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Warner Bros. searches for boxoffice grail

Those who remember Warner Bros.’ last brush with the Arthurian legend, the 1967 glitz-and-glitter rendition of Broadway’s “Camelot,” will find a very different version of the legend in the studio’s fully animated “Quest for Camelot,” set for release in the summer of 1998. There will be no sporting jousts, no maypole dances, no fairy-tale stylization, and no Lancelot and Guinevere.

This is Camelot by way of Stonehenge.

“We intentionally went back to the early times of Camelot, prior to the pretty, shiny armor that you think of,” says the film’s producer, Dalisa Cooper Cohen. Set in 10th-century Britain, the picture’s look has been strongly influenced by early Celtic design and symbols. “Quest for Camelot” also holds the distinction of being the first Arthurian film that does not center around the character of King Arthur.

“It’s not really a story about Arthur,” Cohen notes, “but it shows the darkness that (Camelot) came from, when all the clans were warring, and how Arthur brought peace, and how the bad guy can pull it back to the dark time.”

The bad guy in question, Baron Ruber, is a character not found in Malory or Tennyson. Neither are the film’s ’90s-influenced heroes: Kayley, the daughter of a knight who is struggling for recognition in a man’s world, and Garrett, a stalwart young man who happens to be blind.

“The movie is really about the most unlikely heroes, who believe in themselves and each other and learn to work together to win the day,” Cooper says. Also in the band of questing “misfits” is a two-headed comic-relief dragon, voiced jointly by Eric Idle and Don Rickles, who are part of an only-in-animation cast that includes Cary Elwes, Jane Seymour, Gabriel Byrne, Jessica Gilsig, Jaleel White and John Gielgud.

“Quest for Camelot,” which was supposed to be the debut production from Warner Bros. Feature Animation, but lost that status to 1996’s “Space Jam,” has gone on a transforming journey of its own since being greenlit in May 1995. The first treatment, based on Vera Chapman’s book “The King’s Damosel,” was titled “The Quest for the Grail” and centered around the search for the legendary cup used at the Last Supper. The film went into production in the fall of ’95, under the direction of “Ferngully’s” Bill Kroyer, but quickly came to a halt again when most of the studio’s artists were reassigned to “Space Jam.”

In the interim the story and script were reworked and many changes resulted, including Kroyer’s replacement by Frederik Du Chau (Kroyer is still with Warners, developing another project), and the replacement of Christopher Reeve, who initially voiced King Arthur, with Pierce Brosnan, when Reeve was no longer available to record new lines due to renewed activity as an actor and director.

The emphasis on all things Celtic resulted in composer Patrick Doyle’s being hired to do the music score, a job that included Celticizing the songs contributed by pop tunesmiths David Foster and Carol Bayer Sager.

Ultimately, the Holy Grail itself was replaced by Arthur’s sword Excalibur as the film’s central icon, in part because of the inescapable religious connotations associated with it. In the revised story, the villainous Baron Ruber (voiced and sung by Gary Oldman) seeks to capture Excalibur and benefit from its power. “The symbol of Camelot is the power of Excalibur, and that became a more interesting theme: Whoever held the sword, held the power,” states Max Howard, president of Warner Bros. Feature Animation. Even though the film’s release was bumped from November 1997 to May ’98 as a result of the delays, the studio still had to play catch-up. “We’ve really only been in full production for a year and a half,” notes Cohen. “In a lot of ways we’ve made this movie pretty quickly, quicker than I’d recommend.” Warners’ London animation facility contributed an estimated 30% of the picture.

As far as Howard is concerned, any problems the picture has had are simply byproducts of trying to build a studio from scratch while simultaneously making a film. “In three years we’ve gone from zero employees to building a team, getting a part-live-action, part-animated film out, getting a second one essentially now finished,” he states. “In terms of the competitive environment we’re in, this is an extraordinary achievement.”

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