Will the Mouse fall on his sword? 


2001 wasn't exactly a space odyssey for the Walt Disney Co. As it watched its ABC TV network slip from first to fourth place in the ratings, the company also saw attendance at its theme parks drop by 25 percent. Then there were such seriously underperforming films as "Pearl Harbor" and "Atlantis: The Lost Empire," which helped to send the normally high-flying Mouse crashing down to earth.

Now the big question is: Will 2002 bring better news for Mickey? Based on whispers emanating from various divisions of the Disney Co. the answer is Ã?No.Ã? At least not initially.

Particularly here in Central Florida, the outlook for the foreseeable future is decidedly grim. Thanks to the usual holiday influx of travelers, attendance levels are pretty high this week at Disney's theme parks. But, based on the significantly lower number of advance reservations currently booked for Disney's on-property hotels for mid-January -- reportedly off by at least 20 percent from January 2001 levels -- attendance can soon be expected to take another major dip. Which will undoubtedly translate to yet another round of reduced hours for WDW cast members.

Consider the plight of Disney's Imagineers, the folks who create the attractions at the theme parks. Already, their ranks are being cut back to the bone. And reports are that the Imagineering enterprise soon will become a contract-only operation, with artists and ride designers hired only on a length-of-project basis (rather than as year-round staff). Once work has been completed on their particular ride or show, then out the door they will go. If this actually happens, it'll be the end of an era for Disney.

On the animation side, the Mouse faces a mixed new year. The outlook remains bright for Disney's big summer release, "Lilo & Stitch." Test audiences evidently just can't get enough of this made-in-Central-Florida film. Which might explain why Disney Television animation already is hard at work putting together a direct-to-video sequel to the yet-to-be-released feature.

The future looks a lot less rosy for the other feature-length cartoon the Mouse has in production at the Disney/MGM Studios facility. "Bears" also has been penciled in for the direct-to-video sequel treatment. But, given all the story problems "Bears" continues to have, it's iffy whether the original film or its sequel will ever see the light of day. Given that the movie isn't due to hit theaters until at least 2004, animators still have years yet to fix that film's numerous problems.

If only the crew working on "Treasure Planet" -- the feature-length cartoon that's supposed to be Disney's big release for the 2002 holiday season -- had such luxury.

That epic, animated adventure -- a space-going version of Robert Louis Stevenson's adventure classic, "Treasure Island" -- has been in production for more than four years now. But only after viewing the nearly completed cartoon this past October did Disney CEO Michael Eisner realize how dark and dour portions of the project had become.

Eisner reportedly had big problems with the portrayal of one of the characters, Jim Hawkins, carried over from Stevenson's original novel. According to those who are now saddled with reworking the project at the last minute, Eisner found the animated version of Hawkins to be Ã?too mopey.Ã?

The CEO ordered that new scenes be put into production and new dialogue be recorded (Hawkins' character is voiced by "Third Rock from The Sun" sitcom player Joseph Gordon Levitt) to lighten up the pivotal character.

Stranger still, Eisner has insisted that the number of swords featured in the film be significantly reduced. Keep in mind that "Treasure Planet" is a space-going pirate film. And pirates -- whether they work in outer space or not -Ð typically carry swords.

But in this post-Sept. 11 era, when even a box cutter can be viewed as a dangerous weapon, characters brandishing cutlasses in what is supposed to be a fun family film don't seem all that funny anymore. Which is why numerous Disney animators in Burbank spent most of December frantically reworking various scenes for "Treasure Planet," removing every sword they could find.

The big question remains -- what with the continuing staff reductions for Walt Disney World and its Imagineers, not to mention so much ongoing confusion at Disney Feature Animation -- can Mickey still manage to have a banner year in 2002? Or, come next December, will the Mouse be forced to fall on his sword? (Provided that he still can find one, of course.)


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