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Programming a hunt for computer-animated hits

The success of 'Nemo' and others ignites a new boom. But is the need for strong stories being overlooked?

June 29, 2003|Charles Solomon | Special to The Times

Here we go again.

The latest rush into animation went into high gear in May when George Lucas announced the creation of Lucasfilm Animation to produce computer-animated features. Other studios are jumping in as well: Sony has a slate of six computer graphics, or CG, films in development. Pixar is completing "The Incredibles" and "Cars"; DreamWorks is making "Shrek 2" and "Sharkslayer" in CG. Fox has announced a 2005 release for "Robots," the second CG feature from Blue Sky. A sequel to "Ice Age" is in the works, as is a second adventure for "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius."

For "Chicken Little," Disney is rebuilding the digital facility it dismantled after "Dinosaur," and will release Vanguard's "Valiant" in 2005. And according to a recent article in Newsweek, Disney chief Michael Eisner "wants to extend the lives of Disney's older characters by reanimating some classics for a new look. Imagine a 3-D Peter Pan soaring over a digitized London."

The main impetus behind this boom in CG production is obvious: Pixar's "Finding Nemo," which has already taken in close to $200 million. This follows such other CG animated successes as "Shrek" ($268 million), "Monsters, Inc." ($256 million), "Toy Story 2" ($246 million) and "Ice Age" ($176 million). The Pixar features alone have earned more than $1.73 billion worldwide. Sales of videos and related merchandise have generated hundreds of millions of dollars in additional revenue.

Much of the rush into production is predicated on the assumption that recent CG features have been successful not because they're good, but because they're done in CG. The acknowledged king of CG, Pixar chief John Lasseter, dismisses that notion: "For me, it's the story that holds the audience, it's not the technology, it's not the look of the film. We concentrate -- and we always have -- on the story." In many ways, the situation parallels the early '90s, when Disney's drawn features "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin" and "The Lion King" were printing money and everybody wanted a piece of the action. Other studios tried to set up animation facilities, but couldn't find enough A-level animators and story artists to staff them.

The result was a string of dismal money losers. In 1992, Disney's "Aladdin" grossed a then-record $215 million; the second most successful animated feature that year was "Fern Gully: The Last Rain Forest" at $24.6 million, followed by "Rock-A-Doodle" ($11.6 million); at the bottom was "Freddie as F.R.0.7" ($1.1 million). The highest-grossing animated feature of 1993 was "We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story," which took in a paltry $8.6 million, despite extensive advertising, merchandising and fast-food tie-ins. Additional disasters followed, including "The Swan Princess" (1994), "Quest for Camelot" (1998), "The King and I" (1999) and "Titan A.E." (2000).

Despite this dubious track record, studio management seems intent on doing the same thing again, only digitally this time. The people joining the rush forget (or tactfully ignore) the CG bomb "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within." Based on a popular video game, the film reportedly cost between $130 million and $200 million, but earned only $32.1 million.

David Kirschner, who produced the critically well-received "Cats Don't Dance" for Warner Bros. in 1997, notes, "Every time an animated film does well, studios jump in, thinking they can be part of the 'animation business.' You have to have a good script, good storyboards and a talented crew. And the marketing of these films is very, very important. DreamWorks did a brilliant job of making 'Chicken Run' an event."

Another often-stated reason for the CG boom is that kids won't watch 2-D anymore. Industry executives apparently take this doctrine on faith, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Some of the most popular kids' TV shows in the country are 2-D imports from Japan: "Dragon Ball Z," "Beyblade" and "Yu-Gi-Oh." And kids express their affection for these shows with their allowances. There are "Dragon Ball" characters on their skateboards and T-shirts. Hasbro has sold more than 5 million basic "Beyblade" toys, and sales of "Yu-Gi-Oh"-related merchandise are expected to top $1 billion this year.

Talent proves elusive

Studio heads seem to assume that if they set up enough computers in a vacant warehouse, they can make successful CG features. But someone who can run software isn't necessarily an animator.

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