Disney spent the day reminding us of the truly bizarre films it made in the '70s and early '80s
For the most part, these movies were not good. In fact, most of these movies were very, very bad.
Disney decided to mine our collective nostalgia to hype its new streaming service Disney+ on Monday by tweeting out images of nearly everything it has ever made - except, of course, "Song of the South" - in one giant thread that sprawled over several hours.
The marketing ploy seemed intended to generate buzz around its library, which thanks to various mergers and partnerships now includes everything from Marvel Cinematic Universe to National Geographic specials to the "Star Wars" franchise to Disney Channel original movies. But it also reminded us all of the incredibly strange stretch of movies Disney made from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s, when it tried transitioning from corny children's fare to edgier pictures - often to hilariously disastrous results.
Disney has faced a few bumps in the road en route to becoming the behemoth it is today. At the beginning of 1941, after "Pinocchio" and "Fantasia" flopped (only to be revived years later), the company was $3 million in debt. A cartoonist strike later that year certainly didn't help matters. To remain afloat, the company produced and distributed U.S. propaganda, funded by the government, before finally recovering with 1950′s "Cinderella."
For about two more decades, the company continued making children movies like these, but it hit a wall in the 1970s.
The company spent the early part of the decade pumping out animal-based fare like "The Barefoot Executive" (about Kurt Russell and his chimpanzee, who can predict which television shows will be hits), "Million Dollar Duck" (which is not about a family with a duck, as you might imagine, but about a family with a goose who lays golden eggs), "Justin Morgan had a Horse" (about one of the first breeds of horse developed in America and their owner, a guy named Justin), "The Biscuit Eater" (about two young dudes and their dog, who is frustratingly named "Moreover") and "The Bears and I" (about a Vietnam vet and three bears living on an island). There's clearly some nostalgia for these, as currently a DVD copy of that last one is going for $229.95 on Amazon, even though as Disney made clear today, it will also be included on Disney +.
For the most part, these movies were not good. In fact, most of these movies were very, very bad. "Million Dollar Duck" was reportedly one of three movies Gene Siskel ever walked out on. His partner-in-criticism Roger Ebert wrote this incredible paragraph about it:
"Walt Disney's '$1,000,000 Duck' is one of the most profoundly stupid movies I've ever seen. It is a movie about a duck that gets an overdose of radiation and starts laying golden eggs. It is also about the people who won the duck, and about how greed and avarice appear in their lives, and about the lesson in love and understanding that the father gets when his son runs away with the duck and becomes trapped on a ladder between the ledges of two tall buildings, and about how the father gets a fair trial from the American judiciary system."
More importantly to Disney, these movies failed to rake in as much money as its animated films during this period, such as "Robin Hood" and "The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh." At the same time, special-effects-laden thrillers like "Jaws" and "Star Wars" were dominating the box office. So Disney decided to break bad and follow the trend by turning its attention to the decidedly un-Disney genres of horror and science fiction.
The most notable of these films was "The Black Hole," the most expensive movie Disney had made up until that point, costing $20 million. It was also the company's first to earn a then-scandalous PG rating. The space opera, which centers on a spaceship encountering a black hole, was meant to be Disney's version of "Star Wars," a property it would later acquire.
Critics didn't like it. Ebert wrote that it "takes us all the way to the rim of space only to bog us down in a talky melodrama whipped up out of mad scientists and haunted houses." Cultural critic Jason Heller, who saw the film in theaters when he was 7-year-old and expected a more kid-friendly "Star Wars," wrote years later "What I got instead was a slow-paced, sporadically disorienting film that ends with the human villain merging with the robot villain. After that, this hybrid man-bot is consigned - with no ambiguity whatsoever - to the fire and brimstone of the biblical underworld. Hell. Literally."
Still, it did well enough, earning $36 million at the box office revenue in addition to revenue from merchandise, as well as Oscars nods for cinematography and special effects.
And it's certainly stuck with some people. Neil deGrasse Tyson railed against the movie to TMZ for nearly two minutes in 2014, calling it "embarrassing" and "one of the worst movies ever." "They not only got none of the physics right about falling into a black hole. Had they gotten it right, it would have been a vastly more interesting movie. Somebody must have decided 'I know better than the scientists.'"
So the company continued down that road, making movies like "Dragonslayer," "Tron," "Something Wicked This Way Comes" and "The Watcher in the Woods," a straight-up ghost story that, according to Nerdist, was accompanied by a warning to parents to "pre-screen the picture for pre-teens. It is not for small children!"
Disney knew it had to make adult-themed fare to compete, but it also knew that the Disney brand was an issue. As Richard Berger, the then-president of the company's film division, told the New York Times in 1984, "Audiences don't know who made 'Star Wars' or 'Raiders of the Lost Ark.' They do know who made 'TRON' and 'The Apple Dumpling Gang.' If you put Disney's name on top of 'Emmanuelle,' and had 'X'-rated at the bottom, people would say, 'We can bring our children.' "
To distance the hallowed brand name from these newer films, Disney created Touchstone Pictures. That's the main reason that when we think of Disney today, we generally remember the animated classics and hokey live-action kid flicks.
These days, of course, Disney seems to own just about everything. And as the company made clear with its massive Twitter thread, nearly all of these things will be on its streaming service. It's been four decades, but finally "Black Hole" and "Bambi" will once again live side-by-side in perfect harmony.