If Disney owns Hulu, and Sailor Moon is on Hulu, does that make Sailor Moon a Disney Princess? Silly logic jokes like that are amusing for long-time fans of the magical girl anime, but they have no idea how close Usagi Tsukino came to becoming a Disney Princess. Back in the early 2000s, Disney almost created a film based on the popular anime Sailor Moon. This would have been produced back during the end of the Disney Renaissance era, and, had it been successful, might have heralded in an era of live-action anime films the likes of which we still haven't seen.
With the release of Disney+ offering fans a nostalgic look back on Disney's greater history, perhaps now is the best time to unearth the story of the live-action Sailor Moon film never made by Disney.
The first two seasons of Sailor Moon were localized by DiC Entertainment. This company is famous for producing several classic pieces of animation, such as Inspector Gadget, Rainbow Brite, and Care Bears. In 1993, DiC merged with ABC. A few years later, Disney bought ABC, buying a majority share in the company.
Shortly thereafter, Disney began adapting DiC properties into live-action films. The most obvious of these two are Meet the Deedles and Inspector Gadget, which came out in 1998 and 1999, respectfully. No doubt Disney, looking through DiC's catalog of properties, saw the increasingly popular Sailor Moon as a fresh property worth adapting into a live-action film.
However, DiC only had the rights for the first two seasons of Sailor Moon. The next two seasons were licensed by Cloverway Inc. Furthermore, DiC left Disney to strike out on their own, though Disney retained the license to multiple DiC properties. Most notably, Inspector Gadget, which received a sequel in 2003, years after the DiC/Disney breakup.
Still, if Disney was planning on making a Sailor Moon film, who was going to direct it?
The Director of Rumble in the Bronx
Very little is known about the proposed Sailor Moon live-action film. The first mention of it existing at all is in a Variety article related to Disney's Mr. Magoo film. The article mentions that the director, Stanley Tong, intended on adapting Sailor Moon for the company. After all, Disney probably assumed that, if Tong successfully adapted another cartoon to live-action in the form of Mr. Magoo, surely he could be a good fit for some other cartoon film.
However, Tong is honestly a way better fit for Sailor Moon than it initially appears. When looking through Tong's list of films up until that point, he was responsible for such action classics as Police Story 3 & 4 and Rumble in the Bronx. Disney no doubt saw the potential of creating an action-packed series for girls, especially in 1997, when this article was written. At this point, Disney was midway through production on the film Mulan, which featured a female protagonist in an action-heavy role.
Of course, there is a huge problematic aspect with hiring a male director for this very female-centric story. In a post Wonder Woman world, it might seem logical to hire a female director to helm a superhero film starring girls.
While the initial Variety article speculates that Kelly Lynch (Mr. Magoo, Charlie's Angels, and Road House) might've had a role in the Sailor Moon film, we ultimately know that the outlet later reported that Geena Davis was attached to the project to play the film's main antagonist, Queen Beryl. Based on this, we can assume the film would've been a loose adaptation of the first season of Sailor Moon.
It is unknown how far along pre-production came for the film, but press circuits at the time speculated that any number of actors could be cast for the Sailor Senshi, including Winona Ryder, Heather Graham, and Elizabeth Shue. As you can tell, none of these actors are Japanese teens. More surprisingly, no casting rumors surrounded characters like Tuxedo Mask or Luna.
Long after the initial rumors surrounding the Sailor Moon film died down, rumors circulated that Lindsay Lohan, fresh off Mean Girls and Freaky Friday, would star in a Joss Whedon helmed-Sailor Moon adaptation for Fox. These rumors turned out to be completely false. However, it is notable, once again, that the director is male and Lohan is not Japanese.
Would This Have Been Good?
Based on the evidence, the other live-action animation films Disney produced at the time, and the benefit of cultural hindsight, Disney dodged a huge bullet not making the film.
Let's start with the obvious: Sailor Moon would've been a superhero film in a pre-Sam Raimi Spider-Man world. This film really helped establish the profitability of superhero films, which helped the films that followed it to receive the green-light with the proper budget needed to produce adequate special effects.
Furthermore, looking at the live-action films Disney was producing at the time, loyalty to the property's source material wasn't a real priority. Consider Inspector Gadget, which takes huge liberties with the source material. Brain the dog only talks at the end credits. Penny, the brilliant niece of Gadget who does all the real work, is a supporting character. It misses the core gag of the series: that the Inspector is a goofball who receives credit for other peoples' hard work.
If we were to apply this approach to adaptation to Sailor Moon, what else would've been overlooked or poorly planned out? Would the core elements of Sailor Moon's mythology and lore be simplified and altered? Would Usagi be the reincarnated Princess Serenity of the Moon Kingdom? Would there have been the four Sailor Senshi fighting alongside her? Would she still have her talking cat Luna? Would Beryl be the insidious ancient queen under the service of the eldritch abomination Queen Metalia, or would she, like the live-action Dr. Claw, have been a goofy cartoon villain?
The Benefit of Hindsight
But looking back on it in our current cultural landscape, we inevitably can't avoid that the film had no female talent behind the camera guiding the ship. While we thankfully had an Asian director on-board with Stanley Tong, it's undeniable that part of Sailor Moon's great appeal is its feminist perspective and lens. Furthermore, with no actors of Japanese descent being considered, it would have suffered from the same problems later films like The Last Airbender and Dragon Ball: Evolution suffered: a lack of racial representation. Very few big-budget western films star Asian women, especially genre media. This could've been the early 2000s equivalent of Black Panther.
On top of that, with DiC involved, one can expect all the LGBTQA elements to be censored out. Sailor Moon was notoriously censored, with multiple same-sex relationships being edited out of the franchise. While Cloverway and not DiC turned Sailor Uranus and Neptune into "cousins," DiC used a similar approach with first season villains Zoisite and Kunzite. Both are men in a relationship. DiC "solved" this by turning the Zoisite into a woman.
These elements all indicate that the Sailor Moon film, while a fascinating case of what could have been, might be better off put on the shelf. Though maybe now, with the MCU and Disney+ flourishing, is a great time for Disney to make Sailor Moon into a live-action film.