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Jim Hill
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by Jim Hill (archives)
June 19, 2001
Given "Atlantis" 's less-than-spectacular debut this past weekend and the fact that "Pearl Harbor" is fading fast at multiplexes nationwide, many folks are wondering what has become of Disney's fabled magic touch. Jim Hill suggests that this is what happens when you make the bottom line your top priority.

Time for a Toon Up?
Given "Atlantis" 's less-than-spectacular debut this past weekend and the fact that "Pearl Harbor" is fading fast at multiplexes nationwide, many folks are wondering what has become of Disney's fabled magic touch. Jim Hill suggests that this is what happens when you make the bottom line your top priority.

Man, I really don't want to write this story.

Why for? Because I have this reputation among Disneyana fans on the web of being 'way too hard on the Mouse. I often get angry letters that accuse me of deliberately going out of my way to write negative things about Mickey & Company. "Why do you hate the Walt Disney Company so much?" these notes I ask.

The truth of the matter is I don't hate the Walt Disney Company. I actually like quite a number of things that this corporation produces. Take -- for instance -- "Atlantis: The Lost Empire." This past weekend, I made a point of dropping by my local cinema to catch the latest release from Walt Disney Feature Animation. And -- truth be told -- I had a lot of fun. Watching this fun flick was a great way to spend a soggy Sunday afternoon.

But -- by the time I got home Sunday night -- the bad news had already begun to spread about "Atlantis: The Lost Empire." How this feature length cartoon had only (only?!) grossed $20 million, which -- in the eyes of entertainment industry observers -- meant that "A:TLE" was already a failure.

In response to this news, many senior Disney Studio executives is reportedly already moving to distance themselves from the project. And (I wouldn't have believe this if I hadn't seen this today with my own two eyes) the Disney Store has already begun marking down its "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" merchandise. As of this morning, a large assortment of "A:TLE" toys & action figures are selling for 25% off.

What's particularly troubling about "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" 's sluggish start at the box office is that Disney management is reportedly thinking about using the film's underwhelming grosses as an excuse to speed up their planned animation staff cuts. Initially, there was talk that the Mouse might take as long as 18 months to whittle away at WDFA -- which is looking to reduce its worldwide staffing levels by 25%. Now, rumors are flying around Burbank that -- as a direct result of "A:TLE" 's dismal performance -- 500 folks could be out on the street by as early as September.

That's why I really didn't want to write this story, folks. I'm getting tired of having to put together yet another feature that makes it all too clear that the bottom line is now the top priority at the Mouse House. That the accountants are now running the asylum.

You know what I miss? I miss the good old days, when the Walt Disney Company was run by executives like Dick Nunis. Sure, the guy could be a taskmaster. But when Dick Nunis was running the show in Florida, he made a concerted effort that the Walt Disney Company was perceived as a good neighbor in the Orlando area.

Nowadays, the Mouse does things like grabbing public dough out of the Central Florida coffers to fund WDW's sewer projects. Or snagging $300,000 from the Department of Energy to to develop brighter fireworks for use in its theme parks.

Disney also used to be known as this really great employer. Nowadays - what with corporation's reputation for being a firm that tries to weasel their employees out of hard earned wages and/or benefits (Just ask the WDW Zoo Crew, who actually had to fight this year for the right to have freshly laundered underwear to wear while they're working in character costumes) - the Mouse is having trouble finding people to work at their Central Florida resort. Last year, WDW HR staff actually had to go as far away as Puerto Rico to find folks who'd be willing to work at WDW's newest hotel.

So I guess it's time to face facts, folks. These days, the two most important colors in Disney's "Wonderful World of Color" are black (as in "Keep in the black") and green (as in ... Well, you know). That's why admission prices for the Disney theme parks continue to creep up by a dollar or so each year. And why all new attractions are built so that - as guests exit the ride - they're automatically routed through a gift shop.

The upside of doing stuff like this is -- even during a year where the Disney corporation has a few disappointments (like -- say -- "Pearl Harbor" and/or "Atlantis: The Lost Empire") -- the company's bottom line doesn't take that big a hit. But what's the downside? Well, for decades now, the Walt Disney Company has enjoyed an excellent reputation with families. But now - what with the Disney Channel, Disney Stores and Disney toys turning up in almost every McDonald's Happy Meal - the average American appears to be somewhat overwhelmed. It seems like everywhere they turn, something Mouse-related pops up in their path.

Could this "Had-my-fill-of-Disney" feeling that seems be pervading American culture these days be a factor in "Shrek"'s surprising success this summer? After all, this Dreamworks film delights in slamming all things Disney. And American audiences just can't seem to get enough of this somewhat mean-spirited movie. Sometime later this week, "Shrek" will coast by the $200 million mark at the box office ...

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