally.")

The good news, though, is that in the age of on-demand video, Tom said, "The kids don't know what order they came out in, unless they're technically savvy about animation." I can vouch for that, having a four-year-old who toggles happily between Cinderella and The Princess and the Frog. And here Tom couldn't resist one last dig at my childhood favorite; viewed in this freshly leveled landscape of old mixed with new, he said, "Your beloved Robin Hood looks like crap."

And I guess Roger Miller already has a Broadway musical.

Related: A sidebar on other Disney adaptations that may be in the theatrical pipeline.


Linda said...

I think Tom Schumacher is confusing good animation and good movie. There is more to an animated movie than just the animation itself: story, dialogue, and as you pointed out, music. Plus, it is unfair to compare animation from the '70s to today's animation.

Kevin Carolan said...

...but I still got a helluva laugh from reading it. Thanks, Rob.