Spend any amount of time studying history, and you’ll soon find it rarely follows a straight path. The past takes all kinds of twists, turns, and switchbacks from one event to the next.
This phenomenon makes no exception for movie history. It’s unimaginable now that Disney has become the world’s dominant cultural force, but back in the early 80s, the Mouse was on the ropes.
In a twist of high irony, Disney owed its financial woes in no small part to Star Wars. Lucas had conceived of his space opera romp as filling the void left when Disney had abandoned children’s pulp matinee fare. In fact, the House that Mickey Built was among the first studios he shopped Star Wars to.
“This is a Disney movie,” Lucas said at the time. “All Disney movies make $16 million, so this movie is going to make $16 million. It cost $10 million, so we’re going to lose money on the release, but I hope to make some of it back on the toys.”
When Lucas’ little B picture vastly exceeded everyone’s expectations, it got Disney president Ron Miller thinking. He correctly concluded that Lucas had tapped into a huge underserved market, and he decided to chase the same puck.
Unfortunately for him, Miller completely misunderstood the reasons for Star Wars’ success. Assuming that audiences wanted darker, more mature film experiences, he spearheaded several live-action movies–and at least one animated production–aimed at satisfying moviegoers’ more sophisticated tastes.
Here are some of the more prominent live-action movies produced under Ron Miller:
- The Black Hole (1979)
- The Watcher in the Woods (1980)
- Dragonslayer (1981)
- Night Crossing (1982)
- Tron (1982)
- Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
Film buffs can point out a few cult classics on that list, but obviously, none of them fulfilled Miller’s hopes for a Star Wars-sized blockbuster. After narrowly fending off a series of hostile takeover attempts, Miller was removed in 1984.
The former president had one final trick up his sleeve, though. An animated feature whose rather troubled production had begun in the previous decade finally saw release after Miller’s exit. Though heavily edited by new CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, The Black Cauldron would become the last cult favorite from Miller’s reign.
It would also nearly bankrupt Disney and sow serious doubts about the viability of their animation division.
While Disney ended up abdicating its live-action family film market share to Lucasfilm, developments that arguably proved even more interesting stepped up to fill the Disney hole in feature animation.
It’s unclear whether the Mouse’s experimental phase created an opening for relative upstarts to carve out a piece of the animation pie, but the fact remains that some genuinely fascinating cartoon movies conquered the box office in the 80s.
None of which were Disney productions.
Here’s a sampling of animated hits in the Disney Hole:
- Heavy Metal (1981)
- The Secret of NIMH (1982)
- An American Tail (1986)
- Fist of the North Star (1986)
- The Land Before Time (1988)
- My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
- Akira (1988)
A cursory glance at that list turns up three key takeaways.
- Don Bluth and Japan dominate.
- 1988 was a monster year for non-Disney animated films.
- It’s a pretty even mix of challenging; even shocking, adult animation and classic kids’ stuff. Lucas and Miller were both right.
But if Ron Miller correctly surmised that audiences craved darker stories, why did his projects flop at the box office? Some industry pundits pin the blame on early 80s Disney CEO E. Cardon Walker, who hated Miller’s new direction and refused to approve sufficient ad budgets for his rival’s films.
Ominous foreshadowing for John Carter. It’s like poetry; it rhymes.
Actually sit down and watch the Miller-era films though, and another answer presents itself. Though he had the guts to acknowledge Lucas’ success and rethink his company’s direction in light of it, Miller clearly misunderstood the Star Wars phenomenon.
How anybody watches A New Hope, misses the swashbuckling pulp adventure, and concludes that the scant horror elements are what’s resonating with people, boggles the mind.
It’s the Bradbury adaptation that betrays the flaw in Miller’s approach. He missed the pulp thread that tied Star Wars’ influences together. Bradbury, though he traveled in some of the same circles, was not a pulp writer. He was a surrealist. Still, Something Wicked This Way Comes is the best Disney Hole movie – because its source material is at least pulp-adjacent.
One wonders how Disney’s fortunes – and pop culture as we know it – might have changed had Miller succeeded where George Lucas failed and acquired the Flash Gordon rights from Dino De Laurentiis.
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Originally published here.