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The Return of the Movie Musical?

The cardinal rule of animation is that it allows filmmakers to do things that cannot be done, or would be extremely difficult to do, in live-action. Some good examples: Pinocchio (1940), The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994). The Lion King is an excellent example, because, when it was announced that Disney would do a stage version, the first question everyone asked was: How will they do it? If you have to ask how they'll do it live, then it's probably a good candidate for animation.

In the past, this was the first question the folks at Disney asked when considering a new animated project. For Beauty and the Beast, the answer was that the servants had all been transformed into inanimate objects. For Aladdin, the key was having Robin Williams portray the Genie. For Hercules (1997), it's all the mythological characters. But as Disney strives to put out a new animated film every year, and now that Fox, Warner Bros., and Dreamworks are attempting to get in on the action, I think that key question is being ignored.

Fox's Anastasia (1997) is a perfect example. I got the impression from reading some of the film's promotional materials that Anastasia actually started out as a live-action project, but then was adapted to animation. If that's the case, it certainly shows. Though I think Anastasia is a wonderful film, thanks to the terrific music, a well-written script, a good story (though hardly historically accurate), and tremendous visuals, I think it suffers as an animated film. You could take out Rasputin and Bartok the bat completely, and still have a great movie. In fact, you'd have a better movie. Bartok, especially, seems tacked on, because in animated films you've got to have a cute character to sell toys. The same goes for the dog, Pooka, but he's a minor character. Every time I watch the movie (my daughter loves it), I can't help but think how much better it would have been in live-action. In fact, there's so much rotoscoping (filming live actors to use as a visual reference) in the film, it's close to being live-action anyway.

Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) is another good example. The gargoyles are there only because you've got to have funny characters in an animated movie. One of Disney's greatest weaknesses as a studio is relying on formula. Once they build a cookie cutter, they stamp out as many cookies as they can. In the late 80s, they conquered that weakness and redefined the animated film. But in their quest to release a new film every year, they've produced a few films that would have been better as live action: Pocahontas (1995, historic accuracy would have helped, too), Hunchback, and now Mulan (1998). When I first saw Hunchback, I thought this movie had Broadway musical written all over it. I was surprised when they did Lion King first, but have since read that Hunchback on Broadway is in the works. Unlike great classics like Cinderella (1950, which has been done both ways), Hunchback seemed forced into the animated film mold. The gargoyles were unnecessary additions that detracted from the story. Imagine how much better it would have been as a live-action movie, even as a musical. Better still, as a stage musical.

Mulan is a similar example. While it benefitted greatly from the stylings of Chinese art, imagine if it had been a live-action movie and not a musical. With only four songs, it's hardly a musical as it is. And while Mushu (Eddie Murphy) was funny, he didn't quite fit the material. The same with Disney's next animated film, Tarzan (1999). While the large number of ape characters makes this seem a good choice for animation, I just don't see it as a musical. Knowing that Phil Collins wrote the songs bothers me even more. I have the same fear for Dreamworks' Prince of Egypt (1998).

Now imagine if Fox had produced Anastasia as a live-action musical? And Disney had done the same with Hunchback? Hollywood thinks that the movie musical is dead, though it has shown some signs of life lately. Disney tried to resurrect it a few years ago with Newsies (1992). The movie bombed, so it was blamed on being a musical. I think that Newsies would have bombed anyway. Newsies would have been better as a non-musical addition to The Wonderful World of Disney, now on ABC. Evita (1996) did good business, and picked up a few awards. Proof that there's hope. So why not pick a great story, like they do with animated films, and make them as they should be made? Many of the greatest Hollywood musicals started out as Broadway shows -- Sound of Music (1965), My Fair Lady (1964), Cabaret (1972), the list goes on. Maybe one day the planned film versions of Les Miserables (know why the recent, non-musical version tanked? It wasn't THE musical!) and Phantom of the Opera will finally get made (with Michael Crawford, please!). Make Miss Saigon into a movie, do it well, and I guarantee a hit. Broadway has reached a new high in popularity, especially with musicals. I think the American public is ready for movie musicals again. Let me rephrase that: I think the American public is ready for GOOD movie musicals again.

Likewise, instead of wasting money on tripe like Meet the Deedles (1998), Mr. Magoo (1998), Flubber (1998), and Blank Check (1994) (this list could go on forever), Disney should return to its live-action roots and tell good stories, not movies designed to sell Happy Meals. Back in the old days, "family film" meant "appropriate for the whole family," not "dumbed down so kids will enjoy it." Granted they've tried, but they need to make a better effort. Squanto (1994) was good (check it out sometime), but who's ever heard of Squanto? A live-action Pocahontas would have been better. Same with White Fang (1991) and Journey of Natty Gann (1985) -- good movies, but no box office appeal. How about a live-action Mulan (killer visuals), a faithful-to-the-novel Tarzan (amazingly, hasn't been done since 1918 -- see previous edition), and a Davey Crockett for the 90s? How about Princess of Mars, which they've been sitting on for years? Sure Princess of Mars will be expensive, but did they make any money on most of the crap named at the top of this paragraph? Walt always said to start with a good story. Katzenberg said it, too, when he was still there. Disney needs to exercise that rule beyond its animation division.