So is it plagiarism or inspiration?
“Ghostbusters” bears an uncanny resemblance to a nine-minute Mickey Mouse cartoon from 1937 called “Lonesome Ghosts,” available to watch this month on Disney+. In fact, the streaming service has a whole slate of spooky programming available and a dedicated Halloween section: among them, “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Halloweentown,” and other Disney Channel movies for the holiday, and of course, “Hocus Pocus,” a film that’s grown in cultural esteem more than its creators ever dreamed.
But one area where Disney+ truly delivers is in its collection of animated shorts — it’s here where the service most resembles those late-night hours of the Disney Channel in the late ’90s called “Vault Disney,” where the array of hidden gems seemed inexhaustible. If you want to get into the Halloween spirit in a cool nine minutes you could do no better than checking out “Lonesome Ghosts,” from 1937. Humor, a little creepiness (mostly thanks to a strange image of Goofy thinking his own buttocks is a ghost he needs to vanquish with a sharp pin), some atmosphere, and loads of character work — what more could you want?
Oh, and it is also the spitting image of the “Ghostbusters” concept. “Lonesome Ghosts” is not credited in the Ivan Reitman comedy caper, but several beats seem taken wholesale from this short. It must be a sign of how down-and-out Disney was in 1984 that none of its studio bosses thought to sue Columbia Pictures for a piece of that $296.4 million box-office.
“Lonesome Ghosts” opens with a gong on the score, to let you know something dramatic is in the offing, and so it is — the first thing we see is a haunted house, as ramshackle as you could imagine, its shutters flapping rhythmically in the wind. Cut to the interior and we see three ghosts hanging around, looking bored, itching for someone to make some mischief to. With their weird bowler hats, you get the sense Disney was patterning them on heavies in Warner Bros. gangster films, even if they’re a tad more amiable than Little Caesar or Scarface.
One of the ghosts sees an ad in the paper for “ghost exterminators.” What better idea than to call them up and have a little fun at their expense? Apparently the afterlife is just like life but a lot more boring. You might as well be spooky — there’s nothing else to do!
Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy are waiting by the phone, fast asleep, in their office. Then they get the call. In “Ghostbusters,” Bill Murray and company are also just sitting around waiting for the phone to ring, even if they’re busy eating rather than slumbering.
Our ghost exterminators arrive at the mansion and find they have quite the spectral infestation awaiting them indeed. Their choice of weapons leaves something to be desired: Mickey carries a shotgun, Donald a butterfly net, and Goofy an axe. Not certain what effect these will have on those already dead.
“We’ll separate… and surround them,” Mickey declares. Keep in mind when you hear this high-pitched mouse, it is actually Walt Disney himself you’re listening to. The company founder voiced his rodent continuously from 1928 to 1947, and sporadically after that. When you remind yourself of that, it lends every one of these cartoons a little bit more of a personal touch. Imagine if Bob Iger voiced a major character in, say, the “Frozen” movies.
Surreal proceedings then occur, including one Escher-like moment when the ghosts are somehow able to move a door from its fixed position in the house and onto the floor, and are still somehow able to emerge from it. Goofy also has a Harpo Marx-style gag where he sees a ghost in the mirror, realizes “You know, for a moment… I thought it wasn’t me?” and then does a bit of pantomime to see if his “reflection” really follows him.
Puffing himself up, Goofy also announces, “I ain’t a-scared o’ no ghost.” With just a slight tweak to “I ain’t afraid of no ghost” you get the Ghostbusters’ catchphrase and a key line in Ray Parker Jr.’s song. And just like the Ghostbusters end up covered in marshmallow, Mickey, Donald, and Goofy end up covered in molasses and then flour, so that the real ghosts they’re tracking, thinking their pursuers are ghosts too, get scared, and ultimately leave. Mission accomplished.
How did Disney not file an intellectual property lawsuit against Columbia over these similarities? Well, when “Ghostbusters” came out in June 1984, it was right at the end of CEO Ron Miller’s tenure. Though a technical innovator in his own right — he had championed “Tron” — Miller got the job mostly because he was Walt’s son-in-law, and his business instincts were shaky (he also championed “The Black Cauldron”). Not to say that his time as CEO was entirely a failure. He helped launch Touchstone Pictures and invested in Tim Burton’s earliest efforts, such as “Frankenweenie.” But would he have had the presence of mind to call out Columbia for appropriating Disney IP? No. Was he even aware of the existence of “Lonesome Ghosts”? Probably not.
Three months after “Ghostbusters” came out, Miller was ousted and new president Frank Wells and new CEO Michael Eisner took over.
Click to the next page for the archive of new releases to Disney+ from previous months.