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Can Disney capture the life of the modern teenager?

April 23, 2010 |  1:57 pm

In the six months since Disney Channel chief Rich Ross took over the movie studio, it's been a bit of a Hollywood parlor game trying to discern exactly what kind of movies Disney wants to make. We know Ross and his production chief, Sean Bailey, don't want adventures that are either too expensive or too dark, which is the reason Ross scrapped the previously hot "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." And he wasn't especially fond of comedy sequels, or at least ones involving bikers and/or stars who cost too much, which is why "Wild Hogs 2" went the way of the Softail Deuce.

On Thursday, Ross, Bailey and other Disney executives held an up-front of sorts and revealed some of the projects that he and his team have made priorities. According to our LAT colleagues Claudia Eller and Dawn Chmielewski, who made it over to the presentation, a "Monsters, Inc." sequel is set for the summer of 2012,  a new Pixar project called "Brave" is in the works, the fourth "Pirates of the Caribbean" is set to start shooting and a greenlight is imminent for a new "Muppets" movie.

It's mostly titles we knew about before or could have guessed they'd be doing. But amidst the familiar, one movie did stand out: Ross mentioned a teen comedy, "Prom," which, though it had been in development, wasn't thought to be much of a priority.

"Honest and authentic," is how Ross described the story of a group of high-schoolers just before the big dance, saying that the film would hark back to the vintage films of Cameron Crowe and John Hughes.  Joe Nussbaum, who has some "American Pie" video experience under his belt and also is emerging as a go-to filmmaker for movies about growing up, is directing. 

Citing Hughes and Crowe in reference to any modern movie carries an air of grandiosity, but it's also noble.  That era evokes thoughts of movies that were funny, well-made, culturally relevant and made a nice chunk of change to boot.

But can Disney make a movie like that work? Producing a poignant but still commercial film about high school is a difficult trick for any studio to pull off these days.  Most contemporary teenagers see movies about people who are a little older, and even then their preferences lie in the realm of fantasy, a la "Twilight," or melodrama, a la "Dear John," or Disney's own attempt at same with the recent Miley Cyrus romance "Last Song".  When these movies do go for any dramatic-comedy realism, it's usually with a healthy dose of Judd Apatow-esque raunch.

The fact that no one's doing quite these kinds of films is of course why Ross thinks he can;   when there's a hole in the market, someone is always quick to jump into it. But this is an especially difficult task for Disney, which has specialized in capturing a grade-school and tween audience in recent years. As one questioner noted Thursday, "Prom" raises the raunch issue; Disney isn't exactly prepared to go all Apatow on its audience. (Indeed, Ross was quick to point out that there will be little that's racy in "Prom.") But in eliding the more risque elements, Disney could risk a different problem -- namely, seeming out of touch with the more frankly sexual way that high-schoolers live today. You can try to keep it Disney-clean, and you can try to make an authentic teenage movie, but you may not be able to do both.

Ross isn't new to all this, of course. He has made numerous attempts to capture the teenage when, in his previous guise, he shepherded development on a number of Disney Channel shows. Some of those, at least, were able to depict the high-school experience without resorting to cheap sentiment or easy genre metaphor. It's unlikely that Disney will be creating the new Ferris Bueller, but we just might settle for an elevated Lizzie McGuire.

-- Steven Zeitchik

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Photo: Miley Cyrus in "Hannah Montana." Credit: The Disney Channel.