The Mouse That Roared

There was a time when Disney knew its place. That time has long since passed. Once content to deliver clever cartoons and the occasional film comedy starring Kurt Russell, Disney has begun reading its own press clippings and, puffed up about being "The Happiest Place on Earth!", wants to rub our noses in that happiness.

Escaped from the confines of its amusement parks and cheeseball motion picture studio, Disney has, like a demon unleashed from a tacky Japanese horror film, begun gobbling up every form of entertainment in its path. Give it another decade, and Disney will have taken over the world. It's already eating its way through the Great White Way, which for those of us who live way the hell out here means 40 more years of bus-and-truck productions of recently deceased Broadway musicals based on "wholesome" movies owned by Uncle Walt's alma mater. Soon, very soon, all musical theater will be translated from animated sequels to animated originals based on classic literature, starring the voices of eight-figure Hollywood earners and those gregarious female line drawings who (have you noticed?) do not have noses.

I promise you, Disney's The Lion King, playing Gammage Auditorium this week and for weeks and weeks yet to come, is the tip of the House of Mouse's tail, a hoary harbinger of things to come. Disney has an endless supply of upright, PG-rated, moralistic movies (and nearly as many amusement park rides) at its disposal, and it's only a matter of time before the next generation of Michael Eisners starts mining this crapola for Broadway bucks.

How long before we're treated to a stage musicalization of Old Yeller, do you suppose? Reimagined as a rock opera and with the right amount of schmaltzy pop hooks, this heart-tugging classic could easily overtake Beauty and the Beast as the most vacuous Tony-winning musical of all time. Young Travis Coates could be transformed from the autistic farm boy of Disney's 1957 film version into the learning-impaired son of a studly has-been rocker (maybe played by John Stamos!) who deplores musical theater. Travis could adopt a yellow Labrador (Nathan Lane in a giant puppy suit) while Dad's out of town rehearsing for a segment of VH1's Bands Reunited and, to piss off his rocker father, teach the mutt to perform "Buckle Down Winsocki" and all of Nancy Walker's huckster routines from Best Foot Forward. Dad would surely become enraged and force Travis to shoot the dog. A nearby record producer might overhear father and son swapping heated rock arias about their dead pup and, as the curtain rings down, offer them starring roles in an operatic remake of Darby O'Gill and the Little People.

Too harsh, you say, for Disney? You're perhaps forgetting the company's runaway 1969 hit The Love Bug, in which the late Buddy Hackett appeared as an alcoholic who spends the film's interminable 90 minutes boozing it up and occasionally passing out. I'd like to see Hackett's character revived in Herbie the Love Bug on Ice!, a sort of musical cross between Andrew Lloyd Webber's Starlight Express and the Disney movie about a Volkswagen Beetle with a mind of its own. Nancy Kerrigan might come out of semi-retirement to warble songs about the joys of an ice-skating automobile that runs down competitive skaters who threaten her title. I'm imagining a kick line of lead-pipe-wielding Jeff Gilloolys who get mowed down by Herbie, and a touching disco number involving triple-axel combos and the first-ever death spiral between a VW bug and an anorexic Korean to grace the frozen stage.

While I'm awaiting the musical comedy version of Son of Flubber, I'll settle for a tuneful reenactment of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride or maybe even It's a Small World reimagined as a song-and-dance revue starring Andrea McArdle and the Blue Man Group. What a feast for the eye the Disney version will be, put to music on the stage, everything as Disney-pretty and Disney-clean as the topiaries at EPCOT Center, with McArdle warbling newly post-PC lyrics ("It's a world of bombings/A world of fears/We've got Saddam in chains/And on TV there's queers") to that familiar title tune.

And because Disney loves innovation (whereas musical theater, lo these many decades, has stubbornly stuck to its linear stories and ages-old song-and-dance structure), we'll enjoy technological advances not seen in live entertainment since the advent of animatronic past presidents. Look forward, then, to Teacups! The Musical, in which gaggles of chorus girls (without noses, natch) stand stock still, hollering songs about tea ("I Am Reeling for Darjeeling") while the audience spins maniacally in its motorized seats.

Cynics who scoff at the notion of entertainment based on Disney's amusement park rides haven't been to the movies lately, or at least not recently enough that they were witness to Terence Stamp and revered playwright Wallace Shawn embarrassing themselves in 2003's The Haunted Mansion. Because of its huge success on the screen, I'm certain that the musical stage adaptation of 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean, another movie based on a Disney ride, is in the pipeline; all I can hope for is choreography by Tommy Tune, who will almost certainly cast Twiggy and will have access to the best chorus-boy pirates.

The Disneyification has begun. We are living in the eclipse of intellect; the demise of cleverness. So long as originality remains on hiatus and syrupy sentimentality remains popular, we will never be without our comforts. We will always have Disney.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela