October 23, 2005

“Chicken Little” critical for Disney reputation

By Gina Keating

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Next month Walt Disney hopes to
prove the sky is no longer falling.

The adorably round-headed star of its computer-animated
movie, "Chicken Little," will make the case that the storied
studio has moved into the next generation of animation and can
produce the type of hit films that once were its signature --
and an important profit center.

In the works for five years, "Chicken Little" is the first
computer-generated feature film created by Disney animators and
follows a string of traditionally animated films that failed to
perform as well as many computer-made competitors.

Disney's new effort follows Chicken Little's travails in
middle school a year after his disastrously incorrect
observation that the sky was falling.

It debuts November 4 in the midst of Disney's talks with
Pixar Animation Studios Inc over whether Disney will continue
to distribute and share profits from Pixar's
computer-generated, or CG, films and could prove an important
factor if a deal is struck, analysts said.

Disney's studio has had a number of golden ages with
hand-drawn animated features centering around hits such as the
1937 film, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," and in 1994 "The
Lion King." Partner Pixar has had animated hits since 1995.

Ryan Ball, a senior writer for the online Animation
magazine said the studio, known for its "Disney Look" and
classic story lines, may have to sacrifice both to tap into a
more sophisticated audience that now includes young adults.

"Now that everything is going CG, everything is looking the
same. That's the trend," Ball said. "(DreamWorks Animation's)
'Shrek' was kind of the first animation movie that went from
being a matinee movie for kids to a Friday night date movie."

Analysts said the film must open big and perform well
overseas for Disney to be considered a player in the new world
of animation, where DreamWorks Animation SKG's "Antz" was not
considered a success despite $170 million in worldwide ticket


"My gut instinct is they need to do something in the $350
million range to be seen as 'Disney's on its way back in
animation,"' Rich Greenfield, an analyst at Fulcrum Global
Partners, said. "If it does $200 million or $250 million
worldwide, it will not be seen as the way to replace Pixar."

Disney dabbled in CG for its 2000 film, "Dinosaur," which
featured animated characters on filmed backgrounds, but was
slow to adopt the technology that generated blockbusters like
"Finding Nemo" for Pixar and "Shrek" for DreamWorks.

Although about 150 animators had to be trained in CG to
make "Chicken Little," the studio says it has closed the gap
and is on track to release one CG animated film for each of the
next three years: "Meet the Robinsons" in 2006, "American Dog"
in 2007 and "Rapunzel Unbraided" in 2008.

Like "Chicken Little," the films offer modern takes on
classic themes -- similar to the approach DreamWorks and Pixar
used to appeal to a new generation of animation fans, including
sought-after young males -- and plenty of nods to adult humor.

Time magazine writer Richard Corliss, one of the first
critics to review the film, praised it as "a genuine Disney
cartoon" and "one of the funniest, most charming and most
exhilarating movie in years."

"Chicken Little" director Mark Dindal, who watched the
transition from hand-drawn to CG animation at Disney during the
making of his film, said studio founder Walt Disney, who
championed new technology, would have been proud.

"It was like horses at the starting gate waiting to get
their chance," Dindal said of the animators. "We just caught a
wave of all this pent up excitement of people saying, 'We'll
show you what we can do."'