Disney’s brand is that it’s magic, something special and fantastical. Whatever you’re seeing, it’s at the cutting edge of its craft, whether it’s animatronics at the parks around the world or special effects in any of the live-action features whose intellectual property it has purchased. But the earliest, most foundational kind of magic the studio ever peddled was animation, which is actually an optical illusion. It dominated that field so completely in the United States (and in the world really), that every other notable artist in animation since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has lived in Disney’s shadow and been keenly aware of that fact.
Don Bluth, whose films briefly punched above their weight class for a decade or two, led a small exodus from the company in the ’70s. Ralph Bakshi was always keen to criticize Disney’s animation, and the often facile subject matter that has largely kept animation within just one genre in the United States. It’s odd to consider that as the company is more powerful and inescapable than ever, it has abandoned feature-length traditional animation, the artistic discipline it dominated for so long (and which Bakshi accused them of stagnating). The Princess and the Frog (2009) and Winnie the Pooh (2011) were the last theatrical films Disney released in traditional 2D animation, and the latter barely reached feature length.
It isn’t easy or cheap to animate a feature-length film to the standards of Disney films like Bambi, The Little Mermaid or Mulan. But is it easy or cheap to make Avenger’s: Endgame?
With the beginning of then-CEO Michael Eisner’s tenure at Disney, though, there was a focus on animation, and specifically a focus on both the dizzying highs of feature-length musicals (and their particular marketability), and finding easy and cheap ways to make a buck on animation in every area the company possibly could.
From this directive came Duck Tales: Treasure of the Lost Lamp, produced for just $2 million (Beauty and the Beast would cost the company $25 million the very next year). It also marked the first release by Disney MovieToons, what would later be called Disneytoons, the studio that would become responsible for Disney’s vast direct-to-video catalog. The studio would go on to crank out unasked-for sequel after unasked-for sequel over a quarter century (and also A Goofy Movie, somewhat randomly).
The cynicism of some of those cash-ins stands in marked contrast to the “Disney Renaissance” Eisner helmed during the same time period.
By 1990, the DuckTales animated series was closing in on its 100th episode, and was a fixture of the newly created Disney Afternoon programming block alongside other long-remembered adventure shows starring anthropomorphic animals like Rescue Rangers, Darkwing Duck and TaleSpin. The entire endeavor came about as a result of Eisner’s eye toward dominating any space where Disney’s animation know-how could give them an edge—like children’s television. The project paid off. Those shows, DuckTales included, were unforgettable.
(Ironically, that animation was largely done overseas, though it’s notable that the Japanese studio, Tokyo Movie Shinsha, went so far as to unofficially issue an in-house Japanese translation of the animation manual The Illusion of Life, written by Disney animators, for their artists’ edification.)
A theatrical film was not a bad idea. The problem with DuckTales: Treasure of the Lost Lamp is that it’s not very good.
Scrooge McDuck (Alan Young) and his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie, and niece Webby (all voiced by Russi Taylor) raid an Arabian tomb in search of the treasure of Collie Baba. The movie comes right out of the gate with callbacks to Indiana Jones in the styling of its title and the sun-drenched desert where the first scene is set, reminiscent of The Last Crusade’s finale setpiece. Scrooge is coming to the end of a lifelong search for the treasure, and the immortal, shapeshifting wizard Merlock (Christopher Lloyd) wants it, too.
Scrooge unwittingly leads Merlock to the treasure, has it stolen out from under him, and comes away with only an old lamp to show for it. The kids soon discover the lamp has a genie it (an unbelievably annoying Rip Taylor). Merlock comes after the lamp and seizes all of Scrooge’s riches, leading up to a confrontation in which the ducks must break into Scrooge’s own vault to steal the lamp back.
This is the part where there’s supposed to be something bizarre or noteworthy about the film or its plot, or some scene that despite the rest of the story surrounding it is a best-of-all-time example of something. I hate to disappoint: There’s nothing more to it.
I can’t find any acknowledged link that elucidates the perplexing fact that within a few short years of one another, we got three movies set-in-Arabia-but-written-by-white-people, those being this one, Disney’s Aladdin two years later, and the decades-in-development, edited-all-to-shit The Thief and the Cobbler in 1993 (which was not a Disney production). Of those three, Aladdin is the only one that anybody remembers in any meaningful way. Treasure of the Lost Lamp quickly faded into obscurity, not really surfacing for air again until Disney Plus made it available to stream. (Aladdin does seem to lift one plot point from it, in that the happy endings both involve freeing the movies’ genies from an eternal lifetime of servitude.)
But boring film though it was, it made back its modest budget several times, and Disney MovieToons would go on to make many, many more over the next 25 years.
While DisneyToons wouldn’t release another film in theaters until A Goofy Movie, it went on to become Disney’s second-tier animation house, returning to an Arabian milieu again when it released Aladdin: The Return of Jafar a few years later and kicking off the Disney direct-to-video properties. Everything Disney does is for money, but there’s no art, little craft and certainly no innovation of any kind to be found in any of that dreck: not when it comes to animation and certainly not when it comes to narrative or musicals.
There are not one but two sequels to Cinderella – one features time travel. They made a midquel to The Fox and the Hound, a story which does not need revisiting in any way, thank you. Any criticism didn’t matter, though. Audiences haven’t lost their enthusiasm for any of these characters. After two budget direct-to-video sequels to it, Disney recently remade Aladdin in live action, to the tune of a billion dollars. It’s certain that, like the direct-to-video films, Disney will keep making those movies until audiences grow tired of them.
Why audiences will is pretty simple, though. If you gut it out through Treasure of the Lost Lamp, the movie fires up the television’s theme song just before the credits.
You have to hand it to Disney: They sure do own a lot of pretty neat stuff like that.
Kenneth Lowe is like a hurricane. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.