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Irish Heat: Don Bluth, Takes On King Disney : As a new golden age of animation appears to be dawning, an American expatriate once again issues a feature that will go head-to-head with his former employer's holiday release.But can he really hope to vanquish the studio that wrote the book?

November 12, 1989|JOHN CULHANE

"If I become human, I'll never be with my father or sisters again," says the mermaid on the screen.

"That's right," says the sea witch Ursula, "but you'll have your man."

On the word man, this flamboyant octopus villainess leers like Jack Nicholson--and no wonder. Disney animator Kathy Zielinski fell in love with Nicholson's leer when she saw "The Witches of Eastwick," analyzed the movement of muscles and flash of eyes that produce it, and adapted them to a sinister sea creature's countenance. Such a leer is not only appropriate to a fairy-tale villain; it gives the scene the spark of personality by which animated features live or die.

Disney animation returns to its classic fairy-tale roots for the first time in 30 years with the release of Walt Disney Pictures' 28th animated feature, "The Little Mermaid," based on Hans Christian Andersen's fantasy of a beautiful young mermaid who risks her life for love of a human being. With its score by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman ("Little Shop of Horrors"), this fairy tale also has the sound of 1980s-style musical theater.

When Walt Disney died in 1966, his studio hadn't animated a fairy tale in seven years--since "Sleeping Beauty" in 1959. Walt's late brother and partner, Roy, who died in 1971, was determined to rebuild the animation department as the great story artists and animators of Walt's day retired, but no one foresaw that it would be another 23 years before the Disneys' studio would return to the film form that Walt invented in 1937 with "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs"--the classic fairy tale retold as a feature-length animated cartoon.

During the 1980s, ironically, there has been a revival of interest in, and enjoyment of, musical theater based on fairy tales. Stephen Sondheim's musical, "Into the Woods," Rudolf Nureyev's version of Prokofiev's "Cinderella" for the Paris Opera and American Ballet Theatre's "Sleeping Beauty" have all enjoyed success in recent years. Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim has written that the most obvious reason for the revival "is a pleasure derived from happy memories of childhood experiences that can now be enjoyed in an adult manner." For many adults, of course, those happy memories are actually of Disney versions of fairy tales.

The reason that the Disney studio stayed away from its most favored genre for so long, however, was that Disney's new breed of animation artists didn't feel ready to risk comparison with the great animation team of Walt's day.

Now, however, the team that the Disney studio began recruiting in the 1970s feels that its grasp of the essential skills of personality animation is firm enough to challenge the happy memories of childhood experience of the Disney versions of "Snow White" or "Cinderella" (1950).

"We recognized the need to give the new generation time to grow," said Peter Schneider, senior vice president of feature animation at Disney. "The group that came here in the late '70s have finally come into their own. They are out of the shadow of the Nine Old Men, the animation team of Walt's day."

The path out of that shadow was strewn with boulder-sized difficulties, however. Twelve of the first post-Walt group of young animators at Disney, who had shared credit with the "Snow White" veterans on "The Aristocats" (1970), "Robin Hood" (1973) and "The Rescuers" (1977), left the studio about one-third of the way through production of "The Fox and the Hound"--causing it to come out in 1981, at least a year later than planned. (Although these were animated films, they were not based on classic fairy tales in the Disney tradition.)

The rebels walked out, led by animating director Don Bluth, in a dispute over control with Ron Miller, Walt Disney's son-in-law, who had been a member of the committee that ran the studio after Walt's death. Miller became company president in 1980 and chairman in 1983. In 1984, after the Walt Disney Co. was nearly broken into pieces by two separate takeover threats from financiers, the board forced Miller's resignation. Bluth and most of his original group now have their own studio in Dublin. Two have returned to Disney.

Last Thanksgiving, when Disney released its 27th animated feature, "Oliver and Company," which is Dickens' "Oliver Twist" acted out by dogs and cats in modern-day New York, Universal Pictures released Bluth's "Land Before Time" the same week. The Disney film stands as the motion picture industry's all-time highest-grossing animated feature on its first release, yet it did only slightly better than Bluth's film.

Of the competition, Schneider says: "We hold the 'more gas stations' theory. If you put one gas station at a four corners and it does good business, you can put a gas station at each of the four corners, and they'll all do good business." "Oliver" and "Land," he noted, made about $100 million.

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