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Drawing a Crowd: The Summer's Animated Blockbusters

Studios seek to expand audience demographics with edgier animation.

By Mike Lyons     June 08, 2000

They've been promising it for years, but we kept getting familiar fairy tales, action-figure ready characters, and Broadway ballad after Broadway ballad. This summer, however, it seems as if animation is breaking down boundaries and pushing the proverbial envelope that was first discussed a decade ago, when the medium's resurgence began.
Last month saw DINOSAUR stomping all other films at the box-office during its opening weekend, and even the subsequent advent of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE II was not enough to render it extinct (the U.S. grosses on the dino-pic should be passing $100-million about the time you read this). Disney's first in-house all-digital feature is not only a technological leap but also an aesthetic one. The first PG-rated animated film the studio has released since 1985's THE BLACK CAULDRON, DINOSAUR doesn't shy away from any of the intense or carnivorous aspects of its story. In many ways, the film's no-holds-barred, naturalistic tone makes it BAMBI for the computer generation.

'The big difference between this and BAMBI, is this we have a lot more teeth and claws,' jokes Ralph Zondag, who co-directed DINOSAUR with Eric Leighton.

'We had some stuff early in production that we went a little too far with,' admits Leighton. 'There was just a little too much blood, so we backed off. But, certainly within the confines of what is Disney, we are unique.'

For the first time since THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER (1990) Disney has forgone songs. The studio has also done away with some of their more familiar marketing strategies. DINOSAUR didn't have a mammoth 'event' premiere like those for past features, such as POCAHONTAS and HERCULES. In addition, the studio moved from its usual, cushy late-June slot, (where its past summer animated fare has opened) to pre-Memorial Day, where DINOSAUR kicked off the summer movie season.

Disney's latest is just one of many animated features that will be taking the art form out on a limb this summer. By July 4th weekend, there will be three more highly anticipated, big-budget animated films in theatres, each one bringing its own refreshing slant to the medium.

June 16th sees TITAN AE, from Fox Animation Studio. Directed by animation veterans Don Bluth and Gary Goldman (who helmed ANASTASIA for the studio) the film is a first for American animation - science fiction. In addition, Fox Animation has made it quite clear that the audience for which they're aiming is the adolescent and teenager, the demographic that has shoved animation aside in favor of comic books and harder edge Anime.

TITAN, A.E., with its darker tone, slick graphics and pulse-pounding rock soundtrack, may just indeed slot very nicely into this intended audience. The film's supervising animator, Len Simon calls TITAN A.E. 'a grungier animated film' and notes that it 'is a classical feature and yet it feels very modern. It doesn't feel like were doing the same old formula, and we've just changed the characters around. It looks and feels very different than any animated film you've seen.'

A week after TITAN, on June 23rd, is CHICKEN RUN, the first full-length feature from England's Aardman Animations, one of the preeminent independent animation studios. They have already won several Oscars and have created the cult characters Wallace and Gromit, but CHICKEN RUN marks their first foray into features. Distributed by DreamWorks, the film is actually an artistic leap in just how 'low-tech' it is. As each new film that's released finds some new way to incorporate digital effects, CHICKEN RUN may prove to be a refreshing, hand-crafted change-of-pace.

Then, on June 30th, Universal's big-budget gamble, THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE hits screens. Twelve years after the groundbreaking WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, the studio is using every piece of technology that's come along since, in order to merge Moose and Squirrel into the live action world, where they will act alongside Rene Russo (playing Natasha), Jason Alexander (Boris Badenov) and, yes, Robert DeNiro (Fearless Leader). Universal is hoping to snag not only family audiences but also the original generation that grew up on the crudely animated yet smartly satirical '60s TV show. Like the original, the new film also promises to break down many fourth walls (DeNiro even pokes fun at his famous 'You talkin' to me?!' line from TAXI DRIVER).

For several years now, audiences have been growing restless with the usual animated output from studios, who have answered with an artistic stretching of the wings. Disney broke free of constrictions with 1998's MULAN as well as last year's TARZAN and TOY STORY 2. Warner's IRON GIANT, Paramount's SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER & UNCUT, DreamWorks' ROAD TO EL DORADO and the Anime hit, PRINCESS MONONOKE showed that a variety of storytelling techniques work in the medium.

More expansion looks to be on the horizon. This December, Disney will release THE EMPEROR'S NEW GROOVE, an irreverent, ALADDIN-esque take on THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER. Warners is readying OSMOSIS JONES, an action comedy similar to FANTASTIC VOYAGE, in which Chris Rock lends his voice to a white blood cell, who must fight off an evil virus. DreamWorks and Pacific Data Images (ANTZ) are collaborating on SHREK, which will take its story from the popular children's book by William Steig, about an ogre who will do anything to get his swamp back. And Stop motion master, Henry Selick (THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH), is also hard at work on his highly anticipated MONKEYBONE. In the film, a comic book artist, in a comatose state after a car crash, enters the world of his creation.

In this time of animation experimenting and innovating, DINOSAUR's producer Pam Marsden finds an interesting analogy in Hollywood's home state. 'I sometimes look at California and I can't believe how beautiful it is. I think that when those pioneers came over the ridge and they saw California, they must have thought they found paradise. Now, closer to my everyday work, I look at all these artists, who look into blank pieces of paper and computer monitors, and there's infinity. The opportunities and possibilities are countless. They must feel very much like the pioneers. It's like 'Wagon's Ho!''

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