This Case Never Says Die

Summertime is all about adventure, so this August, we’re bringing you three episodes filled with pirates, treasures, and some serious swashbuckling! It’s Adventure August!

We decided to start our month off strong with an episode on Robin’s favorite movie. Now, we’ve been doing this show for almost three years. Why have we waited so long to cover something that we clearly love? Honestly, it’s because this movie is so special that we were a little nervous that we wouldn’t do it justice. Originally, the first episode of this month was going to be something totally different! But, with the passing of Richard Donner, we decided it was finally time to visit Astoria and hunt for gold with The Goonies!

Back in the 1980’s, Steven Spielberg was the unofficial king of Hollywood. After directing and/or producing classics like Jaws, ET, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, it was clear that the man had a good mind for stories. Legend has it that Spielberg came up with the idea for the film from one very simple question: what kind of adventure could a group of bored kids get into on a rainy day? He brought the concept to Chris Columbus, the screenwriter responsible for Gremlins. Columbus devised a story about a lovable group of misfits, best friends that are about to lose their homes and be separated. All hope is seemingly lost until they discover a treasure map and embark on a dangerous quest to find the legendary gold of famed pirate, One-eyed Willie, and save their neighborhood. 

There is no doubt that The Goonies has a lasting appeal. It’s one of the most popular films of the 1980’s, garnering an intense cult following that only grows with each generation. It was a story with everything: action, romance, comedy, the mob(?), friendship, pirates, a sweeping score, and motivational speeches. Every kid knows the feeling of being stuck inside on a rainy day, longing for adventure. This film defined so many childhoods because it flawlessly captures what it means to be a kid and allowed children everywhere to live out the fantasy of going on the adventure of a lifetime, all while out-witting the bad guys and having the power to solve their own problems. 

So, let’s follow the map to the history of this 1980’s treasure and unlock the gold that is The Goonies! 


  • It’s a rainy Saturday in the Goondocks, a neighborhood in Astoria, Oregon. A group of friends that call themselves “The Goonies” gather at their friends Mikey and Brand’s house. It’s the last weekend they will spend together, as their houses will soon be foreclosed on and demolished to make way for a country club. Desperate for something to do, the kids explore the attic, filled with treasures from the local museum where Mikey’s father worked as a curator. Among other treasures, the kids stumble upon a treasure map and decide to follow it to the famed treasure of One-eyed Willie!
  • On the way, the Goonies come across bullies, booby traps, and a notorious crime family named The Fratellis, who also have their eyes on the treasure!


  • After Steven Spielberg and Chris Columbus pitched the idea for The Goonies, the film was greenlit with a budget of 19 million dollars. Like we said already, Steven Spielberg had some serious pull, so the talent behind the film was enough to earn a sizable budget. 
  • Chris Columbus already had a hit with “Gremlins,” which is referenced in The Goonies! He would go on to write and direct many more successful films in the years to come. Even though Columbus credits Spielberg with the original concept for The Goonies, it was his imagination that birthed iconic lines like, “Goonies never say die,” which undoubtedly helped make the film a classic. Columbus originally planned to set the film in Ohio, where he grew up. He lived in a small factory town where there was not a lot to do. All he wanted to do was get out of that town. He and his friends would go into the abandoned coal mines to search for treasure. 
  • Richard Donner, the man responsible for the hit Superman films of the 1970s, was chosen to direct. 
    • Starting in the fall of 1984, Donner generally shot the film in order of continuity. Of course, it would be impossible to do the film this way in its entirety because of the combination of shots done on-location and in-studio.
      • If you remember from our ET episode, Spielberg also shot that film this way. It’s a great way to shoot with kids because it helps them understand the story, and it builds genuine relationships that they can build off of in ending scenes. 
    • Because Steven Spielberg was passionate about the film, he was a hands-on producer, often appearing on set. Some felt that he should have been named co-director, but others say that Donner was in charge. The two men had known each other for a long time, Donner being an older director. Some have speculated that Donner didn’t enjoy having Spielberg on the set as often as he did, but Donner himself said in the making of documentary that he “happened to love it because [Spielberg] is the biggest kid of them all.” 
      •  There were two scenes that were reportedly directed by Spielberg. They were the scenes in the wishing well when Mikey makes his iconic speech and the scene where the kids bang on the pipes beneath the country club. 
    • Along with the influences from Columbus and Spielberg, Richard Donner certainly left his mark on the film as well. He is credited with taking a wild storyline that uniquely navigates several movie genres and making it a cohesive film. He also added classic influences, like the Rube-Goldberg-style traps and machines that frequently appear in the film. 
      • Among Donner’s greatest achievements was his ability to direct a mischievous band of young actors, who were consistently playing pranks and falling into laughing fits on set. Although he was frequently frustrated with the kids fumbling their scenes, they were always able to make him laugh, and he found ways to bring out the best in their performances.
      • For example, Sean Astin has said that during the scene where he first tells the story of One-eyed Willie, he wasn’t given lines to memorize. Instead, Donner told him the story and had Astin repeat it back as best as he could. The result was a much more kid-like retelling of the story that any adult may not have been able to write. 
        • In the making-of documentary on the DVD, Donner says, “It is the most difficult thing I ever thought I was going to get into. I never anticipated what it was going to be like. Because individually they are wonderful, they’re nuts, they’re the warmest, craziest things that have ever come into my life, but in a composite form, you get them all together, and it’s mind-blowing.”  Later on he said,  “I’ve never had kids, but at that moment, they were mine.” 
      • By the end of the five months, the kids were a grumpy, squabbling bunch. Donner was thankful to finally take his vacation after the film had wrapped, getting a much-needed break from the kids. According to Steven Spielberg, Donner frequently mentioned during his last weeks of shooting that he couldn’t wait to head to Hawaii and get a break. So, Spielberg thought it would be funny to put all the kids on a flight to Hawaii, arriving before Donner. By the time the director arrived at his vacation home, they were all standing in his living room! Martha Plimpton, who played Stef in the film, said that Donner fell to his knees when he saw the kids. 
  • Some of The Goonies was shot in the same location where the film takes place: Astoria, Oregon. In a 2019 interview with the YouTube Channel, “Beyond the Backlot,” Donner recalled scouting out the location for the movie. When they first saw Astoria, they knew that they wouldn’t find anything better. The house used in the film is a real home, perfectly placed at the top of a hill, giving the audience a clear view of the small town. The house is privately owned and off-limits to fans, as any regular person would not want strangers constantly standing in their yard. 
  • Other parts of the film were filmed on location along the coast on Cannon Beach, Bodega Bay Ecola State Park. But, the majority of the movie was filmed on soundstages at Warner Brothers Studios (then it was called Burbank Studios). It was there on stage 16, the largest stage on the lot, that production designer J Michael Riva and the rest of the production crew built a full-scale pirate ship. Originally, the plan was to build portions of the ship and film the scenes in segments. But, Riva’s vision brought One-Eyed-Willie’s ship, The Inferno, to life. The set-piece was remarkably big and completely real, complete with several levels and full-scale masts. 
    • Richard Donner wanted to capture the true reactions of the kids when they saw the ship for the first time. So, the set was off-limits until it was time to shoot the scenes with The Inferno. In the scene, the kids are seeing the ship for the first time. It’s real movie magic. 
  • Special effects in the 1980’s were very different from the effects of today. The Goonies is filled with marvelous practical effects. For example, the bats in the film were a combination of animatronics and paper mache. The gasoline and fire at the very beginning of the film were real! The blender that the Fratellis threaten to put Chunk’s hand in was a real blender, but with a rubber blade. During the scene where Andy must play the correct chords on the piano, the kids were all cabled to a platform 10 feet in the air. On the DVD commentary, they swore it was more like 30 feet!
  • Some of the most complicated effects had to do with the character Sloth and the moving prosthetics under his make-up. The make-up took several hours to apply and had to be re-applied many times during the final battle scenes. 
  • In one scene, the kids all find the ship after riding through a series of water-filled tunnels. The slides were so much fun; the crew even took turns riding them after the film wrapped! 
  • The original cut of the film was 7 hours long, and there were a couple of major scenes cut from the film that were left in some televised versions of The Goonies. Some of the material cut was referenced later in the movie, causing some continuity issues. 
    • As the Goonies follow the treasure map, they find themselves at a restaurant with the Fratellis. At the beginning of this scene, the map that Mikey is holding now has burnt edges for seemingly no reason! This is because there was a deleted scene where Mikey and the rest of the Goonies run into the bully Troy at a gas station. In this scene, Mikey finds a map of Oregon and compares it to the map found in his attic. This map leads the gang to the restaurant. Troy then steals the treasure map from Mikey and lights it on fire! This scene also explained why the two girls Andy and Stef, suddenly appear at the restaurant as well. They were at the gas station with Troy and decided to ditch him after he was so cruel to the Goonies. 
    • In one famous deleted scene, Stef and Mouth are attacked by a gigantic octopus. In order to save them, Data puts his walkman into the animal’s beak while playing the song Eight Arms to Hold You by The Goon Squad. The Octopus then moonwalks away. (The music video for the song has a stop motion octopus!)
    • One even more forgotten scene involved two apes escaping from the zoo because the goonies had messed with the underground pipes. This footage is not available or is said to be lost.


  • The Goonies has an absolute killer soundtrack. Dave Grusin, the composer responsible for scoring films like “Tootsie,” “The Graduate,” and “Selena” delivered a score that was equal parts exciting and nostalgic. If you ever find yourself in need of an adventurous spirit, listen to the Fratelli Chase music from the beginning of the movie. 
  • Beyond the orchestral score, The Goonies soundtrack is filled with hidden treasures. First, there’s the Cyndi Lauper single, “The Goonies R Good Enough,” which is used in the film. The cast even did a separate shoot for the music video that took place on The Inferno, with pro wrestlers appearing in the video, like Andre, the Giant. 
  • The soundtrack also featured “eight arms to hold you” by The Goon Squad and songs by The Bangles, REO Speedwagon, and Joseph Williams (of the band Toto.)


  • One of the things that made The Goonies so special was its perfect casting. Richard Donner remarked that the whole cast was fantastic at improv. While the actors had lines, he could also throw anything at them, a line, an action, practically anything, and the kids and adults would roll with it because they were so in tune with how their characters would react. 

– The main characters are referred to by their nicknames within the movie but we will also mention their “full names.”

  • Sean Astin as Mikey (Michael Walsh)
    • He is also known for Lord of the Rings and Stranger Things.
    • Sean thought he completely botched his audition, forgetting lines and even saying, “shit,” when he made a mistake. Steven Spielberg reportedly walked out of the audition, leaving Astin with Richard Donner, who then consoled him. Astin got the part anyway, and it was his acting debut. He was incredibly nervous, and in one scene, actually calls Brand by his real name, Josh! It’s in the final cut of the movie. 
    • His mom, unfortunately, threw out the original map that was painstakingly made by the production designer J. Michael Riva. She thought it was just a crumpled piece of paper.
  • Corey Feldman as Mouth (Clark Devereaux)
    • We also know him well for Stand by Me.
    • In a People Magazine article, he said that “not a day passes that someone doesn’t bring up Goonies.” and that he still feels like a big Goonie.
    • Corey Feldman was a huge star in the 1980’s and appeared in Stand By Me about the same time as The Goonies. He was a huge fan of Michael Jackson, and for one scene in the film, Steven Spielberg told Feldman that Jackson was coming to visit the set in order to elicit an animated response from him for the scene. 
  • Jeff Cohen as Chunk (Lawrence Cohen)
    • He appeared on Family Ties a few times and is now a lawyer.
    • Some parts of The Goonies have not aged well, including the scene with the iconic “Truffle Shuffle.” Cohen says that he actually got chickenpox just before filming the movie but didn’t tell producers because he was afraid of getting fired. He claims that you can see some spots when he lifts up his shirt. Cohen was self-conscious about doing the shuffle, so Richard Donner cleared the set to make him feel more comfortable. Chunk is always eating during the movie, and because of this, Cohen actually got sick from eating too much whipped cream.
    • In one scene, Chunk cries while the Fratellis threaten to put his hand in a blender. He rattles off a string of confessions to past misdeeds as tears roll down his cheeks. These lines were largely improvised, and Cohen added names of people that he knew, giving them a little shout-out.  
  • Ke Huy Quan as Data (Richard Wang)
    • Also well known for his role in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Ke has since retired from acting. 
    • In one scene, as rocks begin to fall on the goonies, Data shouts, “Holy S-H-I-T.” Apparently, his mother told him that he could never cuss, not even in a movie, so he spelled the word instead. 
    • A couple of times in the movie, Mikey and Data have a funny exchange about “Booty/Booby traps.” According to Astin, he and Ke came up with that joke themselves!
    • In one scene, the kids are watching The Fratellis carry a dead body out of their restaurant. Data says, “I am wondering, what is in the bag?” The line made the entire cast break into laughter during the DVD commentary, and Martha Plimpton says it is her favorite line in the film. 
  • Kerri Green as Andy (Andrea Theresa Carmichael) 
    • She was also in Summer Rental, but Green has retired from acting as well. 
    • Green was incredibly nervous about filming her kissing scenes, especially a scene with Sean Astin, who was about four years her junior. Green was 18 at the time and felt wrong kissing a young teenage boy. 
  • Martha Plimpton as Stef (Stephanie Steinbrenner) 
    • One of her most recent roles was in the tv series Raising Hope.
    • Plimpton jokes about her role in the film, noting that as the film progresses, she’s in fewer scenes. While filming the movie, Richard Donner reportedly told her that he would give her 100$ if she stopped biting her nails. On the DVD commentary, she brings this up, and Donner rewards her with 100$ from his pocket!
  • John Matuszak as Sloth (Lotney Fratelli)
    • Matuszak was a 6’7″ defensive end for The Oakland Raiders, which explains why he wears a Raiders jersey in the film! Later, he wears a superman shirt in honor of Donner’s earlier films, Superman and Superman II. 
    • He was having back pain and wasn’t supposed to pick up Jeff Cohen playing Chunk, but much to Cohen’s surprise, he picked him up anyway! 
    • He was not able to eat with the prosthesis on. He had to have smoothies through a straw. The other Fratelli brothers would tease him as they were able to eat hamburgers and other fun foods.
    • Although Sloth’s scenes are some of the most troubling in the film, as he is a man that has endured abuse at the hands of his family, the character is beloved by millions of fans. His iconic line, “Hey You Guys,” is synonymous with The Goonies. Matuszak passed away almost exactly four years after the film was released. 
  • Josh Brolin as Brand (Brandon Walsh)
    • This film was Josh Brolin’s acting debut! He has since appeared in No Country for Old Men, Men in Black III, and of course, The MCU as Thanos. 
    • Brolin, son of James Brolin, wanted to be a serious actor. For one scene in the tunnels, he got really into the scene and wanted to start climbing the walls. When he told Richard Donner about the idea, Donner reportedly said, “You could do that…or you could just read the lines.” 
  • Robert Davi as Jake Fratelli
  • Joe Pantoliano as Francis Fratelli
  • Anne Ramsey as Mama Fratelli 
  • Lupe Ontiveros as Rosalita
  • Mary Ellen Trainer as Mrs. Walsh 
  • Keith Walker as Mr. Walsh 


  • The Goonies truly gained its popularity after its initial release, but that doesn’t mean that it was initially a flop. The movie was in the top 10 highest-grossing films of 1985, a year that boasted Back to the Future and Beverly Hills Cop. Roger Ebert gave the movie three stars saying, “More things happen in this movie than in six ordinary action films. There’s not just a thrill a minute; there’s a thrill, a laugh, a shock, and a special effect. The screenplay has all the kids talking all at once, all the time, and there were times, especially in the first reel, when I couldn’t understand much of what they were saying. The movie needs to be played loud and with extra treble.”
  • In December of 2020, the cast and Richard Donner reunited via the internet (with some special guests) and performed a live read of The Goonies for charity. Here is the link if you would like to watch it!
    • At the end of the reading, the group invited the audience to recite the goonie pledge, making everyone present an honorary Goonie. 
    • “I will never betray my goon dock friends/ We will stick together until the whole world ends/ Through heaven and hell, and nuclear war/ Good pals like us, will stick like tar/ In the city, or the country, or the forest, or the boonies/ I am proudly declared a fellow Goonie.
  • Throughout the years, there have been talks of a Goonies sequel. 
    • It’s been 36 years since the release of this fantastic movie. It has been almost as long that rumors have swirled about a sequel. In 1987 when The Goonies II video game was released, it followed a new story where the children were kidnapped by the Fratellis. This led to speculation of a new movie. Unfortunately, Spielberg did not find a storyline that he felt would justify a sequel. Jeff Cohen, according to Film School Rejects, has said that Warner Brothers has not been willing to let the property go. This has resulted in budget problems and made it even harder to push for a sequel.
    • Many other projects such as comic books and animated series were planned, but they also did not come to fruition.
    • Corey Feldman said of Richard Donner, “He’s the driving force behind it. He says it’s still alive. But as we all know…When you get to that age, things slow down quite a bit. There is a big possibility that he might not want to keep driving it. So, I think without him, it doesn’t happen. And every day that passes, that he doesn’t do it, there is less and less chance that it is ever going to happen at all.”
      • Unfortunately, with this in mind, there may never be a Goonies sequel as the entire cast, it seems, is too loyal to continue without Donner.
      • The year 2020 hit hard for a Goonies-inspired television series by Sarah Watson for Fox. Even though Spielberg and Donner had greenlit it, we found out in May that it is not meant to be.


  • There is a Gremlins reference when the officer is talking on the phone. He mentions little creatures that multiply when you get them wet.
  • The jailhouse that the Fratelli brothers break out of has since been turned into the Oregon Film Museum, where they have memorabilia from movies that were filmed in the area.
  • Richard Donner plays a cameo role at the end of the film as one of the officers that discovers the kids on the beach. The entire scene was filled with cameos, as the kids were permitted to have their real family members appear on the beach. 
  • The film is filled with close-ups of the kids holding items. In every single one, the hands are not the kids’ hands. They would have adult doubles hold the items instead. 
  • In 2010, the mayor of Astoria named June 4th as the official day to celebrate The Goonies! 

To us, The Goonies is the quintessential adventure film. It tapped into the sense of adventure that sits within all of us. This movie runs rampant with the untamed energy of childhood, something that every kid can relate to and that every adult can remember. It’s funny, strange, awkward, exciting, and sometimes even scary. The Goonies feels like a story we might’ve imagined with our figurines as kids or a play we might’ve acted out in our living rooms for our polite and exhausted parents. This film was made with uninhibited excitement and love and has been enjoyed by audiences with that same enthusiasm for over 35 years. 

We don’t love The Goonies because it’s perfect, because, well, it’s NOT perfect. But, this film gives us the chance to stop and imagine a world where the bad guys lose, the outcasts win, and where the greatest adventures are right under our noses. So, I guess what we’re trying to say is, The Goonies R Good Enough, and thank you, Richard Donner, for sharing your treasure with us. 

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The Case of Amblimation

So we all know Steven Spielberg as a groundbreaking director that brought us classics like Jaws and Jurassic Park. But even though his live-action achievements are well-known, his contributions to the animation world might be overlooked from time to time. 

Spielberg’s love of animation drove him to collaborate with Don Bluth on movies like The Land Before Time and An American Tail, beloved classics that are likely still enjoyed at grandparents’ houses all over America. But the director wanted to do more with the medium. So, he teamed up with Universal Pictures to create his own animation studio: Amblimation. 

This week, we’re taking a look at the short-lived history of this defunct studio, and its three films. Amblimation may not have lasted long, but its movies will live forever in the hearts of viewers everywhere. 

  • In 1981, only 6 years after Jaws took a huge bite out of box office numbers, Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, and Frank Marshall launched their own film production company, Amblin. Its logo would later become the iconic image of Elliot flying with ET over the full moon. 
  • Under Amblin, Spielberg teamed up with Don Bluth to create the highest grossing non-Disney animated film of the time: An American Tail. The movie even beat Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective in box office numbers, and proved that Spielberg could be successful in animation as well as live action. 
    • An American Tail tells the story of Fievel Mousekewitz and his family as they emigrate from the Imperial Russian territory of Ukraine to the United States for freedom.
  • Amblin continued to work with Bluth, creating the childhood classic The Land Before Time. This film was also a major success, prompting many sequels. If these two films weren’t enough of an indication that Spielberg could succeed as an animation producer, it was the wildly successful Who Framed Roger Rabbit that really sealed the deal. The hybrid animation/live-action film drew in massive crowds, beating out the box office numbers for the previously mentioned films. 
  • Spielberg wanted to continue to work with Bluth, and had ideas for An American Tail sequel. Bluth reportedly turned him down, as he didn’t like the lack of creative control he had had with the other two films. So in 1989, Spielberg made his own animation studio with Universal Pictures. He based the studio in the UK, and sought out animators outside the United States. Walt Disney Animation essentially had a monopoly on all the best animators at the time, except of course the team at Don Bluth (which Spielberg wasn’t about to try and poach). It would be difficult to convince someone with a job at the most historically successful animation studio to jump on a new and uncertain venture. 
  • Once Spielberg had his team, they set to work on their first feature film, An American Tail: Fievel Goes West.


Don Bluth has a unique animation style that can be imitated, but not replicated. He was noticeably absent from the second installment of the “American Tail” franchise, so Fievel Goes West had a different tone and animation style from its predecessor. 

When asked about it in an interview, director Phil Nibbelink said, “Don Bluth made a beautiful movie with American Tail. We tried to live up to it and go beyond it. We would never be able to match Don Bluth’s style. He had such a distinct style. We had a completely different set of artists. It forced us to go in a different direction.”


  • Fievel is up to his old tricks as the family moves out west for a better life, as New York is not the catless dream they expected it to be. They are once again deceived by a smooth talking cat, that plans on exploiting the labor of the mice and eventually turning them into “mouse burgers.” (Ew.) But, luckily their old cat pal Tiger has followed them to Green River, and will help them face off against the evil Cat R Wahl. 


  • This film was directed by Simon Wells and former Disney animator Phil Nibbelink.
  • Like we said before, Spielberg had to go to Europe to find more animators to fill his team. He built a production crew of 280 people, 120 of them were animators. The rest were ink and paint, background artists, layout artists, etc.
  • All voices for the film were recorded before animation, which is a common film practice. Usually, voices are recorded after the storyboard process, but before the animation. This ensures that animators don’t draw extra scenes that end up not working, and they can hear exactly how the characters will speak as they draw. 
  • Spielberg wanted the movie to have a live-action cinematic quality to it. He pushed for the animation to not have very many cuts. He wanted the animators to save that for building tension. For most of it he wanted a moving camera, and this meant that animators had to draw really long backgrounds so they could keep the shots moving. The movie relies heavily on its western setting, and this technique helped establish that. 
    • The background was watercolor underneath, and artists used pastel, crayon, and a little bit of airbrush to create depth! 
  • Animators also worked with a variety of angles, which was not common in animation.


  • The music was composed by James Horner but the film does feature the song Rawhide from the movie “The Blues Brothers” in which Spielberg cameoed in! 


  • Phillip Glasser returned to lend his voice as Fievel
    • He is an actor and producer known for The Illusionist and Agent Cody Banks.
  • Veteran film actor James Stewart plays the heroic Wylie Burp! 
    • He is known for Anatomy of a Murder, Vertigo, The Philadelphia Story, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and fittingly, How the West Was Won
    • This was his final film credit before his death in 1992.
  • Erica Yohn as Mama
    • She has been in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, The Godfather: Part II, and Corrina Corrina.
  • Cathy Cavadini as Tanya
    • She is best known as Blossom in the Powerpuff Girls.
  • Nehemiah as Persoff
    • He has been in Some Like It Hot, Twins, and The Wrong Man.
  • Dom Deluise as Tiger
    • He is known for All Dogs Go to Heaven, Blazing Saddles, and The Secret of NIMH.
  • Amy Irving as Miss Kitty
    • She has been in Traffic, Adam, Carrie, and Crossing Delancey.
  • John Cleese as Cat R. Waul 
    • John Cleese is known for Monty Python and A Fish Called Wanda.
    • Fun fact- He turned down Cogsworth in Beauty and the Beast for this role! Which is especially interesting because the two movies released the same day.
  • Jon Lovitz as Chula
    • He has been in A League of Their Own, Happiness, Rat Race, and Loaded Weapon 1.


  • Although it did not win anything it was nominated at the 1992 Golden Globes for Best Original Song for “Dreams to Dream.” The music was by James Horner with lyrics by Will Jennings.
  • It grossed about $40,766,041 worldwide. Alternatively, Beauty and the Beast, which released on the same day, was the first animated movie to reach 100 million dollars in its first run.

In order to maintain a consistent release schedule with their movies, Amblimation worked on all three of its projects simultaneously. Originally, the next feature planned was an animated version of the musical Cats. But as that ran into problems, the studio focused on releasing another film, based on Hudson Talbott’s book, “We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story.”



  • Captain Neweyes travels back in time and feeds dinosaurs his Brain Grain cereal, which makes them intelligent and nonviolent. They agree to go to the future in order to grant the wishes of children in New York city. Their plan is to meet Dr. Bleeb of the Museum of Natural History, but they get side-tracked with some new friends and later run into the Captain’s evil brother, Professor Screweyes, who has other plans for the dinosaurs.


  • Hanna-Barbera was the first company to contact Hudson Talbott about obtaining rights to his book We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story (1987), only months after its release. It may sound funny to hear of the “Scooby Doo” animators making full-length films, but they produced some great animation, like the 1973 version of “Charlotte’s Web.” Universal Pictures then paid off Hanna-Barbera and purchased the rights for Spielberg to produce the film.
  • The film was directed by Phil Nibbelink and Simon Wells, who also directed Fievel Goes West!
  • Although Talbott had little involvement, he had many encounters with the creators of the film during production, including Spielberg who would make several calls to the author. 
  • Storyboarding of We’re Back started in 1990 during the production of Fievel Goes West. The first screenplay draft was written by Flint Dille and the film’s director Simon Wells. But, the initial script was not well received by Spielberg, and he hired John Patrick Shanley to write another draft, which was done quickly and ultimately used. 
  • The book was only 20 pages and lacked any antagonist or any major plot points, making it difficult to adapt. Talbott felt the film had none of the tongue-in-cheek humor that he wrote in his book, so the voice actors changed a few lines while recording. However, this was not approved by Shanley, so his original lines were used in the final film. 
    • And funny side note; John Goodman started recording his part just shortly after having his wisdom teeth removed!
  • While Amblimation was working on the film, Spielberg secured the rights to Michael Crichton’s book, Jurassic Park. The animators knew that even though they had been working on the animation for years, the films would likely release around the same time. When Nibbelink saw the ILM’s computer work for Jurassic Park, he said he knew that the film would be a game-changer. There’s no doubt it overshadowed “We’re Back” as the best Dinosaur film of the year, probably decade, maybe even century?


  • The music for all the Amblimation films was done by James Horner. His work is the emotional cornerstone of “We’re Back,” as the movie can be quite silly. 
  • Horner wrote the melody to, “Roll Back the Rock,” with lyrics by Thomas Dolby. Horner proved time and time again that he was a talented songwriter, and Spielberg utilized that to great effect. 


  • John Goodman as Rex
    • He is known for things like Roseanne, The Big Lebowski, and Monsters Inc.
  • Blaze Berdahl as Buster
    • She has been in the 1989 Pet Sematary and the show Ghostwriter.
  • Rhea Perlman as Mother Bird
    • She is most known for being in Matilda, and the shows Cheers and Taxi.
  • Jay Leno as Vorb
    • He is of course known for being a big tv personality for The Jay Leno Show and The Tonight Show.
  • René Le Vant as Woog
    • He has been in Rocky II and the 1977 The Incredible Hulk.
  • Felicity Kendal as Elsa
    • She has been in things like Good Neighbors, Valentino, and Parting Shots.
  • Charles Fleischer as Dweeb
    • He is known for movies such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Zodiac, and A Nightmare on Elm Street.
  • Walter Cronkite as Captain Naweyes
    • He was a news reporter and journalist who lended his voice to just a few movies and shows. 
  • Julia Child as Dr. Bleeb
    • This movie was her only acting role as she is most known for her cooking and cook books.
  • Kenneth Mars as Professor Screweyes
    • He is known for Young Frankenstein, The Producers (1967), and The Little Mermaid.
  • Yeardley Smith as Cecilia 
    • She is Lisa and other characters in The Simpsons. She was also in Maximum Overdrive and As Good As It Gets.
  • Martin Short as Stubbs the Clown
    • He has been in Father of the Bride, Three Amigos!, and Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause.


  • We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story released during the start of an economic downturn for animated features in the early 1990s. It opened during the Thanksgiving holiday with other new entries including Mrs. Doubtfire, A Perfect World, and a film adaptation of The Nutcracker. It grossed $3.7 million on its opening weekend and ended with a total gross of $9 million in the United States. The film was generally considered to be a poor performer, and it was the highest grossing children’s film of its opening weekend only because it was a poor weekend for the genre.

By the mid 1990’s, animation wasn’t lucrative for anyone except Disney. Other studios were struggling to make films that competed with what would be later known as The Disney Renaissance. In an LA Times article dated January, 1994, an anonymous Disney animator was quoted saying, “Animation–even bad animation–is a lot of work, and if you do that much work, you want people to see it, but the reality of the situation is that people won’t go see it unless it’s a Disney film.”

We’re Back was considered a flop, and certainly had its problems. But, after its video release, more fans were drawn to the wacky storyline, mysterious villain, and John Goodman’s stellar performance as Rex. The components of a good animated film were there. In 1990, producer David Kirschner expressed concern that studios would start releasing films that weren’t quite ready for consumers, in an attempt to push forward with an animation renaissance. His worries proved valid, as more animated projects seemed to flounder throughout the 90’s. 

After Amblimation’s second flop, it pushed forward to release its third, and ultimately final film, “Balto.” If you grew up in the 90’s, you might think of Balto as a success, as it seemed to constantly air on TV and in waiting rooms at the pediatrician’s office. Unfortunately, the popularity of the film didn’t manifest until after it was in theaters. 



The film is loosely based on the true story about a sled dog team that helped save children infected with diphtheria in 1925, by performing a serum run to Nome, Alaska. The movie focuses on a dynamic main protagonist, Balto, who is part wolf and Siberian Husky. Despite the challenges that Balto faces as a social outcast, he ends up taking charge and leading the team on the treacherous journey to Nome, saving the children in the process.


  • It is a 1995 animated adventure film directed by Simon Wells, produced by Amblimation and distributed by Universal Pictures. 
  • Writer Elana Lesser recollected being told the story of Balto by her grandfather when she was younger and as an adult thought it would be a beautiful animated feature. She and writer, Cliff Ruby, pitched the idea to Amblin with their screenplay in tow. It was then relayed to Phil Nibbelink and Simon Wells.
  • Director Simon Wells had to heavily persuade Steven Spielberg to make this story. It was close to his heart and he felt it needed to be told. It was a tough sell as Spielberg was apprehensive of a movie that he felt would not be colorful enough. In order to quell these fears Wells showed him dozens of small color studies done by the production designer Hans Bacher. They proved that the movie would not be solely black and white dogs on a desolate background. It ended up being Simon Wells’ first solo directed movie, as Nibbelink would leave the project to return to working on We’re Back. David Cohen and Roger Schulman would fine tune the story into the final screenplay that would be accepted.
  • Since the budget was tight, a lot of tough decisions had to be made. An example of this would be that they would have to choose between either shadows or footprints in the snow. In the typical shot they could not afford both so they would try to figure out what they could get away with not having or showing.
  • In order for the voice actors to get a sense of the characters they were portraying, several model sheets were drawn up for the actors to look at. These sheets were done in the early years of development and would show different aspects of the character-like facial expressions, movement, and size comparisons.
    • The team brought in 7 siberian huskies to study! They were used among many other references in order to get look and character movement correct.
  • When asked about the decision not to reveal the identity of the white wolf, Wells said “We wanted to keep it mystical and vague – is this a real event or is it some kind of hallucination that Balto is experiencing? All of these were reasons to not have the White Wolf speak or in any way explain himself. Perhaps the Wolf is a manifestation of Balto’s inner voice, telling him to take ownership and use that part of him that he has always been ashamed of – certainly that is the message Balto takes from the encounter, real or not.”
  • Unfortunately the morse code used within the movie is just gibberish with no hidden easter eggs.


  • The music was once again composed by James Horner. Wells said that, “James preferred to present his score as the orchestral finished product, and make alterations based on notes from that finished product…”
    • This process made sense because Horner was in California while the rest of the cast and crew was in the United Kingdom
    • Balto is considered to be Horner’s best Amblimation score, with beautiful and enchanting music that remains one of the best features of the film. 


  • Kevin Bacon as Balto 
    • He is known for Footloose, Tremors, and Mystic River.
  • Bob Hoskins as Boris
    • He was in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Long Good Friday, and Unleashed.
  • Bridget Fonda as Jenna
    • She is in A Simple Plan, Point of No Return, and Single White Female.
  • Jim Cummings as Steele
    • He has been in Princess and the Frog, Aladdin, and the 2018 Christopher Robin.
  • Phil Collins as Muk and Luk
    • He is a music composer, that we all know. Tarzan, etc.
  • Juliette Brewer as Rosy
    • She was also in The Little Rascals and Vegas Vacation.


  • The film earned over $11 million at the domestic box office.
  • It was forced to compete with classics like Jumanji and Toy Story, which absolutely destroyed Balto in terms of numbers. 
  • It was nominated for the Young Artists Award for Best Family Feature – Musical or Comedy and three different Annie Awards. Unfortunately it did not take any wins home.


  • When Balto opened, it only earned 1.5 million dollars opening weekend. It was in 15th place, and even though it seems to be the most well-known and successful of Amblimation’s films, its failure to draw in crowds seemed to be the nail in the coffin for the studio. 
  • Originally, the plan was to release a new film every year. The fourth feature in the making was an animated version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats.” 
    • The film was to be set during the London blitz, with traditionally animated characters set against 3D miniature sets. The art style was inspired by German expressionism. Animator Hans Bacher said he roamed the “ugliest” parts of London to take reference photos, and the team had been working on the project since they had wrapped “Fievel Goes West.” 
    • Of course, this version of “Cats” never came to be. There were disagreements about the screenplay, and production stopped after 6 months. The studio moved on to the other two films that it produced. When Spielberg relocated the studio to California, a new team started work on the project. But, it eventually stopped and Amblimation folded in 1997. 
    • Since Amblimation was gone, Universal bought the rights to the play. And well…we know how that story ends. Imagine if Amblimation had held on for just a few more years, we would have an entirely different version of cats than the monstrosity that clawed its way into our collective psyche in 2019. 
  • Now, you could say that Amblimation never REALLY disappeared. After the devastating box office loss for Balto, Spielberg saw the writing on the wall, and shifted his attention to a new venture. 
  • Throughout the early and mid-90’s, Amblimation was attempting to compete against the Disney machine. Like we said before, this was the Disney Renaissance. Fievel Goes West was overshadowed by Beauty and the Beast. By 1994, audiences were only gambling their movie money on Disney animation. And when Balto hit theaters, it stood against the first ever full-length computer animated film. 
    • Things didn’t seem to be slowing down for the animation giant, but in 1994, the company lost its president, Frank Wells, in a tragic helicopter crash. The death sent shock waves through the institution, and prompted the resignation of one of the architects of the Disney Renaissance: Jeffrey Katzenburg. 
    • Katzenburg had struggled with Disney’s CEO Michael Eisner for years. We talk about this a little more in our episode on The Disney Exodus from last year. 
    • So, what’s one of the most successful animation producers to do when he finds himself out of a job? 
    • Well, luckily for Katzenburg, another producer and director had already rounded up some of the best talent in animation outside of the US. Katzenburg, Spielberg, and businessman David Geffin created Dreamworks SKG, and named Katzenburg as the head of the animation division. 
    • Of course, as Spielberg focused more on the new venture, Amblimation fell to the wayside. Many sources report that all the animators currently employed at the studio moved to Dreamworks Animation by 1995, and Amblimation was defunct by 1997. 

Amblimation might not have lasted long, but its legacy will live on in our hearts forever. It didn’t make the most groundbreaking or popular films, sure, but it wasn’t afraid to try new things. Looking at the box office, it’s easy to say they were an undisputed failure. But, that’s okay. Amblimation wasn’t afraid to fail, and success isn’t always measured in dollars. They made three perfectly respectable films that entertained millions of kids, just not in the theater. They learned from their mistakes, and they moved on to make more films at one of the most successful animation studios today. Without Amblimation, we would not only be missing these movies, but we might’ve missed out on films like The Prince of Egypt and How to Train Your Dragon. There’s something to be said for the lesson that Amblimation taught us. Steven Spielberg is one of the most successful and respected filmmakers of all time; and if he’s not afraid to fail, maybe we shouldn’t be, either. 

Before we go, we’d like to thank our Patrons! Joel, John, Jacob, Jacklyn, JD, Anthony, Shelli, and Linda.



We’re Back:

Fievel Goes West:


The Case of Poltergeist


So far, we have released two full episodes on the history of horror films! But, for now we are taking a break from all that research and study, to bring you an extra special episode about one scary movie in particular. If you listen to our show, you know that our co-host Adam is not exactly the biggest fan of horror. But, Adam graciously agreed to watch some movies that were a little scarier than what he’s used to. The first movie we showed Adam is the one we’re covering today: Poltergeist (1982). 

Poltergeist is the kind of movie that scaredy cats (like us) like to stay away from. Why? Well probably because of iconic lines like, “they’re hereeeee” and images like the young Carol Anne with her hands pressed against the white noise of a TV set. Even to us nearly forty years later, it still seems pretty terrifying. 

But like we’ve said before, horror movies seldom turn out to be as scary as we imagine, and Poltergeist was no exception. We thought this film would be a great step into horror for Adam, as it focuses less on ghosts, and more on the human characters (plus there isn’t a lot of gore or a high body count). So this week, we’re heading into Cuesta Verde to investigate the strange happenings at the Freeling house, and learn all about what scares us. 


  • The word Poltergeist is a combination of two German words. Poltern, which according to Merrium Webster, means “knocking,” and geist, which is the german word for ghost. The first known use of it as an English word was in 1848, which is a relatively short time ago. 
  • Strictly speaking, a poltergeist is any mischievous spirit that makes noise or moves objects. Poltergeists are not necessarily malicious, but they can be. According to legend, they have the ability to manipulate the physical world, and often use that to torment the living. On rare occasions, the ghosts are violent, and can have repetitive destructive behavior. 
  • Poltergeists are often said to be connected to one member of the family in particular. Usually they appear in households where adolescents are present, for whatever reason.


  • Isn’t it the worst when you go to the movies and see a trailer for a scary movie, only to find the words, “based on a true story”? Scary movies are fun and all, but let’s keep the scares in the movies, please!
  • Well, usually this is a bit of an exaggeration. “Based” is such a vague word, and it could mean any small part of the movie, like character names or locations that could be pulled from reality. There have been claims that Poltergeist was based on real events, whether it was a story about people building on cemeteries or hauntings. Throughout research, we found a few different stories that people swear were the basis of the film. We’re going to tell you one of them. 
  • In FEBRUARY of 1958 (Frightening February is real, guys!!) The Hermann family in Long Island, NY (7 miles from the Amityville Horror house) noticed some strange popping noises in their house. When they went to check, they found bottles throughout the home without their caps. One was a bottle of Holy Water that had been opened and spilled. At first, James Hermann thought it was a prank. But when similar instances occurred again and again, he got concerned. Eventually, he witnessed the objects moving on their own, and he called the police. 
  • As word got out about the strange disturbances, people everywhere were at a loss for what it could be. The police theorized that it was electrical disturbances, but it seemed unlikely. The strangest part was that the house was new, and the Hermanns were the first family to live there. Usually a haunted house is several decades old at least, with many different owners and a questionable history. Ghosts aren’t supposed to show up in shiny new homes built for young, happy families. 
  • Two weeks after the hauntings started, a priest came to bless the house. The disturbances continued, and the house got national attention. Eventually, a group of parapsychologists from Duke University visited the house to record the disturbances and interview the family. Their leader, Dr. JB Rhine, believed that it was the adolescents in the home that attracted the spirits. Shortly after, the hauntings ceased. Overall, there were about 70 documented disturbances over a month-long period. 
  • If you’re familiar with Poltergeist, then you can see how this story inspired the film. So let’s talk about it!


  • The Freelings are your average family in search of the American Dream. They have just moved into the brand new subdivision of Cuesta Verde: Where Dreams Come True. But just as the family settles in, they start to notice some strange disturbances, most notably through their TV. Though the family seems to accept the spirits at first (except for the father, Steve) things take a turn when a malevolent force pulls their youngest daughter into the spirit realm. Reeling from fear and frustration, the Freelings hire a group of parapsychologists and a medium to find a way to bring their baby girl home. 
    • It’s horror in the 1980’s, so this film really fits well with the popular concepts of the time. What dangers hide beneath a seemingly perfect life? And what price will we pay for neglecting others to achieve what we want? 


  • In horror terms, Poltergeist is a classic. It was the highest grossing horror film of 1982, a year that was VERY good for movies. Although Steven Spielberg didn’t direct the film, he was a major influence as its producer. He was already a household name with Jaws, and having his name on the project likely incentivised people to see it. 
  • Steven Spielberg created the story for Poltergeist, and wrote the screenplay along with Michael Gras and Mark Victor.
    • Apparently Stephen King was approached about writing the screenplay, but no agreement was reached.
  • The film was directed by Tobe Hooper, the incredible director that brought us the harrowing Texas Chainsaw Massacre and several sequels..
  • Poltergeist was produced by Frank Marshall and Stephen Spielberg who was also directing ET at the time (talk about a legend). Although he stepped back and let Tobe Hooper take the helm, many people that were on set of the production described Spielberg’s involvement as being like a shadow director because of all the input and control he would have over scenes.
    • Despite this, Spielberg has always credited Tobe Hooper as the film’s solo director. He even wrote a letter to Tobe, apologizing for the way others misinterpreted their working relationship.
  • Music
    • Celebrated film composer Jerry Goldsmith (Check out our Knowing The Scores Episode HERE where we talk about him and other great composers!) gave Poltergeist it’s chilling score. He used string and wind instruments throughout the soundtrack, along with music boxes to bring in that creepy haunting vibe.
      • One of the best film composers of the 20th century, Goldsmith was great at creating a mood.
    • The film begins with a rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” which further pushes the strained relationship between a fancy new suburban neighborhood and the (spoiler) underlying graves of those that came before.


  • If you want to take a break from the CGI of today, Poltergeist is a breath of fresh air. The film is filled with a charming mix of practical and digital effects, with some hand-drawn animation as well (something we’ll likely never see in movies today). 
    • Poltergeist impressively utilized practical effects in almost every scene. This helped define the look of the horror film, as many scary films today still use practical effects in their aesthetic. 
  • The effects were done with Industrial Light and Magic, the VFX company founded by George Lucas, and used heavily by major film studios. We’re gonna talk about some of the biggest effects made for the movie! 
    • The outside of the Freeling house was a new build in California. But, scenes inside the house took place on a soundstage. The crew built entire rooms that rotated, along with practical horrors like the monstrous tree that attacks Robbie Freeling. 
    • The light in Poltergeist is a character in and of itself. Effects artists wanted it to feel like it was living and breathing, and that it had its own personality. They used tricks like little squares of mirrors, strobes, fish tanks of water, and 4 large wind machines to direct and choreograph the light in major scenes. One such scene is when the mother is about to enter the “closet” to try to save her youngest, Carol Anne.
    • One of the most iconic scenes in the film is the encounter with the stacked chairs in the kitchen. The camera follows Diane (JoBeth Williams) for seven seconds, as she steps away from the table and back again, only to find all the chairs stacked. It’s a creepy scene, and sets a wonderful tone for the rest of the movie. 
      • The crew built another set of chairs to look like they were stacked, and when the camera was focused on Diane, they ran in and just swapped the chairs around the table with the stacked chairs. It was a continuous shot, and done in one take! It’s amazing what you don’t see beyond the camera in a movie
    • There’s a scene in Carol Anne’s bedroom, where objects are flying around and making noise. It took ILM nine months to perfect. The team used an optical printer which has a projector on it that will project previous footage while filming new. The tricky part was that if one of the shots projected was not perfect, the team would have to begin all over again. It had dozens of items flying through and the head of the visual effects, Richard Edlund, described it as the most difficult sequence that he had ever contributed to.
    • Another classic scene (and one of our favorites) involves one of the paranormal investigators as he encounters some spiritual activity in the kitchen. After he places a steak on the counter, it comes to life, being ripped apart and inching along the counter like a worm. There was actually a puppeteer with his hand under the steak, and wires pulling it along. He then runs to the mirror over a sink, and we watch his reflection as he pulls apart his own face! This was done with prosthetics, and the hands pulling his face were actually Steven Spielberg’s hands! 
      • This scene is heavily referenced in Casper, another Spielberg production over a decade later.
    • After the family retrieves Carol Anne from the spirit realm, the poltergeist comes back for one final huge scare, trying to pull her back in. This final attempt manifests as an enormous esophagus that begins to try to consume the family into it. This esophagus did not exist in the bedroom space but was instead constructed as a miniature that was composited into the scene!
    • At the very end of the film, the Poltergeist implodes the house. ILM had this to say about the making of that scene.
      • “Eventually, a number of techniques operating in unison were devised to achieve the effect. This included rigging the detailed model with steel cables that extended into a funnel-like construction and setting up a vacuum system to capture any dust and fragments not pulled through by the cables. It was all shot with a high-speed camera and done in one take. The actors shot their part on a blue screen set and the optical department worked on rotoscoping the shot and putting it all together using the Anderson Optical Printer.”
  • Among all the effects in Poltergeist, there’s one that gets the most scrutiny: the use of real skeletons. In the final act, Diane Freeling falls into the unfinished swimming pool in the backyard of their home. Suddenly, a corpse surfaces, providing one of the biggest jump scares in the film. Over the course of the scene, several other corpses rise from the graves below the home, leading to the classic realization: “You moved the headstones but you left the bodies!” 
    • JoBeth Williams was hesitant to shoot the scene, because she didn’t want to be in a pool of water while there was so much electrical equipment on the set. To make her feel more comfortable, Steven Spielberg reportedly jumped in the pool and stayed in during the scene, to show her that he was willing to put himself in the same situation. (Good directors don’t ask actors to do things they themselves wouldn’t do.) 
    • Williams later said she did not know that the skeletons were real, which made the scene much more terrifying to think about, and many have speculated that the use of the skeletons led to the so-called “Poltergeist curse” which we will talk about here shortly.
      • One idea behind the curse is that the film’s message seems to contradict the use of the skeletons. The Freelings are being tormented by souls of those they have disrespected by living on their graves. Some think that point came back to haunt the actors.
    • The truth is, using a real human skeleton is cheaper than building a fake one, at least in 1982. Films have been using real human remains since the beginning, in classic films like “Frankenstein,” and “House on Haunted Hill.” So, using them in this film did not set any kind of precedent. Does it raise moral questions? Of course. 
      • In the Shudder series, “Cursed Films,” Craig Reardon, who was the special effects and make-up supervisor on the film, expressed how common the practice was. When explaining why they did it, he said, “wake up and smell the budget.”


  • Craig T. Nelson as the father figure Steve Freeling
    • Craig is known for the tv show Coach, and the movies The Incredibles and The Family Stone.
  • JoBeth Williams as Dianne Freeling
    • JoBeth has had many small roles on tv shows and has also been in movies like The Big Chill and Kramer vs. Kramer.
  • Beatrice Straight as Dr. Lesh, the leader of the Paranormal investigators that arrive
    • Beatrice was mostly a skilled Broadway actress but also appeared in some television shows and some movies. A few movies were Network(1976), Power(1986), and Two of a Kind(1983.)
  • Dominique Dunne  as Dana Freeling the eldest daughter of the three children
    • Dominique had small parts in a few things, most notably the tv shows Hart to Hart, Breaking Away, and Hill Street Blues.
  • Oliver Robins as Robbie Freeling, the middle child
    • Oliver only appeared as an actor in a few things before moving behind the camera. He was in Airplane II: The Sequel and Man Overboard. 
  • Heather O’Rourke as the angelic Carol Anne Freeling, the youngest daughter who ends up being taken by the spiritual forces
    • Heather was not in very many things but she did appear in all three Poltergeist movies and the show Happy Days.
    • Drew Barrymore auditioned for the role, but was cast in ET instead. Spielberg discovered Heather O’Rourke while she was visiting the MGM set one day, and brought her in for some screen tests before offering her the role. 
  • Michael McManus as the neighbor Ben Tuthill
    • Michael was in some shows like Night Court and the 1989 Baywatch. He was also in movies like Hot Shots! Part Deux and The Kentucky Fried Movie.
  • Virginia Kiser as Mrs. Tuthill
    • Virginia has been in tv shows like Days of Our Lives, Dallas, and Max Headroom. She has been in movies such as Dreamscape, Space Raiders, and Death Play.
  • Martin Casella as Marty, one of Dr. Lesh’s assistants
    • His character has the famous scene where he pulls his face off in the Bathroom mirror. He has been in Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark, Robocop 2, and Heart Like a Wheel.
  • Richard Lawson as Ryan, one of Dr. Lesh’s assistants
    • Richard has had parts in many things, most notably in the movies How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Streets of Fire, and For Colored Girls.
  • Zelda Rubenstein as Tangina, the medium
    • Zelda was a character actress that was in things like Southland Tales, Guilty as Charged, and Teen Witch.
    • She landed the role after auditioning several times, and did her scenes over the course of a few days. She claimed to be psychic in real life, which also helped her win the role.
    • One of her most important lines was “Now clear your minds. It knows what scares you. It has from the very beginning. Don’t give it any help, it knows too much already.”
      • This concept appeared in other horror, notably Ghostbusters just a few years later, and also a very special episode of AYAOTD.
  • James Karen as Mr. Teague who was responsible for moving the cemetery.
    • James has been in several things including The Return of the Living Dead, The Pursuit of Happyness, and Mulholland Drive.
  • And Dirk Blocker as Jeff Shaw, the unfortunate guy who while riding a bike carrying a big case of beer drops probably about half of it. You may recognize him now as Hitchcock in Brooklyn Nine-Nine
    • Obviously a pivotal scene that we needed to mention.


  • ET and Poltergeist both came out in June of 1982, and it was dubbed, “the summer of Spielberg.” Spielberg originally offered ET to Tobe Hooper, and he turned it down for the unwritten Poltergeist script instead (obviously more his speed). 
  • In 1982, PG-13 didn’t exist. So Poltergeist was almost an R-rated film, but the filmmakers were able to make a case for a PG rating, since there are no fatalities (except Tweetie the bird) and because the film lacks excessive gore or bad language. This way, the movie could run alongside ET. Imagine going to the theatre and seeing these two classics at once! 
  • Craig T Nelson isn’t the only Pixar connection with Poltergeist. The Toy Story films make many pop culture references, and one of them is directly from Poltergeist! In the beginning of the film, Craig T Nelson’s character is watching TV, as the broadcast ends with the national anthem. He has fallen asleep eating snacks, and the dog licks his fingers. In Toy Story 2, Al falls asleep watching TV and eating snacks as well, and Woody’s horse Bullseye licks his fingers while he sleeps! Both scenes use the star-spangled banner.
  • Around 34 minutes in, there’s a weird cut in the film that’s impossible to miss. It goes from Diane speaking in mid-sentence to the couple standing on the porch of their neighbor’s house. What is a horrible, crude cut like that doing in this movie? 
    • Well, Carol Anne is promised Pizza Hut earlier in the movie, and a stressed Steve (Craig T Nelson) says, “I hate Pizza Hut!” likely because he would prefer to focus on the unseen force moving his family around the kitchen, than dinner plans. Pizza Hut was not happy with the line, but they found out late in the game. So the solution was that cut.
    • The cut is frankly jarring, and a splotch on an otherwise great film. We wish they could release the original and just cut the word “Hut” from the audio, or ADR a different line. Anything would be better than several minutes cut from the film, that likely contributed to it in an artistic way. 
    • Here is the cut scene dialog.
      • DIANE You can’t believe the feeling.
      • STEVE What’s the gag? There a magnet back there? He looks behind the door in the dining room. Nothing. Steve just stands for a long moment in hapless silence, then… I hate Pizza Hut! Where’s supper? I don’ t understand, Diane. What the hell’s going on around here? Steve sidesteps the chalk marks, removing himself from the active area.
      • DIANE I figured I’d never explain it to you. So I showed you instead, but don’t ask me how or what. Just help me figure out what to do.
      • STEVE You mean there’s no gimmick?
      • DIANE Not from inside the house. Maybe Tuthill got himself a super remote from the Radio Shack. Carol Anne adjusts her helmet and sits inside her launch circle. Diane and Steve are having the discussion across the room and aren’t aware of her.
      • STEVE Maybe the shakeup and this thing…relate.
      • DIANE No shit.
      • CAROL ANNE Daddy, look at me!! They turn but it’s too late. Carol Anne shoots across the room faster than before, and with no one to catch her.
      • ANGLE-KITCHEN WALL At a sickening speed her helmet smashes into the wall. Diane SCREAMS Steve runs over. An eight-inch hole in the wall and the cracked plastic on the helmet testify to the force of impact. Carol Anne is dazed but unhurt.
      • CAROL ANNE You promised pizza.


  • If we’re gonna talk about Poltergeist, we have to talk about the mythology of the Poltergeist curse. Although this episode only focuses on the first Poltergeist film, the curse is something that covered all three Poltergeist movies.
  • On the set of the first film, there was a malfunction with one of the practical effects. In the scene where Robbie (Oliver Robbins) was strangled by the creepy toy clown, he called out that he couldn’t breathe. Filmmakers thought he was improvising until they noticed his face change colors, and Spielberg sprinted to him to stop it. Robbins was ultimately okay, but the incident is one of the first that people mention when they consider if the film is cursed.  
  • In October of 1982, only a few months after the release of the first Poltergeist film, Dominique Dunne, who played Dana, was strangled by her ex-boyfriend, and placed on life support. The 22-year-old actress never recovered. 
  • Over the course of the second and third films, there were the deaths of actors Will Sampson and Julian Beck, both of which had known conditions that contributed to their deaths.
  • But what really solidified the myth in movie-lovers’ imaginations, was the untimely death of Heather O’Rourke, who played Carol Anne. Before the release of the third film, the 12-year-old died suddenly of an undetected bowel defect, which caused her body to go into septic shock. 
    • Gary Sherman, director of the third film, did not want to finish the movie after Heather’s death. Unfortunately, he was contractually obligated to finish the movie, and they used a body double for Heather. He said it was the creepiest thing he had ever done, and he felt like releasing the film was disrespectful to Heather and her family.

Poltergeist is an iconic member of the 80’s horror family. It terrified a generation of kids, as it tapped into the fears they knew best: creepy clowns, terrifying trees, and closet monsters. The film showed audiences that anyone, even a non-believing happy family in a new home, could become the victims of a horror film. It played on the ideas that horror films had been building for decades: forces from beyond the grave, and hidden dangers lurking in seemingly idyllic places. 

How did Poltergeist become an instant classic? It’s simple: it knew what scared us


The Case that is Extra-Terrestrial

This week we are wrapping-up our spooky season with a movie that isn’t necessarily a Halloween movie, but does have elements of the holiday, and takes place in the fall. 

In June of 1982, seven years after Steven Spielberg made waves with the first summer blockbuster, Jaws, the director brought audiences a new kind of film. At first, Universal Studios was hesitant to make this new movie, as it was for children, and children’s movies weren’t very lucrative at the time. 

But, soon after its release, ET: The Extra Terrestrial proved the nay-sayers wrong. Not only was the film successful, but it was even credited for bringing adults back to movie theatres! After three months of packed showings and outrageous box office numbers, it was clear that this movie wasn’t for kids, it was for everyone that had ever been a kid. 

ET is a story about friendship, and the fear of losing the ones that we love. It celebrates the magic of childhood, and takes place during Halloween, when childhood magic is in major abundance. 

So Cassettes, let’s don our costumes and bust out our Reese’s Pieces! It’s time to phone home and talk about ET. 


  • They say to write what you know, and ET was Spielberg’s most personal film.
    • The idea of a man from outer space, coming to fill a void left in a family, was something that Steven Spielberg had thought about even since he was a child.
    • He incorporated the pain of his parents’ divorce, and used that with the family dynamic. 
  • When he was told that the movie had little chance of financial success, he didn’t care. Steven Spielberg even thought that if only mothers and children saw the film, that was good enough for him. It was simply a story he wanted to tell. 
  • While filming Raiders of the Lost Ark, he dictated the story to screenwriter Melissa Matheson.
    • She had never felt such a responsibility in terms of writing, and the story was so clear, she didn’t have to make major edits to it–Spielberg really knew what he wanted, a great characteristic in any director
    • She asked children, while she was working on the screenplay, what kind of superpower should an alien like ET have, and they often said healing, “to take care of hurts.” So, this was a major part of his character.
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  • It’s a truth that we have witnessed again and again throughout human existence: we fear the unfamiliar. This basic idea is the driving force behind many horror stories, and the reason we tell scary stories about aliens from outer space. 
  • If we looked into the catalog of early science fiction films, we would find a common theme surrounding the depiction of extraterrestrials– their eyes are dark, their skin slimy, and often they are hostile toward humans.
  • One of the most famous depictions of aliens occurs in Ridley Scott’s Alien from 1979, a straight-up horror film.
  • So, when it was time to create an alien that audiences would fall in love with, Spielberg turned to special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi, someone he worked with on Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Rambaldi set out to design a creature unlike any that audiences had ever seen. 
    • Ed Verreaux, the production Illustrator, said that many different looks were tried, especially for the head and face features. Designers settled on a character with a long neck, and bright human-like eyes.
    • ET’s squishy exterior is reminiscent of dirt, since ET is a botanist and was working with plants when he was left behind.
    • ET had to look different from any former alien design, and yet he could not look too familiar–if he was too cute, it would negate a major message of the film, about love and acceptance of something totally unfamiliar. 
  • When Henry Thomas, who played Elliot in the movie, first saw the ET animatronic, what stood out to him was the eyes, and how kind and expressive they were.
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  • In order for the film to work, audiences had to believe that ET was real, even for just a couple hours. So, a lot of painstaking work went into his design and mechanics. 
    • ET was a combination of animatronics and people in a suit. 
    • The face was controlled remotely, sometimes by as many as 12 people at once, working in unison. The scenes where ET speaks, were done in many takes. They wanted his facial and mouth movements to perfectly match the dialog.
    • ET’s hands and arms were often performed by a mime artist Caprice Rothe. She said she was hired because she had really long fingers, which was her father’s fault.
    • Set designers built the set in such a way, that all the cables that controlled ET would run underneath, out of view. Just as the puppeteers for Return to Oz would do a couple years later, they used TV monitors to track movement! (The Muppet Show was also done this way.) 
      • For the full-body-view shots (for example when ET was boozy in the kitchen) they had two Little People, Pat Bilon and Tamara De Treaux, as well as a young boy, Matthew DeMerritt (who was born with no legs) inside an ET suit.
  • Allen Daviau was the director of photography for the film.
    • He used one technique to make ET seem more lifelike, which was to backlight him with very little fill light.
    • ET was also purposely not shown very much in the beginning to build the suspense of the character, which is often done in “creature” movies–for example, Brad Silberling did this for Casper.
  • But, what was special about not showing ET until later in the movie, was that the actors didn’t see him until later as well. Even though films are generally shot out of order, Steven Spielberg insisted on filming in continuity! So, when characters see ET in the movie for the first time, the actors are actually seeing him for the first time as well!
    • This also really brought out the emotion of the film, as the scenes where the house is taken over by government agents happened late in filming, and the actors really felt like they were losing another member of their on-set family when they said goodbye to ET.
    • Drew Barrymore later said that having the house covered in plastic really upset her, because this warm and inviting place that she had grown to love and feel comfortable in, was now scary and full of strange people.
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While dealing with the trauma of his parents’ recent divorce, nine-year-old Elliot, discovers an alien creature, separated from its family. Elliot and his siblings fall in love with the extraterrestrial, ET, and decide to do whatever it takes to make sure he returns home safely.

While filming ET, the actors and crew started to feel like a family. Steven Spielberg talked with the actors and found out how to best direct them. He felt a strong connection to the children on set, especially six-year-old Drew Barrymore who played Gertie. He later said that the interactions between him and the kids convinced him to become a parent.

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  • Dee Wallace as Mary- The kids’ Mother
    • She appreciated that Steven Spielberg took the time to get to know how all the actors worked best. It seemed as though the way everyone worked best was to not rehearse a lot, be fed lines, and just react.
  • Henry Thomas as Elliott
    • He met Spielberg when he was 9. In the audition Spielberg gave him an improvisational situation where he was told a government agent knocks on the door to take away his best creature friend, and he has to do whatever he can to stop him. Henry Thomas instantly got emotional saying “you can’t take him. He’s my best friend.” He had tears in his eyes and it was just like the movie. They told he got the part right there. Henry said it was the fastest casting he had ever gotten. 
    • Spielberg would have to often talk Henry through the scenes so that he would know what he would be reacting to. In the 2002 reunion Henry said that when watching the movie he could hear Spielberg’s voice still.
  • Peter Coyote as Keys (you know the one that said he had been waiting his whole life for ET to arrive.)
    • In most of the movie he is only seen from the waist down. He is listed as Keys because this is mostly what you see and hear of him.
    • When talking about being cast he said “When great directors call you you just gamble with them. If they jump off a cliff, you jump off the cliff, and I felt that way about this movie.”
    • When talking about the impact of the movie he said “I always thought that one of the things that made people love this film was if two people or three people as far apart as ET and those children, could bridge a gap and fall in love with one another and communicate, then there were no two people on earth that were that far apart or there are no two cultures that were that far apart.”
  • Robert McNaughton as Michael
    • Spielberg said he put himself in all the characters but especially into this character. He would tease his sisters just as Michael teases his siblings in the movie.
    • Robert was very protective of Henry Thomas and would play Dungeons and Dragons with him off of set.
  • Drew Barrymore as Gertie
    • She was 6 years old at the time but says she could remember everything like it was yesterday.
    • In her audition she told Steven that she was a Punk Rock and Roll band leader, of the band The Purple People Eaters. She was 6, and according to her, the drummer in the band.  This is why she was the first one hired for the role by Steven. He thought she was remarkable.
    • ET was absolutely real to her, and the scene where the doctors used defibrillators to attempt to revive ET, she really cried.
    • She said it was the most perfect experience and that Steven Spielberg was a father figure to her that believed in all the kids a lot.
  • K.C. Martel as Greg
    • He has been in things like The Amityville Horror from 1979 and he was Eddie in Growing Pains.
  • Sean Frye as Steve
    • Sean was a child actor most known for his role in ET.
  • C. Thomas Howell as Tyler
    • He has been in several things since ET, most notably Soul Man, Red Dawn, and The Outsiders.
  • Pat Welsh as the voice of ET
    • She did not have many credits besides her ET voice for the movie and the game. Her one other notable was an uncredited voice role as the Bounty Hunter Boushh from Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.
    • She was only paid $380 for her nine and a half hours of recording the audio. She did not mind the low pay and reportedly bought a vanity license that read “I love ET.”


  • In 2002 Steven Spielberg released a remastered version. He did graciously release both the theatrical version and the remastered on dvd and blu-ray. Unlike some other well known directors *cough, cough, George Lucas, cough, cough.* 
    • He said that it gave him the chance to correct the 50 or so pet peeve shots that he had.
  • There were a few things changed with this remastering. Not only did they remaster the work digitally but they added a few scenes and things. One specific change however came because of 9/11. In a scene when Elliot and his sister Gertie are in the bathroom you can hear their mom telling Michael that he cannot be a terrorist for Halloween. In the 2002 remaster they switched this word out for hippie.
  • The scene where ET is being chased in the beginning of the original is just a light on a rail. For 2002 they were able to put in a CGI ET running.
  • Some scenes that were added Steven Spielberg felt strengthened the bond between Elliott and ET because they lengthened the time that Elliott spent with him while being home from school and “sick.”
  • In the film, government agents come to take ET away. Spielberg had wanted a real threat in the original movie and so a lot of the adults had guns. Even though it was to build tension for the scene, he never felt comfortable about guns being near the kids, so he decided in 2002 to have walkie talkies digitally replace them. This was done specifically to the scene where the kids start flying above the police cars.
  • One cool scene included in the remaster was that of Harrison Ford as the school principal! 


  • Spielberg says that ET is the movie he gets asked the most about in terms of sequels.
  • He never wanted to do a sequel, and he likely never will. 
  • But, he did end up giving permission for a small short film titled “A Holiday Reunion.” A two minute version aired during the Macy’s day parade in 2019. In this cute reunion Elliot is all grown up and has kids of his own when ET comes for a visit. A lot of consideration was put into this film to keep the integrity of the original story. They even used similar techniques, like lighting ET from behind to make him seem more life-like. It also has a lot of nods to the original movie with things like Elliot’s first drawing of ET in school, a framed picture of Harvey the original dog, and so much more. 
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  • After working with John Williams in Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Steven Spielberg asked John Williams to write the music for ET
  • John Williams worked his magic, creating an iconic theme that audiences would not easily forget–the actor that played Michael said that he was humming the theme for weeks before mainstream audiences got to see the movie!
    • This theme is most prominent in the scene where Elliot glides across the moon on Halloween night.
      • Though the scene is iconic, Henry Thomas said it wasn’t nearly as exciting to film. He was on a bike that was attached to a camera crane, and lifted and dipped in front of a blue screen in the studio.
      • There is a behind the scenes clip where Steven is sitting next to John Williams while he watches the test footage for the score–it’s pretty funny and cute because they’re watching a model.
  • We mentioned this in our John Williams episode, but the scene on Halloween night in the street when a child with a yoda costume walks by Williams put yoda’s theme into the composition.
    • Spielberg also allowed Williams to compose the final chase score and they edited what was filmed for it around the music.
  • Since its original release, a version has been edited so that orchestras can perform along with the movie live to enhance the viewing experience.
  • The clip above and to the right shows John Williams and Steven Spielberg in early works of the films theme song. It’s a super cute clip!


  • When talking about the financial success of ET, The New York Times said, “Predicting the success of movies has always been a gamble. Much has been made of the fact that Columbia, which had an opportunity to make ”E.T.,” turned down the project. But studios are always putting into ”turnaround” scripts that later become successful movies for someone else. As a hedge, Columbia kept 5 percent of the profits from ”E.T.,” a practice that is becoming common. (1982)
  • Opening Weekend: ET made 11.8 million
  • Worldwide Gross was 663 million
    • Partially because of ET, the summer of 1982 was the most lucrative in Hollywood history at the time.
  • ET won four Oscars in 1983 and was nominated for 5 others. It won for
    • Oscar for Best Visual Effects
    • Oscar for Best Original Score
    • Oscar for Best Sound Mixing
    • Oscar for Best Sound Editing
  • ET won several other awards such as The Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film in 1983 which traditionally honors science fiction, fantasy, and horror film.

In the making-of documentary, Steven Spielberg said, “It’s a cliche now to say that this movie is for the child in all of us. No; this movie is for the people we are, and the people we have been, and wanna be again. I think it’s for everybody.”

Audiences absolutely agreed. The praise was unanimous, and by the time Christmas came around, ET toys were flying off shelves. Steven Spielberg recognized the iconic nature of the film, and even later used the image of the bike over the moon as his logo for Amblin. 

ET resonated with children and adults. It was about love, and the capacity that children have for it. It showed us the story of a child, willing to do anything for his friend–a defenseless being lost in a strange world. ET is a story that enriched the lives of its audiences, and ran them through the various emotions of childhood. It’s filled with images that we all relate to: staying home from school, dressing up for Halloween, and saying goodbye to someone we love. Sure, maybe we all haven’t been chased by government agents in order to rescue an alien life-form, but watching the kids in this movie trust each other and drop everything to make sure that ET makes it home, somehow reminds us all of our own capacity for good. 

ET is pure movie magic. 


The Case of the Disney Exodus


Hey everyone, welcome back to our series on Animation! Last week, we ended on a high (ho) note with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This week, we’re continuing to look at the development of other major animated film studios. 

There was a time when Walt Disney Studios ruled over all others in terms of animation. Even as other studios created valuable work, Disney was constantly thought of as the leader in animation techniques and innovation. It was THE studio to work for as an animator, and no other seemed to rival it. 

But, all fairy-tales must end, even for Disney. Today, we are talking about The Disney Exodus; an event that took place over the course of a few decades, but ultimately occured in the late-70’s and early 80’s, when animators left the studio to pursue other projects–taking their skills and ideas with them. Before we start discussing the Exodus, let’s take a look at The Disney Era. 

The time period of 1928 – 1941 is often known as The Golden Age of animation. To some, it’s also called “The Disney Era.” During this time, there were more technological advancements in animation than any other time period. To put this into perspective, this era starts with Steamboat Willie and ends with the breathtaking “Fantasia.” It only took Disney’s studio 12 years to make these advancements, and the world took notice. 

It’s important to recognize that part of this achievement came from Disney’s willingness to sacrifice profit to make his films the best they could be. 

  • One example of this is “The Skeleton Dance.” Disney could have easily stuck to making Mickey cartoons, but his ambition led him to show audiences a glimpse of what animated storytelling could be. This was a mood piece, vastly different from the thousands of cartoons that audiences were used to, and it planted the seeds for Fantasia and other films to come.     

While Disney was focusing on realism, other studios continued to animate in a more cartoonish style. Because animation is an incredibly broad topic, we will talk about the Studio cartoons some other time! 

Disney’s Silver Age

Throughout the 40’s & 50’s, Disney’s studio experienced its silver age, with classics such as Peter Pan, The Lady and the Tramp, and of course Sleeping Beauty. Even if the stories or characters seemed flat at times, it was the animation that lifted them up. In Charles Solomon’s book, “Enchanted Drawings,” he describes the scene of Maleficent’s dragon: 

  • “Maleficent hurls herself across the sky as a glittering pinwheel of fire, landing before him in a burst of flame. She shouts a wrathful invocation in her commanding voice, and the chartreuse fires that surround her explode into a mighty column of flame, higher than the turrets of the castle. The black form of the sorceress, darkly silhouetted against the fire, twists and elongates. The shadow waxes and solidifies, as if evil itself were coalescing in that inferno, and becomes an enormous dragon with a terrible horned head and glowing yellow eyes.”  
  • The mastery that Disney’s animators demonstrated in scenes like this is the reason that the studio became synonymous with animation over all the other projects they were attempting at the time.
  • Disney is responsible for elevating the standard of draftsmanship, and their realism in animation was unparalleled. No other studio came close to having their influence. For a while, Walt Disney Studios was the king of animation. 

The Disney Strike of 1941 & UPA

  • When we talk about The Disney Exodus, we often mean what happened with the studio in the early 1980’s. But, more studios were born from disgruntled Disney animators than we might realize.
  • Remember how we said that no one rivaled Disney’s influence? Well, one studio came very close. 
    • United Productions of America or UPA challenged Disney’s realism and incorporated social commentary. Not to mention, they infused experimental graphics in their work
    • Today we know of UPA for its most popular character–Mr Quincy Magoo. In the early 1960’s, UPA created the first animated Christmas special, “Mr Magoo’s Christmas Carol.”
    • In 1941, there was a strike at Disney among young men that were interested in the graphic arts, and they thought that animation could be used as a tool for social reform. They were unhappy with the restrictive, Academic style of drawing at Disney, with familiar fairy tales and an emphasis on humor. One member of this group–Bill Melendez–would one day be responsible for bringing Charlie Brown to life in A Charlie Brown Christmas! 
      • These animators eventually formed or joined UPA, which won an oscar for Gerald McBoing-Boing.
      • Cultural critic Gilbert Seldes described UPA, “Every time you see one of their animated cartoons you are likely to recapture the sensation you had when you first saw, ‘Steamboat Willie,’ the early Silly Symphonies, ‘The Band Concert’–the feeling that something new and wonderful has happened, something almost too good to be true.” 
      • UPA had its own style, but it’s important to note that it wasn’t as uniform as Disney. You could see the different influences from individual animators, and the varying degrees of light to heavy subject matter. They even did a short of The Tell-tale Heart!
      • Columbia shut down the animation house in 1949, and sold it to producer Henry Saperstein. He turned it into an TV studio.

The Death of Disney–an abrupt end to the Silver Age

  • The death of Disney caused a shift in the studio, as it would be expected. The films made by Disney leading up to that point were the work of many different creative people, but they all stemmed from Disney’s vision. The films were somewhat uniform, with a signature style and storytelling that animators were not able to vary from drastically. Variances started to appear in the following years, known as the bronze age or the dark age. 
  • Disney’s death ushered in new leadership that struggled to fill his shoes; the company and its films would never be the same. 
    • Walt Disney died on December 15, 1966.
    • Walt left behind future plans that carried the company for a few years under the supervision of Roy Disney. The Jungle Book and  The Aristocats showed that the company could still make great animation. However it was not the same dynamic company it once was. 
      • The Jungle book is considered to be the end of the Silver Age, mostly because it was the last film that Disney touched before he passed away 
    • Roy did make sure that Walt’s “Florida Project” would come to fruition in 1971, but EPCOT (Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow) never came to be. EPCOT as we know it is not what Walt had in mind.
      • As for the movie business, from the late 60’s on, Disney survived in a lackluster way. There were even rumors that the company would be broken up and sold. 
      • Because the company had leaned so heavily into theme parks and live action films, when Walt’s creativity was gone, there was little “magic” left. This was the feeling for many for almost 20 years.

Don Bluth

  • In 1971, Don Bluth was hired as an animator at Disney. Disney had been gone for 5 years, and the studio had been putting animation on the back-burner so to speak. Live-action films were financially successful, and animation cost a lot of money to produce. Gone was the fearless leader that didn’t mind losing money for quality and new advancements.
    • Many of the animators didn’t question their work, but because he actually first started working for Disney in 1955, he had seen the way the studio worked before Walt had died, and longed for that leadership. 
      • Bluth said in an interview with Steve Henderson that  “Everyone was asking ‘What would Walt have done?’ Which is a strange thing for an artist to say.”  
      • Bluth worked on Robin Hood and The Rescuers and stayed on at Disney for 8 years. One detail that bothered Bluth while animating The Rescuers was that they were instructed not to paint the whites of their eyes because it would cost too much money. 
        • In the 1970’s, the 9 Old Men–the men known for animating Disney’s Golden Age films–were beginning to retire. There was no mentorship, and as these men left, so did their secrets of creating beautiful animation. 
          • This loss in trade secrets bothered Bluth, as the studio didn’t seem interested in re-learning them. Bluth and a fellow animator named Gary Goldman, knew that they would be expected to take leadership roles in the coming years. So, in order to get directing experience, they started their own project in Bluth’s garage called, “Banjo the Woodpile Cat.” 
          • Don Bluth described it, We would look at the old stuff, such as the beautiful water in Fantasia and ask Frank Thomas (one of the “Nine Old Men”) “How did you do that?” and he’d say “I can’t remember, did anyone write it down?” Little things like that would keep happening and we realized we were losing the war with art so we went out and pioneered again to see if we could discover what they had forgotten to tell us.
          • The men used their own equipment, and Bluth pulled animators from Disney for help. Some claim that this project caused a division between the animators at the studio, while Bluth maintains that the atmosphere at Disney was already toxic. He says that no matter how much he tried to bring the heart back to Disney Studios, the corporate side only wanted to make money. 
  • We left because the corporate structure was just too calcified and we couldn’t fix it, we knew they would be angry when we left, and call us traitors and everything else but we knew we had to, to try to resurrect what was beautiful and what Walt believed in and so that is why we left.”-Bluth
    • In September of 1979, Bluth and Goldman left Disney. They took 16 animators with them, delaying the animated studio’s current projects by a year. Their goal was to create a studio that rivaled Disney animation in such a way, that Disney would work harder to bring heart and soul back to their animated films
    • Bluth and Goldman’s first full-length animated film was The Secret of NIMH, an animated treasure that was tonally and visually darker than anything Disney had produced at the time. This film was a major success for the studio because it showed critics that this small, rival studio could compete with an animation giant such as Disney. It was, however, a commercial failure. 
      • A New York Times article said of the film: It’s just this ”old-fashioned” look -rich, fully detailed, opulent and painstakingly achieved – that Messrs. Bluth, Goldman and Pomeroy have sought to recreate, and in this respect, ”The Secret of N.I.M.H.” is something of a technical and stylistic triumph.
      • In the mid-1980s, Bluth teamed up with a man named Morris Sullivan who stepped in just as the studio went bankrupt, and they formed Sullivan Bluth Studios.
        • Sullivan saved the day by investing in the studio. Without him, we wouldn’t have films like The Land Before Time or Anastasia. 
      • Just as Sullivan Bluth was surging back, famed film director Stephen Spielberg approached the studio in the hopes that they could make an animated film. This was even worse news for Disney, as they were losing their place as the leader in animation. 
        • Together, Sullivan Bluth and Steven Spielberg made An American Tale, the highest grossing non-Disney animated film at the time. It even beat Disney’s current release, “The Great Mouse Detective”! 
      • Disney started working to get their footing back with animation, but nothing could stop Bluth and Goldman from making more successful films throughout the 80’s and 90’s. 
        • Spielberg’s success with Bluth also led him to create his own animation studio, Amblin, with releases like “We’re Back,” and “Balto.”

The Mouse-dom Strikes Back 

  • When we last left Disney, their animation studio was falling apart. Some of their best animators had quit, production was delayed, and some feared that this was the end. 
  • In came Michael Eisner (CEO)  and his partner Frank Wells (President)
    • They could see the untapped potential that Disney still had and set about revitalizing the company. 
    • Despite their initial efforts, Disney saw one of its darkest moments with “The Black Cauldron.” It was a financial and critical failure. Not only had the studio lost respect in the animation world, average movie-goers were looking at Disney a little differently.
      • Imagine how we feel right now about Disney animation. When we see a Disney movie is coming out, we all expect good reviews and box office records. This was not the case in the 1980s. 
  • While the studio was staging its comeback, a new film was set to go into production with animator John Lasseter to direct. Lasseter approached the powers in charge and pitched for a film that was a combination of computer and hand-drawn animation. According to Lasseter, they were not interested in this idea since it would not cost any less. They seemed to only want to use a new process if it increased the cost-efficiency of the project. 
    • After that meeting, Lasseter was fired. He was then hired full time at The Computer Division Graphics Group–an early name for PIXAR.
    • Much of the team that worked on The Brave Little Toaster would go on to work at PIXAR as well–some consider it to be a spiritual prequel to Toy Story.

Lack of Teamwork Makes the Dreamworks

    • In 1984, Michael Eisner hired Jeffrey Katzenberg to run the animation studios. During his tenure, Katzenberg put Disney animation back on the map and created what is known as the “disney Renaissance.” 
      • It’s important to note that animation was not the only thing that made the films of the renaissance so successful, but it appeared that the studio was returning to its roots. Before the release of The Little Mermaid, the studio was closer than ever to shutting down.
    • Producing what some call the best Disney movies of all time, such as The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994). 
      • During this time Frank Wells kept the peace between Eisner and Katzenberg, being essentially their counselor as well as colleague.  
        • Disney was doing so well that Katzenberg naturally wanted to advance his career within the company. There was a back and forth as to whether Katzenberg would be leaving the company before the end of his contract or not. There was also a lot of discussion about the amount of money he would be given or giving up if he left.
        • Katzenberg has said that Eisner promised him the position of President if Wells ever left the position in pursuit of another job. According to Katzenberg he said “If for any reason Frank is not here … you are the number-two person and I want you to have the job.”
      • When Wells tragically passed away due to a helicopter accident, tension came to a boil between Katzenberg and Eisner.  
        • Eisner made the decision to eliminate the position of President and force Katzenberg into resignation. He hired two people to take his place; Joe Roth and Richard Frank.
        • Katzenberg later sued the DIsney company and cost them $270 million dollars.
      • Once he was let go from Disney he formed a studio called Dreamworks SKG  with David Geffen and Steven Spielberg. All of whom called Eisner “Machiavellian.” 
        • This is where the story gets interesting.  According to Steve Jobs and John Lasseter, of Pixar, they had pitched the movie concept for “A Bug’s Life” before Katzenberg left Disney. Katzenberg still claims today that he knew nothing about their pitch. His claim is a little hard to believe since Dreamworks’ first movie was “Antz” which had a very similar storyline and name. Recently some new light was shed by Chris Weitz, a writer behind Antz. In an interview with Huffpost he said “We didn’t know that there was that much of a race [to the box office] until late in the process,” he explained, “when it turned out there had even been a fake schedule, which had us completing after ‘Bug’s Life’ was going to be released. We’d been working on this accelerated pace without really knowing exactly why.”
          • Antz ended up beating A Bug’s life to theaters by just over a month in 1998 but made less in ticket sales worldwide.
        • While working on Antz, Dreamworks had also been working on what we would say is their crown jewel.  Released just a few months after Antz, The Prince of Egypt was a project Katzenberg had wanted to do for a long time but had not been able to undertake with Eisner at Disney. We discussed this amazing movie in our Top 10 Non-Disney Animated Classics.
        • Since its beginning Dreamworks has shown that it can and will compete with the Disney machine. They have produced such memorable movies such as Shrek, The Road to El Dorado, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, and Madagascar. 
          • Katzenberg  said in an interview that their mission statement is that they “make movies for adults, and the adult that exists in every child.”

If the Disney Exodus teaches us anything, it’s to recognize our own talent and worth. Imagine if these people never spoke out about their ideas? These men picked a battle with a giant, and because of that, we have a much more diverse catalog of animation today. 

In the fight of Disney VS Bluth or Katzenberg, neither side could be declared triumphant. Instead, the audiences that get to share in animation and storytelling are the winners.