In the late 1990s Michael Eisner, the former CEO and Chairman of Disney, had one of his brilliant, harebrained ideas – to adapt several of Disney’s most popular theme park attractions into a series of big-budget, “event” films. For years, the Disney Parks had been places which adapted or accommodated IP from elsewhere in the company. The parks are where attractions, live entertainment and themed dining could be found based on, among other things, Disney’s latest animated marvel, the stars of a hugely popular soundtrack tie-in or, for a time, the soap operas that populated ABC’s daytime programming line-up. This was a novel concept; Eisner would now be pulling ideas and characters out of the theme parks, which would then cause renewed interest in the attractions. It was a perfect, synergistic loop, the kind only Disney could engineer.
And for such a novel, exciting concept, the initiative didn’t last very long. Barring the Pirates of the Caribbean movies (of which there are two additional entries being developed now), there hasn’t been a theme park-based feature in more than five years (and even that film, Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, was only tangentially connected to the land that includes Space Mountain). It was also the only project that wasn’t green lit by Eisner’s administration and the cluster of activity around the turn of the millennium.
Several other projects have been developed and abandoned – a film based on the Matterhorn called The Hill, a Max Landis-penned Space Mountain movie, a Big Thunder Mountain ABC pilot that could conceivably be recycled for Disney+ — but only one has broken through, largely because it followed the formula laid out by Pirates of the Caribbean. Jungle Cruise, coming next summer (God willing), is anchored by a big star (Dwayne Johnson), full of tangible period details, has a plot involving a magical doodad (this time it’s the Tree of Life) and features supernatural creatures as the primary villains. (It is based on an opening day Disneyland attraction.)
Hopefully there will be additional features based on theme park attractions in the not-too-distant future (ready to share my ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter script) and that the current Disney leadership will understand that without original properties developed for the parks, there will be no opportunity for these kinds of exciting reverse adaptations.
10The Country Bears (2002)
To tell you how little the Disney Company cared about The Country Bears movie (and how little it believed in its own unparalleled synergistic marketing abilities), the Country Bear Jamboree attraction in Disneyland closed a few months before the movie opened. The concept behind Country Bears is pretty good – the movie images the Country Bears as a popular hillbilly rock band who went their separate ways and now their old home base/music hall is being earmarked for demolition by an unscrupulous banker (amazingly played by Christopher Walken). In order to save their venue, they team up with a young bear (voiced by Haley Joel Osmet) and go on a cross-country road trip to collect the other members of the band. But the execution is so slack, with several uninspired musical numbers (with everyone from Brian Setzer and Elton John) and only a tenuous connection to the original, thoroughly entertaining attraction (originally planned for Walt’s canceled Mineral King ski resort, it wound up an inaugural attraction at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom), including a passing mention of the bears characters there (mercifully, Big Al is represented in the movie). There are, surely, things to enjoy in Country Bears, including a genuinely gonzo performance by Walken and impressive audio-animatronic characters courtesy of the Jim Henson Creature Shop which would have been even more impressive if they had drawn more heavily on the original Marc Davis designs. But the overall aesthetic is so unappealing and the direction so slack that it’s hard to have much fun, even in a bizarro wtf-is-happening early-2000s time capsule way. What is fascinating is that director Peter Hastings never directed another feature film but he did direct the pre-show film for Mission: SPACE, starring Gary Sinise, which was based in part on another movie on our list. We should just be thankful that Country Bears didn’t kill the based-on-a-theme-park-attraction initiative before we got Pirates of the Caribbean.