"The fact that they would sell a significant amount of equipment needed to make traditional animated movies says as much as the layoffs do," said Kevin Koch, president of Hollywood's local animation guild and a staff animator at DreamWorks.
In the last two years, Burbank-based Disney has slashed more than 700 jobs in its animation unit, leaving about 1,000 workers, and reduced animators' salaries by 30% to 50%. The cuts have been driven not only by the transition to digital but also by an effort to rein in escalating production and labor costs.
Just last week, Disney shuttered its animation unit in Tokyo, laying off 103 employees. This summer Disney closed its Paris animation studio, with a staff of 89, and laid off 50 animators at its Orlando facility where "Brother Bear" was produced.
For Disney, the success of "Brother Bear" is all the more crucial because its own home-grown animated fare has stumbled in recent years, with the notable exception of last year's hit 2-D movie "Lilo & Stitch."
Compounding the pressure on the movie is the potential loss of the longtime partnership with Pixar, creator of such digital smash hits as "Finding Nemo," "Monsters, Inc." and the "Toy Story" films. The two companies are locked in contentious negotiations over extending what has been one of the most successful partnerships in Hollywood.
To strengthen its digital capabilities, Disney signed a four-picture deal with "Shrek" producer John Williams and his Vanguard Animation outfit last summer to develop a slate of moderately budgeted 3-D movies. The first will be "Valiant," a $40-million comedy about a World War II carrier pigeon, which is expected for release in 2005.
"Our hope is to be a major provider of big, commercial CG [computer-generated] family movies to Disney's pipeline," said Williams, who also is a producer of "Shrek 2."
Although Disney will continue to produce 2-D animation for television shows as well as lower-budget theatrical films and direct-to-video releases, even that unit is venturing into digital. Disney is working on its first fully digital direct-to-video feature, "Mickey's Twice Upon a Christmas," due out next year.
Though industry analysts view Disney's transition into digital as a necessary response to changing market conditions, some observers lament the aggressive push into the new medium.
"To me, it's startling that they would walk away from a medium that they are truly synonymous with," said David Koenig, who wrote a book on Disney animation. "They invented traditional animated feature films, and to me this is the equivalent of closing up Disneyland."
Disney executives say such fears are off base. They have high hopes for "Brother Bear," saying the movie evokes the luster and family appeal of Disney's 1994 Oscar-winning movie "The Lion King." That film was born during a golden era, when new animated characters became a driving force behind the company's theme parks, retail stores, movies and television shows.
"Brother Bear" is "a fantastic story with great characters," Stainton said. "The idea of Disney doing talking animals is a real winner with audiences."
Developed by producer Chuck Williams and directors Aaron Blaise and Bob Walker, "Brother Bear" is a coming-of-age tale about a boy who is turned into a bear and goes on a life-changing journey in search of his brother's spirit. Whether audiences will connect with the classically animated style of "Brother Bear," which features the music of rocker Phil Collins, remains to be seen. Fans of traditional animation remain hopeful.
"The medium isn't over yet," said animation historian and author Jerry Beck. "It just needs to be revived. It needs some enthusiasm."