Comic Book Legal Defense Fund

Pulp Culture
'Shrek' breaks Disney
stranglehold; Disney
gets ideas from Japan


May 31, 2001
By Franklin Harris

While the masses were filling theaters for "Pearl Harbor" over the weekend, I decided to see a movie that might actually be good. (I don't have to see "Pearl Harbor" to know what kind of superficial, soulless pyrotechnics to expect from director Michael Bay.)

Happily, I wasn't alone, as "Shrek" actually took in more money during its second weekend than it did during its first. That is what good word of mouth can do for a film.

DreamWorks' comedic, computer-animated fairy tale about an ogre (voiced by Mike Myers) who rescues a princess (Cameron Diaz) has taken in more than $110 million so far. And it has done so by poking a finger into the eye of the Disney formula and taking a few shots at Disney itself.

Hopefully, DreamWorks has learned a lesson. "Shrek" is a straightforward comedy, not just a Disney cartoon musical with the serial numbers filed off. And "Shrek" is a box-office success.

"Chicken Run," another animated feature from DreamWorks, did pretty well last year by avoiding the Disney cliches of musical numbers and animal sidekicks.

Meanwhile, DreamWorks' "The Road to El Dorado," which is indistinguishable from any Disney cartoon of the last 10 years, was a flop.

If people want to see the Disney formula in action, they want the Disney name attached to it. No pretenders need apply. You don't break Disney's stranglehold on feature-film animation by trying to play Disney's game, because, at this point, Disney films are getting by mostly on brand-name appeal, anyway.

Disney's ''Atlantis: The Lost Empire'' seems a lot like...
Photo Copyright Disney
Disney's ''Atlantis: The Lost Empire'' seems a lot like...
Of course, straying from the Disney style isn't a guarantee of success.

Fox's "Titan A.E." flopped on opening weekend, even before bad word of mouth could give it the death it so richly deserved. In fact, it was such a stinker that it prompted Fox to close its animation studio.

Meanwhile, Warner Bros. managed to sabotage its wonderful animated film "The Iron Giant" with one of the most inept ad campaigns ever seen.

Still, if you need more evidence that the Disney formula is wearing thin, how about this: Even Disney is abandoning it.

... the anime series ''Nadia: Secret of Blue Water.''
Courtesy Photo
... the anime series ''Nadia: Secret of Blue Water.''
This summer, Disney is giving us a PG-rated sci-fi epic, "Atlantis: The Lost Empire." No songs. No cute sidekicks. Just adventure and a few laughs.

Will it work? I don't know. The last time Disney tried a PG-rated cartoon was "The Black Cauldron." Ask a Disney PR flack about it today, and he'll tell you it's a "classic." Ask anyone not on Disney's payroll, and they'll tell you it's a poorly animated disaster, which is exactly what it was for Disney in 1985.

So, is the viewing public ready for a Disney film that breaks Disney's rules?

Of course, even if "Atlantis" is a hit, expect controversy nonetheless, because it appears Disney has been secretly scavenging Japan for movie ideas again.

The first time this subject came up, it involved Disney's biggest animated hit to date, "The Lion King."

Not many noticed, but fans of Japanese anime spotted obvious and suspicious similarities between "The Lion King" and "Kimba, The White Lion."

The latter, also called "Jungle Emperor," is a long-running animated series by one of Japan's most revered cartoonists, Osamu Tezuka.

I won't rehash the "Ling King" debate here. The best source on the subject is the "Jungle Emperor" chapter of Frederik L. Schodt's marvelous book, "Dreamland Japan."

That chapter is online at www.stonebridge.com/dreamland.html.

This time, Disney's "source material," identified by American anime fans and the Japanese media, seems to be the 1989 anime TV series "Nadia: Secret of Blue Water."

Both "Atlantis" and "Nadia" feature antique submarines on voyages to the lost continent of Atlantis. Both have bespectacled heroes and dark-skinned heroines. The heroine in each wears a blue crystal mysteriously linked to Atlantis' power source. And those similarities are just the beginning.

Other similarities, including two members of the submarine crew in "Nadia" who seem to have doppelgangers in "Atlantis," add to the suspicions.

For its part, Disney denies any plagiarism. The producers of "Atlantis" cite the works of Jules Verne and alleged psychic Edgar Casey as their inspirations. And maybe the similarities are mere coincidences.

Whatever the case, Disney's executives should just be happy the Japanese are not as litigious as we are.

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