The Modest Budget Feature

Back in animation's hay day at Walt Disney Feature Animation, the big boss, Michael Eisner proposed this interesting question. Would it be possible to produce an animated feature that would cost less than a hundred million dollars? At the time the cost of Disney animated films was going through the roof. The veterans in the group, like myself, said, of course it would be possible. However, we knew this would never happen unless the production was free of encroaching management interference. If the ever present "creative executives" were allowed to fuss over a film the cost of the production would eventually soar. Michael Eisner never got his "budget feature" from the film division but his direct-to-video units began cranking out sequels and prequels to the existing Disney library, Naturally, they were doing this on a shoestring when compared to the big ticket features. The head mouse had suddenly found a new revenue stream and things would never be the same.

Some years later, I found myself wandering the halls of the Frank G. Wells Building on the Walt Disney studio lot where I had just dropped off a story board assignment. Ironically, it was on one of the many sequels Disney had in production. Since I had a few hours to spare I thought I would stroll through the building to see what else was going on. For those of you not familiar with this relatively new structure on the Disney studio lot it was then the home of Disney television, and direct-to-video development. There were many projects in development but none merited more than a passing glance. Eventually, I made my way to the second floor of the building where I was suddenly surprised to find a group of old friends and colleagues working away on a project that was so intriguing I knew I wouldn't be able to stay away. The film in progress was "The Three Musketeers," and it featured the classic Disney characters, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy. In a era of warmed over sequels and prequels this little movie was a breath of fresh air.

Before I go any further, let's zip back to the early eighties when I made my unexpected return to the Disney studio as a writer in the comic strip department. I remember more than one project that featured the classic Disney characters taking on the roles of historic or literary characters.  Usually these special stories were written for the comic book department. A couple of these ideas were moved over to animation where young Disney story tellers were busily adapting the stories for film. The projects appeared to be the perfect vehicle for Mickey, Donald and Goofy. I can't remember every idea in development at the time but one was called "Mickey Columbus" and the other was a retelling of the Dumas story of "The Three Musketeers." Remember, this was pre-Eisner and Wells, and the Disney studio was soon in for a major management upheaval. The clever ideas along with many others would be put on the back burner or worse - completely forgotten.

Yet, here we were in 2002, and the Mickey project I never thought would see the light of day was finally in development. Better yet, the studio had assembled a crew worthy of such a project. A unique group of creatives with a full understanding of the Disney characters and how to use them. The story tellers were well versed in the shorts of the forties, and fifties. The crew in my opinion, were the dream team of cartoon story telling and I had worked with most of them over the years. Chris Otsuki, Kirk Hanson, Bob Taylor, Daan Jippes, Ken Mitchroney, Don Dougherty and Bob McNight were busily crafting this Disney epic the old fashion way. Best of all, they understood how the characters had evolved over time and how they related to each other. I had little doubt this show would be great.

I continued to work in development on other projects in the Wells Building but I couldn't stay away from the "Mickey" project. The youthful director, Donavan Cook eventually got use to seeing me hanging around and soon I began sitting in on story pitches and watching over the shoulder as art direction and styling on the movie progressed. I was so impressed I knew the little film was deserving of more than a direct-to-video release. In many ways it reminded me of something that had happened back in 1997 when I began work on a direct-to-video sequel based on the popular film, “Toy Story.”

The perfect opportunity had presented itself. Disney finally had the perfect Mickey Mouse vehicle and a movie that was sure to play well in theaters. Adding to that, the upcoming celebration of the Mouse's seventy fifth birthday was on the horizon. For a company that prides itself on synergy things couldn't have been better. Think of the promotional opportunities a movie starring Disney's most famous characters would generate. There was no way the Disney company was going to let this opportunity slip pass them - or so I thought. "The Three Musketeers," starring Mickey, Donald and Goofy was released on home video as planned. The film did enjoy a wonderful, but brief big screen presentation at the El Capitan theater in Hollywood. Those who attended the screening confirmed my belief that the movie would indeed play well theatrically. The theater, pack to the hilt with rambunctious kids fell silent when the movie began. Clearly, this was a movie both parents and kids could enjoy together. "The Three Musketeers" was the family film many of us had been begging Disney to make for years.

We’ve answered Michael Eisner’s question. It is possible to make an animated feature film and do it on a budget. Instead of spending a gazillion dollars on an unknown and unproven property why don’t we, on occasion pull a few old veterans out of retirement and put them back to work? I know at least three who are ready and willing to take on a new film role. I think we should give them a call. Their names are, Mickey, Donald and Goofy.