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Cheech Marin as Animated Tito: Check It Out

December 27, 1988|CHARLES SOLOMON

Tito, the hyperactive Chihuahua in "Oliver & Company," steals his scenes as easily as he swipes a car stereo in Disney's new animated feature. The character was created by comedian Cheech Marin, who provided his raucous voice ("Check it out!") and supervising animator Hendel Butoy.

"Doing Tito was like recording a comedy album--I went into the studio and did the voice, which I really enjoyed," said Marin in a telephone interview from Orlando, Fla., where he's shooting a film. "I always read the lines by myself--I was never in the studio with Bette Midler or Billy Joel. The character kind of developed in the recording sessions: His romance with Georgette emerged late in the production.

"Animating Tito was an interesting assignment, because he's the exact opposite of my personality," says Butoy. "I usually like to handle the characters who have to stop and think, like Basil in 'The Great Mouse Detective' (1986). George (director George Scribner) described Tito as having one paw in a light socket all the time--energy just flowing through his body. But you still had to believe he had something going on in his head: The challenge was to keep the thought process in an energetic performance."

Energy proved to be the key to Tito's personality. The character is constantly in motion, hot wiring electronic equipment, flirting with Georgette, the snooty poodle (voiced by Bette Midler), or challenging a dog 10 times his size to a fight. Marin's voice has a spontaneity that plays off his frenetic actions.

"I was encouraged to ad-lib, but I'd say I just gave about 75% of the lines as they were written," says Marin. "The natural energy of a Chihuahua played right into that feeling. George was very encouraging as a director: He kept the energy level high at the recording sessions."

The animators sketched Marin while he was recording the voice to get ideas for ways the character might move. Marin says he can see himself in the animated character and that his 9-year-old daughter recognized her father instantly.

"Cheech was very animated while he was recording--Tito's expressions and body language were all there," adds Butoy. "But if I hadn't seen him, his voice would have been enough. The energy and spontaneity and entertainment value he put into his readings were very inspirational."

The artists looked to other sources for the salsa dance Tito performs when he makes his first appearance on the screen. One of the most polished bits of animation created at the Disney studio in more than a decade, the dance establishes the character's personality in less than a minute.

"I actually danced the dance Tito does before I got it onto paper," says Butoy. "I had never danced salsa, but George, who's from Panama, has: I videotaped about 20 minutes of him dancing, then took it back to my room and watched it over and over. Once I got the idea of what was going on, I tried it myself--with the door closed, so no one could see me make a fool of myself."

"Adapting it from two feet to four wasn't as big a problem as I thought it would be," he adds. "I just sort of had Tito's back feet follow what his front feet were doing and it seemed to fall into place. No one's ever seen a Chihuahua salsa before, but it looks natural."

Audience response to Tito has been so favorable, rumors have circulated that the character would appear in another film--a prospect that delights Marin:

"I love animation--I've always considered it an idealized form of film making. And I really dig the Tito character. But if we do anything else with him, I want to sing--I kept bugging them to give me a song in this film."

(Walt Disney Pictures vice president of feature animation Peter Schneider says that the studio is considering using the character again, but that the rumors are premature. Disney already has another animated feature in production and two more in preproduction.)

Meanwhile, Marin is involved in other film projects that will keep him busy until Tito reappears. Butoy and Mike Gabriel, another supervising animator on "Oliver," will co-direct "The Rescuers Down Under," a feature scheduled for release in 1990.

Although Butoy stresses that the story is "completely different," "Down Under" will mark the first time Disney has produced a sequel to an animated feature. The main characters are Bernard and Bianca, the mice from "The Rescuers" (1977). The film included the last animation done by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two of the studio's celebrated "Nine Old Men." Re-using the characters invites comparisons with the work of the old Disney artists, a problem the young animators continually face.

"I don't think we can ever look at ourselves as being as good as they were, because the moment we do, we'll start to stagnate," concludes Butoy. "If we look for ways to make our films more entertaining and visually exciting while telling stories that touch people and give them the magic the old films have, I think we'll be doing exactly what they did. If we just keep looking forward to what we believe we can do, we'll go beyond anything that has been done."

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