Humbled by the Hobbits

This just has to be killing the Mouse.

"The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" is arguably the best reviewed film of the 2001 holiday season, and it's making beaucoup bucks (more than $205 million during its first three weeks in domestic release). And all that loot could have been going straight into Mickey's pocket.

Since it's not, it's worth noting that over the past 50 years, the Walt Disney Co. had numerous opportunities to turn J.R.R. Tolkien's epic tale into a major motion picture (or three). But each time, Mickey got cold feet.

The initial opportunity came in the mid 1950s, shortly after the trilogy was published. Late animator Woolie Reitherman (best known as the director of Disney's 'toon versions of "The Jungle Book" and "Robin Hood") claimed in interviews that Walt actively toyed with the idea of animating Tolkien's trilogy back then. After all, Disney already had made millions off of animated dwarves, so taking on a series of stories about elves and orcs just made good business sense to him.

According to Reitherman, it was actually the studio's story department that told Disney to take a pass on the project. The story guys told Walt there was just no way that Tolkien's sweeping epic could be whittled down to a movie of workable length. So, even before Disney's legal department could approach Tolkien's publishers about film rights, Walt abandoned the idea.

During the early 1970s, Mouse House executives again explored the idea of bringing "The Lord of the Rings" to the big screen. It wasn't that they suddenly thought Tolkien's tale was a particularly cinematic story; rather, they could see how popular the books were becoming with the college crowd. More to the point, Mickey then was looking for an ambitious project to help revitalize the studio's fading animation department.

Unfortunately, the Mouse moved too slowly. Animator Ralph Bakshi (renown as the director of the X-rated cartoon "Fritz the Cat") swooped in and snatched up the movie rights to the "Rings" trilogy long before Disney's lawyers could get it in gear. Robbed of their shot at animating the stories, Disney decided to buy its animators a consolation prize: the film rights to Lloyd Alexander's "The Chronicles of Prydain" series. That acquisition resulted in the 1985 release "The Black Cauldron," a film that -- despite 12 years of active production -- was and is considered by many to be the worst feature-length 'toon ever churned out by the Mouse factory.

Flash forward to the mid 1990s. Acclaimed New Zealand-based director Peter Jackson has acquired the rights to do a live-action version of the Tolkien trilogy. Harvey and Bob Weinstein -- the heads of Disney's arthouse arm, Miramax Films -- are anxious to get in bed with Jackson. The only problem is that there's no way Miramax can shoulder the entire cost of the Middle Earth stories the way Jackson wants to do them. Jackson wants to film all three books back-to-back-to-back in one marathon, 18-month shoot and release them one at a time, a year apart, the way he's doing it now.

The Weinsteins know they will have a tough time persuading the Mouse House to cough up the $300-million production costs and to accept the one-film-a-year release pattern. And they're right; after two-dozen meetings and many efforts to compromise, Disney passes on the project. Among the economizing ideas Disney reportedly came up with: abandon the idea of a separate movie for each of the trilogy's books in favor of two, and/or abandon "The Lord of the Rings" entirely and just doing Tolkien's earlier "The Hobbit." Jackson declined.

Once the Weinsteins put the project back into play, New Line Pictures quickly moved in. The end result is now playing to packed houses everywhere.

Numerous folks within the Walt Disney Co. still are furious that studio execs took a pass on Rings -- and none more so than the Imagineers, Disney's ride designers, who had envisioned dropping Tolkien's memorable characters into the corporation's theme parks worldwide. Disney's Animal Kingdom would have particularly benefited; all those Hobbits and dragons would have served as the perfect hook for the park's oft-delayed "Beastly Kingdom" section.

The Weinsteins had to settle for making fun of the film Disney wouldn't allow them to make: They're now shooting "Scary Movie III: Episode I: Lord of the Brooms," a parody that not only takes on "Rings" but also "Star Wars" and "Harry Potter." It's not exactly the epic they had hoped to be associated with. But that's what happens when you're in business with the Mouse, who has a bad Hobbit ... er ... habit of playing it safe.

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