Never get on the wrong side of a Disney animator – as management of the studio found in the 1980s, after the renaming of Basil Of Baker Street.
If you’ve the slightest interest in the history of Walt Disney Animation Studios, then I highly recommended checking out the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty on Disney+. It’s an extraordinary insight into the studio’s low ebb in the mid-1980s, and the revolutionary success is build to just under a decade later.
Importantly, though, it also gets across that animation is, at heart, lots of human beings. A whole bunch of creative, leftfield people put in the same place, coming together to create a motion picture. There’s the old cliché of Disney magic, but I think there’s really something to it. That one place can mash so many people together and come out with so many successful, much loved films. I’m the nerd who sometimes just sits and reads end credits with awe.
Waking Sleeping Beauty captures that (the magic bit, not the nerd reading credits). Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that it’s directed by Don Hahn, who was in the heart of the company. From working on the animation for the infamous The Black Cauldron to producing Beauty & The Beast, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame and The Lion King, Hahn had the access and the insight to tell the story, and used it.
What he also captured is that if you put some many brilliant, intelligent people together, then there are going to sparks. Lots of sparks in certain situations as it happens, not least when a decision was made higher up the company that they, er, ‘disagreed with’. There’s a longstanding tradition amongst animators to vent their frustrations via their artwork. But in the case of one particular decision in the mid-1980s, via the age-old medium of a fake memo.
The issue in this case was the production of the hugely underrated animated film that was going by the name of Basil Of Baker Street. It was due for release in 1986, and it was the first time that John Musker and Ron Clements would be amongst the co-directors of a feature (they’d go on to make many much-loved movies, from The Little Mermaid and Aladdin through to The Princess And The Frog and Moana).
Yet in the mid-80s, a Disney animated feature wasn’t the big event that it’s become in the modern cinema landscape. As such, there were concerns over the box office potential for the feature, at a point where questions were being asked as to the importance of animated features to the company. The scars of the preceding film, the aforementioned The Black Cauldron, would take a long time to heal.
Disney management was worried. Whilst Basil Of Baker Street was going to be relatively modestly costed – its budget came in at $14m – there were concerns over the box office potential of a Sherlock Holmes movie. And those concerns were amplified when the film Young Sherlock Holmes struggled in 1985.
At the behest of then-Disney boss Michael Eisner (who is quoted in Robert Iger’s book The Ride Of A Lifetime as saying ‘micromanagement is underrated’), a new title was ordered. That Eisner felt the word ‘Basil’ was too British and would hurt the film’s chances. The more generic The Great Mouse Detective was chosen, although here in the UK it’d remain known as Basil The Great Mouse Detective.
The animators were not impressed. One in particular, Ed Gombert, decided to do something about it. He put together a splendid spoof memo, that’s passed into legend.
As the excellent Letters Of Note has recorded, it was addressed from department head Peter Schneider – who knew nothing about it – and announced the renaming of several other animated films in the company’s catalogue. Here’s the list of new names that were recommended:
“Seven Little Men Help A Girl”
“The Wooden Boy Who Became Real”
“Color and Music”
“The Wonderful Elephant Who Could Really Fly”
“The Little Deer Who Grew Up”
“The Girl With the See-Through Shoes”
“The Girl in the Imaginary World”
“The Amazing Flying Children”
“Two Dogs Fall in Love”
“The Girl Who Seemed to Die”
“Puppies Taken Away”
“The Boy Who Would Be King”
“A Boy, a Bear and a Big Black Cat”
“Two Mice Save a Girl”
“The Evil Bonehead”
Schneider wasn’t impressed, and the search was on to find out just who was the author of the memo. That said, nobody was breaking ranks, and the mystery took some time to actually be solved. Schneider’s boss, Jeffrey Katzenberg, was one of the many fooled by the memo. He wasn’t happy with it, but soon realised just what had gone on. As Waking Sleeping Beauty documents, it was Katzenberg who ultimately told Schenider to basically take it on the chin.
The memo, though, leaked to the Los Angeles Times, and it was clear that Disney bosses had learned a lesson. As then-head of marketing Robert Levin told the paper, “Basil was a film they had been working on for a long period of time. For us to come in late in the process and say ‘We want to change this thing you’ve been working on’ was difficult to take. We have all agreed that on future releases, we’ll work closer together earlier”.
Which all overshadowed just what a treat of a film Basil is. If you can, track down the terrific Henry Mancini score, and sent a note to Disney’s music department asking why the Rattigan song never appears on any of its compilations. That, or just give it a spin.
After that? We hear Two Dogs Fall In Love isn’t bad. Not so keen on the remake, though…
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