Practical magic

Unplanned dive into live action borne out of necessity

Walt Disney’s career in feature animation may have been meticulously dreamed and orchestrated with practically nothing left to chance, but the studio’s live-action history tells another story entirely, one measured more in expedience than careful planning.

Disney had flirted with live action as far back as the 1920s with his “Alice” series, which mixed live actors and animation. The 1940s homespun exercises in Americana, “Song of the South” and “So Dear to My Heart,” also capitalized on mixed technique. The studio’s first all-live-action film, however, was born as much out of necessity as creative passion.

Earnings from U.K. releases of earlier Disney films had been frozen in the U.K. and could not be spent elsewhere. In order to use the dormant capital totaling millions of pounds, Disney decided in 1949 to produce a blood-and-thunder adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic “Treasure Island” entirely in England. Over the next five years, Disney made more classic British adventures including “The Story of Robin Hood” and “Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue.”

“He never set out to make those classic stories with British casts, it was circumstance that brought them about because there were frozen pounds that had to be used,” says film critic Leonard Maltin, author of “The Disney Films.” Disney’s subsequent live-action career was likewise governed by “a series of serendipitous and unexpected moves.”

Take, for instance, the craze that was launched by television’s “Davy Crockett” in 1954, which even overshadowed the bigscreen success of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” and angled the studio toward Western and quasi-Western films such as “The Great Locomotive Chase,” “Westward Ho the Wagons” and “Old Yeller.”

The surprise success of “The Shaggy Dog” in 1959 pushed the studio into yet another direction, toward slapstick comedy with fantasy overtones. Even though it was originally made for the Disney TV program, “Shaggy Dog” far outgrossed the studio’s “big” picture of the year, the Irish fantasy “Darby O’Gill and the Little People,” and set the tone for the studio for years to come.

Lavish lit-based pictures such as “Pollyanna” and “Swiss Family Robinson” became rarer, while cheaper, wackier, formula comedies like “Son of Flubber,” “Blackbeard’s Ghost,” “The Love Bug” and “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” — all made by an inhouse stable of writers, producers and directors, and featuring a stock company of actors — redefined the “Disney film.”

Deliberate changes in the formula began to break through in the late 1970s, with films like the original “Freaky Friday” in 1976 and “The Black Hole” in 1979, which received scrutiny as Disney’s first non-G-rated film (it was PG). “It was a balancing act,” says Maltin. “How could they do something different without turning people off or sullying the Disney image in any way? That was a tall order.”

The most significant change occurred in the early 1980s, with the creation of Touchstone Pictures, which offered a more mainstream edge to the Disney product.

“For a few years there had been thought that one of the ways we could attract better writers, directors and stars was if we made movies that had more adult themes to them,” says Dick Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Studios. “Once we had really great talent here, it would raise the entire level of our live-action Disney films.”

Launched under the auspices of then-CEO Ron Miller, Touchstone would score a touchdown the first time out with 1984’s “Splash,” a PG-rated hit that made a star of Tom Hanks. That success continued throughout the Michael Eisner-Jeffrey Katzenberg regime, with a string of hits including “Down and out in Beverly Hills” (the studio’s first R-rated pic), “Ruthless People,” “Three Men and a Baby,” “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Pretty Woman” and “Sister Act.”

(A second new banner, Hollywood Pictures, virtually indistinguishable from Touchstone, was added as a way of keeping up with demand, but was dissolved in the late ’90s.)

Now more mainstream than ever, Walt Disney Studios has turned out high-profile efforts such as 1999’s “The Insider,” a Touchstone release that reaped seven Oscar noms; popular hits like “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” the first film under the Walt Disney Pictures banner to rate a PG-13 (which did not stop it from becoming the hit of the summer); and will even come full circle with the upcoming epic “The Alamo,” representing a revisionist climax of sorts to Disney’s original treatment of Davy Crockett.

Since the man Walt Disney holds the record for the most Oscars in history, it is ironic that the studio remains the only major not to have taken home a picture honor (though 1964’s “Mary Poppins,” Disney’s “Gone With the Wind,” probably came the closest). Cook, though, is not particularly worried about it.

“I think at some point that will happen,” Cook says. “We’re not purposely going out to try and find that Academy movie, but hopefully something will warrant that attention and voters will believe it worthy of that honor.”

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