Disney Takes On Tradition With 'Tracy' : Entertainment: The upcoming movie, which features some violence and overt sexuality, is meant to show that the studio feels the time is right to broaden its appeal.


When Dick Tracy shoots his way into movie theatres this summer, his won't be the only famous name at stake. Walt Disney Co., in a bold departure, is releasing the film under the classic "Disney" banner usually reserved for such kiddie fare as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."

Loaded with double entendres and featuring Madonna in outfits provocative enough to send Bashful into cardiac arrest, "Dick Tracy" drastically stretches the boundaries of the Walt Disney Pictures formula. The company has been so protective of the Disney name and the family values it represents that in the past all but the tamest films were released through its companion Touchstone division. Even "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" was deemed too racy for the Disney name.

With "Tracy," Disney executives are sending a message that those days are over. Insiders say the company, flush with success, is no longer afraid to tamper with its traditions. "The Disney name is still sacred, but you can do other things with it now," said one.

David Hoberman, head of the Disney and Touchstone film units, said more mature films will be added to the traditional Walt Disney Pictures mix of reissued classics and animated features as the studio steps up production in the coming year. The move comes as the company is also launching a third division called Hollywood Pictures under Ricardo Mestres.

"One of the things I have been asked to do is bring back Disney live-action movies," said Hoberman, who has headed the two film units for six months. "We spent four years making Touchstone into a major motion picture company, probably at the expense of Disney."

When all three production units are cranking at full speed in 1991, the studio hopes to release about 25 to 30 pictures a year. That would place Disney closer to the front of the pack among major studios, which annually release anywhere from 14 to 40 films.

Securities analysts say more films will be a plus for the studio unless quality suffers. "They are going to have increased output, but the bottom line is, 'How good is the project?' " said Mara M. Balsbaugh of Smith Barney, Harris Upham & Co. "In the past, they've demonstrated an above-average ability to make commercially successful movies on average-level budgets."

On Wednesday, Disney reported record revenue and income for the second quarter of fiscal 1990. Revenue from filmed entertainment rose 30%, to $469 million, from the year before. Overall revenue increased 26%, to $1.3 billion, and net income rose 20% to $178.5 million.

Despite persistent rumors of bad blood between Hoberman and Mestres--one producer said the two executives are "only as competitive as Fox and Warner Bros."--some filmmakers are happy to see the increased production, saying more projects benefit the entire community. They also said Disney has thus far avoided the trap of bidding against itself for a project.

"It's just another place to sell something," said one producer. "A lot of people will go to David or Ricardo first, depending on their relationship with one or the other. The idea is to provide incentive and competition, and both guys were developing their own stuff anyway."

The restructuring of the filmed entertainment division at Disney coincided with the production and release of the studio's first trio of flops in recent memory. But the embarrassment caused by the anemic "Blaze," "Stella" and "Where the Heart Is" has apparently been relieved by the success of its more recent entries, "Pretty Woman" and "Ernest Goes to Jail." Both have been in the top 10 for several weeks, with "Pretty Woman" grossing $71.6 million and "Ernest Goes to Jail" pulling in $17.2 million through last Sunday.

Expectations are also high for the studio's upcoming films. They include director Paul Mazursky's "Scenes from a Mall" with Woody Allen and Bette Midler, and the sequel to the runaway hit "Three Men and a Baby."

Other films scheduled to go into production are "The Marrying Man," a comedy with Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin; the American remake of "Mama, There's a Man in Your Bed"; "Gone Fishing," a Steven Spielberg project, and "One Good Cop," a drama starring Michael Keaton.

But as the busy summer movie season approaches, it's Warren Beatty's "Tracy," a live-action feature based on the cartoon detective, that's attracting the most attention. Shot in bold primary colors, featuring a constellation of major stars such as Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino in supporting roles and costing upward of $30 million, Disney hopes "Tracy" will generate the same kind of box office and merchandising mania as last year's "Batman."

Those who have seen "Tracy" defend its violence as cartoonish. But there's no denying the overt sexuality of Madonna's Breathless Mahoney in her dressed-to-thrill costumes. Like "Batman," "Tracy" also has dark shadings that may broaden its appeal beyond the kids' market.

The film is expected to receive a PG-13 rating, meaning parental guidance is advised for children under that age. Hoberman said the Walt Disney Pictures banner will never fly over an R-rated film. Whether "Tracy" soils Disney's reputation remains to be seen, but one Hollywood executive questioned the wisdom of taking that risk.

"If they want to signal to the world that they are doing family entertainment, they run the risk of losing that particular association," he said. "They can no longer say that if the film is from Walt Disney Pictures, you can automatically take your family."

Hoberman, however, held that "Tracy" will only enhance the Disney name. "I'm not sure any particular thought went into this other than the fact that it just felt right," Hoberman said. "It's bigger than life, and we think it fits in well with the Disney tradition."

Several people familiar with Disney agreed that the company probably has little to lose, the reasoning being that the dark days of the early 1980s, when the Disney label was box office death among adults, are long past, and that the time is right for broadening its appeal.

Two of the most recent Disney releases, "The Little Mermaid" and "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," did extremely well with adults even though they were primarily geared to children.

"At one point, when 'Tron' came out, people groaned when they learned something was a Disney production," Balsbaugh said. "Now the merits of the film itself will carry it or not carry it."

"If it was a risk, they wouldn't take it," added one Hollywood producer. "What they are hoping is that it simply says 'quality' to the movie-going public."

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