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Animated hijinks 

There's an old joke in Hollywood: How do you know when a studio executive is lying? Their lips are moving.

This might explain why the folks at Walt Disney Feature Animation (WDFA) aren't putting all that much faith in what Thomas Schumacher says. For months now, Schumacher -- president of Walt Disney Studios Animation -- has been assuring animators that their jobs are safe. Mind you, he's been doing this while also riding herd on one of the largest staff cuts in WDFA history. No wonder Disney's toonsmiths have given their boss a colorful new nickname: Doubting Thomas.

Schumacher's current credibility problems date back to June 2001, when -- under the guise of doing what was right for the The Walt Disney Co. and its shareholders -- he ordered the Feature Animation staff cut by about 25 percent, from 1,846 people to 1,368 people. At that time, he also announced plans to roll back the salaries earned by some senior animators by as much as 50 percent.

Recognizing that such a move would devastate morale, Schumacher then held dozens of meetings with various department heads, reportedly assuring them that the worst was over.

That, at least, is how the senior management at WDFA's Clean-Up Department remembered their meeting with Schumacher. Which is why they were so startled last month when he announced that another 250 jobs were being cut. The clean-up crew -- whose attention to detail ensures that a character looks the same from the first frame of a film to the last -- took a particularly hard hit this time. Between now and May 2003, it will shrink from more than 90 paid positions to six.

What caused Schumacher to go back on his word so quickly? Some point to the tremendous pressure he faced from Mouse House management to return WDFA to maximum profitability. CEO Michael Eisner is said to long for the glory days of the mid 1990s, when "The Lion King" earned $312 million in its domestic release. Contrast that with the stateside returns of 2000's "The Emperor's New Groove" ($89 million) and 2001's "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" ($84 million).

Of course, many senior animation staffers insist they could have been churning out hits like "Lion King" all along. They blame Schumacher's "absentee landlord" method of overlooking problems on projects until things are just too far off track to fix.

Case in Point: "Tarzan II." This direct-to-video sequel has been in the works since well before the first "Tarzan" cartoon hit theaters in the summer of 1999. The sequel's story supposedly follows young Tarzan's comic misadventures with the brother of Kerchak, the serious silverback who is in charge of the band of gorillas that Tarzan considers his family. It turns out that Kerchak's bro was a bit of a party animal, which is why he and other irresponsible apes were banished -- forced to live far away from their tribe, high atop the snowy slopes of a nearby volcanic mountain.

In the course of the story, young Tarzan himself misbehaves one day. As a result, Kerchak orders the ape man to go live with the banished gorillas for a while. Tarzan ends up befriending Kerchak's brother and eventually reunites this splintered family.

OK. So it's a pretty sugary story. But such a direct-to-video effort has the proven potential to produce huge profits.

Or it could have, if production on "Tarzan II" hadn't suddenly been halted. Why? It seems Schumacher suddenly objected to the idea of the noble Kerchak having a flaky, younger brother.

Insiders ironically note the problem might have been avoided if Schumacher actually had read the script. But given that he and a dozen or so "creative executives" -- a title created after Schumacher came on board -- have been busy trying to cook up another hit musical for Disney's theatrical division, it's the little things that fall through the cracks.

Naturally, Schumacher says he did read the script. But either way, dozens of artists are now idled while the Mouse spends thousands of dollars to hurriedly fix the project's alleged story problems.

It's incidents like this that cause WDFA staffers to doubt Schumacher's claims that he's on top of things. Perhaps that explains why the Florida-based animators are so stressed. After all, Thomas wants to re-invent the division, turning the Burbank studio into an all-digital operation. Meanwhile, he has been offering assurances that the Orlando operation is safe, that the Disney/MGM facility will become the home of Disney's traditional animation, that the Walt Disney Co. will never turn its back on this vibrant and historic art form, etc.

And if Schumacher tells you something is true ... well, you get the idea.

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