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Fairy dust won't help this failure

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[Disney]
Who’d have thought that Disney could fail? Witness Treasure Planet.

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 13, 2002


Few things in life are more satisfying than watching a bully retreat. For years, the Disney movie empire pushed around competitors, journalists and even consumers paying for the company's escalating bills and egos.

Now, after the resounding box office thud of Disney's Treasure Planet, nobody wants to miss a chance to kick sand in Mickey's face.

Count me in.

Let us enjoy the moment. It won't last long. Disney isn't teetering on the brink of bankruptcy just because one movie costing a reported $140-million to make and millions more to market will end up grossing a fraction of that amount. (But, boy, does that feel good to point out.) The studio will bounce back with a better movie, or at least one that will make more money. That is how quality is measured around the Mouse House these days.

Money is also how the studio's decline is measured. Last week's announcement that Disney lowered its fourth-quarter earnings estimate by a whopping $74-million -- basically the loss that's projected for Treasure Planet -- made stockholders shiver.

Oh, and one more thing, the studio announced: The Securities and Exchange Commission is curious about the so-called independence of a few board members with family ties to Disney-owned companies. That could be almost anyone, since Disney owns everything, or so it seems. The worst Disney can expect is a hand-slap for CEO Michael Eisner stacking the voting deck in his favor. Not exactly the kind of attention Martha Stewart got from the SEC, but it's still a good thing.

If the late Walt Disney truly resides in a cryogenic crypt, he must look like a milkshake from all that spinning.

The public sees only Disney's happy face. Employees are trained to deliver it under any circumstances, or refer you to someone up the chain of command who will do the insincere job. Or else, as in the case of Treasure Planet, be unavailable for comment. Any sugarcoating of that issue would be too transparent even for Disney. The studio failed, plain and simple, but honesty about failure isn't an option.

Just once, I would love to see Eisner face the off-key music on the ABC network Disney purchased to hawk movies through Good Morning America and star-studded infomercials. He will make his case to stockholders in closed meetings, but what about the public getting sucked into a black hole of entertainment like Treasure Planet?

We all grew up trusting the Disney logo. We expect better from the studio today.

Eisner could admit that Disney is a brand name mostly churning out generic products, movies with more emphasis on technology than emotions. He could acknowledge that the company has to use all its clout to convince people that a competently mediocre film like Treasure Planet is ready to join the pantheon of great Disney animation, or that a live-action bummer like Pearl Harbor is a patriotic tribute, not just an excuse to see Ben Affleck suck face between explosions.

The CEO could make it crystal clear to the masses that Disney's best animation lately comes from another studio. Pixar's Toy Story franchise and Monsters, Inc. makes it a lucrative subcontractor. If Disney can't beat 'em, it'll buy 'em. Perhaps Eisner would promise more modestly composed in-house animated films like Lilo & Stitch, finally realizing that less is often more.

Maybe Eisner would assure the people who pay his bills that he won't push Treasure Planet as a hit or a masterpiece when it sails to home video with embarrassing haste. Maybe he could retire that phrase "Disney animated classic" until a movie comes along that deserves it.

(We don't need to suggest that a Broadway version of Treasure Planet isn't a smart idea.)

Eisner won't do any of that. Not as long as enough people refuse to pay attention to the cons behind the curtain. If there is anything more insignificant than a grain of salt, that is how Disney's happy-face disposition in the wake of Treasure Planet should be taken.

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