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Remake, Sequel or Leave Alone – What to Do With These 1980s Walt Disney Movies

Remake, Sequel or Leave Alone - What to Do With These 1980s Walt Disney Movies

Disney has done the unusual in its choice to produce “TRON: Legacy.” While most films of its kind and time would be looked at for a remake, the Mouse House decided to give its 1982 cult classic “TRON” a sequel, 28 years after the original’s release. In some ways the new movie is like a remake. Structurally it follows many of the same exact steps. But its story couldn’t exist without the events of the first film. It clearly means to update and modernize this story, though, particularly with better effects but also in terms of where the tech and software industries are at almost 30 years later.

The oddest part of Disney’s decision is surely its lack of embrace of the original film, which isn’t currently available on DVD, seemingly out of fear, and the hope that audiences will flock to a sequel for something they can’t easily see at the moment. It does fit the norm for many movies made by Walt Disney Pictures in the 1980s, during which time it was struggling financially and having difficulty finding an appropriate creative identity (see the great, recent documentary “Waking Sleeping Beauty” for more on that), especially in terms of what was appropriate for its audience, which led to multiple cases of studio detachment or disregard.

In honor of what the studio has done with “TRON,” I decided to take a look at ten failed and/or rejected Disney productions of the ’80s and suggest what to do with each — remake it, give it a sequel or leave it alone. Let me know if you’d do anything different with them.

“Midnight Madness” (1980)

In the tradition of wacky ensemble films like “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World” and the prior year’s “Scavenger Hunt,” this cult comedy follows five teams participating in The Great All-Nighter, a game in which they chase down clues and race around Los Angeles. It stars a young Michael J. Fox along with David Naughton, Stephen Furst, Eddie Deezen and in a small yet memorable part, Paul Reubens. Initially released without the Disney brand attached in order to appeal to college kids (and because it was rated PG), “Midnight Madness” was still a total failure, critically and financially, barely cracking the year’s one hundred top grossing films (it is 97th) in a limited local release. Yet many of us ’80s children discovered it through its regular rotation on HBO. Unlike “TRON,” it is currently available on DVD, now ironically with with the Disney name stamped on it, and yes it is very, very dated.
Sequel, Remake or Leave Alone – As much as I like the original, I think it could and should be remade easily and far more successfully with a young, “High School Musical”-like ensemble of Disney stars rather than aiming for the college crowd. I guess the PBR brewery scene would have to go.

“Dragonslayer” (1981)

Co-produced with Paramount Pictures, this fantasy film was also too mature (violence, nudity, etc.) to fit with the Disney brand. So Paramount got distribution duties, not that there was anything to be jealous of when the box office receipts came in. Compared to other sword and sorcerery films of the time, like “Excalibur” and “Clash of the Titans,” “Dragonslayer” did not perform well at all. Yet it did receive a lot of critical favor (though some saw it as a “Star Wars” rip-off) and was nominated for a couple Academy Awards, including Best Visual Effects (which utilized computers — something “TRON” was allegedly denied an Oscar nod for). It is currently available, on DVD and streaming on Netflix Watch Instantly, but regardless of Guillermo del Toro’s recent and much deserved praise for the creature design and execution, it’s easily dismissed in a post-“Lord of the Rings” trilogy world.
Sequel, Remake or Leave Alone –With the success of the “Clash of the Titans” remake and an “Excalibur” redo in development, you’d think Disney and Paramount would be interested in equally attempting to capitalize on the recent fantasy boom and participate in the Hollywood scramble to find another “LOTR” or “Harry Potter” type franchise by rebooting this simple tale of a boy wizard, an old sorcerer-turned-spirit guide, a cross-dressing female warrior and an androgynous dragon. Or, who might like a 30-year-later sequel in which Peter MacNichol (now likely best known for “Ghostbusters II” or “Ally McBeal”) returns, perhaps is even digitally made to look young and permed again? Too bad MacNichol supposedly hates this debut of his and would probably not be interested. I think therefore it should just be left alone. We have way too many dragons on the big screen lately as it is, and thanks to stuff like “Harry Potter,” “Avatar” and “How to Train Your Dragon,” the kids are these days more into dragon riding than dragon slaying. Disney might not be ready to try another movie about sorcerer’s apprentice so soon, either.

“Condorman” (1981)

An everyday guy becomes a superhero in this forgotten Disney failure. Sounds like a whole bunch of movies released in the last few years, but in the case of “Condorman” the guy is a comic book artist who decides to become the winged character he’s created. Like many of these films it was a box office disaster, and critics panned it. But it too later became a cult favorite, enough that Disney released the film on DVD two years ago specifically for its fans, via the Disney Movie Club, and not for the general public. You can’t rent it on Netflix, and copies are apparently rare enough that Amazon’s lowest price for the DVD is $32. Oddly enough, you can stream the film through Amazon’s video-on-demand service.
Sequel, Remake or Leave Alone – I’d say it deserves a better-quality remake, but we’re already flooded with too many average-joe-turns-superhero movies right now. It’s not really worth watching as is, but I say for now it’s still best left alone in its near-obscure form.

“Trenchcoat” (1983)

The movie that spawned the creation of Touchstone Pictures. Again, the Walt Disney logo had to be left off another PG-rated release with too many “mature” themes, but that didn’t keep the complaints at bay. Margot Kidder stars as an aspiring mystery writer who winds up mixed up in an actual mystery. Sounds like the following year’s “Romancing the Stone” but it’s not nearly as exciting or romantic and likely in part because of its controversy, the movie bombed at the box office. Like “Condorman,” this is unavailable on DVD yet can be rented cheaply through Amazon’s video-on-demand service.
Sequel, Remake or Leave Alone – Nobody remembers it anyway, so go ahead and remake this one. Cast Selena Gomez or Demi Lovato or equivalent as a young author who finds real detective work and romance in the Mediterranean. Familiar-sounding, sure, but that’s why it’ll be a hit. No worries about downplaying the maturity since the PG-level adult themes of 30 years ago are pretty tame by today’s standards.

“Something Wicked This Way Comes” (1983)

The first movie that not necessarily scared me as a child but definitely creeped me out for a long time afterward. Ray Bradbury adapted his own novel about two boys who discover the evils of a traveling carnival. Though the author was satisfied with the final version of the film, there were many differences of opinion between he and director Jack Clayton, and then also many changes made later by a penny-pinching Disney that make it a relatively loose translation of the book. This too was a relative disappointment at the box office.
Sequel, Remake or Leave Alone – I do love the film and am still fairly haunted by many parts of it. But I think a remake is still in order, or at least a new, more faithful adaptation. And some of the scenes that were cut due to unconvincing computer-generated effects could obviously be better achieved today. One thing that can’t be improved, though: nothing’s going to top David Grove’s poster, one of my favorites of that era.

“Frankenweenie” (1984)

Tim Burton was fired from Disney because of this live-action short, which the studio found too scary for children — at least those who’d be seeing it accompanying “Pinocchio” in re-release — and a waste of their resources. Featuring a young Sofia Coppola (then still being credited as “Domino”) in a supporting performance that’s arguably even worse than her infamous “Godfather Part III” work, the canine version of Frankenstein was obviously later celebrated and made available on video once the filmmaker became a big deal.
Sequel, Remake or Leave Alone – Burton is currently remaking the short as a stop-motion feature, so there’s not much use in saying this, but I think it should be left alone merely on principle. I understand that Burton wants to finally make the film he original intended, and that Disney is a different place today, yet this still seems like something they should both let go of.

“The Black Cauldron” (1985)

Burton also worked as an artist on this animated flop (it grossed less than that year’s “The Care Bears Movie,” of all things, and fittingly about half of what Burton’s feature debut, “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” made), based on the fantasy novels of Lloyd Alexander. Another film deemed way too dark for the Disney brand by the studio’s usual fans, it does nevertheless have its devotees.
Sequel, Remake or Leave Alone – While it’s more likely that Alexander’s “The Chronicles of Prydain” will eventually be re-adapted in live-action form, possibly even by Disney, I’d love to see the studio finally properly embrace the underrated work, spruce it up a bit, re-release it and then give it some sequels to finish out the series.

“The Journey of Natty Gann” (1985)

A teenage tomboy played by Meredith Salenger travels across Depression-era America in search of her father (Ray Wise), who has abandoned her in pursuit of work. Along the way she finds companionship in a wolf and a young John Cusack (also in theaters at the time with the slightly more successful “Better Off Dead”).
Sequel, Remake or Leave Alone – Although I haven’t seen it in years, I recall “Natty Gann” being a great adventure drama for young audiences and Salenger being a charming and crushable (the 7-year-old me was enamored) lead. Leave it alone and let any other grown-up fans out there pass it on to their own kids.

“Flight of the Navigator” (1986)

Undoubtedly the most beloved movie on this list, it’s easy to forget that it was not a major success at the time. Joey Cramer stars as a kid abducted by a UFO then returned to Earth a decade later without seeming to have aged a day. He meets a young Sarah Jessica Parker and, better yet, the spaceship’s computer, which has the voice of Pee-Wee Herman (well, Paul Reubens, then credited as “Paul Mall”), and everybody’s favorite mini-alien, the adorable Puckmaren.
Sequel, Remake or Leave Alone – Unfortunately, Disney has already decided on remake, but since it’s still only in the development stage they can change their mind and instead do a sequel, something akin to what they’ve done with “TRON.” Pull Cramer out of retirement for a cameo but obviously give a younger actor the primary role as his son, who inherits the role of navigator of the Trimaxian Drone Ship. It wouldn’t be too much of a rehash, though, if this installment focuses more on the outer space stuff. Maybe they even find a surviving population of Puckmarens.

“The Brave Little Toaster” (1987)

Originally set up at Disney and intended by John Lasseter to be the studio’s first computer-animated feature, this adaptation of Thomas Disch’s children’s book ended up at a new studio (Hyperion), only backed financially by Disney, which held onto home video and TV rights, and was produced with traditional animation. Disney personnel, particularly animators, remained all over the final incarnation. It was directed by “TRON” effects supervisor/animator Jerry Rees, co-written by Disney and later Pixar staple Joe Ranft and overseen by “TRON” producer Donald Kushner. The film actually took a while to be released, having been unsuccessful at finding a theatrical distributor even following positive buzz at Sundance and Disney went ahead and just premiered it on its new cable channel, through which it received an Emmy nomination. Eventually the studio also put it out on VHS in the early ’90s and it became its most popular in that form.
Sequel, Remake or Leave Alone – It’d be great if one day Pixar could remake the movie as originally intended, with computer animation, but it will never happen. Not just because the current version is much loved and actually quite good (and has spawned two sequels), but also because “Toy Story 3” steals so much from it that another adaptation would look too similar.

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