True fact: Walt Disney didn't like sequels.
Back in 1933, after his studio's "Three Little Pigs" became such a huge hit, exhibitors begged Walt to produce a follow-up to the Academy Award-winning short. So Disney quickly put a sequel, "The Big Bad Wolf," into production. The cartoon hit theaters with much fanfare in April 1934. But business was only so-so.
Given the time, energy and expense that went into it, Walt obviously was disappointed. His conclusion: "You can't top pigs with pigs."
Translation: A sequel will never be as good as the original. So why bother?
Walt clung to this philosophy whenever the question of sequels came up, especially after some of the studio's biggest successes, such as "Snow White" or "Mary Poppins." He just said he preferred not to repeat himself.
Thus, one wonders what Walt would think of today's Disney Co., which has three -- count 'em, three -- sequels bombarding consumers over the next four weeks.
"Return to Neverland" -- the sequel to Disney's 1953 Peter Pan -- flew into theaters this past weekend. On Feb. 26, "Cinderella II: Dreams Come True" -- a direct-to-video followup to the studio's 1950 animated classic -- hits store shelves. Three weeks after that, the Mouse rolls out "Hunchback of Notre Dame II," a sequel to the studio's 1996 release.
Seems a tad excessive, doesn't it? Well, brace yourself. Here's a sample of the sequels reportedly waiting in the wings: "Jungle Book II," "The Lion King III," "Tron 2.0," "Dumbo II," "Mulan II," "Snow White II," "Atlantis: The Lost Empire II," "The Piglet Movie" and -- my nominee for most awkward title ever -- "101 Dalmatians 2: The Animated Sequel," which comes on the heels of the live-action sequel that followed the live-action remake of the animated original.
Of course, Disney officials say it just makes good business sense for the Mouse to produce these followups to established animated hits. And when you get a look at the numbers, it's easy to see why.
Case in point: The company's big direct-to-video release for 2000, "The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea," made $121 million. That's nearly $40 million more than the original "The Little Mermaid" grossed during its initial theatrical release back in 1989. And then there's the $154 million that "Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp's Great Adventure" netted for the company last year.
With that sort of potential for profits, the Mouse wants to keep the sequel stream flowing freely. Or, as they put it in Disney corporate speak: "Keep expanding the brand."
It's also understandable, then, why Disney is genuinely annoyed by the efforts of Salvador Gonzales. Gonzales, an 18-year-old animation buff, had had enough with what he viewed as the current management team's "raping [of] Walt Disney's original ideas." Gonzales launched an online petition asking the company to halt production of Snow White II (www.petitiononline.com/sw2/), which follows up on Walt's first full-length animated success.
Normally, the Mouse would be able to shrug off such seemingly minor matters. But then a number of animation professionals took up the cause. ("What part of 'And they lived happily ever after' doesn't Eisner understand?" grumbled one toonsmith). After that, the Associated Press did an article about Gonzales. Suddenly, Disney found itself in the middle of a p.r. crisis.
It didn't help much when David Stainton, the president of Disney's Television Animation Division (the unit that makes most of these direct-to-videos), recently said he "personally would love to make a sequel to "Snow White." That only added fuel to the too-many-sequels debate.
This all finds Mickey in an awkward position. While Disney dearly wants the money these sequels bring in, the company doesn't want to create the impression that it's actively undermining a tradition of excellence in animation by churning out the cheaply made followups.
That may explain the publicity the Mouse suddenly generated last week in an effort to put a positive spin on "Return to Neverland"'s production. The news releases stressed that Disney's Australian animators had meticulously studied the 1953 film so that the sequel would seamlessly match the original's look and feel while using computer-generated imagery to give "Neverland" some cutting-edge effects.
Will this last-minute p.r. push be enough to distract audiences from the obvious? Will they notice that "Return to Neverland" doesn't really have much of a story to tell? Or will they see instead the bigger story -- that Disney has replaced its founder's philosophy ("You can't top pigs with pigs") with another:
"Let's be pigs."