Is Disney Sailing Into Rough Waters?

Disney’s theatrical release, Pirates of the Caribbean, has everything you would expect: Swashbuckling adventure, sword fights, a villain, and a fair maiden. But this movie has made Disney history because of something you wouldn’t suspect: it’s the studio’s first PG-13 release.

When Disney launched Touchstone Pictures in 1984, the idea was to have the subsidiary handle titles aimed at adult audiences, while the Disney named would be preserved for family entertainment.

Now it appears that designation may be at risk.

In the world of PG-13 movies, Pirates is not hoisting a flag that challenges the limits of the favorite rating for teen movies. The film has very little sexual content and only a hint of mild profanity. But it is far more violent than anything else we’ve seen under the Disney banner before, and it may leave many parents wondering “Why?”

In this case, the better question may be “Who?”

Disney execs originally imagined a movie that would coincide with their theme park ride of the same name. A script was penned and sent to action king Jerry Bruckheimer (Pearl Harbor, Black Hawk Down, Déjà vu). According to the LA Times on June 20, 2003, the director was “turned off” by the original screenplay because it was too bland and too tame.

His counteroffer was to create “the best movie possible, and it won’t be an R.”

The result was a movie that (according to the same Times article) even Disney’s production chief, Nina Jacobson, is unwilling to take her 5 year old to. (However, the film’s star Johnny Depp, says he’s cool with his 4-year-old seeing the flic.)

So what’s the big deal? There are lots of PG-13 movies out there that are far less appropriate for family viewing than Pirates – and many have been made under Disney’s Touchstone banner. Comments from the usual industry pundits feel Disney is simply adjusting to the economic realities of a new era.

As well, many will argue Disney left the dry-docks of the Swiss Family Robinson days long ago – and to a degree that is true. Max Keeble’s Big Move and even the studio’s recent animated release of Lilo and Stitch have explored the PG rating.

But "the big deal" is that even in the wake of near record setting profits from Finding Nemo (one of the studio’s G-rated releases), this last bastion of family entertainment is being slowly washed down the river other studios have long since sailed, heading toward an ocean of new projects described by terms like “edgy,” “dark,” and “offbeat.”

The result will be even less quality family movies.

Directors like Bruckheimer make a certain type of movie – and it’s not one that’s usually found in the under PG-13 arena – although his other “family” film, Kangaroo Jack, did barely squeeze into a PG rating in spite of it’s violence and sexual innuendo.

Having Disney hire him is like me getting an Indy mechanic to tune up my aging diesel Suburban. It was never meant to be a sports car in the first place, and by so doing I will risk losing what benefits I currently enjoy – good fuel economy and lots of space to haul my kids.

But directors hold a lot of power in Tinseltown, especially after they’ve proved they can turn a profit, and executives aren’t willing to turn the Bruckheimers of the industry away.

Ideally, if Bruckheimer wasn’t willing to make a pirate tale that fit into the G or PG rating, then Disney should have hired someone else. If the industry can’t come up with one person who can create an exciting adventure without resorting to the typical violence of the day, then Hollywood is in worse shape than even I realized.

Had Disney leaders made that choice, it would have sent a message to creators that the studio is still serious about making high caliber films suitable for anyone to see. And I don’t believe any director will be putting his career on the line because he made something “tame.”

Director David Lynch’s The Straight Story was a rare G-rated live action gem that proudly bore the Disney name, yet Lynch’s other dark works (Wild At Heart, Mulholland Dr.) are hardly Mickey Mouse fare. Likewise director John Lee Hancock, who helmed the beautiful G-rater The Rookie for Disney (which went on to gross $75 million), is enjoying an expanding career.

Clearly these films aren’t high-octane productions, but that standard can be achieved. Do-it-all guy Robert Rodriguez is experiencing fame and fortune from his PG-rated Spy Kids franchise, and Jonathan Frakes’ excellent Clockstoppers (PG as well) proves he can steer more than a starship.

Yet I wonder if those sitting in Disney’s upper offices truly recognize what they’ve put on the table. It’s their most valuable asset, arguably worth more than any other tangible piece of property they own – The Disney brand.

Can you think of another studio that has built a name more synonymous with “family” than Disney? For all the efforts of Warner, Dreamworks, and others, no one has been able to place their label in the forefront of parents and kids like this company has. From a marketing standpoint, the studio’s plan to make more PG-13 movies (a spooker is in the works for October 2003) seems nearly suicidal.

A scene in Pirates of the Caribbean has the characters played by Johnny Depp and Keira Knightly, walking the plank – the ultimate one-way street. It may be a fitting metaphor for a company that’s about to leave a safe ship and venture into uncharted waters.

More details about the movies mentioned in this post…