My thoughts on the Disney buyout of Lucasfilm

DISCLAIMER:  Okay, this is a pretty angry post, but I think what’s said here is important.  And I say much of this out of my love for the Disney company. I grew up with it.  I based my life’s ambitions around and that shaped the entire future of my career.  So, for me, what I see happing and the corporate monster it’s becoming, is frustrating to see a company I once loved losing all of its meaning.  So just remember when you read this, I say all of this because I love Disney.  

It’s probably been about a week now since the Disney buyout of Lucasfilm, and it’s taken me awhile to gather my feelings together about this.  There has been a lot of speculation online about what the future holds for Disney now, and all of its future prospects.  There is a lot of great potential now that major franchises such as the Indiana Jones and Star Wars series are now out of George Lucas’ hands and in the hands of newer visionaries who can now provide their own take on both of these series.  Except…the more I think about it, the less I think any of this is good.  For both Disney and Lucas.  There is something that’s troubling me, about what’s happening with Disney as a company now.  There is also something a bit…sad…and ironic with George Lucas giving up his company.

First, let me talk about what I see that’s happened with Lucasfilm.  When George started his company, it was his intention to strike out as an independent.  Granted in the 1970’s Hollywood was a very different place, and no one really considered the concept of a blockbuster, or film franchising or sequel rights.  When George began work on the first Star Wars film, he made sure he owned all the rights, merchandising, sequel rights etc., and he essentially got it because no major studio ever believed this little nothing science fiction film was ever going to amount to anything.  All the Star Wars films are actually independent films.  At least…all the films after the first Star Wars, in which for Empire Strikes Back, Lucas bought back the rights to the original film from 20th Century Fox.  Regardless of what people think of Lucas when 20 years later he was slammed by fans for the Star Wars prequels, it was George’s independent spirit that made Lucasfilm what it was.  His separation from Hollywood that defined him as the most successful independent filmmaker of all time.

And now, all of that is over.

I see something about this buy out that’s just kind of soul crushing for an artist to do.  Because George is an artist.  But with this buyout, it’s as if the spirit of the decisions he made in his youth are starting fade away.  What George has done now seems to be the one thing in his youth he fought so hard to prevent in the first place.  His decision then was to get away from the studios is having independent control over his vision.  But now it’s as if the studios have finally won him over.  His creative vision is now in the hands of a corporation, namely, Disney.  I’m sure has been itching at the chance for over 20 years to do anything they wish with his properties.  I think most of us who know anything about corporations after they consume franchises, we know what’s going to happen.  After awhile, Star Wars and Indiana Jones will be stripped to the bone of all meaning by the time Disney is through mining it for its success.  Of course, someone is probably saying, “Well, George already stripped it of meaning when he made the SW prequels and Indiana Jones 4, so how could it get any worse?”  Maybe he did.  But it was still George’s sole creative vision.  It was his choice as an independent to make the films the way he wanted to see them.  Not a committee or a corporation, it was George himself who made those decisions.  With Star Wars in the hands of Disney, there will be no more creative risk taking.  No more challenging storytelling.  If you look at it this way, George did take a major risk pissing off his fans…making the force a science experiment and calling it mediclorians.  But personal feelings aside about his creative decision, it’s what he personally wanted.  I have no doubt he knew it was going to piss people off.  But it was still a risk, and it was what he personally wanted to say about Star Wars.  But with him out of the picture and Disney in control…those risks will be gone.  No one will dare change anything that may shake the foundation of what people will perceive with the Star Wars Universe.  George did exactly that with mediclorians.  With Disney at the helm,  I’m sure Star Wars will look as cool as humanly possible.  But they will do nothing to alter what has already been established in the minds of the fans.  And now… I never thought I’d say this in a million years…but here it is…

I don’t want to see a Star Wars film without George Lucas at the helm.

This has nothing to do with the creators own creative decision making.  This has to do with being a sole artist and having the choice to make your own decisions with your art.  Even if they’re the wrong decisions.  It’s still YOUR decision, and regardless of who you are as an artist, it’s important to allow yourself to make and except your own decisions for your work.  He may of angered a lot of fans in the process, by including Jar Jar Binks…by boiling the force down to science as opposed to it being an extension of the mystical and spiritual side of the universe.  But that was George’s choice as an artist.  All of that will be gone now.  Now it’s going to be Star Wars and Indiana Jones by committee.  I think, if anything, George should have let Lucasfilm die with him.  Let it go.  Let the doors open for someone else to come up with something new and innovative.  Star Wars is here at the moment keeping the nostalgia alive for its fans.  But if you really look at it…there’s nothing that’s advanced the storytelling in the series at all.  Nothing as shocking as the revelation that Darth is Lukes father.  The prequels…they’re pretty much what all the fans expected they would be for Darth’s inevitable backstory.  Fans I’m sure will assume that will all change.  But I don’t think it will.  In my personal opinion, Star Wars is passed it’s time.  WAY past its time.  Its a story from another era, the 70’s and the 80’s, when it’s themes about science fiction were more relevant.  Regardless of all the technical innovations now…the film is dated.  Its time to let that go now and make way for something just as new and innovative that’s relevant to today.

As a long time Disney fan, I’m starting to reevaluate all my feelings towards what the company has become now…and there is this sad truth that is starting to gnaw at me, because I don’t think Walt ever expected any of this corporate buyout nonsense for his company.  If he only knew what the future would hold and what his company would turn into.  I think Star Wars should have died with George Lucas, I am also starting to think now that the Disney studio should have died with Walt Disney.

That’s a pretty angry statement, sure, for someone like me who was raised and loved practically everything Disney, including some of the wonderful films made in the early 90’s that we still treasure today.  But when I step back and look at what’s happened to Disney now, and we all know this to be true, it’s not Uncle Walt’s studio anymore.  Katzenberg made the ironic statement on the Little Mermaid DVD when during the making of that film the Disney artists were saying “What would Walt do?  What would Walt do?”, and Jeffrey finally had to tell them, “Guys…we’re not Walt.”  For Jeffery to leave Disney and start Dreamworks…personally, it may have been the best decision of his career.  Because Dreamworks is new, and they are able to create their own legacy with their films.  And while not all of their animated films are great, they’re starting to find their own voice.  Dreamworks is the new Disney.  Disney itself as a company is getting to big for itself.  It’s getting watered down, and saddest of all, the company is losing its identity. 

Bob Iger in someways is doing far more to tarnish Disney’s legacy than Eisner ever did, with all of these corporate buyouts ranging from Pixar, the Muppets, Marvel Comics, and now Lucasfilm.  To point out something from one of Disney’s own films…Disney is essentially turning into the Master Control Program.  All of these companies they’ve taken started out as solo creative independent ventures.  And now with every buy out, each one of those properties loses its soul.  Disney as a company is not doing anything to really further the development of these properties with their stories.  What they’re going to do instead is sell people on their nostalgia for it.  You’ll notice in the last Muppet movie, the Muppet’s humor is not the same as it was when Jim Henson was alive.  It’s severely toned down.  Audiences will get a thrill out of the film because they are hitting all the right nostalgic notes.  But the signature humor that was new and innovative at the time the Muppet’s were created…that spirit of innovation no longer exists.  It’s just a rehash of everything that’s come before it.  Pixar, a place that was once the top of their game…now its hard to tell the difference that Pixar isn’t like every other animated film that’s come out.  The same will most likely happen with the Marvel films, and now Lucasfilm.  And with Disney itself…already Disneyland is planning an Iron Man attraction for Tomorrowland.  Sounds pretty out of place, doesn’t it?  It sounds like Disney is turning itself into Universal Studios.  Pretty soon Marvel characters will be walking around the parks like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, and Goofy will be holding hands with Chewbacca.  With each property buyout Disney’s identity is crumbling.  You’ll notice in the logo for Disney films now, it’s no longer “Walt Disney Pictures”.  It’s just “Disney”.  They’ve taken the founders first name out of the company.  How long before the name Disney is changed to something else?

You’ll notice on my blog I’ve complained several times about the downfall of storytelling in just about all feature animation.  This is half the reason right here.  I mention films like Wreck it-Ralph where the story has such a more important, greater meaning behind it, but the “lesson” or moral winds up distracting the audience from the greater message.  In a way, if you look at the concept of Wreck it-Ralph, the concept of a video game character whose game is no longer relevant, with the threat of being shut off for good, and only having those who play it for nostalgic reasons, it’s almost an ironic metaphor of what’s happening at Disney.  And this is the problem with nostalgia, where everyone wants to hold onto the past with an iron claw, making it more and more difficult to accept anything that’s new or innovative.  Or just different.  The only time these animated films appear different is their outer shell.  But the story is almost always the same thing every time.

WHEW.  Okay…breather.  I know I can get pretty intense with this stuff.  Let me take a moment to go on a bit of a side tangent, and talk about two properties that are different.

I’d like to point out two of the most popular successful comic strips of all time:  Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, and Jim Davis’ Garfield.  One managed to stay a sole independent creator.  The other sold his vision into a corporation.  For those of you who know the story of the creation of Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson got into a licensing war with his syndicate.  He refused to sign the contract for the licensing/merchandising rights for Calvin and Hobbes.  He didn’t want a Calvin and Hobbes animated feature, a Christmas special, mugs, t shirts, toys, etc.  feeling that it would only cheapen the world of his creation.  Watterson fought for a very long time, even facing the threat that his comic would be pulled from newspapers.  But he pulled through and won out.  The only official Calvin and Hobbes merchandising you will see are the book collections.  Anything you’ve seen outside of that, t shirts, mugs, animation, Calvin pissing on the Ford logo…they are all bootlegs. 

When Calvin and Hobbes ended, Watterson moved on.  He doesn’t want contact or to attend conventions.  As far as he’s concerned, it was a moment of great success in his life, and he was able to let it go and move on, and Calvin and Hobbes will last however long the book collections remain in print.  And you know what?  That’s perfectly legitimate.  It’s a blessing in disguise he did that.  Calvin and Hobbes for as long as people remember it, will live eternally as one of the greatest comic strips of all time, without tampering, the world of the characters remains in its purest form.  In my mind, it was a courageous choice for Watterson never to sell his creation to someone else.  And Watterson never gave into the temptation of giving Calvin and Hobbes to someone else so it could live on.  Because it’s a false temptation.  If he did that, Calvin and Hobbes would be stripped of all meaning, just like what’s happening now with Disney.

  As comparison now, you can look at what’s happened to Jim Davis with Garfield, a character that’s been merchandised to death and stripped of itself.  He doesn’t even draw the comics anymore, he has a staff that does it for him.  And Garfield is not funny anymore.  It used to be a great strip.  But now there’s an awful CG tv series.  The Garfield live action movies are painful to watch.  It’s horrid to see what has happened.

It’s the inability for audiences (as well as creators) to let go of these creations that they loved that makes the path for anything new a frustrating experience.  Audiences crave something new.  But it does nobody any favors to keep everyone stuck in the past.  It’s the irony of nostalgia, as Joseph Campbell once said about it…that we can look back and appreciate it for what it was, but to continue holding on there is the danger of never letting any change occur in your life.  What is more distressing is the loss of the creative independent spirit.  We may not like what George Lucas did with his creations.  But regardless of our own opinions of what he did, what is most important is that they were his own choices as an artist.  That in itself needs to be respected. Why else would he change the entire mythology of Star Wars from the mystical to the scientific with the prequels (the force being mediclorians).  He’s altering history on Star Wars to get it to adapt to a new generation.  He’s trying to update it for newer audiences.  But with this idea of holding on and wanting it to live forever,  I seriously don’t think George can let it go.  The original Star Wars trilogy is a great and inspiring series of films.  But now its time for him to put those films aside and let someone with a new original idea step in.  Not a Star Wars idea.  Something that will be relevant to a new generation.  Whatever feelings people may have that this merger will help Star Wars live forever…it’s not going to happen.  It’s an illusion.  It shouldn’t live forever.  Once Disney is through strip mining Star Wars there will be nothing left, and then the same will happen with their other bought franchises…and then ultimately they will strip mine themselves.

“The MCP started small and he’ll end small.”- Dumont (Tron)

“Let the dead rest.  And the past remain the past.” -Jean Luc Picard



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