Pre-Eisner era shows some sheen
Disney is about to bet a small fortune on rebooting “Tron,” an artifact from what accepted lore has painted as a black hole in the studio’s history. Much like a Disney fairy tale, however, the temptation to focus on heroes and villains in such instances tends to eradicate shades of gray.
In 1984, Michael Eisner and Frank Wells swept in as Disney’s management team, triggering more than a decade of prosperity before that magic touch (due in part to Wells’ untimely death) began losing its luster. At the time, Eisner and his key staff were portrayed as saviors — dramatically boosting Disney’s stock price after a period of mismanagement as the studio sought to find its place in a post-“Star Wars” era, shackled by a “What would Walt do?” mantra.
Yet the group preceding Eisner and company — largely perceived, as documented in James B. Stewart’s book “Disney War,” as a hidebound gang that couldn’t shoot straight — did enjoy notable successes. As is so often true in entertainment, though, some weren’t readily apparent until a good deal of time had passed.
Disney’s conspicuous failures during that stretch are well documented. Lowlights included twin doormats “The Black Hole,” a misguided 1979 stab at a space epic; and 1985’s “The Black Cauldron,” widely perceived as the nadir of Disney animation. The original “Tron” was also a box office disappointment, having the misfortune of opening not long after Universal unleashed “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial.”
But “Tron” — whose esteem within entertainment circles grew as those who were youths at the time of its release came of age in the business — wasn’t the pre-Eisner regime’s only legacy.
The same year the movie premiered in 1982, Disney opened the Epcot Center in Orlando, Fla., establishing the “second gate” strategy that helped transform one-day visits to its theme parks into more lucrative multi-day stays.
The Disney CEO preceding Eisner was Ron Miller, Walt Disney’s son-in-law. At his urging, Disney also created the Touchstone Pictures label — “Splash,” a hit starring a young Tom Hanks, was released in 1984 — expanding the company’s brand beyond the family audience.
While “Black Cauldron” flopped, its producers found some of the animators (among them Andreas Deja, brought over from Germany) that helped jumpstart its resurgence. Disney also began work on what became “The Great Mouse Detective,” a first-rate animated feature prior to “The Little Mermaid,” which formally inaugurated the renaissance at the company’s animation wing.
Now age 77, Miller lives in the Napa Valley, where he and his wife, Diane Disney Miller, own a winery and last year opened the Walt Disney Family Museum in nearby San Francisco.
“They got credit for a lot of things that they shouldn’t have,” Miller said in an interview regarding those who succeeded him. “But I accept that. … You move on.”
As for perceptions that the studio had been overly mired in its tradition, Miller says it was “only natural” — given Walt Disney’s iconic status — for those guiding the company after his death to question what he might have wanted.
“In time, we moved on and became our own men,” Miller says, adding that he’s confident Disney also recognized the need to broaden the profile beyond the confines of family entertainment.
“We were all very careful in our thinking when it came to expanding to another level … (because) everything had to be a G-rated film,” Miller says. “And it turned out to be a damn good decision.” Indeed, Disney enjoyed considerable success with more adult fare over the next quarter century, before retrenching since its latest management shift to a narrower, more targeted theatrical profile.
Miller — whose 1984 departure came in part due to maneuvering by Walt’s nephew, Roy Disney — hasn’t seen the new “Tron” but still thinks the original was “something special” and ahead of its time. In that respect, he adds, the latest version seems well-suited to capitalize on today’s digital, computer-based technology.
That said, Miller notes that he generally hasn’t been impressed by remakes derived from Disney’s live-action library, including updates of “Escape to Witch Mountain,” “Freaky Friday” and “The Absent-Minded Professor.”
Whatever “Tron: Legacy’s” fate, Miller sounds gratified — in Disney’s bet on the concept a generation later — to see another note of vindication for his tenure.
Then again, his experience isn’t unusual. Hollywood is famous for its arcane bookkeeping, which can require teams of accountants to decipher. In assessing a stint running a studio or network, it can be equally difficult — even with the benefit of hindsight — to decode a legacy.
Note: The writer’s wife works for a division of Disney.