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Production on Animated Films Gets Drawn Out

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Script problems and story changes are being blamed for potentially costly delays on several highly anticipated, big-budget animated films. DreamWorks’ “El Dorado,” Disney’s “Dinosaur” and “Kingdom of the Sun,” and Fox’s “Planet Ice” have all either pushed back their original openings or put off announcing a release date at all.

In fact, only one, “El Dorado,” now has a firm release date: March 2000. “Planet Ice” probably will land a few months later. Meanwhile, animators at DreamWorks, Disney and Fox are doing everything from tinkering with characters to vastly overhauling the plot lines on these films.

Observers say these delays reflect how competitive and how high the stakes have become in feature animation. As audiences become more sophisticated and demanding in regard to animation, the need to create different and more varied movies increases.

“Prince of Egypt,” DreamWorks’ ambitious biblical epic, was a step in that direction (and away from the Disney musical-comedy formula)--a dramatic narrative with no laughs and no cutesy supporting characters. “Prince” has taken in about $96 million so far but reportedly cost more than $100 million to make.

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“It’s almost ironic that a medium that offers incredible creative freedom has been used so far in such a restrictive way,” says Chris Meladandri, who heads Fox’s animated division. “Disney made a certain kind of movie so well over the past 10 years that there’s really no reason to repeat what they’ve done. We’re now seeing the beginning of embracing the medium in a way that will allow people great creative freedom.”

But there are costs to pushing the creative envelope. As animated films seek to expand their horizons, the risk factors increase exponentially. These movies are no longer just trying to distinguish themselves from one another but also from live-action family fare.

“We don’t see other [studios’] animated films as our competition,” says Tom Schumacher, the recently appointed head of Disney animation, “because last year proved that several animated movies can work in the market at the same time.” Within a three-month period at the end of last year, four animated movies were released: DreamWorks’ “Antz” and “Prince of Egypt,” Paramount’s “The Rugrats Movie” and Disney/Pixar’s “A Bug’s Life.” All four did more than $90 million each at the box office.

Schumacher’s real competition, he insists, are other movies aimed at a family audience, mostly live-action films. For instance, for Disney’s summer entry “Tarzan,” he’s not sweating about Paramount’s feature film version of “South Park,” but rather about the 800-pound gorilla of the summer season, “Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace.”

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Amid rumors that the “El Dorado” story is undergoing a major overhaul, DreamWorks announced it was pushing back the film’s release date from late ’99 to early 2000, which means the studio won’t have a major animated release this year.

Jeffrey Katzenberg, who heads DreamWorks’ animation, said that the main reason for the delay was to get out of harm’s way. He doesn’t want the comedy adventure to go head to head with Disney’s sequel to the enormously successful “Toy Story” and its long-in-the-making reworking of one of its classics, now called “Fantasia 2000.”

As with “Antz,” which DreamWorks rushed to release during the relatively quiet fall season--and about six weeks before Disney’s “A Bug’s Life"--Katzenberg sees the March release as another potential off-season gold mine.

But according to one animation source, another reason for the move has to do with a change in direction for the film’s story. After the jokeless “Prince of Egypt,” DreamWorks is looking to inject more humor into the adventure, which features the voices of Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh.

“Nobody can decide whether it’s a comedy or an adventure,” says a source close to the animators. “They put in comedy and the adventure doesn’t work, and vice versa.”

Katzenberg downplays this aspect, though he notes that he’s adding more comedy into “El Dorado,” about “seven or eight more jokes,” he said. But that would make it no different from the refinements made on “The Lion King” and other animation projects he supervised at Disney, he says.

And while the release delay keeps DreamWorks out of the animation game for 1999, moving “El Dorado” back a few months allows retooling to be accomplished at a less frenetic (read: not as much costly overtime) schedule than if it was being rushed to meet the original December deadline. “You also run the risk of burning your animators out,” says Katzenberg.

About the only problem Katzenberg foresees is having no animated movie this year and three next year. In addition to “El Dorado,” DreamWorks will release the stop-action animation comedy “Chicken Run” next summer and the computer-animated “Shrek” at the end of 2000.

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The extent of the fine-tuning on “El Dorado” seems to pale by comparison to the reworking being done on Disney’s “Dinosaur” and “Kingdom of the Sun.” Schumacher refuses to discuss budgets on either film except to say that animation, like all types of filmmaking, has gotten increasingly expensive over the past few years, especially in light of increased competition for top animators.

Neither Schumacher nor anyone else at Disney will comment on a recent story in the Hollywood Reporter that claimed “Dinosaur,” the studio’s first marriage of computer-generated images and live action, will ultimately cost as much as $200 million. “The only way that [budget] has been attached to the movie is by its being published,” says Schumacher, “and if people see it in print they believe it.”

But Disney executives acknowledge the film has been a challenge--and a costly one at that. Like “Toy Story,” the studio’s first computer-generated animation project, Schumacher says “Dinosaur” is “an experimental movie. We’re doing things we’ve never done before.”

The eight-minute opening sequence is a heady blend of state-of-the-art computer graphic images against travelogue-worthy backdrops. Plans to simultaneously open the film and a related Florida theme park attraction have been dropped as the learning curve on this groundbreaking animation technique has proved to be steep. Many of the technicians working on the film had not worked in animation before, Schumacher explains.

The delays have been exacerbated by the usual story problems, Schumacher admits. “The biggest issues have been telling the story of the journey [of the main character, a young dinosaur] and the fact that shooting on live-action plates limits the changes you can make animation-wise.”

Schumacher says “Dinosaur” will be nothing like Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park.” In the Disney dino universe, for example, the creatures talk and the story takes place in a mythical past during a period when dinosaurs were threatened with extinction.

According to Schumacher, the animation aspects of “Dinosaur” have been largely completed; what’s left is the fine-tuning and finishing. The release date has yet to be set and will only be finalized when Disney can assess the impact of other animated and family films being released over the next year or so.

Whatever the ultimate cost of the project, the lessons learned on “Dinosaur” will impact Disney’s animation future, in particular its sequel to “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” which will meld live action, computer graphics and regular animation.

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Changes Being Made in the Midst of Projects

As for “Kingdom of the Sun,” Schumacher likens the delays on the broad comedy set in the Incan empire (“El Dorado” has a somewhat similar backdrop) to the story problems he experienced with “The Lion King.”

“We started ‘Lion King’ way back in 1990 and moved it back several times. One director left and another was hired. The story shifted enormously.”

According to one animation source, Disney had a quarter of “Kingdom” animated when it “realized the story didn’t work, that it was really bits and pieces of other movies.”

Schumacher’s version of events is not dissimilar. Aspects of “Kingdom” were too much like other stories Disney has told in the past, he said. “We liked it, but we weren’t enjoying it enough. It didn’t have a comedic and emotional center.”

But Disney believes it has found a gold nugget in the original story in the form of a minor character (voiced by David Spade); the revised story will focus on that character’s exploits. The process of reworking the story, Schumacher estimates, burned up about six months.

Fox, which had originally planned “Planet Ice” as a late 1999 release, delayed the film also because of story problems. After launching its new feature animation division with “Anastasia,” a rather traditional Disney-like animated musical, the studio was looking toward breaking new ground with an animated science-fiction tale as its follow-up, says Meladandri.

“But we had more problems with the story than we anticipated,” he said. Fortunately, he added, many of those issues were ironed out during the development phase rather than during production.

Still, “we were in development for a lot longer than we expected,” says Meladandri, which has pushed back the release to 2000. The first year of the new millennium (to others, the last year of the current millennium) will be relatively crowded with animation efforts. Some will capitalize on the time-honored Disney model. But several will break off into new directions and genres previously reserved for live action. “We’re all pushing in the right direction,” says Meladandri. “If the films are different and innovative enough, it should continue to create great creative opportunities for people working in the medium.”


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