A few years ago the people at Walt Disney Productions realized that life and Hollywood were passing them by. Audiences were dwindling. Critics were bored. Nobody seemed interested in the clean but uninspired little films that continued to trickle from the Disney assembly line.
Searching for a solution, the studio turned to outer space. ''The Black Hole'' was its most expensive project ever and the first to carry a PG rating. It was also a flop. Pundits began to wonder if Disney had a future at the movies.
Since then a new ''creative team'' has taken over Disney's movie activity. Looking for fresh approaches, it has turned to outside filmmakers, encouraging them to develop original ideas. The first results - ''Tron'' and ''Tex'' - are now upon us. Two more different films could hardly be imagined, and their relative success or failure could have a major impact on Disney's cinematic future.
What's the verdict? ''Tron,'' a fantasy with a slim story and dazzling visual effects, has opened to mixed reaction - faring well in big cities, less so in smaller towns. Audiences and reviewers seem more impressed with its computer graphics than with its flat performances and razzle-dazzle plot. (The Monitor review of ''Tron'' appeared in the July 15 issue.)
So if Disney is going to have a breakthrough this summer, Tex will have to be it. And it couldn't happen to a nicer movie than this one, which opens up a whole new world for youth-oriented film. Directed by newcomer Tim Hunter from a novel by S. E. Hinton, it is probably the best picture turned out by the Disney studio since the heyday of the legendary Walt himself. Now playing in the South and Southwest, it's due for a New York opening later this month.
Given the longstanding Disney image, a few things about ''Tex'' must be made clear right away. Although it is aimed at a young audience, this is not a film for children under, say, 10 years. Using a generally soft-spoken approach, ''Tex'' touches on subjects that would once have been unthinkable in Disney territory, including drugs and teen-age sexuality. Still, a Disney approach is clearly visible in the taste and tact with which these topics are handled. And there is an unmistakable morality behind the treatment of every issue, no matter how delicate.
Credit for this goes to novelist Hinton, a favorite of young readers, whose book ''Tex'' has a strong and simple power all its own. And still more credit goes to director Hunter, who wrote the screenplay with partner Charlie Haas, then turned it into a modest and unpretentious movie that shines by the light of its own wit and conviction.
As in the original novel, the title character is a 15-year-old Oklahoman. His mother is not living; his father is an irresponsible wrangler who spends most of his time on the rodeo circuit. Tex is looked after by his older brother, a talented boy who takes his premature ''parenthood'' seriously, although it may stifle his dreams of college and a better life.
The movie follows Tex (sensitively played by Matt Dillon) through various adventures. Many of them are childish pranks, but some hint at a maturity struggling to emerge from his awkward midteen personality. The plot is episodic, and the ending is deliberately loose - resolving the emotions of the story while refusing to tidy all the events into a neat Hollywood finale.
Like many other teen-agers, Tex finds himself tangled with some people he'd be better off without - especially a young man who supports his wife and baby by peddling drugs. And like many teen-agers, Tex wanders into situations he is just not ready for, as when he and his girlfriend have a tentative brush with sex in a very brief necking scene. The movie not only takes a principled stand on these matters, it does so realistically and thoughtfully, reasoning with its audience rather than preaching at them. With impressive consistency, the filmmakers avoid blind taboos and conventions, allowing their characters to face life head-on. The ''messages'' of the picture emerge with their own logic under their own steam, and have all the more force as a result.
While the film stays close to the Hinton novel, Hunter deserves great praise for translating it so effectively to the screen: Though it isn't a flashy project, ''Tex'' is a filmmaking accomplishment of a very high order, imaginatively composed and elegantly phrased.
To cite just one example, the climax is absolutely stunning in approach and execution. Tex has gotten himself into desperate straits, and it would be easy to melodramatize his plight. Yet the filmmaker keeps a discreet distance, following events with a tactful circling shot that conveys vastly more emotion than any close-up could have done. It's an unlikely way of filming this particular scene, and a profoundly intelligent one.
Interestingly, this is Hunter's second film in a row about adolescence. Not long ago, he and partner Haas wrote the screenplay for ''Over the Edge,'' which became a critical success (though not a commercial hit) as directed by Jonathan Kaplan. ''Over the Edge'' took a rough-and-ready view of teen experience, however, focusing on kids whose lack of direction spills over into violence. It's very different from ''Tex,'' although it shares a realistic approach and a sympathetic attitude toward the problems of culturally deprived youngsters.
Hunter got hooked up with Disney when he discovered the ''Tex'' novel - it was popular with young cast members of ''Over the Edge'' - and suggested it as a movie project. He found the new Disney management receptive and willing to give him a free rein in filming the book. In fact, Hunter told me in a New York conversation a few weeks ago that the Disney team specifically asked him not to soften or compromise the story in any way. What they wanted, and what they got, was as hard-nosed and realistic as Hinton's book.
Hunter was especially pleased with Hinton's carefully reasoned style, which incorporates dramatic elements into the plot but rarely lets them dominate. With no big ''story hooks'' to worry about, Hunter felt he could emulate Hinton by ''entering the plot through the back door,'' letting us get to know Tex and his adventures at their own pace. The focus of the story lies not in its incidents, he feels, but in the gradual growth of the characters.
Hunter is a former teacher of film history at a California university, and an ''experimental'' filmmaker whose ''Desire Is the Fire'' and ''Three Sisters'' were memorable 16-mm efforts of the 1960s. A self-described ''happy plodder,'' he has spent years refining his storytelling gifts, and only recently considered himself ripe for a plunge into the moviemaking mainstream.
''It's one thing to know Hollywood film history and be able to analyze films, '' says this one-time specialist in the oeuvre of Hollywood master Douglas Sirk. ''But it's something else to be able to make a script with solid characters and payoffs in all the right places. A good story is a good story, and it's the bottom line of filmmaking.
''What's important is to grab the audience, deliver all you can, and not leave them feeling cheated. That's a director's main responsibility, and it's not simple. Good stories don't grow on trees.''
Hunter isn't predicting whether ''Tex'' will be a hit. ''It's a question in my mind whether teen-agers want to see accurate portrayals of what teen life is like,'' he says. ''Maybe they'd rather see escapist fantasy like 'Grease' and 'Raiders of the Lost Ark.' But I think 'Tex' has a strong story, and I hope it can find an audience.''
It may. In fact, one person who thinks it will is ''Tron'' director Steven Lisberger, who feels the realism of the story plus the ''teen heartthrob'' presence of Matt Dillon will put it across. If so, it will be a long-awaited triumph for the ''new'' Disney, and a refreshing change from the slick-but-slight atmosphere of most youth-oriented movies, with their aggressive effects and featherweight themes. ''Tex'' is a giant step in the right direction for the film scene of the '80s. Here's hoping it finds the popularity it deserves.