In the late 1990s Michael Eisner, the former CEO and Chairman of Disney, had one of his brilliant, harebrained ideas – to adapt several of Disney’s most popular theme park attractions into a series of big-budget, “event” films. For years, the Disney Parks had been places which adapted or accommodated IP from elsewhere in the company. The parks are where attractions, live entertainment and themed dining could be found based on, among other things, Disney’s latest animated marvel, the stars of a hugely popular soundtrack tie-in or, for a time, the soap operas that populated ABC’s daytime programming line-up. This was a novel concept; Eisner would now be pulling ideas and characters out of the theme parks, which would then cause renewed interest in the attractions. It was a perfect, synergistic loop, the kind only Disney could engineer.
And for such a novel, exciting concept, the initiative didn’t last very long. Barring the Pirates of the Caribbean movies (of which there are two additional entries being developed now), there hasn’t been a theme park-based feature in more than five years (and even that film, Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, was only tangentially connected to the land that includes Space Mountain). It was also the only project that wasn’t green lit by Eisner’s administration and the cluster of activity around the turn of the millennium.
Several other projects have been developed and abandoned – a film based on the Matterhorn called The Hill, a Max Landis-penned Space Mountain movie, a Big Thunder Mountain ABC pilot that could conceivably be recycled for Disney+ — but only one has broken through, largely because it followed the formula laid out by Pirates of the Caribbean. Jungle Cruise, coming next summer (God willing), is anchored by a big star (Dwayne Johnson), full of tangible period details, has a plot involving a magical doodad (this time it’s the Tree of Life) and features supernatural creatures as the primary villains. (It is based on an opening day Disneyland attraction.)
Hopefully there will be additional features based on theme park attractions in the not-too-distant future (ready to share my ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter script) and that the current Disney leadership will understand that without original properties developed for the parks, there will be no opportunity for these kinds of exciting reverse adaptations.