The toons that won't be "King"

The most successful cartoon ever made is also the worst thing that could ever happen to animation.

Published June 2, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"Never predict the next 'Lion King,'" Michael Eisner warned financial analysts via a conference call last month.

That afternoon, Eisner was feeling a bit bullish. The Walt Disney Company had just announced better-than-expected second-quarter profits -- after all, Disney owns ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" -- and the studio's upcoming animated film "Dinosaur" looked to be big. Since then, "Dinosaur" has gone on to earn more than $80 million domestically, and it may ultimately bring home $200 million.

But let's get one thing straight, it's no "Lion King."

"The Lion King" has been haunting Hollywood ever since it first appeared in 1994. Seemingly irresistible, though I never got its cuddly charm, it roared to a whopping domestic gross of $313 million and a worldwide take of $772 million, easily becoming the most successful cartoon of all time and spinning off an animated TV series, direct-to-video sequels and a Broadway stage show that's been packing 'em in since 1997.

It's also been the worst thing that ever happened to animation. Today, Hollywood animators can't get "The Lion King" off their minds.

A little history: When Eisner and his lieutenant Jeffrey Katzenberg first took over Disney in 1984, animation was in the doldrums. Several years earlier, animator Don Bluth, convinced that the studio had lost its way, had fled with a team of draftsmen.

The remaining animators were left toiling on a dark, Tolkienesque fantasy called "The Black Cauldron." When "Cauldron" was finally released in 1985, it coughed up just $21 million. But after a few stumbles ("The Great Mouse Detective," "Oliver & Company"), the new team began to recognize the possibilities -- both commercial and creative -- of animation.

By 1989, the Disney animation renaissance had begun: "The Little Mermaid" (thanks to a boost from the composing team of Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman), officially heralded the toon's return as a commercial force, grossing a tidy $84 million domestically. "Beauty and the Beast" (1991) upped the ante, becoming the only animated film ever nominated for best picture.

Hollywood, which almost always treated animation like a quaint sideline, suddenly started taking it seriously -- not just as a business, but as a revived art form. Suddenly, top animators like Glen Keane ("Mermaid") and Andreas Deja ("Beauty") were stars.

Then "The Lion King" roared into town and changed everything. Since then, Hollywood has been trying -- with mixed results -- to revisit that high-water mark.

No studio is a bigger victim of this syndrome than Disney. Try as it might, its subsequent toons haven't come close to "King." Beginning with "Pocahontas" (1995) which earned $142 million in domestic grosses, they've all -- to one degree or another -- been dubbed disappointments. "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," which gamely tried to paint a happy face on the Victor Hugo tragedy, managed just $100 million in 1996. The jokey "Hercules" quipped its way to $99 million in 1997. "Mulan" rallied a bit, collecting $121 million in '98. Last year's "Tarzan" swung back up to a solid $171 million. These are hardly disastrous numbers, but they (along with their direct-to-video spinoffs) have also succeeded in flooding the market, watering down any remaining appetite for animation. Competitors, many of whom are trying to creatively break Disney's cookie-cutter format -- are finding it especially rough.

Over the next two months, six new animated movies are forcing their way into this already overcrowded marketplace.

Fox's "Titan A.E." comes out of the chute on June 16, promising a CGI-augmented Star Wars-esque space opera. The following week, DreamWorks debuts "Chicken Run," a stop-motion-animated comedy from the Academy Award-certified Nick Parks, whose Aardman Animations is responsible for the winning "Wallace & Gromit" shorts. Then -- pity the parents who have to sit through all this stuff -- it's on to Universal's "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" (a combination of live-action and animation ` la "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"), Warner's "Pokimon The Movie 2000" (a sequel to the minimally animated '98 hit that brought the trading-card cult onto the big screen) and Destination Films' "Thomas and the Magic Railroad" (based on a creaky British TV series for kids). And, just to reassert its dominance, Disney will send "Fantasia 2000," released on IMAX screens earlier this year, out into the neighborhood multiplex.

Once upon a time, when Disney parceled out its animated movies judiciously, and only an occasional competitor arose to challenge Mickey's dominance, the rare release of an animated movie was a genuine event. "Animation has always had to compete with live-action, but when we went out with 'An American Tale' [in 1986], we weren't up against a Disney movie and we were No. 1 for two weeks," says "Titan A.E." co-director Gary Goldman. "Whether six animated movies can all do business within the same two months, I don't know."

The evidence suggests they can't. Last summer, despite critics' raves, Brad Bird's beguiling "The Iron Giant" went begging -- Warner Brothers, busy with "Eyes Wide Shut," botched its release and the $48 million movie returned just $23 million and change. Earlier this year, DreamWorks trotted out "The Road to El Dorado" to critical brickbats and it hit a roadblock at the $50 million mark.

Meanwhile, only one studio has managed to regularly crush Disney at its own game: Steve Jobs' Pixar, which gave the world "Toy Story" ($191 million) and "Toy Story 2" ($245 million). Ironically, Pixar, which has a five-picture distribution deal with Disney, consults with the Mouse House on story concepts and splits its profits 50-50. "There is no rivalry," says Pixar executive V.P. and "Toy Story" director John Lasseter. "I just love to see good, animated films. Their goal is the same as our goal."

Still, even former Disney executives admit the lure of another "The Lion King" has definitely oversaturated the market. Last summer, during his $250 million suit for overdue profits, Jeffrey Katzenberg charged that his former employer was throwing too much stuff onto the screen. If "The Little Mermaid" re-release had no legs, he suggested, it was just because it was undercut by Disney's own "101 Dalmatians," a live-action remake of one of the studio's animated classics.

Nor does Disney simply release a new animated movie or two every year: It's also been busy churning out live-action remakes -- "102 Dalmatians" is on tap for this Thanksgiving -- that take a nasty bite out of the family audience for other animated films. At the same time, it continues to recycle its old toons on the Disney Channel and ABC; then it re-releases them on video.

Aware, perhaps of the risks of such a saturated market, Disney appears to be reconsidering its marketing strategy. The ten movies in its so-called Platinum Collection, which includes classics like "Snow White," used to come out every seven years (the time, presumably, that Disney assumed it would take for a hungry new generation to arrive). Beginning this year, these screen gems will be trotted out on video once every ten years.

There are other signs Disney has seen the error of its ways. For future animated efforts, the studio's latest mantra is: "And it's not a musical." At least, that's what animation head Thomas Schumacher kept repeating at a recent dog-and-pony show for exhibitors of Disney's current works-in-progress.

Having reworked the same musical format once too often, the studio no longer has a song in its heart. This December, it's scheduled "The Emperor's New Groove," the tale of a spoiled Inca prince who's transformed into a llama. And next summer, the studio plans to take an entirely different tack with a wide-screen, turn-of-the-century adventure, "Atlantis," that borrows from "Journey to the Center of the Earth" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The songs may be gone, but, sadly, the music sounds the same.

By Gregg Kilday

Gregg Kilday, a writer in Los Angeles, writes regularly about the movie business.

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