Animated film is best chance to break Disney's monopoly

HOLLYWOOD — Given the unexpectedly Spartan box-office take of Disney’s “Hercules” — by Disney standards anyway — many animation industry watchers are wondering if the much-touted animated feature fray is going to implode before it even gets underway. The next chapter in the drama unfolds in November, when 20th Century Fox’s lavish, Cinemascope version of “Anastasia” hits theaters.

More than any other recent challenger to the Disney crown (with the exception of Warner Bros. “Space Jam,” which mixed animation with live action), “Anastasia” represents an evening of the playing field. Unlike Turner’s “Cats Don’t Dance,” which received lackadaisical handling from Warners after it merged with Turner and died quickly, and Nest Entertainment’s “The Swan Princess: Escape from Castle Mountain,” which came and went with less advance warning that most terrorist attacks, “Anastasia” will be supported by a major marketing blitz and significant advance buzz. The film’s release can also draw upon ample cross-promotional opportunities through Fox’s television presence.

Also unlike recent would-be contenders, “Anastasia’s” filmmakers, Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, have a proven track record at the box office, albeit one tarnished from an ill-fated sojourn in Ireland. Under Steven Spielberg’s aegis, however, the duo turned out the most successful non-Disney toon feature in history, 1986’s “An American Tail,” which earned a then-record box-office take for an animated feature: $47-million (a number since broken in 1988 by Disney’s “Oliver and Company” and several other times since).

For “Anastasia,” Bluth and Goldberg have eschewed the faux-Disney style, giving the picture a distinctive, realistic look through nuanced character animation, computer-enhanced action and a live-action cutting style. While it remains to be seen whether audiences will flock to a fanciful, fairy-taleish spin on real 20th century events, the artistic promise shown in early preview screenings, combined with Fox’s marketing muscle, should give “Anastasia” the best chance of any recent film to break Disney’s monopoly on the toon pic biz.

Should, however, the picture fail at the box office, it will send an ominous message to every other studio currently spending millions of dollars on animated films, including, perhaps, Disney itself.

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