The King and I" may not seem a likely story for animation, and turning the king into a damsel-saving superhero may strike some moviegoers as blasphemy, but producer James G. Robinson isn't all that concerned.
For the film executive, whose Baltimore-based Morgan Creek Productions has been putting out films since 1988, has a certain audience in mind. And if you've moved beyond middle school, you're not it.
"While we stay with the heart of the story, this film has been designed for basically children," Robinson says during an interview in Morgan Creek's Baltimore office. "What you have here is something that will work for children. Kids like the movie, little children like the movie. It's a film you can take a 3-year-old to."
Dressed comfortably in a flannel shirt and jeans, Robinson, 63, doesn't look the part of the Hollywood producer. There are no sunglasses, no carefully coiffed hair, no rapid-fire chatter. Just the calm, assured demeanor of a man in a high-risk business he understands and embraces.
"Everything I've done is risky," Robinson explains. "But I felt that if we kept a lid on costs [the film came in at around $60 million] and we put out a good film, people would come."
"The King and I" is the latest movie in an 11-year span that has seen Morgan Creek delve into genres from westerns ("Young Guns") to horror ("Dead Ringers") to comedy ("Ace Venture: Pet Detective") to family-oriented drama ("Wild America").
All of which makes Morgan Creek films hard to characterize. And Robinson wouldn't have it any other way.
"Morgan Creek has not stayed with any particular genre," he says. "We're all over the place. Frankly, I find that enjoyable. And challenging; just when you have a system worked out, we jump to something else."
A native of Maryland's Eastern Shore, Robinson moved to Dundalk at age 5. A 1959 graduate of the University of Maryland, Robinson tried on several hats before settling into the role of movie producer. After stints in the Army and as a professional photographer, he started a business cleaning cars being unloaded at the Port of Baltimore and adding minor options, such as undercoating and sunroofs.
In 1975, he bought a bankrupt Subaru distributorship and turned it around; by the time he sold it in 1988, the Chicago-based company was distributing cars and parts to 94 dealers throughout the Midwest.
His foray into films began in 1979, at the urging of attorney Paul Ziffren, a friend from Los Angeles. He learned the ropes by working in development and finance. His first credit was as co-producer of the 1984 film "The Stone Boy," with Glenn Close, Robert Duvall and Frederic Forrest.
Moviemaking, Robinson says, allows him to draw on the talents he's acquired, from photography to salesmanship to running a business. And that's why he got into films in the first place: not because of some romantic notion about Hollywood, but because he saw it as a good business opportunity.
"To me, movies are a great business to be in financially. All the skills that I have developed have all come together. Making movies is management, taste, visual. ... There are a lot of things that come together when you're making movies."
"I really worked and studied the business," he says of those early days on the Hollywood scene. "I was determined not to go into the business, like so many other people, and leave considerably lighter; I was determined not to lose money."
He didn't. In 1988, he and partner Joe Roth (who would go on to head Disney) formed Morgan Creek, taking its name from Preston Sturges' 1944 comedy, "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek."
"We wanted an American name," he says, "something that was very American and something that involved a well-known American director. 'Morgan Creek' is as American as you can get. ... You never hear the word 'creek' anywhere else in the world."
Morgan Creek's first major success came with 1991's "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," director Kevin Reynolds' take on the lads and lasses of Sherwood Forest, with Kevin Costner as the guy who made a legend robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. The film would end up bringing in more than $400 million worldwide.
Plenty more films followed, including 1993's "True Romance" (with a script from Quentin Tarantino); the original "Ace Ventura" film in 1994 and its sequel, "Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls," the following year; 1994's "Major League II," a sequel to 1989's "Major League" (both shot in Baltimore); and 1996's "Diabolique," starring Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani in a remake of the 1955 French classic.
Robinson remains committed to the Baltimore area, where he and his wife of 35 years, Barbara, raised a family of five children, who range in age from 21 to 33. He still lives in Lutherville, about as far from the West Coast -- physically and psychologically -- as you can get. In a typical work week, he flies to Los Angeles Wednesday morning and returns to Baltimore Friday night.