Familiar stories gracing big screens in ’94

Undaunted by a dismal recent B.O. track record, encouraged by Universal homevideo bankability and generally determined to cut themselves a piece of the huge Disney profit pie, distribs are going for feature-length animation in a big way this year. At least seven cartoons or semi-animated features are scheduled for release between Wednesday (when Warners opens “Hans Christian Andersen’s Thumbelina” wide) and the Christmas holidays, with two or three others likely to unspool as well.

And only one of them’s from Disney, the African animal epic “The Lion King.” But unlike the feature animation explosion that went bust two years ago, this time around it may be harder to distinguish the non-Disney full-lengthers from an actual Buena Vista release. The year’s cartoon features are crawling with musical creatures of the anthropomorphic and fairy tale varieties; even the few that transcend Disney’s domain of traditional, kid-oriented cartoon genres won’t be done as radically as “Cool World,””Bebe’s Kids” or “The Tune”– to name three of 1992’s hand-drawn hardly-seens.

Go for the kids

“Classical animation is reliant on a core audience whose specific needs for entertainment must be met,” said Nest Prods.’ exec vice president Matt Mazer, whose “Swan Princess” is being released by New Line in November. That core, according to Mazer, is families with children ages 3-10. “Once you get that, you’ve got the secret of the universe for this end of the business.”

Don Bluth agrees, sort of. The Mouse Factory renegade who directed the rare non-Disney animated hits “An American Tail” and “The Land Before Time,” hopes to re-establish his Dublin-based studio. Bluth is emerging from a few years in a financial dark forest with no less than three ’94 releases through Warner. Though Bluth’s been working on the less orthodox “Troll in Central Park” longer, he wanted to lead off with “Thumbelina.””We felt that ‘Thumbelina’ had a more universally known title than ‘Troll,’ and we thought it would be a better sell,” Bluth said.

But while it’s clear that audiences respond to such Disneyfied fairy classics as “Aladdin,””Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid,” Bluth is convinced that distribution is as much a key to an animated feature’s success as family-friendly form and content. “There has to be some kind of caring about that picture by the distribution entity,” Bluth asserts. “If Disney makes a pictures that they distribute, that’s like taking care of their own. That’s one of the great strengths you can attribute to them.”

Warner’s Thumb up

“Thumbelina,” the first fully animated feature to test Warner’s Family Films unit releasing muscle (the dismal Christmas entry “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” was limited), was drawn by about 200 people at Bluth’s Ireland facility. The art force increased by another 300 or so Hungarian painters when the project moved into its very vivid coloring stage, according to Bluth. The Little Mermaid herself, Jodi Benson, voices the 2-inch-high heroine; Barry Manilow did the music. The whole process took the industry average of two years; Bluth said that his studio’s money difficulties delayed production for only three weeks, and are eased now that it’s a subsidiary of a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

Bluth’s multiyear contract with Warner ensures a strong “Thumbelina” launch. The year’s next animated feature, “The Princess and the Goblin,” is scheduled to go out June 3, but that date could be colored by the fortunes of its dicier distrib, Hemdale.

Based on George MacDonald’s 19th-century story, “P&G” is another Celt-Magyar collaboration; Wales’ Siriol Prods. and Budapest’s Pannonia Film Company pooled more than 200 artists for the fully animated production. Joss Ackland and Claire Bloom are the star voice talents; Robin Lyons wrote-produced and Jozsef Gemes directed the $ 7 million-or-so musical fantasy.

Roar of the ‘Lion’

The ruler of this year’s cartoon jungle is expected to be Disney’s “Lion King ,” which roars into New York and L.A. exclusives on June 15, then goes wide nine days later. The studio’s 32nd animated feature is its first all-animal affair (“Bambi” had hunters, right?) — but, as usual with Disney, the project employed some 600 human artists’ hands. A good 20 minutes worth of footage was animated at the growing Disney World drawing facility in Florida. There’s a huge, computer-generated wildebeest stampede sequence, as well as lots of post-production computer wizardry.

About 85% completed, the pic, produced by Don Hahn (“Beauty and the Beast”), features songs by Elton John and “Aladdin’s” Tim Rice, was directed by Roger Ailers and Rob Minkoff (the latter helmed the “Roger Rabbit” shorts) and boasts a voice cast that includes Jeremy Irons, Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones and Whoopi Goldberg.

Warners’ next Bluth release, “A Troll in Central Park,” is tentatively set for late summer. Though its drawing and painting were completed before “Thumbelina,” Bluth is using the extra time to reshoot a few “Troll” scenes. Like “Thumbelina,””Troll” cost around $ 27 million and employed about 500 artists and colorists. Described by Bluth as “a very green film,” this tale of an outcast troll bringing bounteous botany to New York City features songs by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and, on the voice track, Dom DeLuise, Charles Nelson Reilly and Cloris Leachman.

If the Completion Bond Co. can find a U.S. distributor, the finally finished “The Thief and the Cobbler” may also come out this summer. The two-decade-held dream of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” animator Richard Williams, this sword-and-sorcery epic was completed by Fred Calvert in L.A. and Thailand studios after London-based Williams repeatedly missed delivery dates for the $ 20 million feature. Songs are by Norman Gimbel and Robert Folk (who also did music for Bluth’s “Troll”); the late Vincent Price’s voice track has, reportedly , survived the picture’s massive, overall reshaping.

‘Swan Lake’ redux

New Line is locked into a Nov. 18 wide release for “Swan Princess,” a prettied-up version of the original “Swan Lake” legend by another Disney-trained director, Richard Rich. Nest’s Mazer estimates 250 artists in Burbank and another 50 or so Korean painters contributed to the $ 21 million, 200,000-cel feature, which has another $ 14 million set aside for marketing and is close to 75% completed. John Cleese, Jack Palance and Sandy Duncan are among the voice talents, and one of “Swan’s” eight original “Broadway” songs, going by the tune on the promo reel shown at exhib confab ShoWest, sounds remarkably similar to Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s “Beauty and the Beast” theme.

Holiday hopefuls

Later in the holiday season, Fox is set to release “The Pagemaster,” David Kirschner’s part live-action fantasy about a boy’s adventures in a library where books come to life. Joe Johnston directed the live set-up starring Macaulay Culkin. Hanna-Barbera’s Maurice Hunt is helming the traditional cel animation. And never the twain shall meet: A state-of-the-art, computer-wave effect signals the transitions from real to cartoon worlds. About 350 people worked on the film , 100 of those in the live-action crew. Other human talents include Christopher Lloyd, Whoopi Goldberg, Ed Begley Jr., Leonard Nimoy and Patrick Stewart. The $ 30 million-plus production is being painted and shot.

Bluth also hopes that Warners will release his third feature project, “The Pebble and the Penguin,” in time for Christmas.

Depending on Universal’s scheduling strategy, Amblin’s “Casper” has a small chance of making the holiday cut. Live action mixed with “Jurassic Park”-style computer animation, the Friendly Ghost’s virtual visuals are still in the design stage at Industrial Light & Magic.

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