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Magic Kingdom needs its father figure

MEMO TO: Walt Disney

FROM: Peter Bart

I don’t like disturbing you, Walt, but I think it’s time for you to stir yourself and have a quick look at the Magic Kingdom you left behind. You may be sufficiently intrigued by what you see to consider coming back. There are enough people around who would like you to do so.

Mind you, I wouldn’t have suggested this a few months ago when the Wall Street gurus were bashing the company and your stock was plummeting. You never liked Wall Street to begin with, Walt. I remember how your brother, Roy, had to explain away the fact that you wouldn’t join the board or even attend stockholder meetings. He always said you were just “too busy,” but in fact you hated having to explain yourself to outsiders.

A few months ago, there was a show in town called the Eisner-Katzenberg trial that also would have thoroughly pissed you off, Walt. The proceedings got very animated, but it wasn’t your kind of animation. There were no charming little creatures running around.

WALL STREET IS STILL bearish on Disney these days, and management is still cutting costs, but there are some important glints of optimism on the lot. Not only is the studio leading its rivals in domestic box office market share, but it’s also the first to claim over $1 billion in overseas B.O. grosses five years in a row.

Most important to you, Walt, there are major developments on the animation front. Your long-term obsession, “Fantasia,” has been splendidly resuscitated and will be re-released next month amid cosmic hoopla. It will be a timely reminder that there’s life after Pokemon. The sequel to “Toy Story” also looks like a mega-hit. And an amazing film called “Dinosaur” is nearing completion that marks a whole new chapter in digital animation.

SITTING IN AN empty screening room last week, Walt, I saw computer-generated dinosaurs and other creatures that seemed as vividly alive as any live-action characters one could photograph, and they were running, fighting and carousing across utterly realistic landscapes.

You always were a closet techno-geek, Walt, fiddling around ahead of your time with stereophonic sound and animatronics, so I’m certain the digital wizardry of “Dinosaur” would leave you transfixed.

On the other hand, the first “Fantasia” meant something very special to you, too. It was sort of an art movie, Walt, but you were not always the most practical man in town: Witness your obsession to create a Utopian community called Epcot that you would rule as a sort of Medici-style benevolent despot. Indeed, Michael Eisner from time to time expressed his concern about “Fantasia 2000” as the numbers kept rising over the past several years.

GIVEN THAT HESITANCY, you really would have been pleased by the way your nephew Roy championed the project. Indeed, in his own quiet, matter-of-fact way, Roy has always fought to keep animation atop the priority list at the studio. This meant the allocation of hundreds of millions of dollars to stay abreast of changing technology as well as holding on to top talent. Roy understood the Disney legacy, Walt, and as he’s gotten older, he’s even taken on a remarkable resemblance to you.

I was reminded of this the other day when I dropped by to see Roy, who as usual, was moving about his spare office in the old animation building clad in a sweater, jeans and sneakers. It’s been said that Roy feels most at home piloting his yacht around the world, not to mention his $40 million Boeing 737. Thanks principally to the Eisner/Frank Wells spin on the Disney legacy, Roy is now worth over $800 million, according to published estimates, and this surely entitles him to pursue his hobbies.

But old Roy seems happy occupying center stage these days. He has even surprised friends by agreeing to be grand marshal in the Y2K Rose Parade — an uncharacteristic burst of extroversion.

“Why not?” Roy asked me in his customary aw-shucks manner. “It’s the millennium. It’s ‘Fantasia 2000.’ It’s all rather amazing.”

ROY VIVIDLY remembers the first studio job you gave him, Walt. Of course, that was in 1953 when Jack Webb was shooting “Dragnet” on the lot and young Roy found himself splicing together the footage on that uniquely monotoned show. After your death in 1966, an appalling lethargy overtook the studio and Roy went into exile for seven years. When Eisner, Wells and Katzenberg set about re-energizing the company, Roy moved back into his old office and into his advocacy role.

The present reigning czars of Disney animation, Peter Schneider and Tom Schumacher, make no bones about their debt to Roy. “We never worried about having to protect our work from Roy or having to hide our problem pictures,” says Schneider, who now presides over all the Walt Disney product. “Roy was our mentor, our problem-solver.”

To be sure, there are enough problems to be solved at Disney these days, not just at the studio but in TV, video and other sectors of the vast empire. That’s why people would like you to return, Walt, if only for a cameo appearance.

The Magic Kingdom needs its father figure, Walt. It’s as simple as that.

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