To infinity and beyond

Buzz Lightyear's mantra has been the business plan for Pixar

The pros at Pixar are batting 1,000. They’ve been in the cleanup position in Disney’s line-up ever since their first feature-length collaboration, “Toy Story,” hit a home run with a $361 million worldwide take, and their slugging percentage in the interim has been nothing less than powerhouse.

Take summer hit “Finding Nemo,” the fifth of a series of Disney/Pixar co-productions: at last count, the animated blockbuster had rung up $336 million domestically, becoming the best-grossing toon of all time, and swimming past even Disney’s traditionally animated landmark film “The Lion King.”

The perf has fueled spreading industry sentiment that computer generated imaging is the way to go for most feature animation.

In fact, DreamWorks and others have all but halted traditional toon production. The Mouse, however, will continue to produce some 2-D animated pics, and its 2002 success with “Lilo & Stitch” refutes any suggestion traditional toons don’t work anymore.

Previous collaborations, all delivering boffo box office, include “A Bug’s Life” (1998, $168 million), “Toy Story 2” (1999, $246 million) and “Monsters, Inc.” (2001, $256 million).

Next up is “The Incredibles,” set for November 2004 and featuring human lead characters — that is if you consider a family of dysfunctional superheroes “human” — in a Pixar feature for the first time.

But for all the Disney-Pixar success, things are still undecided.

Terms of the current Disney-Pixar pact allowed Pixar to begin shopping for a potential new distribution partner earlier this year.

Disney struck a much-discussed development pact last year with members of the creative team behind DreamWorks’ CGI hit “Shrek,” and industryites took that as a sign Mouse brass was concerned over the prospect of losing their relationship with Pixar.

But the agreement with Vanguard Animation — a four-pic deal beginning with 3-D toon “Valiant,” now in production — is probably more of a safety net than any neat replacement for a co-prod partnership that’s succeeded at the box office as consistently as any in Hollywood history.

In the meantime, the talks with Pixar have stretched on for weeks, with representatives of both companies declining to comment on the discussions. But one thing is clear: an extension beyond the company’s five-film deal would be a radical change in their relationship.

At this point, unslotted 2005 theatrical release “Cars” is the last skedded Disney-Pixar co-prod. And while Disney’s 50% B.O. split will likely be cut in half, Pixar has its own reason for wanting to stay put in the Magic Kingdom — sequels.

Disney would retain sequel rights to pics already produced by the partners, should Pixar bolt.

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