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The mouse means business

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After high-profile acquisitions including Marvel, Pixar and of course Lucasfilm, The Walt Disney Company is bigger than ever. As its latest animated hit Wreck-It Ralph lands, Andrew Dickens visits a studio intent on global domination...

With bated breath, you grip your cinema seat as the opening scene of the seventh Star Wars film unfolds. An ageing Jar Jar Binks, surrounded by his grandchildren, tells of the battle against the droid army on Naboo. As he does so, steel drums start up in the background and Binks’s recollection becomes a grossly stereotypical calypso song called Mesa Beat Dem Droid So Bad, complete with backing vocals from bug-eyed creatures called friendkins. Your grip loosens, your heart sinks. In the foyer, fluffy toy versions of Sith Lords are available for £19.99.

This, of course, is just the product of my dark and twisted imagination. But it’s probably not far from the worst fears of Star Wars fans, had you told them, even 10 years ago, that in 2012 Lucasfilm would be bought by Disney.

However, the Disney of 10 years ago is very different to the one today. Disney is a smarter machine these days, as the announcement of JJ Abrams as director of Episode VII shows. The fanboy’s fanboy, the man who created Lost and reinvigorated Star Trek, is about as safe and capable a pair of hands as any sci-fi lover could hope for.

It’s also a bigger machine, with the purchase of Lucasfilm following those of other major companies, copyrights and franchises; most notably Marvel and Pixar.

To put it into context, one company now owns Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Iron Man, Thor – plus their superhero Avenger buddies. Not to mention the Toy Story, Cars, Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc franchises, theme parks and beyond. Disney spent $15.69bn (£9.94bn) on the Lucasfilm, Marvel and Pixar buy-outs alone.

“Previously, Disney was going towards lower-level, studio-budgeted family orientated or comedy films and it was in a mess, because that market is flooded,” says producer and film business expert Kathryn Arnold (theentertainmentexpert.com). “But now it has a tent pole movie, such as Star Wars, not only can it exploit the international theatrical, DVD and VoD markets, but it can then exploit the characters by selling the merchandise.”

LEVEL UP

To learn more about this changing business, I’ve come to Walt Disney Animation Studios (WDAS) in Los Angeles, which has a roof in the shape of a wizard’s hat (I ask if Walt Disney’s cryogenically-frozen body is encased in it – it isn’t, they claim). I’m here to meet the team behind the company’s latest animation, Wreck-It Ralph.

The film is an original Disney production, but sits well with the major purchases. It’s altogether less ‘Disney’. Yes, it has characters made from biscuits, lots of pathos and an adorable little girl character (aptly named Vanellope von Schweetz) with big eyes designed to make you like her in the same way you like puppies. However, it also features the far-from-sweet John C Reilly as Ralph – an arcade video-game bad guy trying to turn good – and just about the least Disneyish woman ever playing Miss von Schweetz: potty-mouthed comedian Sarah Silverman.

It also plays to more than just a short-trousered audience (children, not Bavarians). For Ralph is not a highly-detailed avatar; he’s a lumpy Eighties icon whose number of bits can be counted on your fingers. And joining him are dozens of the most famous digital faces of the past 30 years, such as Sonic The Hedgehog, Pac-Man and M Bison from Street Fighter, plus references that will make all gamers register high scores for nostalgia.

It’s a clear – and welcome – attempt to make a family film for the family, not just for children; a warm hug that will please parents and introduce their offspring to the heroes of their youth. It’s as if they’ve learned from their purchase, Pixar – the pioneers of modern adult-friendly family animations. That’s perhaps no surprise as Toy Story creator John Lasseter is now chief creative officer at Pixar and WDAS.

“Nostalgia is at the heart of it all,” says film journalist and critic Simon Thompson. “Even if the target audience doesn’t have first-hand experience of the franchise – like kids watching Wreck-It Ralph – they can at least share in the euphoria of their parents and grandparents. Wreck-It Ralph and Star Wars are the John Wayne cowboy films and James Cagney gangster flicks of our generation. When you have Star Wars, The Avengers and Indiana Jones in your pocket, you have a pan-generational audience to consume your product.”

VOICE CONTROL

Wreck-It Ralph’s director, Rich Moore – who, as one of the first directors on The Simpsons, knows about pitching humour on multiple levels – agrees.

“I think that’s the way filmmakers are going,” he says. “It’s natural for people to draw on their childhood when making movies for a family audience. I’m drawing on Seventies and Eighties video games in this film. It’s more than just having old characters in the movie. It’s how we treat them. There’s a difference between throwing Q*bert on the screen and putting Q*bert there and saying he’s homeless because he hasn’t been played in 20 years. That strikes a chord.”

As mentioned, the voices for Wreck-It Ralph are being provided by names you might not associate with family entertainment. With Reilly and Silverman, you’ll find Jack McBrayer (the uncomfortably submissive Kenneth in 30 Rock) as Ralph’s heroic nemesis Fix-it Felix Jr, and Glee’s Jane Lynch as a tough-talking Gears Of War-style space soldier from one of the arcade’s more advanced games.

And now I get to join that illustrious list. Sort of. I’m taken to one of the sound studios where A-list actors come to add their voices to Disney animations (in their pyjamas, I imagine) and given the chance to voice a scene from Wreck-It Ralph, though not, as I had expected, with me as Ralph (watch it here).

“We thought it’d be more fun if you voiced Vanellope,” says Raymond Persi, a member of the animation team. Well, that’s three weeks of honing my range of regional accents out of the window, but I’m no prima donna, so I don the headphones, do some breathing exercises and prepare to emulate the sound of a small girl (please note that I do not normally imitate young children). As my lines appear on the screen, I unleash what can only be described as an unholier version of Linda Blair’s voice in The Exorcist (you can watch the video on shortlist.com). A few seconds of silence are followed by a voice from the booth: “Would you like to try that again?”

My one shot at a voiceover career ruined, I talk to Persi about his role in the film. It turns out that he’s more than just a behind-the-scenes guy. When the animation is complete, crew members are often used to voice the characters until the big vocal guns arrive, but so impressive was Persi’s performance as Gene – one of Ralph’s victims in the game – he was used for the final version. And yes, he did get paid more.

It seems strange that something so haphazard and cheering could happen in an organisation as gargantuan as Disney; and it is gargantuan. Alongside the purchases mentioned above, there’s the ABC television group, Hyperion Books and a cruise line.

You wonder how the phrase ‘Mickey Mouse operation’ became an insult.

“When I first worked here,” says Moore, “and they explained all the arms of the Disney corporation, it got to the point where it was thinking, ‘My God, this is a big company, how does it even stay afloat every day?’”

FEEL THE FORCE

It’s not the only big player, either. The influence of major studios, such as Warner Bros, Sony and Twentieth Century Fox has grown in recent years as they embrace multimedia entertainment and churn out surefire lucrative franchises. It’s a throwback to the halcyon days of studio-produced films in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, where the big names had all the power. In fact it could be argued that they’re even more powerful now; old Walt may have had Disneyland, but did he or Sam Goldwyn ever get to exploit the cash-generating qualities of video games, action figures and home entertainment? No, they did not.

Disney has been exceptionally clever at creating a modern version of the studio system. It’s embraced the internet, with its plethora of opinions and insatiable appetite for rumour, news and blurry behind-the-scenes photographs. It’s chosen fan favourites including Abrams and Buffy-creator Joss Whedon – who masterfully marshalled Avengers Assemble – to look after brands with loyal followings. It’s set in motion long-term plans for those franchises, particularly the intertwining Marvel stories. The Mouse is using every inch of its clout.

“Disney’s catalogue and portfolio would suggest it’s the biggest player in the entertainment industry right now,” says Thompson. “Star Wars, The Avengers, Indiana Jones, Toy Story, Cars, Pirates Of The Caribbean – films, franchises, theme park attractions all leading into each other. While other studios have had cash cows to milk, few, if any, have the breadth, heritage, longevity and flexibility of Disney – and the devotion of the Disney fan.”

The question is: how does this enormity affect the quality of its latest subsidiary? When it comes to Star Wars, will the empire strike back or succumb to the dark side?

“Disney needs to allow the companies to do what they do best and not try to meddle,” says Arnold. “If it does that then there will be a benefit, because you have the Disney strategy, the Disney name and then you can have this great content. But these franchises are so big I don’t know how different it’ll be for the consumer. The Star Wars franchise is the Star Wars franchise, whether it’s distributed by Fox or by Disney. If it builds up the theme parks, games and toys to the level of the Disney brand, I think the consumer will enjoy that.”

The good news is, the appointment of Abrams, the success of Marvel and the autonomy Moore and his crew enjoy at WDAS (“I don’t feel any influence from above,” he says), suggest that the big cheeses at Disney are letting the experts get on with their jobs. And thus leaving all the wrecking to Ralph.

Wreck-It Ralph is at cinemas nationwide from 8 February

Illustration: Noma Bar

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