Life aquatic for 2-D

'SpongeBob' shows hand-drawn toons still swim

Grossing nearly $70 million at the box office so far, “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” has breathed some life into a film genre many considered a goner — traditionally drawn “2-D” animated features.

The modest success of Paramount’s “bump-up” of a popular Nickelodeon TV series doesn’t prove that the big, far pricier hand-drawn pics that Disney, DreamWorks and others once routinely mounted can still swim. But it does show there’s still room for traditional toons in theaters, pundits say.

“The magic of 2-D is that they were able to do ‘SpongeBob’ for under $30 million,” says Terry Thoren, president of Klasky-Csupo, the animation studio behind another popular Nick franchise, “The Rugrats.”

“One of the ingredients for success is that you can make a 2-D movie in the range of $30 million and gross $100 million and sell 8 million DVDs,” Thoren adds. “That’s a good business model”

The notion that traditional animation is a lost art gained steam in the past few years following high-profile 2-D box-office failures such as Disney’s “Treasure Planet” and DreamWorks’ “Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas.” The meager $50 million take for Disney’s “Home on the Range” only reinforced that perception.

Of course, these films were far more ambitious than “SpongeBob.” “Home on the Range,” for example, costs Disney more than $100 million to produce, and it had the added burden of introducing new characters to the audience

“SpongeBob” arrived on the feature film scene with not only modest goals, but with characters hitting with more than kids.

It was even promoted on college campuses, and indie rockers Wilco contributed a song to the track. (Paramount notes this in its Oscar campaign.)

“There’s no TV franchise as big as ‘SpongeBob’ right now,” Thoren says. “It’s so universally accepted by all these age groups. They even ran ads for ‘SpongeBob’ in ‘Rolling Stone.’ ”

Despite the fact that “SpongeBob” seems to be an entirely different animal, it’s modest success has been cause for hope among denizens of big-budget, 2-D features.

“I think this kind of animation will re-emerge,” says Mike Gabriel, who directed Disney’s “Pocahontas.” “And ‘SpongeBob’ helps because of the box office it’s made.”

“I don’t think the success of ‘SpongeBob’ is a one-shot deal,” Thoren adds. “We have contended all along that it’s really about the property and not about the technique.”

The debate regarding 2-D’s vitality will undoubtedly go on until 2006, when Universal’s Will Ferrell-voiced “Curious George” once again puts the discipline to the big test.

As for ‘SpongeBob,’ it was certainly no “one-shot” deal for Viacom siblings Paramount and Nickelodeon, which had earlier successfully released into theaters Nick-spawned franchises “The Rugrats” and “The Wild Thornberrys.”

“There aren’t too many companies that know how to make these movies,” Thoren notes.

In the short history of Oscar’s animated pic category, no TV bump-up has ever won or been nominated. And during an awards season in which CGI behemoths are crowding the competition for the toon trophy, there are more than a few traditionalists who’d like to see “SpongeBob” in the swim.

“‘SpongeBob’ proves that you can get 2-D to the level where it’s smart enough and hip enough that anybody can have an ‘in’ to enjoy it,” Gabriel says.

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