Disney's New Circle of Life

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Mickey Mouse is embarking on a retro revolution.

Disney (NYS: DIS) revealed yesterday that it will be dusting off four of its animated features -- sprucing them up with 3-D effects -- and rereleasing them at a multiplex near you.

Beauty and the Beast will have its limited theatrical run come mid-January. Pixar's Finding Nemo -- which, until last year's Toy Story 3, was Disney's highest-grossing animated movie before adjusting for inflation -- will get a new crack at padding its box office receipts eight months later.

Monsters and The Little Mermaid will get their cinematic encore come 2013.

It's easy to see why Disney is cracking open its vault this way. The Lion King raked in $80 million in ticket sales over the past two weeks, as its 3-D makeover outsold movies that weren't made 17 years ago.

Disney probably wasn't trying to drum up a new way to cash in on its valuable classics through exhibitors. This wasn't some orchestrated assist to help 3-D outfitter RealD (NYS: RLD) . This just seemed like a smart promotional move ahead of yesterday's rerelease of The Lion King on Blu-ray and DVD as well as its debut on Blu-ray 3-D. After all, theatrical rereleases -- even for juggernauts like the Star Wars franchise -- rarely draw this kind of attention.

In a lull between blockbuster releases, IMAX (NYS: IMAX) has been rescreening Inception, Star Trek, and Fast Five at some AMC screens this week for just $7 a ticket.

Now that nostalgic audiences are apparently relishing the escapism of reliving Disney classics on the big screen, Disney's going to be all over this.

The family entertainment giant needs to be careful. It has a history of milking something that works until it runs it into the ground.

  • When Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was a primetime hit, Disney stretched it out to the point where it was being offered as many as four nights a week.
  • The financial success of Aladdin sequel The Return of Jafar in 1994 found Disney squeezing out more installments of its classics as direct-to-DVD releases.
  • Turning park attractions into big-budget theatrical releases worked brilliantly with Pirates of the Caribbean and fairly well with The Haunted Mansion. Then we got to Country Bear Jamboree. Yikes!

The lessons here aren't simply that a formula won't work forever. Disney paid the price for its excess. ABC was left with several programming voids when the overexposure of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire killed its popularity. Sloppy sequels like Cinderella III and Kronk's New Groove actually diminished Disney's credibility in animation, leaving it with little choice but to acquire Pixar since it was falling behind both Pixar and DreamWorks Animation (NYS: DWA) at the box office.

Given the aggressive rereleases, it doesn't seem as if Mickey Mouse has learned much from the history books.

If you want to see how the family entertainment leader holds up, consider addingWalt Disneyto My Watchlist.

At the time this article was published Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Walt Disney, DreamWorks Animation SKG, and IMAX. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz calls them as he sees them. He does not own shares in any of the stocks in this story, except for Disney. Rick is also part of theRule Breakersnewsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.

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