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Disney to try hand at drawing

Times Staff Writer

It’s back to the drawing board for Walt Disney Co.

Disney plans to release a 2009 movie that will be animated the old-fashioned way, by hand-drawing the images rather than letting computer wizardry do the job, the company announced Tuesday at its annual shareholders’ meeting in New Orleans.

Although other Disney animated movies will open between now and then, “The Frog Princess” is the first to be conceived since Disney’s 2006 acquisition of Pixar Animation Studios, the outfit behind such blockbusters as “Toy Story,” “A Bug’s Life,” “Finding Nemo” and “Cars.”

So why would Disney return to its roots after spending $7.4 billion to buy the pioneer of computer animation, which has since become the dominant form for these movies in Hollywood?

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Disney did not return calls Thursday, but industry executives said the move could signal the company’s strategy for distinguishing its two animation arms, which remain separate units. Or Disney could be planning to leave the heavily technological animation to its Bay Area sibling.

“We’re really proud and excited about this,” said John Lasseter, Disney and Pixar chief creative officer, at the meeting, which was held in New Orleans in a show of support for the storm-ravaged city.

“The Frog Princess” will be a musical set in New Orleans, with songs composed by Randy Newman. The central figure, Maddy, will become the first African American among the Disney princesses, the company’s collection of heroines responsible for more than $3 billion in annual retail sales.

Disney dropped the hand-drawn animation that made it famous after 2004’s “Home on the Range,” which capped a series of disappointments in the genre. It turned instead to the now-crowded world of computer-generated imagery, or CGI.

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When Disney’s CGI efforts failed to capture the public imagination, the company bought Pixar and gave Pixar’s Lasseter creative control of Disney’s feature-length cartoons.

Lasseter and the others who spoke Thursday said nothing about the company’s commitment to additional hand-drawn movies. Steve Hulett, who represents Disney’s unionized animators, said he expected the decisions about hand-drawing to be made one at a time.

But others in the industry said that they expected Lasseter’s team to produce something special in its maiden effort at Disney and that if the film resonated, more would follow.

“Five years down the road, maybe less, there’s no way they’re going to have duplicate CGI studios under one roof,” said animation historian and author Jerry Beck, who runs the Cartoonbrew.com blog.

Disney said the movie would be written and directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, who co-directed “The Little Mermaid” and other Disney hits. The duo was forced out by the pre-Pixar management, taking the fall for lackluster computer-animated films. Lasseter got them back, along with other old hands who had left.

Because many of Disney’s animators are computer specialists, the company will have to hire more experts from the old school of hand-drawing, Hulett said.

Except in Asia, almost no animated movies are made by hand.

joseph.menn@latimes.com

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