Computers rule toon town

3-D successes flattening traditionally animated pix

HOLLYWOOD — These days, it’s not the Mouse House that drives animated success, but the computer mouse.

Earlier this summer, lines were long outside Disney’s El Capitan Theater in Hollywood with moviegoers queuing for the studio’s toon “Atlantis: The Lost Empire.” Just across the street, mobs rushed Mann’s Chinese to see the computer-animated “Shrek” from Disney arch-rival DreamWorks.

Nothing could better frame the burgeoning power of computer-generated animation — or the threat to Disney’s once-inviolate hold on the toon market.

“Shrek,” produced by DreamWorks’ PDI computer-animation shop in Palo Alto, Calif., has grossed more than $362 million worldwide. “Atlantis,” Disney’s only summer toon, has managed roughly $100 million.

The former pic represents computer-generated, or 3-D, animation at its best. The latter is the latest example of hand-drawn cel animation so famously pioneered at the Mouse House.

CG films tend to cost less to make — say, $50 million vs. twice that for top-shelf traditional toons. But development snafus can cause costs to escalate in either discipline.

Disney was also an early champion of CG animation. Its upcoming “Monsters, Inc.” reps the next in a series of 3-D features co-produced with Steve Jobs’ Pixar.

No sale

Rumors that Disney wants to buy the Richmond, Calif., computer-animation shop continue to swirl, but it seems unlikely Jobs will sell any time soon. So, all that’s certain is that Disney and Pixar will partner on four more pics after “Monsters” via an ongoing co-production deal.

Meanwhile, Disney and others will also continue to crank out pics that are traditionally animated. But the Mouse House’s creative and commercial ambitions for its last two traditional tooners — “The Emperor’s New Groove” and “Atlantis” — seemed modest compared with the high standards of a “Pocahontas” or “The Lion King.”

At the same time, CG projects like “Monsters” and others have generated much more pre-release buzz than have traditional toons. Consider that early handicapping on a first-ever animation Oscar has “Shrek” and “Monsters” as the only presumptive nominees.

Consider, too, the early atention being given “Ice Age,” a 3-D toon from 20th Century Fox (where trad-animation corpses include last year’s “Titan A.E.” and 1997’s “Anastasia”).

Set for March 2002 release, “Ice Age” is being produced by Fox-owned Blue Sky Studios in Harrison, N.Y. Promo clips at the recent Cinema Expo trade show drew wide exhib kudos.

But also count execs at rival DreamWorks among “Ice Age” admirers.

DreamWorks recently approached Fox about buying Blue Sky in a quest to add CG capacity after its “Shrek” success. Fox ultimately nixed the idea, and DreamWorks instead will create an L.A. annex of PDI.

“Our anticipation is that by late spring or early next summer, we will have selected a movie to begin working on (in L.A.),” says DreamWorks’ animation boss Ann Daley, a Mouse vet.

The PDI annex will be located on DreamWorks’ Glendale, Calif., animation campus, where work is wrapping on traditionally animated “Spirit: Stallion of Cimarron,” set for a May 24 release. CG projects in various stages of development at PDI North include three laffers — “Madagascar,” “Shrek 2” and “Tusker.”

What — other than a big “Monsters, Inc.” push — will be the Mouse House’s competitive response to all the competish?

“We’re going to continue to do what we’ve been doing for the past 70 years,” Disney feature group chairman Richard Cook says. “We are not in any way standing pat (but) I don’t think there’s anything in particular we’re going to change.”

Others suggest some tinkering may be called for at Disney.

“They’ve got to get refocused on what their brand is,” says a rival exec.

Industrywide, animation execs are watching the shifting landscape keenly, with one observing, “Enthusiasm for traditional animation is pretty low right now.”

Imagine Entertainment plans a CG approach to a project involving Universal’s “Curious George” property. Pic is in early pre-production, with producers hoping to seek bids from CG vendors if a script is approved. And U has decided to go all-CG with “Where the Wild Things Are.”

At Warner Bros., where failed toons include 1999’s Morgan Creek-produced “The King and I,” all eyes are on the upcoming release of animated laffer “Osmosis Jones.”

Set to bow Aug. 10, “Osmosis” offers a mostly traditional look, though one character was computer-generated — then digitally “flattened” to blend with 2-D images. Pic also used pricey ink-and-paint software purchased a few years back for Warners’ live-action/animated pic “Space Jam.”

Unlike that pic, “Osmosis” is entirely animated. “Space Jam” was a hit worldwide, but the track record for pics mixing computer-animated elements with live action have, at best, a mixed critical and commercial track record.

Most recently, Fox tanked with such an approach on “Monkeybone.” Pic opened at $2.7 million and grossed just $5.4 million domestically.

But lest anyone get the notion that every all-CG pic clicks with moviegoers, try these five little words: “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.” Sony/Square Pictures’ vidgame adaptation, produced for an estimated $115 million, has taken in a paltry $30.3 million after 19 days of domestic release — a result that’s hardly animated.