Sunday, May 29, 2022

How ‘DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp’ Changed Disney

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This week, DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp turns 30. The movie, now available on Disney+, featuring Scrooge McDuck and his hyperactive nephews on a globe-trotting adventure that sees the family bringing home a genie and chased by an evil wizard (voiced by Christopher Lloyd), is the very definition of forgettable – the animation is iffy and the story is fairly well worn, which is to say nothing of the ethnic stereotypes that are problematic to say the least. But the movie, which has become something of a cult classic in the three decades since its release, holds a unique place in Disney history, for better or worse.

In November 1984, Disney announced that they would do something that they had never done in the more than 60-year history of the company: they were going to make animation exclusively for television. Disney Television Animation was established by newly installed Disney CEO and chairman Michael Eisner as a way of expanding the brand and bringing high-quality, cost-effective animation to the small screen. Eisner and President and COO Frank Wells had been installed in the company earlier that year. Disney was in rough shape; it had been neglected since Walt’s death and had just survived (barely) a hostile takeover attempt by corporate raiders and given into a costly greenmail scheme. Eisner had to rejuvenate the brand and put it places it had never been before, like broadcast television.

Initially, the new initiative got off to a shaky start. Wuzzles, created by Disney Legend Carson Van Osten and based on an idea by Eisner himself, featured characters that were half of one animal and have of another (like a Bumblelion or a Rhinokey. It debuted on September 14, 1984 but only last a single season. Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears premiered on the same day as Wuzzles but fared much better. Created by Art Vitello and Jymn Magonn from another idea by Eisner (supposedly the idea struck him when his son requested the chewy candy), the show as surprisingly rich and its medieval fantasy aesthetic perfect for the sophisticated (but not too sophisticated) animations style. It would ultimately run for six bouncy seasons. Things took a step backwards on November 27, 1985, Fluppy Dogs aired on ABC. Directed by Fred Wolf, who had helmed the counterculture animation favorite The Point back in 1970, it featured several candy-colored, dog-like creatures called Fluppies who use a magical crystal to enter other dimensions. The one-hour pilot, advertised as a special, didn’t attract viewers so plans for an ongoing series were quietly canceled.

On September 18, 1987, though, the television animation gamble really paid off with the premiere of DuckTales. Developed by Magonn and Brad Landreth and based on the timeless Uncle Scrooge comic book series by Carl Barks that inspired everything from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Inception (yes, seriously), it skirted the issue of the animated series being banned from using the core characters by introducing Donald as a supporting character before quickly shuttling him out of the main story. The show was a smash and ran for 100 episodes, inspiring several spin-offs and the highly profitable Disney Afternoon after-school syndicated programming block. But what is important for our purposes is the fact that on September 18, 1987, it made its debut as a splashy TV movie called The Treasure of the Golden Suns. In subsequent reruns, the movie would be split into five separate chapters.

Several years later, as production on the series was winding to a close, the idea was proposed to end the show just as it had begun – with a feature-length movie that could be diced up into individual episodes later. While the idea to conclude the series with a movie was scrapped, another, more ambitious plan emerged in its place – to make this a theatrical release, economically produced and heavily marketed with the entire might of the Disney machine behind it.

The original treatment, dubbed simply The Ultimate Treasure, was written by David Wiemers and Ken Koonce and focused on the Philosopher’s Stone (almost a decade before the first Harry Potter adventure). The eventual screen story and screenplay were written by Alan Burnett, who would go on to co-write Batman: Mask of the Phantasm and centered around an Egyptian treasure and troublesome genie called Treasure of the Lost Lamp, which still seems bizarre considering Aladdin was already in development at what was then known as Walt Disney Feature Animation. Perhaps the difference in quality between what was being worked on for DuckTales and Aladdin is that in Aladdin the Genie is voiced by Robin Williams and in DuckTales it’s Rip Taylor.

The first ten minutes of the DuckTales movie constituted a segment animated at a Disney studio in London, utilizing some of the artists who had just finished work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But the majority of the animation was done at Walt Disney Animation France in Paris, under the supervision of Paul and Gaëtan Brizzi, whose earlier animation studio had produced the charming Babar television series. (Director Bob Hathcock often found himself shuttling between the two studios.) The ink, paint and camera departments were in a studio in China (this is the last animated movie Disney released to feature hand-painted cels, since the major animated titles had adopted the CAPS computerized ink-and-paint system) with additional work done in Spain. Animator Larry Ruppel said the resulting film featured animation with “quality falling somewhere between Feature and Television animation.” (He’s being charitable.)

But more important, in many ways, than how the movie was made was how it was marketed. Trailers for the movie marketed it as “A Disney MovieToon” (the credit on the film is “Disney MovieToons presents”) ostensibly to differentiate it from the Disney animated movies that were now, since Eisner, Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg had taken over, gorgeously produced and deeply moving. (The Little Mermaid had been released the year before.) Still, the marketing made it clear that this movie was born from television, with a trailer boldly proclaiming: “It’s a movie so big, so special, so exciting, no TV can hold it.” And silently, in the dog days of summer, DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp had broken ground, just as that original crop of animated television shows had – it was the first animated feature that Disney’s feature animation department didn’t animate.

While it might not seem like a big deal now, at the time it was huge – and it paved the ways for the deals that Katzenberg would forge with Pixar and Tim Burton in the years ahead to make future classics Toy Story and The Nightmare Before Christmas (both made by studios outside of Disney’s sphere).

When the movie was released, it wasn’t the smash that Disney had anticipated. Critics were mostly tepid. In the Los Angeles Times, Charles Solomon said: “Walt Disney Studios’ new animated film looks exactly like what it is: A television program that’s been padded and Spielberg-ized in an unsuccessful attempt to make it fit a theater screen.” Solomon, who also had problems with the Middle Eastern stereotypes embodied by a character portrayed by Rip Taylor, went on: “The film was made in France by a European crew, and though the animation is better than the TV program, it doesn’t begin to approach the quality level audiences expect from Disney.” Dave Kehr’s review in the Chicago Tribune was titled “Raiders of the Lost Art.” But most critics, no matter what they thought of the movie, agreed that it would probably make money. There was, after all, a 30-minute primetime special starring Tracey Gold and Kadeem Hardison, with plenty of clips from the show and movie, and a McDonald’s Happy Meal tie-in.

But spoiler alert: the DuckTales movie didn’t make money. In fact, it lost money. The release of Jetsons: The Movie, which the Washington Post agreed was way worse than DuckTales, was released less than a month earlier and largely blamed for the film’s underperformance. A few years later, work began on A Goofy Movie, another “MovieToon” based on a Disney Afternoon series (Goof Troop), produced by an international crew and intended for theatrical release. But an even more ambitious idea was proposed by Tad Stones, a veteran of Disney Television Animation who was now working on an animated spin-off series of Aladdin. “I called up the Disney home video division and said, ‘By definition I’m doing a sequel to Aladdin; are you guys interested?’ They said ‘No, not really.’ We don’t want to make a few hundred million more, right? Then they released Aladdin. It was huge, obviously,” Stones later recalled. “I called them again and reminded them we were doing the sequel to Aladdin. If we got it done in time, it could be out a few months before the series premiered. This time they said, ‘We’ll get back to you.’” The idea to turn it into a brand new, direct-to-video was brilliant (it would still be on TV later, divvied up into individual episodes). Not only would it be a boom for the at-home market, which was becoming a lucrative revenue stream since Eisner and future Fox chairman Bill Mechanic started releasing the Disney animated classics on VHS in limited sell-through windows, but it would create an army of new fans who would tune into the new Aladdin series. The Return of Jafar was released on May 20, 1994 and even without Robin Williams (Dan Castellaneta filled in) it was a smash. “Return of Jafar was made for about $3.5 million. It made more than $100 million domestically and created the home video market for Disney,” Stones said later. When the third film, Aladdin and the King of Thieves (with Williams returning to the Genie role) debuted on home video in 1996, Stones (who also directed King of Thieves) told Entertainment Weekly: “”Direct-to-video was where you dumped things. Nobody expected that kind of interest.”

Soon enough, the loose collection of international studios, which were also opened in Canada, Australia and Japan, were renamed DisneyToon Studios. Instead of doing theatrical adaptations of popular television shows, their focus narrowed to producing direct-to-video sequels of animated classics. Occasionally those movies made their way to theaters, with The Jungle Book 2, Piglet’s Big Movie, and Return to Never Land all receiving big screen releases, they were mostly relegated to the lucrative home video market. What started out as a bold experiment soon became a formulaic factory responsible for things like Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp’s Adventure and Cinderella III: A Twist in Time. Even as the animation got better, mostly because many of the all-star animators who specialized in traditional animation had gotten sidelined after Walt Disney Animation became more focused on CGI. Andreas Deja, a master animator responsible for Scar in The Lion King found himself working on Bambi II.

After Disney bought Pixar (a deal actualized by Bob Iger, Michael Eisner’s replacement as CEO), it installed Pixar executive John Lasseter in charge of the entire creative side of the company, where he oversaw Disney Animation Studios and DisneyToon Studio. He immediately halted production on the direct-to-video sequels but kept DisneyToon Studio alive. The studio eventually made a series of CGI Tinker Bell movies and a pair of Planes movies set “in the world above Cars.” DisneyToon had its own mini-renaissance. But by 2018 the studio was shut down and last year Lasseter left the company after allegations of sexual misconduct.

And that’s the true legacy of DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp. Sure, it paved the way for movies like Toy Story and The Nightmare Before Christmas, loosening the standards so that movies not produced by the main Disney Animation unit could be released by the company. But more than that, it created the infrastructure and appetite for the wave of Disney direct-to-video sequels that flooded the market in the 1990s. While DuckTales The Movie is charming (and definitely has developed a cult following), it unfortunately led to movement that flooded video store shelves and helped contribute to the over-saturation and eventual death of the traditionally animated market. If we came across a magic lamp, we might wish for this movie to have taken a different path.

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