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Disney Hopes ‘Mouse’ Will Roar : Video: The company invests five years and a reported $2.5 million to determine whether there is a market for large-scale home-video projects.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Want to see rapper LL Cool J huffin’ and puffin’ to the classic Disney tune “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf”? Or Billy Joel crooning “When You Wish Upon a Star” as he flies through an animated Neverland alongside Peter Pan? How about Harry Connick Jr. swinging through his palatial estate to the big-band beat of “The Bare Necessities”?

Don’t go looking for these musical numbers in a new Disney feature film, a musical revue at Disneyland, a network TV special or any other venue where Disney has produced showstoppers in the past.

The only way to catch these acts in their entirety is to lay down $19.99 at your local video store for a copy of “Simply Mad About the Mouse,” a recently released video featuring renditions of well-known Disney songs by popular artists.

“When I first pitched this idea to Disney, I didn’t see it as a video project,” said songwriter BA Robertson, who conceived and co-produced the video. “I saw it as a program of some kind, maybe a television show. But it was Disney’s vision to make it part of a new era of original video programming.”

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Most releases produced for the home-video market today are low-budget, special-interest or fitness tapes. For “Simply Mad,” Disney spent five years and, according to production sources, $2.5 million. Although company officials maintain that the budget was more in the neighborhood of $1 million, they acknowledge that the compilation of music videos is an experiment to determine whether there is a market for large-scale, made-for-home-video projects.

“As videos continue to develop, there hasn’t been enough original production,” said Bill Mechanic, president of Disney’s Buena Vista Home Video. “Videos are mostly considered a secondary market; you take feature films or TV shows and put them out on videocassette.

“But a market can never fully develop unless you create things that really work for that market. In video, we’ve been looking for something worth investing in for some time. You can’t live off recycled products forever--although that will always be the principal usage of the VCR.”

Disney had already produced one long-form music video, last year’s two-volume “Elvis: The Great Performances.” Michael Jackson was one of the first to delve into the format, aided by film director John Landis, with his lavish “Making Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ ” in 1983. Since then, musical artists ranging from Johnny Mathis to Madonna have released long-form music videos.

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Most of them, however, are taped concert performances or collections of music videos.

With “Simply Mad,” also available on laser disc or 8-millimeter video, Disney went for a more ambitious approach, setting out to create a must-see “entertainment event.”

With the help of Columbia Records, which released a “Simply Mad” album last week, Disney pulled together a roster of top musical acts, rounded out by Bobby McFerrin, Ric Ocasek, Michael Bolton, the Gipsy Kings and Soul II Soul.

“Because this is a groundbreaking project and there’s nothing like it out there, when we were trying to procure talent, we had a hard time describing to people what it was,” co-producer and co-writer Rhaz Zeisler recalled. “They couldn’t quite understand why Disney was doing this. That was our biggest hurdle, explaining what we were doing.”

With fantasy as the general theme, each artist was asked to re-visualize and re-record an old Disney song and create an accompanying music video.

A similar album concept was tried before when artists such as Suzanne Vega and Tom Waits recorded Disney cover versions in 1988 for producer Hal Willner’s A&M; album “Stay Awake,” an adult-oriented project with which Disney had no direct association.

With “Simply Mad,” Disney hopes to appeal to both adults and kids. Columbia is pushing the album cuts to radio stations, and the videos to MTV, VH-1 and other music-video outlets.

Although Disney is known for cautiously policing the use of its fantasy-based product, the studio decided to loosen up a bit in this instance to achieve broader play.

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“I was pleased that (Disney) was so willing to give me a chance to do something freely, and express myself freely,” LL Cool J said. “They asked for my interpretation of ‘The Big Bad Wolf,’ and they told me to give them my vision. They did not ask me to imitate or duplicate what was previously recorded. So I went in with that attitude. I made something that was acceptable to them, but still me.”

The normally protective studio also freed up vintage animated footage to use in several numbers: Ocasek bops around with centaurs and Bacchus from “Fantasia” while singing a new-wave rendition of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” and Cinderella waltzes behind Michael Bolton performing the ballad “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes.”

“This is probably the most liberal usage of the Disney characters, in terms of mainstream association with the real world, that has ever been done,” Disney’s Mechanic said. Disney hopes to sell between 1 million and 1.5 million units of “Simply Mad,” in an arena where the Recording Industry Assn. of America awards gold status to a video selling 50,000 copies and platinum to 100,000 copies. New Kids on the Block released the three biggest-selling videos (through Sony Music Video), with 1989’s “Hanging Tough Live” leading at 1.3 million.

So far, Disney claims to be on track with 750,000 pre-sales to distributors, which may be a good sign for other long-form music video projects in the works. In two weeks, PolyGram Video will release “Two Rooms: A Tribute to Elton John and Bernie Taupin.” Like the Disney project, “Two Rooms” features artists, ranging from the Who to Tina Turner, covering Elton John’s greatest tunes.

“Early on, when music videos were first introduced, everybody thought, ‘Wow, we can really do some great original programming,’ ” said media analyst Tom Adams with Paul Kagan Associates.

“But marketers had to break the bad news to them that there wasn’t enough VCR penetration to support those projects. VCR penetration was 30%. By the end of 1991, we’re projecting it will be 80%. Now it’s a whole different ballgame, because you have a universe of fans to deal with. The question is: How much money can you spend to reach them? Disney is going to find out.”


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