RE-ANIMATING A CHANGING TV TOONSCAPE

A decade after changing the face of syndicated cartooning, Walt Disney Television Animation is actively redefining it’s own creative boundaries. Under division president Dean Valentine, the company has shifted into high gear with a new creator-driven policy that has attracted an impressive roster of talent from the outside, including Paul Germain (“Rugrats”), Joe Ansolabehere (“Beethoven”), Savage Steve Holland (“Eek! The Cat”), Peter Hastings (“Steven Spielberg Presents Pinky & the Brain”) and Donovan Cook (“2 Stupid Dogs”). This is in addition to Disney’s recent acquisition of New York-based Jumbo Pictures Inc., a creator-driven house deeply involved in Disney’s TV plans. On the one hand, all of these maneuvers can be seen as a response to the increased demand for programming now that Disney is in charge of ABC’s Saturday morning lineup as well as its own syndicated afternoon block, which has been revamped into “The Disney/Kellogg Alliance.” But Valentine insists there is more to the talent outreach than just the amount of programming required. He wanted to address the type of programming, as well.

“We felt very strongly that people would grow tired of four hours of what I call classical Disney-type programming (on ABC),” he says. “So it was clear that we had to have a mixture of different voices and perspectives to be successful on Saturday morning.”

The move to bring in fresh talent also was prompted by a certain amount of creative soul searching in Disney TV. “We had the feeling that the Disney television shows were becoming very formulaic and tired in their writing and perspective,” Valentine says. “We hoped having some of these folks around, who come from a different perspective than the corporate one of the Walt Disney Co., would reinvigorate our own programming.”

A test case for this marriage of perspectives is the upcoming “101 Dalmatians” series, which is being produced for Saturday morning and syndication by Jumbo’s Jim Jinkins and David Campbell, and Disney’s Tony Craig and Bob Gannaway, the team behind “The Lion King’s Timon and Pumbaa.” “It’s been painful for both sides, I’m sure,” Campbell says, “because each company did business in their own way, but it’s also been very gratifying. We’re developing a great working relationship.”

Valentine predicts the collaboration will create “a different kind of Disney show; one that still does what a Disney show is supposed to do, but with probably a wittier, more contemporary level of writing and sensibilities.”

The studio’s other new series for the fall also are departures from the Disney norm in both design and content. “Pepper Ann,” created by Sue Rose, is ostensibly a “girl’s show,” but Valentine predicts it also will draw some of Saturday morning’s large boy demographic. “Recess,” created by Germain and Ansolabehere, is a reality-based kid comedy set on a school playground. “They’re geared for a slightly older audience, and they’re very much about contemporary issues kids are dealing with,” Valentine says of the two new shows. “They’re not your grandfather’s Disney type shows, but they are very much Disney shows in the values they espouse.”

The most extreme break with the comfy, brightly colored tradition of “Duck Tales,” “Tale Spin” and “The Little Mermaid” is Cook’s “Nightmare Ned,” which Valentine describes as “a very funny, very edgy show about a kid who has nightmares in which he conquers his various monsters. I don’t think it’s quite a Disney show, but it is a show that we are incredibly proud to have produced.” Currently, the series is not part of the ABC Saturday morning schedule, though Valentine says that “at the first opening for a non-FCC qualifying show, ‘Nightmare Ned’ will go in.”

The series side of Disney TV Animation is not the only part of the division that is exploding. “As of August of ’95, we had one thing in production for homevideo,” says Sharon Morrill, Disney VP of specials and direct-to-video. “From August of ’95 to August of ’96, we put 14 things into production, so that tells you what our year has been like.”

Spurred by the monster successes of 1994′s “Return of Jafar,” Disney’s first direct-to-video feature, and its follow-up, “Aladdin and the King of Thieves,” the studio plans to release several more homevid features over the next two years. These include a “Winnie the Pooh” movie (” ‘Winnie the Pooh’ is a huge franchise, almost as big as Mickey, Donald and Goofy,” Morrill says), a “Beauty and the Beast” Christmas feature, and sequels to “The Lion King” and “Pocahontas.”

A sequel to “Lady and the Tramp” also is in production at Disney’s Australia studio, which like the company’s wholly owned toon shops in Canada and Japan is largely dedicated to homevid production, and more are on the way. “We’re going to do sequels to most of the Disney animated features,” Morrill says.

Having ventured into theatrical feature territory with 1995′s “A Goofy Movie,” Morrill’s unit also is prepping for more theatrical films with other Disney classic characters, such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. “These will be a little smaller, more intimate, more character-driven movies,” Morrill says. “They’re not going to have the big scope that our feature division animation movies have.”

Like Valentine, Morrill is actively recruiting talent from the outside. “We’re taking really talented storyboard artists who might not get a chance to direct anyplace else, but they’ll get a chance to direct here,” she says. “We were able to lure some very talented artists over here with the opportunity to direct.”

Another lure is the offer of creative freedom on original projects, such as “Totally Twisted Fairy Tales,” also made for homevid release. “The directors we hired for those had, for the most part, never directed before, but we gave them a shot and said, ‘You can do any animation style you want,’ ” she explains. The end result is a collection of short films so different in tone, design, even in music scoring, that they will most likely be marketed without the Disney logo over the titles.

Morrill views the past hectic 18 months as a ramping-up phase for her division, which she says has now hit its stride. “We’ve got so much in development that I think, five years from now, there is going to be really great stuff.”

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