The Disney Hole

Disney Black Hole

Spend any amount of time studying history, and you'll soon find it rarely follows a straight path. The past takes all kinds of twists, turns, and switchbacks from one event to the next. 

This phenomenon makes no exception for movie history. It's unimaginable now that Disney has become the world's dominant cultural force, but back in the early 80s, the Mouse was on the ropes.

In a twist of high irony, Disney owed its financial woes in no small part to Star Wars. Lucas had conceived of his space opera romp as filling the void left when Disney had abandoned children's pulp matinee fare. In fact, the House that Mickey Built was among the first studios he shopped Star Wars to.
“This is a Disney movie,” Lucas said at the time. “All Disney movies make $16 million, so this movie is going to make $16 million. It cost $10 million, so we’re going to lose money on the release, but I hope to make some of it back on the toys.”
When Lucas' little B picture vastly exceeded everyone's expectations, it got Disney president Ron Miller thinking. He correctly concluded that Lucas had tapped into a huge underserved market, and he decided to chase the same puck.

Unfortunately for him, Miller completely misunderstood the reasons for Star Wars' success. Assuming that audiences wanted darker, more mature film experiences, he spearheaded several live-action movies--and at least one animated production--aimed at satisfying moviegoers' more sophisticated tastes.

Here are some of the more prominent live-action movies produced under Ron Miller:
  • The Black Hole (1979)
  • The Watcher in the Woods (1980)
  • Dragonslayer (1981)
  • Night Crossing (1982)
  • Tron (1982)
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

Film buffs can point out a few cult classics on that list, but obviously, none of them fulfilled Miller's hopes for a Star Wars-sized blockbuster. After narrowly fending off a series of hostile takeover attempts, Miller was removed in 1984.

The former president had one final trick up his sleeve, though. An animated feature whose rather troubled production had begun in the previous decade finally saw release after Miller's exit. Though heavily edited by new CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, The Black Cauldron would become the last cult favorite from Miller's reign.

It would also nearly bankrupt Disney and sow serious doubts about the viability of their animation division.

While Disney ended up abdicating its live-action family film market share to Lucasfilm, developments that arguably proved even more interesting stepped up to fill the Disney hole in feature animation.

It's unclear whether the Mouse's experimental phase created an opening for relative upstarts to carve out a piece of the animation pie, but the fact remains that some genuinely fascinating cartoon movies conquered the box office in the 80s.

None of which were Disney productions.

Here's a sampling of animated hits in the Disney Hole:

  • Heavy Metal (1981)
  • The Secret of NIMH (1982)
  • An American Tail (1986)
  • Fist of the North Star (1986)
  • The Land Before Time (1988)
  • My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
  • Akira (1988)
A cursory glance at that list turns up three key takeaways.
  1. Don Bluth and Japan dominate.
  2. 1988 was a monster year for non-Disney animated films.
  3. It's a pretty even mix of challenging; even shocking, adult animation and classic kids' stuff. Lucas and Miller were both right.
But if Ron Miller correctly surmised that audiences craved darker stories, why did his projects flop at the box office? Some industry pundits pin the blame on early 80s Disney CEO E. Cardon Walker, who hated Miller's new direction and refused to approve sufficient ad budgets for his rival's films. 

Ominous foreshadowing for John Carter. It's like poetry; it rhymes.

Actually sit down and watch the Miller-era films though, and another answer presents itself. Though he had the guts to acknowledge Lucas' success and rethink his company's direction in light of it, Miller clearly misunderstood the Star Wars phenomenon.

How anybody watches  A New Hope, misses the swashbuckling pulp adventure, and concludes that the scant horror elements are what's resonating with people, boggles the mind.

It's the Bradbury adaptation that betrays the flaw in Miller's approach. He missed the pulp thread that tied Star Wars' influences together. Bradbury, though he traveled in some of the same circles, was not a pulp writer. He was a surrealist. Still, Something Wicked This Way Comes is the best Disney Hole movie - because its source material is at least pulp-adjacent.

One wonders how Disney's fortunes - and pop culture as we know it - might have changed had Miller succeeded where George Lucas failed and acquired the Flash Gordon rights from Dino De Laurentiis.

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Combat Frame XSeed: SS - Brian Niemeier


  1. One thing to note in those Disney vs non-Disney lists: the animation/SFX values themselves still hold up well--FotNS looks dated, but that's as bad as it gets with that group. The Disney ones, if one can remember them, look significantly vintage, and not in the good way.

    1. Disney's The Black Hole looks like it's straight out of the 60s, with the coloring and so on (compare with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, for example), but with updated special effects. I wonder if it was done that way on purpose?

    2. It was heavily influenced by 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

    3. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea still holds up--I watched it again a few weeks ago.

  2. Of course, now that Disney is Too Big To Fail, they no longer have to be more creative than their competition. They can just buy it.

  3. Brian
    Let me propose a tongue and cheek reason,: cocaine.
    It's the other secret history of Hollywood. How else can youbexplsin some if the addled brained movies or decisions?

    Coke impaired thinking is mostly responsible for the bad movie choice/direction decisions of the past 40 years.

  4. Dragon Slayer is a piece of shit in every way that counts.

    I have to say, if had I seen that back in the day when it came out then I'd have been rooting for Disney to fail. They'd deserve it after that insulting garbage fire.

    1. The writer and director claimed they set the movie in Britain during the Roman withdrawal to make the setting feel less familiar, specifically by omitting Christianity.

      Still, they couldn't resist shoehorning in a priest to hold the Idiot Ball and get barbecued.

      Joke's on them. He's the only character in the whole movie who comes off as genuinely altruistic and heroic.

  5. While Black Hole and Dragon Slayer were meh, I have a certain fondness for Tron. There is a somewhat Christian subtext to the plot, and the primitive computer graphics are an interesting cultural artifact.

  6. "It's like poetry; it rhymes."
    I see what you did there.

  7. This might be pedantic, but does Fist of the North Star count here? I can't find any information about an International release prior to 1991 - does that mean that in 1986 the film was only available in Japan, or am I misunderstanding something? But then again, the Eighties didn't just end on Jan 1st 1990, so maybe it counts anyway.

    1. That's just it. During the 80s it only had a Japanese release, and it still managed to be the 15th highest grossing animated film of the 80s.