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The Bug War | #DisneyDecade Ep. 6

In 1994, the Walt Disney Company experienced a change that altered the course of family entertainment forever. After years of scheming to climb the company ladder, and butting heads with his fellow executives over his aggressive management style, Jeffrey Katzenberg, who led Walt Disney Feature Animation through monumental success in the early years of the decade, was fired.


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In 1994, the Walt Disney Company experienced a change that altered the course of family entertainment forever. After years of scheming to climb the company ladder, and butting heads with his fellow executives over his aggressive management style, Jeffrey Katzenberg, who led Walt Disney Feature Animation through monumental success in the early years of the decade, was fired. Disney CEO Michael Eisner and executive board members spent the next several years trying to fill the void that Katzenberg left behind. They expected a learning curve. What they DIDN’T expect was that Katzenberg would take everything he had learned about running an animation studio, and go to war with his former employer.

During his time with Disney, Katzenberg always aspired to run the company on his own terms one day. Instead, he would take Disney to court, win an estimated quarter-billion dollar settlement, and strike out on his own. He partnered with Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg and record executive David Geffen to found Dreamworks Pictures in October of 1994, the first new movie studio in decades. Before long, Dreamworks would go on to declare full-fledged animation war in the waning years of…The Disney Decade.

At Disney’s Animation studio, the oncoming battle with Dreamworks wasn’t worrying anyone. They were completely focused on turning around their four-year streak of lackluster box office numbers. Ready to keep trying new and exciting things, the team set their sights on Asian folklore. When special effects animator Barry Cook was approached to direct a film, he chose to do a story based in China, and teamed up with veteran animator Tony Bancroft.

For their story, Cook and Bancroft turned to a 1,500 year old Chinese tale, Hua Mulan. Disney’s version was originally written as a romantic comedy featuring a classic Disney princess. The formula had served them well nearly a decade earlier, when The Little Mermaid re-invigorated Disney feature animation, but turning Mulan into a traditional princess just wasn’t a good fit.. Instead, the story remained true to its origin; Fa Mulan cut her hair and posed as a man to take the place of her elderly father in the war against the Huns. The film’s love story merely served as a subplot.

The original tale of Mulan didn’t feature a dragon, or any anthropomorphic animals. But at the suggestion of Walt Disney’s nephew Roy, the character Mushu was added to provide comic relief and guidance for Mulan. Cri-Kee, Mulan’s good luck cricket, was suggested by Michael Eisner, despite the opposition of the animation team.

Having seen the success that had come from James Woods performance as Hades, and the enormous popularity of Robin Williams as The Genie, Disney was sure that a high-energy actor with star power would provide a serious boost in Mulan’s popularity. Veteran comedian Eddie Murphy was cast as Mushu, and he was given the green light to improvise, just as Williams and Woods had done. Reluctant to record at Disney’s Burbank studios, Murphy only agreed to the project on the condition that he could record his lines at home in New Jersey.

As Mulan began production, lyricist Stephen Schwartz was approached to write the songs for the film. Having worked on Pocahontas and Hunchback of Notre Dame, two films with more serious tones, Disney was sure that he was the right fit for Mulan, too. But Jeffrey Katzenberg had other plans. Dreamworks Studios lured Schwartz away to work on the Prince of Egypt, an animated film based on the biblical book of Exodus, a story that Katzenberg had wanted to do since his time at Disney, but which Michael Eisner had alway s vetoed. David Zippel, who had written the lyrics for Hercules, took over writing the songs for Mulan. Matthew Wilder, the creator of the stage musical “Cry to Heaven”, was offered the job as composer. Wilder had some huge shoes to fill; Alan Menken had composed the soundtrack for every Disney film since The Little Mermaid, winning EIGHT Academy Awards in the process. But the Disney animation studio was determined that they needed a fresh start if they wanted to repeat their success from earlier in the decade.

Disney opted to take a break from their big marketing stunts, designating just $30 million for promoting Mulan, compared to Hercules’ $60 million. The world premier took place in June of 1998 at the Hollywood Bowl, just down the road from Burbank, surrounded by simple Chinese lanterns. Mulan was criticized for its underwhelming soundtrack, but overall reviews were positive and box office returns were good. Mulan made $304 million worldwide, more than a $50 million improvement on Hercules, and would go on to become the 2nd highest grossing family film that year. Proving that history repeat s itself, the highest gross ing family film of 1998 would come from…Pixar.

At an early screening of Toy Story in 1995, John Lasseter pitched a story to Michael Eisner for their next project. He wanted their n ext story to be all about bugs. The Pixar animation team had brought toys to life in spectacular fashion. They would stick with that theme and do another story based around something that’s often overlooked, and cause audiences to look at it in new and interesting ways.  Eisner loved the idea and gave it the green-light.

When casting the film, John Lasseter looked to established veterans of television and sitcoms. He had found a winner with John Ratzenberger whose voice was instantly recognizable as Cliff Clavin, the resident know-it-all from the smash hit sitcom “Cheers”. Ratzenberger had already voiced Hamm in Toy Story, and he would become Pixar’s good luck charm. Dave Foley, best known from News Radio, was cast as Flik, and Julia Louis Dreyfuss, now a household name thanks to her years on Seinfeld, would voice Princess Atta. Spin City’s Richard Kind played Molt, and Frasier’s David Hyde Pierce lent a dignified tone to Slim the Stick Bug. The studio’s first choice to play the antagonist, Hopper, was Robert DeNiro, who turned down the part, as did many of Hollywood’s leading men. But once Toy Story’s success lent legitimacy to the upstart studio, Lasseter had more clout to cast a big name. He approached Kevin Spacey, who jumped at the chance to flex his villain muscles.

Although excitement about the new project was high, the animation was problematic. The overall scale of the film was much bigger than Toy Story; they would need to animate entire colonies of insects, rather than just a handful of toys. The computers had a hard time keeping up. Production was slow. To make matters worse, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Dreamworks fired another shot across the bow of Disney’s ship.

John Lasseter had remained friends with Katzenberg, even after Katzenberg was fired by Disney. The two men got together as Toy Story was wrapping up production, and Lasseter shared his next big idea for a story about bugs. Katzenberg had always known a good idea when he heard one, and this was no exception

Taking note of Toy Story’s monumental success, Katzenberg concluded that the future of animation was in computer-generated 3D features, and he immediately went to work trying to acquire a computer animation team. He bought Pacific Data Images, and put them to work on creating a film based around ants. When John Lasseter called him out for stealing Pixar’s ideas, Katzenberg denied the allegation, and claimed the idea was first pitched to him in 1991.

Katzenberg believed that Disney was attempting to sabotage his studio by releasing “A Bug’s  Life” at the same time as “Prince of Egypt”. Choosing to fight fire with fire, and still bitter about being fired by Disney, he pushed the Dreamworks animation team to finish their first computer animated film early, so that it could go head-to-head with “A Bug’s Life”. Pixar’s film was scheduled for a Thanksgiving 1998 release, and “Antz” was originally slated to come out the following spring. Dreamworks finished the film months early, and “Antz”, headlined by Academy Award winner Woody Allen, bumped up it’s scheduled premier to October 1998, a full month ahead of “A Bug’s Life”.

As fall of 1998 got closer, Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who continued to be Pixar’s main source of funding, publicly challenged Katzenberg’s claim that “Antz” was an original idea. But Lasseter never sunk to Katzenberg’s level, and he encouraged his team to press on as if nothing controversial was happening. In the end, taking the high road would pay off. “Antz” made $173 million at the box office. “A Bugs Life” made $363 million. Critics were divided on who had won “The War of the Bugs”, but “A Bug’s Life” would win more awards, and be more recognized for building on the technological foundation that Toy Story had laid. Katzenberg had lost this round, but most people agreed that his team HAD created a good film. Dreamworks wasn’t going anywhere.

Outside of the animation department, Disney was seeing success, too. The Animal Kingdom Park, which opened 7 months before the release of “A Bug’s Life” had been a risky venture; part zoo, part theme park. The risk had paid off, as the park was drawing huge crowds and getting great reviews. Their next business venture would be just as risky. With the maiden voyage of  Disney Magic in July of 1998, Disney officially entered the business of cruise ships. Their initial fleet was comprised of two ships: Magic, and its sister ship, the Wonder. The Magic, was designed and decorated in the style of the classic cruise ship the Queen Mary, which Disney actually owned from 1988-1992, while the Wonder was inspired by the art deco movement of the 1920s. Giving both an elegant feel uncommon in modern cruise ships.

The ship would boast three themed restaurants; Cariocas, a South America restaurant named for Jose Carioca, a parrot from Walt’s Wartime feature “The Three Caballeros”, Lumieres, a French restaurant themed around Beauty and the Beast, and The Animator’s Palate, a unique dining experience where the restaurant transforms from black and white to color. Onboard entertainment included two movie theaters to watch classic and first-run Disney films, and a live production theater for Disney musicals. Naturally, the ship would also be more kid-friendly than other cruise ships, boasting several kids-only areas and a teens-only coffee shop and video game area. Disney’s second ship, the Wonder, would have different restaurants that included Triton’s and eventually Tiana’s Place, while still keeping the Animator’s Palate restaurant, becoming the cruise line’s signature dining experience.

But of course, the cruise line wouldn’t TRULY be a Disney product unless it included its very own version of Wonderland. Disney Imagineering singed a $25 million, 99  year lease on Gorda Cay in the Bahamas. Sixty cast members live on the island full-time, maintaining the facilities and docks, hosting family activities, and keeping the white sand beaches pristine. The Disney Decade had taken Walt’s vision of creating intricate worlds of fantas y, and applied it to a tropical paradise and renamed the island Castaway Cay.

The cruise line was an instant hit, and expansions were quickly underway, as plans developed to move to the western coast of the United States, the Mediterranean, and across Europe. Disney would launch 2 new ships in 2011 and 2012, with continuing plans to christen three additional ships, and more destinations worldwide.

Between the boats and the parks, Walt Disney Imagineering seemed to have found it’s bearings after Disneyland Paris halted their momentum in the early 90s. But the animation team, which had struck gold early in the decade, was still trying to find its voice. Mulan had been a good start, and the animation studio wanted to continue their newly rediscovered success.

Kevin Lima, the director of A Goofy Movie who had become a rising star in the Disney Toons, was tapped to direct an adaptation of Edgar Rice Borrough’s classic novel, Tarzan of the Apes. Brendan Frasier originally auditioned for the part of Tarzan, but the part went to Tony Goldwyn instead. Minnie Driver was cast as Jane. Comic relief would be provided by way of Terk the Gorilla and Tantor the elephant. Comedienne Rosie O’Donnell was impressive enough to inspire the animation team to switch Terk from a male to a female. Woody Allen was originally cast as Tantor, but he fell victim to the politics of “The Bug War”, as Jeffrey Katzenberg lured him to play the lead role in Antz by promising to produce Allen’s next directorial feature. Wayne Knight, best known as the scheming mailman  Newman on Seinfeld, was cast as Tantor instead.

For the soundtrack, Disney decided to make a bold move to try to recapture the magic of The Lion King. They hired a songwriter who was already well-known to audiences, and who would appeal to different generations. It had worked with Elton John, and now Disney hoped it would work with six-time Grammy award winning musician Phil Collins. Collins would step up big time, with songs like “Son of Man”, and the signature track of the film, “You’ll be in my Heart”.

Disney had a good feeling about Tarzan. It was turning into a big production, and with Phil Collins on the team, multiple trips to study gorillas in Uganda, animators working out of Burbank, Orlando, and Paris, as well as computer generated 3D visuals of Tarzan surfing through the trees, the budget soared to $130 million. It had quickly become the most expensive Disney animated feature to date.

Like they had done with Mulan, Disney wanted to open the film without a lot of hoopla. Tarzan premiered in June of 1999 at the El Capitan Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. The premiere didn’t make a big splash…but the movie did. In fact, Tarzan would far eclipse the success of Mulan from the previous summer, making nearly $450 million.

Tarzan was a critical success, too. The stunning visuals, supervised by veteran animator Glen Keane, showcased Tarzan’s athletic prowess with an “extreme sports” feel, which played perfectly to audiences in the late 90s . As expected, the music won accolades, too. Phil Collins won a Grammy for the movie’s soundtrack, as well as a Grammy and an Academy Award for the song “You’ll be in My Heart”. There had been some trial and error, and some tough lessons, but with their second-to-last film of the 20th century, Walt Disney Feature Animation had reclaimed the early success of the Disney Renaissance

Throughout 1998 and 1999, Disney had found their stride again by hitting the reset button on their creative ventures. They fought their way out of the slump of the Mid-90s. Studio executive had been hands-on for years, and they were ready for that to change. Years earlier, Michael Ovitz filled the hole that was left upon Frank Wells’ sudden and unexpected death in a helicopter accident. Ovitz was hand-picked by Eisner, and he was an utter failure, costing the studio an estimated $138 million severance package. Executives had learned their lesson, and this time around, they pursued candidates without Eisner’s input.

Since Disney’s merger with ABC in 1996, ABC President Bob Iger had taken on a hands-on role, particularly overseeing Disney’s international operations. He had proven himself to be a workhorse and a team player. Executives were impressed enough to name him the new COO and President of the Walt Disney Company to work alongside Michael Eisner.

Disney hoped that Eisner would form a successful partnership with Bob Iger, the same way he had done with Frank Wells. Eisner and Wells had, after all, lit the fire of the Disney Renaissance back in the late 80s. Hopes were high that creative lightning might strike twice. The 90s were coming to a close, which meant that, officially speaking, the Disney Decade was ending. But the company hoped to let it ride well into the 2000s
On the next and final episode of the Disney Decade, would this new pairing be able to carry the creative momentum of the previous decade or would Disney need to take a different path in to the new millennium.

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