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The New Toon Boom : Not too long ago, animated cartoons meant bad business at the box office. Now, in what some are hailing as a new Golden Age, toons are surging back in both movies and network TV.

August 19, 1990|CHARLES SOLOMON

Ten years ago--even five years ago--the art of film animation appeared to be going the way of 3-D. Few films were being made, few young artists were studying animation and few people seemed to care very much whether they were made or not.

Special effects was the marvel of the '80s, and the legacy of "Star Wars." What kids wanted to see were optical illusions-- laser swords, animatronic aliens, computer-generated pyrotechnics and strange worlds inhabited by real people. The magic of classical animation had been diluted and degraded by Saturday morning cartoons, and the the costs of labor-intensive cel painting raised animated features into the high-risk category for studios and investors.

"When we left Disney in September of '79, feature animation wasn't doing very well," says John Pomeroy, a former Disney animator who is now a partner in the Ireland-based Sullivan Bluth Inc., which made "An American Tail" and "The Land Before Time." "I think '81 or '82 was the low point for the entire industry. There wasn't a lot of money to be made in animated films and there wasn't a lot of interest in them. The animated feature was really close to extinction."

A spate of artistic and financial disasters in the early '80s that included "Hey Good Lookin,' " "Twice Upon a Time," "Fire and Ice," "Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don't Come Back,)" "1001 Rabbit Tales" and "Daffy Duck's Movie: Fantastic Island" had given animation a reputation as box office poison. In 1982-83, the total domestic gross for "Rabbit Tales," "Fantastic Island," "Fire and Ice" and "Twice Upon a Time" was less than $2 million.

The live-action films of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had usurped both the family audience and the fantastic worlds that had once been Walt Disney's exclusive domains. When film after film failed to connect with an audience, even people who were deeply committed to the art of animation began to doubt the viability of the feature-length cartoon.

After the indifferent performance of "Heidi's Song" (1982), Hanna-Barbera quietly shelved plans for a series of theatrical features, like Wile E. Coyote gently discarding the catapult that launched him into a cliff. Don Bluth's "The Secret of NIMH" (1982) grossed only $13 million, and the Bluth artists spent the next several years trying to develop a second feature--and doing animation for video games.

Even at the venerable Disney studio, animation seemed to be languishing. Among the artistic disappointments were the live action/animation combination, "Pete's Dragon" (1977); the Christmas featurette, "The Small One" (1978); "The Fox and the Hound" (1981) and the long-awaited "The Black Cauldron" (1984).

But, like Snow White, who lay near death after taking a bite of the Wicked Witch's poisoned apple, the art of film animation has gone to the brink and returned. Animation has not only fully recovered but is healthier than ever. Consider:

* Production of theatrical features and television programs is booming. With at least a dozen new features and an unprecedented array of television programs scheduled for release before Christmas 1992, studio output rivals the "golden age" of the 1930s.

* Since 1986, animated features have earned over $400 million domestically, not counting re-releases. "The Little Mermaid" earned over $6 million on its opening weekend alone.

* "Little Mermaid" won two Academy Awards this year--the first cartoon feature to receive an Oscar since "Dumbo" in 1942--and was the first animated film to be considered seriously for a best picture nomination.

* The interest in animation has revived the short cartoon. "Roller Coaster Rabbit," the new Roger Rabbit short, is playing with "Dick Tracy." Bugs Bunny returns to the big screen this fall in "Box Office Bunny," his first theatrical short in 26 years. The AMC chain recently began showing vintage Warner Bros. cartoons in 1,700 theaters across the country.

* The success of animation hasn't been limited to the theatrical box office. Fox TV's "The Simpsons," the unchallenged hit of the 1989-90 season, has helped to spark an increase in animation production for television. For the first time in 20 years, CBS and ABC are developing prime-time animated series.

* Ten of the 20 best-selling video cassettes are animated films, including "Bambi" (10.5 million units), "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (8.5 million), "Cinderella" (7.5 million) and "The Land Before Time" (4 million).

* Cels, backgrounds, drawings, preliminary drawings and other artwork from animated films, that a handful of devotees bought and sold among themselves for a few hundred dollars 10 years ago, now command six-figure prices at prestigious auction houses. In 1989, a Canadian collector paid a record $286,000 for a cel-and-background setup from the 1934 black-and-white Disney short, "Orphan's Benefit," at Christie's East. On a less rarefied level, hundreds of collectors are buying animation artwork in the $500-to-$5,000 price range at galleries and auctions.

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