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Hands down, it was a big day for old-fashioned animation

February 12, 2003|Mary McNamara and Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writers

It could be the year that proves the pen is still mightier than the ... cursor button.

Last year, when the computer-generated "Shrek" won the first Oscar for animated feature, there was talk about the death of traditional, hand-drawn films. All eyes turned to Disney, which, according to box office wisdom, hadn't had a big hit since "Tarzan" in 1999.

This year's list of nominees should start a whole new conversation. Only one, albeit the most financially successful of the lot -- 20th Century Fox's "Ice Age" -- is computer generated. The remaining four -- "Lilo & Stitch," "Spirited Away," "Treasure Planet" and "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" -- are predominantly hand-drawn, and the first three were released by Disney. ("Spirit" was released by DreamWorks.)

"It's a complete validation of the hand-drawn film," said Dean DeBlois, co-director of "Lilo & Stitch."

He and writer and co-director Chris Sanders went into the project intent on making just such a point. After completing work on the epic "Mulan," they wanted to tell a simple story simply. When they decided to set their hand-drawn lonely-girl- meets - dog - who - is - really - a - space-alien tale on the island of Kauai, the film's art director suggested they use watercolor. No one had used watercolor since 1941's "Dumbo," which is why the two agreed it was a great idea.

"The feeling was that our films were becoming more and more epic," said Sanders. "But everyone was secretly wanting to do a 'Dumbo.' "

With the nominations, Disney received a validation of a different sort as well. "Treasure Planet" flopped spectacularly at the box office, despite its groundbreaking (and very expensive at $180 million) amalgamation of 3-D and hand-drawn animation. For producer Roy Conli, the call Tuesday morning was completely unexpected; there had been no awards campaign for the film.

"The idea that a select group would recognize the film is just such a tip of the hat to the talented filmmakers. Really, I've been near tears five times today and it isn't noon yet."

He too sees the list of nominees as a shot in the arm for pencil-pushing.

"There's a certain subtlety and magic coming from the direct line from the artist's hand to the image," he said. "Nothing can replace that."

The critically acclaimed "Spirited Away," a Japanese anime film from Hayao Miyazaki about a 10-year-old girl who finds herself in a magical world, gave Disney another boost.

Over at DreamWorks, "Spirit" producer Jeffery Katzenberg was "very excited" that the unconventional film, in which there is very little dialogue, was nominated. " 'Spirit' is probably the riskiest movie we've made since we started DreamWorks," he said of the film about a stallion captured on the frontier in the Old West. "It defies all the rules."

Chris Wedge, the director of "Ice Age," has no problem being the lone computer-generated nominee.

"We've been proud of this movie since we finished it," he said. "Our movie looks all slick and shiny, but it was a lot of sweat equity."

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