While visiting Assisi, Italy, last week, I was enjoying Jon Sweeney's When Saint Francis Saved the Church. The book jacket claims that another of Sweeney's books, The Pope Who Quit, was optioned by HBO. That got me thinking, Why hasn't Disney made a musical called Francis! Here's why I ask.
I grew up in a Catholic neighborhood, with signs of Saint Francis everywhere. There he stood, a child-sized cement statue with a tonsure and a soap on a rope belt, surrounded by birds and bunnies. It was Disneyesque. Why Disney hasn't made a movie, Francis, I don't know. All the ingredients of successful cinema are at Disney's fingertips.
- You've got the most gorgeous setting: a hill town in Italy, splendid piazzas, awesome churches, trinket-filled shops with happy shopkeepers, terrific trattorias with bright tablecloths lining the cobblestone streets. Step aside, Aladdin!
- You've got the cutest little animals--and a guy who talks to them, no less. Zippy dee doo dah, he's got a bluebird on his shoulder! (Frankly, that's pretty much how Francis felt, as far as we can tell.)
- You've got music galore. The subtitle of Jon Sweeney's book is How a Converted Medieval Troubadour Created a Spiritual Vision for the Ages. Hardly a catchy title, I admit, but it's got troubadour in it! St. Francis was a joyful medieval singer. He's the perfect lead for a Disney musical. He even wrote a famous song during the summer of 1224, whose popularity has lasted 800 years. Disney loves a good musical. Here it is.
- You've got a broken relationship between a wealthy father and a son who just wants to help people. Last week, I sat in the Piazza del Vescovado, where Francis' father demanded that Francis return the clothes he had stolen from the family store. Francis could't because he'd given them to the poor, so he stripped himself naked and gave his own clothes back to his bewildered father. Again, think Disney, maybe Prince of Egypt and the father-son (Pharaoh-Moses) relationship (oops, that's DreamWorks, but you get the point) or Aladdin and the father-daughter (the princess and her father) relationship.
- You've got forbidden love: Claire, a wealthy young girl mesmerized by St. Francis, turns her back on her family in order to join St. Francis' community for a while before heading to a convent. Jon Sweeney, in his wonderful book, tells us how "Claire left her secure home full of kin and servants, spurning the promise of a safe and secure marriage, and walked across Assisi in the middle of the night to join Francis's group of men" (42-43). Forbidden love? Think Hercules and Meg (or Megara), Hades' spy. But that's made up. The story of Francis and Claire isn't, so it's made for a movie! (In fact, in Italian, their names are Chiara and Francesco--far more romantic than in English.)
- You've got the backdrop of war. The Crusades are in full swing. You've got the makings of a Medieval Mulan here. Against that kinetic background, the magnetism of Saint Francis of Assisi shines--because instead of joining the frenzy of war, he heads to Egypt to make peace with the Muslim sultan of Egypt. Sweeney tells us, "in the summer of 1219 Francis and one of his brothers, a simple man whom we know as Illuminato, made the long journey to the banks of the Nile River. There they meandered their way through two armies encamped opposite one another. Brother Francis and Brother Illuminato were ridiculed and cursed by the soldiers and knights, many of whom lay bleeding and dying. 'May God give you peace,' Francis said to them, touching them, asking if they needed anything for their wounds. The friars kept going until they were standing barefoot before the sultan" (57).
- You've got a sequel with a strong female lead: Claire! Just think strong female leads in Tangled, Mulan, Frozen, and Brave. Then think, Claire! or, better yet, Chiara!
- You've got a theme park spinoff. I'll admit this may be a stretch, but think about it. All Disney has to do is to replicate Assisi the way Universal Studios replicated the world of Harry Potter. It's perfect for roller coasters since it's set on a hill. It's got beautiful piazzas, mounds of gelato (perfect at 5 bucks a scoop), lovely trattorias with checked red tablecloths and mounds of spaghetti, like in Lady and the Tramp. Picture the place filled with happy animals you can talk to, tonsure caps alongside Mickey Mouse ears, Francis and Claire--Francesco and Chiara--dolls! It's the perfect theme park.
It's all there, isn't it? Picturesque settings in the hill towns of Italy. A medieval monk who talks to animals. A broken father-son relationship. Forbidden love. The backdrop of war. A sequel with a strong female lead. And a theme park. (Not to mention a billion Catholics, millions of them devoted to St. Francis, who might just buy a ticket to the movie.)
Far-fetched? I don't think. Walk the streets of Assisi, like I did last week, and you'll see posters everywhere with a very Disney looking Claire, and the words, A Musical--Chiara di Dio.
It's a no brainer. So I've got to ask, Disney, what are you waiting for?