By 1997, it was undeniable that, publicly, the Walt Disney company was on their biggest roll since the days of Walt himself. But suddenly, there was a very real danger that the company’s progress might come to a screeching halt.
By 1997, it was undeniable that, publicly, the Walt Disney company was on their biggest roll since the days of Walt himself. The animation department had a steady stream of funding and new ideas, and thanks to the turnaround of DIsneyland Paris, the parks division was on solid footing, and perpetually looking forward to the next big project.
But behind the scenes, it was a different story. The termination of company president Michael Ovitz caused some serious friction in the halls of the studio. Michael Eisner now had sovereign reign at the top of the company pyramid, a nd many of the top studio brass were grumbling about his misguided management style. Eisner had righted the ship of the Disney Company in the late 80s and saved it from bankruptcy. But suddenly, there was a very real danger that the company’s progress might come to a screeching halt. Eisner and his staff had a challenge ahead of them; correcting the course, and sending the company in the right direction to finish out…the Disney Decade.
Despite failing to clear the ridiculously high bar set by the Lion King, Pocahontas WAS a success. It was a box office hit; In fact, it was the 4th highest grossing film of 1995 domestically, trailing Apollo 13, Batman Forever, and Disney’s breakout hit collaboration with Pixar Studios, Toy Story. Disney had developed two of the top films of the year, and that was JUST the animation department. Disney’s Touchstone Pictures had a great year, too, with Father of the Bride Part 2 and Mr. Holland’s Opus.
But that wasn’t enough. Eisner and company wanted to push the envelope of feature animation even further. The result was 1996’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The movie had been in production since 1993, and development had taken a back seat to both The Lion King and Pocahontas, but animators, writers, and the songwriting team of Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz were putting together a great product. Hunchback was different from anything else they had done during the Disney Renaissance. Just like the Victor Hugo novel it was adapted from, the film had dark religious and sociopolitical themes, and dramatic tones reminiscent of Shakespeare. Inspiration for the soundtrack was taken from La Esmerelda, an opera by Hugo based on the novel.
Of course, this was still a Disney movie, so some rewrites were necessary. In the original story, nearly all of the main characters die; not exactly a feel-good “Happily Ever After”. It also had no comedic relief, so the three gargoyle characters were added, led by “Seinfeld” megastar Jason Alexander, who was fulfilling a lifelong goal of being in a Disney film.
Singer Cyndi Lauper was originally cast to voice Laverne, one of the other three gargoyles, but she was replaced by veteran actress 85 year old Mary Wickes. Wickes had previously appeared in Touchstone Pictures’ Sister Act films, but she passed away in the middle of the recording sessions, and Jane Withers finished her lines. Oscar-nominated actor Tom Hulce voiced Quasimodo, who was originally intended to be older and more ogre-like. But Hulce’s youthful performance inspired the animators to turn Quasimodo into a young misfit filled with dreams, much more in line with the Disney formula. Demi Moore voiced Esmerelda; when meeting with Alan Menken and Steven Schwartz, she told them she probably wasn’t up to the task of singing, so cabaret singer Heidi Mollenhaue was cast as Esmerelda’s singing voice. Kevin Kline jumped at the chance to play Pheobus, and British Actor Tony Jay was cast as Judge Claude Frollo.
Disney made the decision to change Claude Frollo from a Bishop to a judge, which eliminated Hugo’s overt criticism of the Catholic Church. But that didn’t mean that the religious tones were lost; the script mentions the words “God” and “hell” more than any other Disney film past or present, and the musical choices made by Menken and Schwartz relied heavily on classical orchestra music, reminiscent of what you’d hear in a church. No question about it; just like Pocahontas, Hunchback had a strong social message.
Marketing was going full steam ahead, too. Disney partnered with Burger King, Nestle, Payless Shoes, and Mattel to saturate the market with branded products prior to Hunchback’s release. Eager to top their Central Park premier of Pocahontas, they rented out the New Orleans Superdome and showed the film on 6 giant screens throughout the stadium. The premier was an extravagant party, including a parade through the French Quarter. Disney was pulling out all the stops to make sure this was their biggest movie of the 90s. It wasn’t.
The film grossed $325 million world wide, less than Pocahontas. But it wasn’t the next Lion King, It wasn’t a critical hit, either. Jason Alexander said in an interview that Hunchback tried to appeal to mature audiences as well as toddlers, effectively appealing to neither. It tried to pair a serious story with lighthearted elements, and never managed to find the balance. Audiences were torn as well, appreciating that the animation studio had clearly produced a labor of love, but felt that it never quite found the right tone. Needless to say, this wasn’t what Eisner and company were hoping for. The dark, mature, Hunchback of Notre Dame was an utter disappointment.
Over in the live action department, the studio was ready to try something new and exciting; a live-action remake of one of their animated classics, with computer animation and animatronics to complete the Disney magic. 101 Dalmatians became a runaway hit! It wasn’t ground-breaking, and it didn’t particularly get critics excited, but Disney managed to make money by breathing new life into one of their beloved classic stories. The film would gross more money than Hunchback of Notre Dame domestically, but the production costs were much lower. Live action remakes of Disney animated classics would become something of an “ace in the hole” for the studio, ultimately leading to smash hits like 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, which is now the 10th highest grossing film of all time.
The crazy, outside-the-box thinking didn’t end in the film department. At the theme parks, Walt Disney Imagineering had a few big ideas of their own. After working on Captain EO, Epcot’s Mexico and Norway pavilions, and reinventing Disneyland’s Fantasyland, Joe Rhode was promoted to vice-president of creative and executive design on a new park; Rhode and his small team of designers started plans for their new park in 1990, but that had to take a back seat after Disneyland Paris ran the parks division deep into the red. Rhode explained later in interviews that they spent the first half of the decade flying under the radar, developing ideas and waiting until the theme park division found its financial footing again. Finally, the company announced that they would open their fourth park at Walt Disney World, Animal Kingdom.
Once funding returned to the parks division in 1995, Animal Kingdom broke ground. Disney planned to open with lands dedicated to the animals of Africa and Asia, extinct dinosaurs, and mythical creatures like dragons and unicorns. The park would be a full-day experience, not only thrilling, but educational, too. Rhode and his creative team traveled to see the animals and landscapes that they were re-creating. They planned unique villages with walkways to see the animals as if they were living in their natural habitats. For DinoLand USA, the team focused the land’s story around a roadside attraction, something you might see along Route 66, where dinosaur bones had been found; a corny, yet fanciful carnival of colors and sights. The final land, Beastly Kingdom, was based on mythical creatures, and would have the feel of an English countryside, with a castle and a fire breathing dra gon.
These were big ideas, and they’d need a big piece of land. Animal Kingdom would ultimately take up 580 acres, the largest theme park in the world, more than six times the size of Disneyland. Rhode and his team not only traveled the world. but learned as much about animals as they could. They were concerned about the welfare of their resident animals, and made the decision not to have hours that extended late into the evening, as the other parks did. Animal Kingdom would also never have fireworks, nor would it put any large roller coasters near the animals. The original plans for the park called for Dino-land and Beastly Kingdom to hold a majority of the classic theme park attractions, while the lands focused around Africa and Asia would mainly have habitats for the animals, and be treated as a walking tour of the natural world.
Kilimanjaro Safaris would be the biggest draw of that natural world, a truly massive undertaking!; Imagineers had to recreate the savannah, plant trees and bushes, creating watering holes, and adjust the landscape for the guests to be able to see the animals…but not their enclosures. Once sections of the savannah were created, subtle walls and fences had to be built to prevent predators from attacking any of the other animals. The attraction would take park guests on a 20 minute journey across more than 800 square miles of land, while seeing more than 30 different native East African species.
With the Africa pavilion housing Animal Kingdom’s crown jewel, it was always a safe bet that Africa would be a part of the finished product, but as the budget started to climb, some ideas had to be scrapped. The end result would see Animal Kingdom open with only two of it’s four original proposed lands. Asia was put on hold, but would eventually open one year later, as many of the Asian animals had already been secured. That left Dinoland USA and Beastly Kingdom. As a hopeful tie-in to an upcoming film, Disney chose to keep the Dino-centric land and to nix the mythical beasts altogether. Africa and Dinoland USA would be joined with some miniature lands, including The Oasis, Animal Kingdom’s version of Main Street USA; Rafiki’s Planet Watch, a conservation space where kids could learn about animals and how to protect the environment; and Camp Minnie-Mickey, which would host the characters. The central hub of the park would be Discovery Island, housing a majority of the shopping and dining for the park, as well as the iconic Tree of Life.
Just as the Magic Kingdom had Cinderella’s Castle, and Epcot had Spaceship Earth, The Tree of Life would become the symbol that represented Disney’s Animal Kingdom. It was designed to resemble an Australian or East African baobab tree, and was constructed around an old oil rig, allowing the 145 foot tree to stand upright, but still spread out at the top and have the trunk support its branches. Its name is derived from African folklore, and running with that theme, sculptors carved 325 different animals into the trunk, giving it a unique, iconic look, that first-time visitors would be drawn to, and repeat visitors would seek out, every time they were in the park.
Animal Kingdom opened on Earth Day, April 22nd, 1998 and despite its unusual premise of a live animal theme park, it became the 6th most visited amusement park in the world in it’s opening year. To further sell the idea of Animal Kingdom to the public, Disney launched an innovative marketing promotion. They wanted to make it clear that Animal K ingdom was more than just a zoo. It was a completely new experience. TV ads rolled out featuring the with the fake African word “Nahtazu”. These ads, tailor-made for Animal Kingdom, would prove hugely beneficial to the park in the long run; in 2006, Expedition Everest would open in the Asia section of the park, earning both critical acclaim and the title of most expensive roller coaster in the world. There was no question about it; Walt Disney World was bigger and better than ever. With the added cash flow, the parks division would now set its sights on a park in China.
Outside of the theme park and film divisions, Disney’s other business interests were expanding, too. The recent merger with ABC and acquisition of ESPN gave the company lots of new and interesting possibilities. They could see which sports were getting the most coverage, earning the best ratings, and bringing in the most advertising dollars. In the 1990s, baseball was getting a lot of attention. The company took notice of the fact that the California Angels, less than 5 miles from Disneyland’s front gate, could be a very lucrative acquisition. Actor Gene Autry had owned the Angels since their inception in 1961, but with his death in 1997, Disney made the move to buy them from Autry’s widow Jackie.
Disney struck a deal with the city of Anaheim to chip in $30 million of the $118 million renovations to Anaheim Stadium. But Disney’s gamble on sports didn’t serve them well this time. Unlike with the NHL’s Mighty Ducks, Disney lost an average of $16 million per year on the Angels, and an effort to build a new network called ESPN West, based around the Angels and the Ducks, never got off the ground. Eisner and company would maintain ownership of the two teams in hopes that things would turn around and they could, eventually, make a big splash with their newly acquired ESPN brand.
The theatrical department had a big hit right out of the gate in 1994 with Beauty and the Beast on Broadway. The show solidified the department’s status as a new staple of the company. The Beauty and the Beast show was massively popular, but that meant they needed to follow it up with something big. After the Lion King shattered box office records worldwide, an adaptation of that film was the next logical step. The show would open at the New Amsterdam Theater in New York in November 1997. It was an immediate hit, winning a Tony Award for Best Musical in 1998 and continues to run on broadway to this day. It’s currently Disney’s longest running Broadway show, and the third longest running show of all time. It has earned more money than any other musical in history, over $1 billion.
Back at the animation studio, executives had their notes about the shortcomings of Hunchback. Too adult, too dark, not enough comedy relief. They were ready to get back on course. Their next animated feature needed to be completely different; lighthearted, family friendly, and funny. Writers had been floating around the idea of a feature based on Homer’s Odyssey, so Greek Mythology was on everyone’s mind for this next big project. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker, the team behind The Little Mermaid, were asked to take it on. They chose to tackle the Greek legend of Hercules, seeing it as a chance to create a superhero story, but with a Disney twist. THEIR Hercules would be imperfect: young, clumsy, and naive. The duo also turned to classic physical comedies of the 1930s and 40s for inspiration.
Knowing they needed star power, Clements and Musker wrote the part of Phil with Danny Devito in mind. Fortunately, he took the role. Tate Donovan was cast as Hercules. Disney needed another big star to voice the movie’s villain, Hades, god of the underworld. Their first choice was the legendary Jack Nicholson, but his salary and merchandising demands were well outside the studio’s budget. Several well-known actors auditioned for the part, including John Lithgow, Kevin Spacey, and Phil Hartman, but none of them clicked. Next up was veteran character actor James Woods, who brought something completely different to his audition. Hades was written as a wicked, menacing, brooding villain like Sh er Khan or Judge Frollo, but Woods played him as a slick, sleazy, fast-talking used car salesmen. He was a revelation; exactly the kind of bad guy who would make sure Hercules moved along briskly and maintained a light tone.
Disney once again turned to their musical golden goose Alan Menken for the soundtrack to Hercules. Menken partner ed with lyricist David Zippel, and they would bring even more energy to the story by composing playful gospel music for the film, which would be highlighted by “The Gospel Truth” and “Go the Distance”, the latter earning Menken yet another Academy Award nomination.
Hercules premiered in June 1997 with yet a nother promotional stunt; this time an electrical parade through Times Square. The characters were also licensed out to 85 different outlets including Mattel, Nestle, and Hallmark. A “Disney on Ice” rendition of the movie was greenlit prior to the debut of the film, and Disney embarked on a 5 month, 20 city mall tour to promote Hercules. The marketing team was putting all of their proverbial chips on the table in hopes that the light hearted, briskly-paced Hercules would be Disney Feature Animation’s ticket back to the top of the mountain.
Disney STILL hadn’t found the formula that would re-capture the lightning in the bottle they’d discovered with The Lion King. Hercules would make $252 million, falling considerably short of even the disappointing Hunchback. Critics praised James Woods, comparing his performance as Hades to Robin Williams’ manic genie in Aladdin, but Woods was one of the few elements of the film that received universally positive feedback. Many critics called it a fun film, or even a good film, but it fell short of the classics that audiences had become accustomed to seeing from Disney.
After the release of Hercules, Disney began brainstorming new stories with varying tones, both light and dark. Nothing got them excited. The animation studio just didn’t seem to have the same energy or the same vision it once did. Joe Roth had been put in charge, but he wasn’t Jeffrey Katzenberg. Even though Katzenberg’s strong personality and micromanagement had tried the patience of both animators and executives, nobody could deny the success he’d brought to the company in years prior. Unfortunately for Disney, not only would Joe Roth pale in comparison to his predecessor, Disney would soon be competing against Katzenberg and Dreamworks studios, which would start churning out top-notch feature animation of their own.
At the end of 1998, Michael Eisner was still hosting the Sunday Night Movie on ABC. He was still the heart and soul of the Disney company as far as the public was concerned, but within the Disney company, the executive board was coming undone. Eisner wasn’t pushing the company in bold new directions any more, in fact, many of his ventures were failing. It seemed like some big changes needed to happen at the top, quickly, before someone else got the Katzenberg treatment.
On the next episode of Disney Decade, Walt Disney Imagineering puts their efforts into boats, a true story about a female warrior gives Disney their first animated tale set in Asia, and Pixar follows up their mammoth hit Toy Story with a tale about…“bugs?”