‘Something Wicked’ brings a darker Disney to the ArcLight on Monday

Aug. 02, 2010 | 2:48 p.m.

“Something Wicked This Way Comes” (8 p.m. Aug. 2, ArcLight Hollywood)

Something Wicked This Way Comes Disney

Something special this way comes — and it begins Monday at the ArcLight Hollywood.

Fourteen films spanning five decades of Disney will be screened this month at three theaters in the Los Angeles area, and the first one up is Something Wicked This Way Comes,” the 1983 adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s tale of dark bargains, secret wishes and a sinister salesman. The film’s cast includes Jason Robards, Diane Ladd and Pam Grier, and it marked the film debut of Jonathan Pryce, who portrayed Mr. Dark, the leader of a touring carnival and a man who lived up to his name.

Something Wicked this Way Comes poster

The film series — which also includes “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1954), “Cinderella” (1950), “Mary Poppins” (1964), “Pete’s Dragon” (1977),  “The Jungle Book” (1967) and “The Rocketeer” (1991) — is part of an intriguing push by Disney to reach into its past to save, celebrate and exhibit the art and artifacts of its 87-year odyssey in American entertainment. More on that in a moment. First, a bit about “Something Wicked,” a film that foreshadowed the darker-corner interests of today’s Disney.

There’s a bright line (or a dark streak?) that connects the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and Guillermo del Toro’s planned “Haunted Mansion” film to the supernatural chills of “Something Wicked” in 1983.

“This was in an era of the company when they were trying to get into darker filmmaking,” said Rob Klein, of the Disney Archives. “It was around the time that Touchstone was conceived, it was beginning to gestate, but this was a film that came out under the Walt Disney banner. You have three films there — The Black Hole,” you have “Something Wicked,” and you also have The Watcher in the Woods — and you when think about them, they came out in a cluster. Those three movies had a darker vibe to them. They were a pivot point for Disney for doing something new as far as style. The company was trying to stay contemporary, and those movies have a very evocative mood to them. That’s what makes them fun to watch. ‘Something Wicked’ has a Halloween vibe to it. And everybody loves Halloween…”

Something Wicked This Way Comes placard

Bradbury was involved directly in the project — a clear indication that Disney was looking for some authenticity and edge to the spooky-night experiment — but the final film got mixed reviews. There was also some turbulence among the creative team about story decisions and, perhaps, about finding the middle ground between Bradbury’s ominous prose and the studio’s all-ages sensibility.

Many observers, though, found the film to be a sparkling moment for Disney, among them film critic Roger Ebert, who wrote that “Something Wicked” was something special.

Something Wicked This Way Comes

“It’s one of the few literary adaptations I’ve seen in which the film not only captures the mood and tone of the novel, but also the novel’s style. Bradbury’s prose is a strange hybrid of craftsmanship and lyricism. He builds his stories and novels in a straightforward way, with strong plotting, but his sentences owe more to Thomas Wolfe than to the pulp tradition, and the lyricism isn’t missed in this movie. In its descriptions of autumn days, in its heartfelt conversations between a father and a son, in the unabashed romanticism of its evil carnival and even in the perfect rhythm of its title, this is a horror movie with elegance.”

The screening of “Something Wicked” and the 13 other films (you can find a full schedule right here) is part of a retrospective surge at Disney. Clearly, there’s no entertainment company in the world that pays more attention to legacy maintenance than Disney, but this goes beyond that — with D23 (the membership-dues fan community for Disney that offers deeper, more elite access for the most passionate fans) and the companion corporate initiative to give the Walt Disney Archives more resources and prominence, the past is becoming a bigger part of Disney’s present and future.

For example: D23 members are actually getting guided tours of the company’s previously off-limits archives; there’s a two-day Anaheim expo dedicated to the history of Disneyland in September; and the talk of a major Disney museum in Glendale continues to gain momentum.

It will be interesting to see what other surprises and treasures greet the true-believers of Disney’s fan tribe in the months to come. “It’s because of D23 that we have a platform to pull these films out and show them and celebrate them on a big screen,” Klein said. “It’s the only way to see them in the format in which they were meant to be seen, on a big screen.”

The archives team, by the way, rescued a bit of history with “Something Wicked,” Klein said.

“This is a great story: We have the lightning rods from the film, and we found those in the prop department in a bucket with a bunch of canes, sticks and broom handles. We found every one of them except for the beetle scarab one — which was the main one, unfortunately. We also found one of the original Dark Pandemonium carnival fliers too. It’s made of tissue paper, very lightweight, so when they had the fans going on the back lot here, they would be able to throw them up and they would catch the air. Maybe now you could do it with CG, but back in the early 1980s, you had to use tissue paper and a wind machine to get them to float around.”

The tricks change, but the movie magic stays the same.

– Geoff Boucher

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Photos, from top: A scene from “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” Credit: Walt Disney Studios. A promotional poster for the film. A flier used in the 1983 film. Credit: Walt Disney Archives. Lightning-rod props from “Something Wicked.”  Credit: Walt Disney Archives. “The Dark Carnival,” an oil painting by Ray Bradbury.


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