Cartoonish behavior

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Why have so many talented animators been bailing out of the Mouse Factory? Fact is, they've grown tired of dealing with their absentee landlords at Walt Disney Feature Animation (WDFA) -- executives who seem much more interested in searching for Disney's next big Broadway theatrical production (to follow up such hits as "Beauty and the Beast," "The Lion King," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "Aida") than in attending story conferences for the animated films the studio has in production. Over the past six months, top toon-smiths Eric Goldberg, Tony Bancroft, and Paul and Gaetan Brizzi all have left for greener pastures at such studios as Dreamworks, Sony and Pixar.

Of course, there still are those at WDFA who suggest that it's better to have studio execs ignore your movie than to take too keen an interest in your work. In an effort to fix your project -- and/or contain costs for the company -- the corporate men can turn a seemingly minor problem into a major disaster.

Take, for example, what happened to "Atlantis: The Lost Empire." That animated, underwater epic managed to underperform at the box office last summer despite the tens of millions of dollars Mickey spent trying to promote it. (If you missed it, the movie comes out on video and DVD Jan. 29.)

Some observers contend that the movie didn't connect with audiences because of the decision of directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale to depart from the standard Disney formula. That is, the film's leads never stopped to belt out a Broadway-style ballad; and its hero, nerdy linguist Milo Thatch, wasn't saddled with a comic sidekick and/or talking animal companion.

But others have suggested that it was the medling of Disney Feature Animation executives that actually sank "Atlantis." In the wake of disappointing ticket sales for Walt Disney Pictures' 2000 release "Dinosaur" (not to mention its $135 million price tag), Mouse House managers ordered that all animated films in production undergo severe financial scrutiny. As a result, projects that seemed to have limited commercial appeal, such as a computer-animated version of "Pygmalion," tentatively titled "Wild Life," were cancelled outright. Other still-in-production WDFA films received "reductions in scope."

And what, pray tell, is a "reduction in scope?" In layman's terms, it's what happens when the heads of a studio decide to go through the script and remove all of the sequences they think will be expensive to produce.

When they reviewed the storyboards for "Atlantis," they quickly selected two sequences for the cutting-room floor: a scene in which the intrepid explorers battled several subterranean monsters, as well as one in which Milo and friends were trapped in a cave and buffeted by mysterious hurricane-force winds.

Wise and Trousdale fought mightily to save those scenes. They argued that their removal unintentionally would gut the middle act of their movie, reducing the drama of the arduous journey to find a lost civilization miles below the earth's surface.

Given their track record (Wise and Trousdale had delivered two of Disney's bigger animated films of the last decade, 1991's "Beauty and the Beast" and 1996's "Hunchback of Notre Dame"), you might think the Mouse would let them make their movie the way they wanted to make it. Instead, the studio brass insisted on the cuts, threatening to take the project away from them or shut down production entirely if they resisted.

So, Disney may have saved a few bucks by cutting a couple of action scenes from "Atlantis." But when a studio starts deleting scenes in which the heroes battle monsters or overcome bizarre unnatural phenomenon in their quest, the adventure can seem a whole lot less adventurous -- a complaint heard repeatedly from patrons last summer as they exited theaters showing "Atlantis." (Keep in mind that "Atlantis" was supposed to be WDFA's first foray into the action-adventure genre: a sort of fully animated tribute to those Ray Harryhausen stop-motion films that used to run on UHF stations on Saturday afternoons.)

You soon may be able to judge for yourself how much the cuts might have contributed to the film's failure at the box office, for -- I am told -- a significant amount of the missing footage will be included in the two-DVD set.

There's no word yet as to whether Wise and Trousdale are planning to join Goldberg, Bancroft and the Brizzis in the exodus from Walt Disney Feature Animation. But, if the Mouse continues to treat its top talent like this, Atlantis may not be the only empire that Disney loses.

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