Mouse synergy: a bear necessity

Disney gives rides new lives through pix, TV and games

The Mouse House is bullish on bears.

Walt Disney Co. is confident its live-action musical comedy “The Country Bears” will prove its synergistic muscle is at work.

Bowing July 26, pic is based on the Country Bear Jamboree attraction at Disneyland and Disney World. That means built-in audience awareness for the title. Disney’s box office expectations are modest for “Bears,” but with a budget of $20 million, the pic is practically in profit even before it opens.

A sequel is already in the works and the franchise seems assured, since Disney often has mined gold with direct-to-vid sequels when the bigscreen numbers didn’t add up. In addition, there are merchandising possibilities as well as ancillary markets via Disney Channel and ABC.

And, of course, all this activity works as a promo tool for the theme parks themselves. (It remains to be seen whether Universal Studio Tours or Paramount’s Great America will similarly jump on the film bandwagon.)

The inspiration for this new film direction: Disney’s ongoing desire to reinvent the family movie business, an arena it once dominated but now must share with rival studios bitten by the family bug.

“Bears” started when Disney veep of production Brigham Taylor took his family to Disneyland and decided the ride would make a good movie.

Many on the lot thought the project was “completely insane,” admits producer Andrew Gunn. However, Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group prexy Nina Jacobson, like Taylor, got the concept and immediately pushed the pic into production with the blessing of then-Disney chairman Peter Schneider — a prime believer in all things synergistic.

Pic’s progress was helped by then-impending spring 2001 strikes and the need for product.

After Taylor’s idea for “Bears,” Gunn was assigned to produce and inhouse writers program scribe Mark Perez was hired to develop a storyline and characters.

By August 2000, the studio had a draft.

Turning a ride into a film has similarities to adapting a popular book or TV show. But there’s more freedom.

“There was no story that I had to remain true to,” Perez says. “There were no rules. That’s what attracted me to the project. Rides are different than TV shows, which makes them intrinsically more exciting, because you can do whatever you want with them as far as their story.”

Aside from the in-development “Country Bears” sequel, Disney is counting on two other theme park properties to generate lucrative movie franchises — “The Pirates of the Caribbean,” a big-budget romantic action-adventure being produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, and “Haunted Mansion,” loosely based on the attraction built at Disneyland in 1969, to star Eddie Murphy.

“Mansion,” “Pirates” and “Bears” also will generate videogames to be released through a licensing agreement between Disney Interactive TDK Mediactive.

In contrast to the higher-budgeted “Caribbean” and “Mansion” (which are both intended as tentpoles), the modestly budgeted “Bears” blends offbeat comedy with musical elements featuring animatronic bears; it’s more akin in tone to “The Banana Splits” than, say, “Dr. Dolittle.”

“Bears” scripter Perez says, “It seems like a logical step that Disney has these rides with a fan base, with people who grew up with them. Why not turn them into movies?”

The big question, however, is whether a ride can really sustain a 90-minute movie spinoff.

Yes, Disney execs believe, if the scripts are smart and original enough.

At first glance, “Bears” may seem a bizarre choice for a movie. Cartoonish live-action bears mixing with humans with a 1970s rock soundtrack: Is that a pitch?

In faux-docu style, pic centers around a young bear raised by a human family in a world where humans and talking bears harmoniously co-exist. Attempting to trace his roots, the young bear helps the Country Bears reunite for one final concert to save the Country Bear concert hall from being knocked down by an unscrupulous banker.

Pic stars Haley Joel Osment and Charles S. Dutton, and Christopher Walken as the banker.

The bears, designed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, combine high-tech puppetry and actors with original songs by John Hiatt (at Schneider’s suggestion). Vocals and cameos were provided by Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson and Queen Latifah.

Love it or hate it, “Bears” is likely to prove, along with “Lilo and Stitch” and “Royal Tenenbaums,” one of the most unusual Disney movies in years.

And that, in turn, could well become the Mouse House’s secret weapon this summer, when the lively bears will be up against such proven kidpic franchises as Dimension’s “Spy Kids 2” and Sony’s “Stuart Little 2.”

(Charles Lyons contributed to this report.)

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