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Can Anyone Dethrone Disney?

Competing studios have spent more than $1 billion to challenge Disney's domination of animated feature films. The stakes are high--but the payoff is higher.

June 01, 1997|John Horn | John Horn is the entertainment reporter for the Associated Press and recently completed the National Arts Journalism Program fellowship

The Disney challengers (and Disney itself) need to be careful that marketing does not get in the way of the actual film. "The amount of money spent is so astronomical and you have to make the deals so far in advance, the movie is not always the first priority," director Bird says. "You have to make sure (the merchandise) doesn't dictate what kind of entertainment we make."

DreamWorks' "The Prince of Egypt" doesn't look like the typical Disney movie, with no wise-cracking sidekick and huggable furry companion (Habibi, the stubborn camel, does not speak). Among the artists the DreamWorks animators studied are French illustrator Gustave Dore, impressionist Claude Monet and director David Lean. The movie opens with the song "Deliver Us" as Moses is put in a basket in the river, and sequences include the tongue-twisting "Tzipporah Escapes" and "Hieroglyph Nightmare." With the voices of Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer and Sandra Bullock, the estimated $60-million film features two highly complicated, computer-animated scenes: the parting of the Red Sea and the Burning Bush.

Some who have viewed portions of the work say the story of faith, slavery and deliverance is not something for toddlers. The film will probably be rated PG, and is aimed at 8-year-olds and up. "I saw the first six minutes of 'Prince of Egypt,' " says attorney Cantor. "It looked like an animated version of 'Schindler's List.' I said to Jeffrey, 'What audience are you going for?' "

Katzenberg declined to be interviewed. But the film's two producers say the film is indeed geared to an older, more sophisticated crowd. "[The audience] expects something they can take their 3-year-old to without any problem," says the film's co-producer, Penny Cox. "This is a different film, with hard issues and hard questions."

Meanwhile, DreamWorks executives say they are agonizing over how to promote the film: A Promised Land Picnic Set would look sacrilegious, but is a Ramses coloring book irreverent? When you make "The Lion King," everything down to (and including) promotional toilet paper seems acceptable. But how do you create a profile if you can't churn out consumer products? Will education programs offered through religious organizations turn "Prince of Egypt" into an event?

Equally important, how do you prepare an audience for a movie with no singing crab or dancing teacup? While Disney can take some liberties with the life story of Pocahontas and Fox can (and will) do the same with Anastasia, you can't really rewrite the Old Testament.

DreamWorks certainly hopes "Prince of Egypt" will be a hit, but the studio, in an unusual spin-control move, already is saying the movie's value cannot and will not be measured in ticket sales alone. It is critical, for starters, that "Prince of Egypt" proves the new studio is not trying to clone Disney movies.

"It is less about what the film grosses," Cox says. "The significance is less about the bottom line than in succeeding in making the movie we set out to make. What this movie has to do to be successful for DreamWorks is to be done well."

As "Prince of Egypt" demonstrates, the animation wars carry the promise of new animation styles. With so many people clamoring for their services, artists suddenly are empowered, free to make movies the way they want to. If a studio executive interferes too much, they simply move on. The money and the jobs are out there.

"One of the nice things at Disney now is there's a strong creative vision by the director," says Lasseter in a thinly veiled broadside at former studio chairman Katzenberg. "There's a difference when the director is the director of the picture and a studio executive is the director of the picture."

"The artists have more choices than they've ever had before," says Ron Clements, the co-director of "Hercules." "You can make choices and work on films you want to work on."

No one knows, of course, who will triumph and who will perish --only that somebody will crash and burn. Warners' "Quest for Camelot" was started in 1993 and has had significant story problems. Its first director, Bill Kroyer ("Ferngully . . . The Last Rainforest"), left the film last summer, as did two lead animators and a number of people in the art department. If Warner Bros. executives are unimpressed with storyboards for "Iron Giant," it may not go forward, immediately interrupting the studio's planned stream of titles.

"You've got to be making something," says Howard, who says "Iron Giant" will be made. "There's a danger in not making something."

"Of all the players in the ring, not everyone is going to make it," says Bluth, whose last studio, Sullivan Bluth Studio, flopped. "Somebody is going to get hurt and lose a lot of money."

"When Jeffrey was here years ago he would say, 'Guys, I want you to know I believe in monopolies,' " says John Musker, "Hercules' " other co-director. "Now, he obviously believes in at least duopolies."


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