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Disney's Decline—published on Substack

With a string of movies that have disappointed at the box office, the decline of theme park attendance, and the bleeding of subscribers from its streaming service, the Walt Disney Company is losing money hand over fist, and facing a downgrade of its once bulletproof brand.

The advance drumbeat for the movie Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny had not been encouraging. Right-of-center websites had been criticizing what they anticipated to be Woke messaging, the sort of messaging that seemed rampant at Disney with the new Star Wars movies they produced, and the way the Marvel Cinematic Universe has changed since the conclusion of Avengers: Endgame. Phoebe Waller-Bridge was expected to take over the mantle of Indiana Jones in future movies, and Kathleen Kennedy, Disney’s head of Lucasfilm was quoted in the press touting just that. I can’t deny, though, that when I saw a preview with Harrison Ford donning his eponymous fedora, wielding a whip, I felt a surge of emotion that took me back to how I felt when I first saw Raiders of the Lost Ark. While my wife was reluctant at first, I sold her on seeing the film with the promise of a day at the movies with popcorn. And since we’d seen the previous four films, she agreed and we went the next day.

Despite the complaints of some critics concerning the touted de-aging of Harrison Ford, and complaints that James Mangold was not Steven Spielberg, we both found the movie captivating and thrilling, incorporating many of the elements, including humor, that made the first three films so enjoyable. For this viewer, the de-aging of Harrison Ford was not only successful, but necessary to the story. When the 1940s prologue gives way to the late 60s, no de-aging CGI is needed to tell us that Indiana Jones is an old man. One critic even complained about the use of CGI, that the special effects of the first three films weren’t as fake as the modern standard, forgetting to mention that all Lucasfilm productions featured state-of-the-art special effects for their times, that Lucas founded Industrial Art and Magic that helped pioneer the very CGI the critic bemoaned. As for fake, how about the Nazi in the tank going off a cliff to his death in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? It was a stop-motion model, screaming as he met his well-deserved demise, state-of-the-art at the time, but hardly as realistic as the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.

I had a hint that the film would underperform expectations when we got preferred seats after arriving in time to purchase popcorn just before the movie started. But since we’ve been patronizing our local movie theaters as soon as the pandemic panic was lifted here in Idaho, sparse attendance, even empty theaters, were a constant, even expected occurrence.

The surprising box office failure of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny ironically reminded me of the box office failure of a Disney movie that directly led to Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm in late 2012.

John Carter, based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first novel, A Princess of Mars, was released in March 2012. It had been green-lighted as a trilogy based on the first three books of the Barsoom series: the aforementioned A Princess of Mars, The Gods of Mars, and The Warlord of Mars. Disney’s goal was to create a franchise that could generate a supply of sequels and offshoots, kind of like Star Wars. Unfortunately, the movie failed to generate the necessary box office and was written off, the CEO resigned, and the planned sequels were scrapped. An outsider might conclude that since it was too risky to establish a new franchise, why not acquire an existing one? Thus began the successful quest for Lucasfilm, which was consummated before the end of 2012.

By acquiring Lucasfilm, Disney effectively turned its back on its own creative team, sending the message, intentional or not, that its staff wasn’t up to creating a franchise like Star Wars or Indiana Jones. Their deal with Marvel had begun to pay off with the release of Iron Man, but Disney wanted their logo and their logo alone to grace the opening credits of a beloved film franchise. Their logo graced Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny alongside Lucasfilm.

As a fan of John Carter, I thought long and hard about how the film had failed to bring in the audience I thought it deserved. I saw the film in theaters twice in 3D, bought the Blu-ray (and another after the first copy became a coaster), streaming rights on both Amazon and Apple, realizing its non-blockbuster box office would likely doom any sequels. I sought everything I could find depicting the incredible world Edgar Rice Burroughs had created but found nothing on the level of what Disney, under the supervision of Andrew Stanton, had done. Part of my mourning process was to read every book in the Barsoom series, learning that Edgar Rice Burroughs had created a fusion of science fiction and fantasy that many later stories had borrowed from and outright ripped off, like the atmosphere processor in James Cameron’s movie Aliens.

Speculating on reasons why the film failed to live up to expectations is an interesting exercise. First off, movie critics’ support of the film was tepid at best, garnering only 52% from the Rotten Tomatoes review aggregate. I remember the LA Times review complained about the story after waxing poetic about John Carter discovering his leaping ability once transferred to the Red Planet. She complained that the movie failed to match that magic the rest of the way. Then there’s the title John Carter. It suggested nothing about the story; it could have been named John Smith. The movie was originally intended to be titled John Carter of Mars, which would have been much better, and a logo JCM had been created and survived, displayed during the end credits. But the best possible title had already been written by Edgar Rice Burroughs: A Princess of Mars. Director Andrew Stanton was reportedly uncomfortable with Burroughs’ title, as if boys wouldn’t want to see a swashbuckling space epic about a princess who needs a man’s help to save the kingdom she was destined to rule. But what do many beloved fairy tales contain? A princess in need of a knight to come to her aid. Disney’s princess fascination would have worked quite well with Burroughs’ title. After all, you need both boys and girls to come to the theater and put down their money. Another factor was that Disney eschewed Comicon in 2011, where fans of genre fantasy and science fiction gather yearly. Disney could have previewed the picture to the very audience they needed to get excited about it. But for whatever reason, their marketing and promotions staff decided to keep everything in-house and not reach out to every potential audience. Then there were the colors, pink and white, which featured prominently in the trailers and all the promotional materials. While Walt Disney in his day might have kept the series alive in hopes of future profits, the way Walt had done with box office failure Fantasia, the Disney Company without Walt needed immediate results.

One thing about critics is they often behave as a herd. It’s almost as if they team up to destroy a big-budget movie from time to time, bemoaning with crocodile tears how shallow the movie business has become, displaying their power to destroy. Many a movie’s fortunes have been sunk by critics, while many critically lauded productions fail to perform. I remember back in 1988 that Sheila Benson of the LA Times gave Die Hard a less than stellar review, later atoning for her mistake by over-praising the less successful Die Hard 2. While Rotten Tomatoes has become a useful tool, this observer compares audience numbers to critics’ numbers to divine the real worth of a picture. I’m less persuaded by critics more and more. They should remember that their word is not truth. It’s only their opinion, and when I find a critic’s opinions repeatedly diverge from mine, I cease to grant them any credence, and even take their disdain as possible recommendation.

We are witnessing the long fall of one of the world’s seminal entertainment companies. Unless Disney’s leadership can turn it around, and begin producing, once again, the family-friendly entertainment that their founder Walt Disney specialized in, they’re going down.

Instead of celebrating Walt Disney’s legacy of patriotism, his celebration of small-town America, Disney’s leadership has been apologizing for Walt Disney’s perceived sins of the past, and advocating the kinds of divisive political positions Walt Disney himself was smart enough to avoid. There have been so many Leftist attacks on both the man and the art his company produced, it’s hard to keep track of it all.

Walt Disney created a brand that was founded on Mickey Mouse and other anthropomorphized animals, and had the vision to build it into a wholesome, celebration of all-American values the current company is embarrassed by. By 1942 his studio produced the full-length animated classics Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi. Not all the pictures were financially profitable, but Disney had the vision to re-release them from time to time so they were all firmly in the black, something I could envision Walt Disney doing with John Carter of Mars.

After completing The Sound of the South in the late 1940s with a special Academy Award given to James Baskett, the first black man to ever receive an Oscar, Disney continued in the 1950s with Cinderella, Peter Pan, and live-action films like Treasure Island, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He also built his American dream theme park Disneyland and conquered television with Walt Disney’s Disneyland, which morphed into the Wonderful World of Color, among other iterations. The program featured Disney cartoons and live-action productions like Davey Crockett and Zorro. Disney’s television triumphs included The Mickey Mouse Club, which launched the careers of several stars, including Annette Funicello.

Disney’s dominance continued into the 1960s with hit movies like Swiss Family Robinson, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Sword in the Stone, The Absent Minded Professor, Son of Flubber, Pollyanna, The Parent Trap, and Mary Poppins.

Walt Disney shockingly died in 1966 just before work began on his planned Disney World Resort, for which he obtained an unheard-of deal to operate as a quasi-government in Central Florida, not unlike the Vatican in central Rome, Italy.

In his life, Disney had fostered a culture of creativity that carried on long after he left the scene. His successors continued to be inspired by his example, but each of them knew, or should have known, that Walt Disney was irreplaceable.

The movies and cartoons continued, as well as the TV shows, and his empire continued to expand beyond the reach of the visionary that Walt Disney epitomized.

Yet, despite the efforts of his successors, Disney’s output began to flag after his untimely death. There was something about the brand that began to fade after its founder’s departure, a maker of kid’s films, not fit for adult consumption. Disney continued as a family-friendly endorsement through the seventies and eighties, turning out solid films like Never Cry Wolf, The Journey of Natty Gann, and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. But the animated films that had built the studio’s legacy did not have their equal during the post-Disney era. In the ensuing period, Disney established the more adult-oriented Touchstone Pictures, and Hollywood Pictures for teenagers and young adults. This new more mature-oriented focus culminated in Disney’s acquisition of Miramax, the ratings powerhouse created by the now disgraced Weinstein brothers.

We had to wait until the renaissance of Disney Animation returned with 1989’s The Little Mermaid. Disney was back as their fare continued to improve in the nineties with titles like The Rocketeer, Beauty and the Beast, Honey, I Blew Up the Kids, The Lion King, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Alladin and the King of Thieves, Mulan, and Tarzan. They struck gold with their partnership with Pixar, beginning with Toy Story, its sequels, and offshoots.

In the 2000’s they continued to mine their library, looking for sequels, and franchises to make, before settling on basing movies on theme park rides like Pirates of the Caribbean. While many of these movies generated a great deal of cash, there was always the sense that Disney had failed to live up to its visionary founder’s giant footprint on the art of the cinema.

Since Pixar, a division of Lucasfilm delivered multiple hits for Disney, Disney purchased the studio in 2006. In the ensuing period, Disney began collaborating with Marvel, finally purchasing it in 2009. Still, the desire for a blockbuster franchise with the Disney logo on it eluded them.

POLITICS AND DISNEY

It was the strategy of the homosexual lobby to emulate the civil rights struggle that changed basic rights for black Americans, arguably not their status. Anecdotally, the seeds of what would become LGBT were visible in the back pages of The Los Angeles Free Press in the 1960s and 1970s. While there were personal and display ads that seemed like slightly veiled solicitations for prostitution, there were also ads for dominatrixes, as well as sadomasochistic, and bondage and discipline services. In this mix were ads for cross-dressing men seeking like-minded men. Back in the 1960s men who were sexually attracted to other men were called homosexuals. The word “gay” was yet to reach the common consciousness. Imagine the chagrin the producers of the 1930s vehicle for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, The Gay Divorcee, would have felt about the hijacking of a word that once only meant happy and fun. In researching the term, one can find claims to gay as referring to homosexual as far back as the twelfth century, although this observer remembers the term began to mean homosexual sometime during the 1970s.

The seminal event in the quest for homosexual rights happened when the NYPD raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village on June 28, 1969, and a riot ensued with nearly 400 homosexual men fighting the police for forty-five minutes, returning night after night to continue rioting. This riot is now memorialized in the United States where June has been established as Pride Month, celebrating all forms of homosexuality, expanded now to include the so-called “transgender.”

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) became part of the scene in the early 1980s. People were wasting away, admitted to hospitals, and dying without medical personnel having a clue as to why or how to treat them. While AIDS affected people of both sexes in Africa, where scientists theorized it came from, it afflicted mostly homosexual men in the United States. The burgeoning homosexual lobby took affront to this fact and began to shame people who claimed AIDS was a homosexual disease, forcing authorities to proclaim all people at risk, even though the actuarial statistics in the United States suggested a different narrative.

In 1985 the Gay and Lesbian Alliance for Anti-Defamation was formed, and has since added sexual orientations into their group, starting with bi-sexual, then transgender, adding queer, intersex, and questioning into the mix, eventually morphing into what we now know as LGBTQIA+—the plus allowing for the addition of as yet unknown sexual identities.

I became aware of Disney Company personnel supporting gay rights in the late eighties and early nineties.

The Walt Disney Company began to embrace the homosexual community in 1991 when it started unofficial “Gay” days at Disneyland and Disneyworld. Now they have become full-fledged celebrants of Gay Pride events. Most people looked the other way, figuring that Disney wanted to include people they previously may have shunned by laying out the welcome mat to one and all.

In 2008 California, Disney was openly opposed to Proposition 8, which would have codified marriage as between a man and a woman. It passed overwhelmingly in the state even though that was the year when California became a one-party state, run by the Democrats. The anti-8 forces declared it “Proposition Hate,” reminiscent of the Left’s later denunciation of Florida’s recent Parental Rights in Education Act as the “don’t say gay bill,” a dishonest repackaging of the bill. Disney was at the center of that political firestorm, and the hubris of Disney management led to the end of their special deal in Orlando. Even though Proposition 8 had overwhelming support of California voters in 2008, Attorney General Kamala Harris refused to argue for it in front of the Supreme Court, nullifying the very voters that had installed her in the first place, giving the voters a preview of her commitment to democracy.

Most people I knew who had problems with redefining marriage as anything people want it to mean, mostly shrugged their shoulders and accepted what was now the new normal after the Supreme Court found a constitutional right to same-sex marriage in 2015. Despite Leftist denunciation of Donald J. Trump as a homophobe, he proclaimed this issue settled at the 2016 Republican National Convention, declaring his affection for many gay people he called friends, urging his fellow Republicans to embrace them as well. This was the first time a Presidential candidate of either party had expressed acceptance of same-sex marriage. In spite of all this, the drumbeat of leftist gay activism continued.

Over at Disney, things began to accelerate after the acquisition of Lucasfilm was completed. In recent years, Disney President Karey Burke, who has a pansexual child and a transgender one, announced her support for having “many, many, many LGBTQIA characters in our stories,” hoping for a minimum of 50% LGBT and minority characters. In 2021 it was revealed that Disney instituted a “Reimagine Tomorrow” campaign to promote “underrepresented voices.” Conservative Disney employees complained this focus didn’t leave much room for them, while left-wing fellow employees would denounce them as bigots.

The drumbeat continued with Disney announcing they would no longer welcome “ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls” at their theme parks, not wishing to offend anyone who identified differently from what they were at birth.

Latoya Raveneau, executive producer for Disney Television Animation said, “In my little pocket of Proud Family Disney TVA, the showrunners were super welcoming . . . to my not-at-all-secret gay agenda,” she said. “Maybe it was that way in the past, but I guess something must have happened . . . and then like all that momentum that I felt, that sense of ‘I don’t have to be afraid to have these two characters kiss in the background.’ I was just, wherever I could, adding queerness. . . No one would stop me, and no one was trying to stop me.”

In May 2023, a video circled around the Internet of a bearded man wearing a dress welcoming girls into Disneyland’s Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, announcing he is a Fairy Godmother’s Apprentice offering magical makeovers for royalty-in-training.

These and other incidents have brought charges of child sexual grooming to Disney, which have taken their toll on theme park attendance.

After Disney began churning out new Star Wars and related movies, fans could see the change in focus through the sex of characters. Characters that would have once been men were now women: assassins, pirates, captains, admirals, and other assorted important personages. Men were still available but mostly as all-purpose thugs easily dispatched by a female warrior. By the time the pandemic shut down movie theaters, The Rise of Skywalker had proven to be successful. The trouble with the franchise is that Skywalker had roughly half the worldwide box office of The Force Awakens, the film that launched the latest trilogy, solidifying a downward trend for the brand. The brand is now kept alive as streaming video series on the Disney+ app.

Disney’s fortunes continue to decline in 2023. The latest MCU picture, The Marvels, is shaping up to be the biggest flop from Marvel since the Edward Norton Hulk, far below the glory days of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and The Avengers. This is part of a general trend of superhero fatigue, but the fact remains that Marvel killed off some of their most popular characters: Iron Man, Captain America (which they’re bringing back as an African American, and Black Widow (the subject of a failed prequel). Then they brought us Captain Marvel, after changing him from a man in the comics to a woman in the movies.

Disney executives recognized what a great many storytellers have recognized since before Homer: that stories have the powerful capacity to express the shared heritage of a culture, and help shape future generations. Homer was inspired by the courage and sacrifice of noble Greek warriors, and the intelligence and cunning of Odysseus, as were his fellow Greeks. He told legendary tales of his time, not to shape the Greek people, but to express that which inspired him, and thus his countrymen. Homer reinforced the values that were already rampant throughout Greek culture. His poems were composed before the advent of writing in Greece. They were passed down orally through rote memorization by his descendants. This is one of the reasons why Plato railed against the poets: they didn’t think, they recited. And it was before the heights of Greek culture were reached, and once reached, began its decline.

Modern elitist storytellers don’t seem to be able to resist More You Know moments where they use their position to enlighten we rubes of the correct way they are privileged to know. The problem with these moments is that the story ceases, giving us time to wonder why the story stopped. And when the values expressed in these moments are in contradistinction to society’s greater values, people notice and tune out. It turns out that masses of people are more easily manipulated to do that which they already believe, not what they’re lectured to do.

Walt Disney understood that and gave the public what it wanted while inspiring and enthralling the audience in the process. Disney had the advantage of coming from a more harmonious, homogenous time where people agreed on many of the basics; family, country, faith, and tradition, despite their political differences. Today’s Disney Company envisions a brave new world they intend to make where gender is fluid, families to be defined, borders are erased, and the marginalized preferred to the race and gender of the vast majority.

The Disney Company’s biggest failure was what it did to its own creative people in the wake of the failure of John Carter. Instead of critically evaluating why that project failed to meet expectations, despite the best efforts of the creative people involved, they chose to purchase the creativity of those who were behind the success of other production companies. It should be no surprise that the rot that was growing at Disney would infect their acquisitions and drive them down as well.

When the message becomes more important than the story, it is inevitable that the story will fall on deaf ears because it is irrelevant to its audience.

Storytellers have to decide: Are they telling a story, or are they conveying a message?

Walt Disney knew. He was telling a story, and mined the great stories of his time to tell. His stories contained important lessons, lessons that would influence generations. But the lessons weren’t why he told the stories. They were the collateral effect of telling a really, really good story. They weren’t the reason for telling it. The story, and telling it completely and properly, was what was most important. Any message conveyed was a side effect of telling the story. That is how Walt Disney grew his great company, and why his company failed without him at the helm.






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