Is Bob Iger Playing It Safe by Keeping Disney in the Fairy-Tale Space?

Disney Fairytales Bob Iger
Celia Krampien for Variety

Neuroscientists report that the brains of some lucky people can produce higher levels of a feel-good molecule called anandamide. The upshot: a blissed-out state for those who inherit this delicious genetic mutation.

I think Bob Iger is one of the lucky few. Look at life in Igerville: “Cinderella” is a smash, “Big Hero 6” has grossed more than $630 million globally, and a sequel to “Frozen” will soon go into production, as will a stream of “Star Wars” sequels.

Candidly, good news from Disney is becoming a yawn. I miss the company’s glory years when Jeffrey Katzenberg was suing Michael Eisner, and shareholders were suing the Disney board for approving a $140 million severance package for Michael Ovitz, who’d been fired as CEO after less than two years on the job. It took author and journalist James B. Stewart 572 pages to pull together all the combat for his 2005 book “Disney War.”

These days Disney War has become Disney Love. Wall Street venerates Iger for shelling out $15.4 billion to acquire Pixar, Lucasfilm and Marvel — deals initially criticized as “too rich.” Disney’s new world order consists of superheroes and fairy tales.

Why invest in live-action gambles like “John Carter” or “The Lone Ranger” when a mere $100 million can resuscitate a foolproof property like “Cinderella” — one that has been regularly recycled since George Melies’ version in 1899? How can you lose with “Frozen 2,” when its first iteration grossed $1.27 billion worldwide?

To be sure, a studio cannot sustain itself solely on remakes and sequels. Even old Walt himself expressed disdain for the latter. And Disney production chief Sean Bailey stresses that he’ll continue to foster two or three movies that he (unfortunately) calls “brand deposits” — lower-budget pictures that will hopefully embellish the Disney name, and may create a new cycle of sequels.

Perhaps the “Star Wars” sequels represent “brand deposits” as well. “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens” arrives in December. The next, “Episode VIII — Rogue One,” is considered the franchise’s first true spinoff, and will be released May 26, 2017. Disney executives, not surprisingly, are far more eager to talk about the “Star Wars” product (and Pixar’s two originals — June’s “Inside Out” and November’s “The Good Dinosaur”) than the two remaining megabudget shoots that are also on the assembly line — a new “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie and “Tomorrowland,” a brand known only to theme park regulars.

These latter two films represent enormous investments of as much as $400 million, so it’s easy to see why Disney feels far more comfortable in Fantasyland than in Tomorrowland. “Fairy-tale space is our arena,” Bailey told the Wall Street Journal recently. And “Cinderella” represents as safe an occupant of that space as one can imagine.

While Iger likes to gamble big on acquisitions and play it safe on product, his company is so vast that he cannot totally avoid the world of risk. His multibillion-dollar gamble on a theme park in Shanghai continues to stretch out in terms of schedule and cost.

And then there’s the issue of the Disney image. How big is too big? How pervasive can the company’s product become before the inevitable resentment sets in? And how expensive can that product become, and still be affordable to consumers? With Disneyland prices jumping yet again this month, parents will need a surge of anandamide to survive the damage. And Iger has first dibs on that stuff.