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Toy Fair Animation Report

It's going to be an amazing year for animation!

By Steve Fritz     February 20, 2001

It's no big secret, but if you want your first real taste of the upcoming year in animation, you attend the annual International Toy Fair. The reason is simple. No form of entertainment relies as heavily on toy licenses as animated television shows and feature films. A hit Disney film can generate an extra $100 million or more in toy sales alone. This means the various studios will do anything to wine and dine the licensors as much as years ahead of release. And when I say years I mean years, Disney presented clips of its next three years of feature films, up to the year 2004 at last week's event.

This year's Toy Fair has come and gone and it's going to be an incredibly good year for animation. There wasn't an upcoming TV show or movie I didn't take some liking to... and I expect at least three major blockbusters in the feature film arena.

The first of these blockbusters is Final Fantasy: The Spirit Within. Yes, it's based on the groundbreaking electronic game, but that's about where the distinctions end. The film, which will be distributed by Sony in the U.S. and Japan, and Fox/Saban throughout the rest of the world, is a hardcore sci-fi epic featuring a voice cast starring Ming Na (Disney's Mulan), Alec Baldwin, James Woods (Disney's Recess and Hercules) and multiple award winner Donald Sutherland.

In past articles I has mentioned how Sony had been trying to create a form of three dimensional computer-generated imagery that they call 'hyperreal.' I saw about 20 minutes of completed film footage and Sony has pushed the hyperreal envelope to an extent where George Lucas (the other major practioner of hyperreal 3-D CGI) ought to take his current Star Wars films and completely scrap them.

Not only does this version of Final Fantasy suspend your disbelief, it's attention to detail is so intense you sometimes forget you are looking at 100% animated characters. These characters feel far more real than Jar Jar Binks. The story is also far more sophisticated and thought provoking. As it stands, Final Fantasy: Spirit Within is slated for early summer release. You'd be a fool to miss it. Suffice it I'm going to be spending a lot of time about this project in the future.

The next blockbuster is coming from Disney, Atlantis. It's a no holds barred straight-up adventure film that employs the deep canvas technique the Mouseworks previously employed in their version of Tarzan . The voice cast includes such notables as Michael J. Fox, Claudia Christian (of Babylon 5 fame), James Garner, Don Novello (better known as Father Guido Sarducci) and Leonard Nimoy. Set in 1914, Fox plays the grandson of an anthropologist academically destroyed for his beliefs in Atlantis. A colleague of granddad bequeath's Fox a long-lost book revealing the location of destroyed empire. The film then turns into a swashbuckling adventure that shares as much with Jules Verne as it does the lost world books of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

What's amazing is this feature has no musical numbers or cute and cuddly traditional Disney sentiments. While it doesn't abandon humor, it's major emphasis is on high-level, high-energy action. Another true must see film, it's due to hit the theatres in May-June.

The last blockbuster is another Disney-related affair, Pixar's Monsters Inc.. This is the studio that's given us past marvels as both Toy Story features and the seriously underrated A Bug's Life. It's comforting to report Pixar's warm, deep use of 3-D CGI is only getting better and better with each release. The voice cast of Monsters Inc includes an A-list of talent such as John Goodman (as chief monster, Sully), Billy Crystal and Steve Buscemi. It features a plot line so preposterous that in lesser hands it would have fallen flat on its face, much more in line with Tim Burton or Harry Sellick than a Disney project.

All I can say is Pixar's head honcho John Lassiter has done it again, he's made a film that is going to make you laugh, cry and just root for Sully than many live action feature also due out this year. Monsters Inc. is slated for the holiday season. Give yourself a gift and definitely catch it. While the television front doesn't initially appear as intense as the film world, there's still plenty to talk about.

First and foremost, Nickelodeon has a wonderful new show coming in the near future entitled Jimmy Neutron. Jimmy is your typical boy genius who's pet dog's a robot and does the expected things such as build his own personal rocket ship and the like. What's infectious is Jimmy's over-the- top ability to solve any problem, whether it's mowing the family lawn or dealing with evil aliens out to conquer the earth. Nickelodeon and master toy licensee Mattel will be making a lot of announcements regarding Jimmy in the very near future.

Also be on the lookout for a feature- length treatment of The Wild Thornberrys from the Klasky-Csupo studio with masterful direction from super voice-artist/director Charlie Adler (Rugrats II).

Also impressive was the return of Mainframe Entertainment's Reboot. No, this is not just another series of repeats reappearing on Cartoon Network's Toonami block. Instead we will get 13 absolutely brand spankin' new episodes in the form of three 4-hour movies and a half-hour special. The entire project will then be broken down into the 13 episodes for regular broadcast. At present, the working title for this new season of Reboot is Daemon Rising and the main villain will be Hexadecimal. The sequence I saw featured Hexa blowing up Bob and Enzo's city to kingdom come. Heck of a way to start.

Mainframe, who did the presentation with Irwin Toys, also has announcements planned for Jill Thompson's Scary Godmother, Steve Seagal's Dot's Bots and a feature-length IMAX treatment of Gulliver's Travels in the near future.

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