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Fox tooning out, closing Phoenix arm

Competish (read: Disney) tough in animation biz

In the wake of the disappointing box office results for “Titan A.E.,” 20th Century Fox said it will close its 6-year-old traditional animation facility in Phoenix, Ariz.

In February, Fox laid off about two-thirds of the 320 employees at the Phoenix unit, but Monday the studio said it is shuttering the unit entirely.

The move is a further sign that the animated world, while full of cuddly creatures, is also highly treacherous for pretenders to the Disney throne.

“It clearly is a tough marketplace,” said Fox Animation president Chris Meledandri.

Fox isn’t abandoning animation entirely — it has computer animation and projects that mix live action and animation in the works — but it is exiting the traditional cel animation biz it tried to get into starting with 1997’s “Anastasia.”

In its six years in business, the Phoenix unit produced only two pics, “Anastasia” and “Titan.” “Anastasia” won respectful reviews but earned a middling $58.4 million at the domestic box office. “Titan” has pulled in a paltry $16.9 million since opening June 16, and the $80 million plus picture looks to be on its way to becoming a significant money loser for Fox. The weakness of “Titan” — and more generally, the millions of dollars the studio surely lost in its overall investment in Phoenix — was probably a factor in the abrupt exit last week of studio chairman Bill Mechanic.

Doused by Mouse

Like other studios, such as DreamWorks, which have tried to encroach upon Disney’s lucrative hold on animated films aimed at kids and families, Fox found the competition intense and Disney fierce. For instance, in what was widely viewed as an aggressive move to protect its territory, the Mouse House re-released “The Little Mermaid” in theaters just a week before Fox bowed “Anastasia.”

Both “Titan” and “Anastasia” were directed by the animation team of Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, who ran the Phoenix facility. Meledandri said he couldn’t comment on what sort of end had been negotiated in the duo’s contracts. “At this time we don’t have any plans to make any more movies with them,” Meledandri said.

The surviving animation operations include the studio’s computer animation facility in Harrison, N.Y., Blue Sky Studios, which has been increasing staff recently as it prepares to start production on “Ice Age,” a comedy-adventure about a woolly mammoth, a saber-toothed tiger and a sloth.

Still boning up

Fox is also in post-production on “Monkeybone,” a comedy that mixes live-action and stop-motion animation. Pic, directed by Henry Selick, stars Brendan Fraser, Bridget Fonda and Whoopi Goldberg.

The animation division is also overseeing “The Dubbed Action Movie: Enter the Fist” from writer-director Steve Oedekerk (“Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls”). Spoof mixes digital effects into a 1970s Asian martial arts film. Division also has a Farrelly brothers animated pic, “Frisco Pigeon Mambo,” in development; under consideration are five other feature projects to be made at Blue Sky.

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