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Will "Chicken Little" be Disney's next big hit? Or a swing & a miss?

Will "Chicken Little" be Disney's next big hit? Or a swing & a miss?

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Baseball plays a significant role in Walt Disney Feature Animation's summer 2005 release, "Chicken Little." And, being a loyal New Englander, I still have baseball on the brain after my Boston Red Sox won the World Series last month. So I think it's only fitting that I use baseball as an analogy for the impending computer animation glut.

The new trailer for "Chicken Little" came out before "The Incredibles" the other week. You probably saw it. Unfortunately for Disney it was overshadowed by the first trailer for Pixar's "Cars," their final film under the current deal with Disney. That trailer seemed to get all of the buzz.

I was lucky enough to see both in front of the screening of "The Incredibles" I went to over the weekend. But as the feature started and the Disney castle logo flew in towards the blue background, as only Pixar can make it do, I was briefly saddened that I didn't see another trailer, one for DreamWorks' "Madagascar."

Now I'm one of those annoying Disney elitists. I dislike everything DreamWorks does just on principle (even though they have given us lots of ugly movies to dislike). I laugh at Don Bluth's sad attempts at feature animation. I mock theme parks such as Universal Studios Hollywood and Knotts Berry Farm, even if down the road Disney's own California Adventure is the worst thing this side of Lester's Possum Park. I poo-poo Harry Potter and shrug off The Lord of the Rings. I have a problem, I know, and really should look into getting help for it.

So when I realized that I was bummed out after not seeing "Madagascar" 's trailer on the big screen ... Well, that was huge.

And then it hit me, feature animation is a lot like baseball.

As Major League Baseball's free agency is in full bore this week, sixteen of the World Champion Boston Red Sox have become free agents. To be a "Free Agent" means simply that the player is done with his contract to a specific team and is free to sign with any major league club.

That means that the makeup of, say, the World Champion Boston Red Sox (man, I love saying that), will vary from year to year based on free agency. Each year a baseball team can be radically different. When you hear the name "Roger Clemens" do you think of his time with Boston? Toronto? New York? Houston?

Animation has become a lot like that. The forefathers of animation free agency, if you might call it that, were the Bluth Thirteen who left Walt Disney Productions back in 1979. But unlike baseball pitcher Catfish Hunter leaving Oakland to sign a lucrative deal with the New York Yankees in 1974, Don Bluth just started his own studio in his garage. No, it wasn't until studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg left Disney in 1994 to form DreamWorks that the modern era of stuidio-hopping artists and production staff started.

Many artists and production staff, especially those who got rich in the subsequent bidding wars, think that this proliferation of animation is good for the industry. But as many sports fans would tell you, free agency isn't always good.

First off, the price of everything goes up. Now, I'm not saying the people who bring beloved, evergreen characters to a multi-national company shouldn't be making money. But the cost of animation rose exponentially in the mid-1990s. Some might say that cost of traditional animation was one of the final nails put into its own coffin. With box office receipts down after 1994's record breaking "The Lion King," and costs up, well, I'm not a fancy accountant, but the scenario doesn't look good from here.

Sports fans across the board will also quote team loyalty as another problem with free agency. Not just in baseball, but hockey and basketball, as well. Players can take a "hometown" discount to keep playing for their current team, or take whatever astronomical price another team might offer. Is it A-Rod's fault that the Yankees want to pay him so much money? It makes economic sense for players to go with the best asking price. But then Texas Rangers fans get upset when he leaves. Upset with him and upset with the Rangers.

It's like that, to a certain extent, with animation. Except the fluid movement of artists between studios isn't hurting their own recognition, as many to this day still go unrecognized. It is, however, hurting the studios. Team loyalty, in this case, means brand loyalty. And brand loyalty is very important to the studios.

Remember when most consumers thought that anything traditionally animated was Disney? Poor Don Bluth. "An American Tail," "The Land Before Time," "All Dogs Go to Heaven," "Anastasia?" The majority of consumers think that Disney made those movies. I've been to Disney theme parks and overheard people looking for Fievel. At Disney Stores I've seen confused patrons asking about Anastasia dolls. Disney owned animation, in their minds.

Warner Brothers had the right idea by building their Studio Stores in malls across America - they built brand recognition. On the front lines of the brand battle consumers connected with Thumbelina, Batman, Tweety Bird, Wile E. Coyote, et al.

DreamWorks, with their first traditional films, didn't have that recognition. And that hurt them. I bet you any money right now you can go on eBay and type "Prince of Egypt" and "Disney" and find some mislabeled VHS tapes or DVDs for auction. DreamWorks' "Shrek," on the other hand, came out early enough in the computer animation craze and looked and felt different enough that most people seemed to separate it from the only other rival at the time, Pixar.

Pixar, of course, built brand recognition the hard way. By making good product. True, they got people into the seats for 1995's "Toy Story" with the Disney name, but from then on out it was "from the creators of 'Toy Story' ". "From the creators of 'Toy Story' and 'a bug'g life' ". "From the creators of 'Toy Story,' 'a bug's life' and 'Monsters, Inc.' ""From the creators of 'Toy Story,' 'a bug's life,' 'Monsters, Inc.' and 'Finding Nemo.' "

And that's why Pixar is on the top of the heap right now.

But the heap is going to get more crowded with the addtion of Walt Disney Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation in the next two years.

Disney's "Chicken Little" comes out the first of July. We've already seen a clever teaser trailer - a point-of-view of animal reporters chasing the little rooster around. Sadly this little trailer was originally longer. It was trimmed by a few seconds, a few funny seconds of Zach Braff's Chicken Little stammering and stuttering after the reporters cornered him and before he pointed off-camera towards the blurred out pedestians. I have no idea why it was shortened, it's much jumpier and spastic now. And no, that's not a good thing.

The more tongue-in-cheek trailer for "Chicken Little" came out last week, attached to "The Incredibles". The trailer starts out with all manner of live-action shots, pulling a very X-Files vibe. Then the animated character runs at the screen. It's too bad, as that kind of trailer would play better before a live-action movie, such as National Treasure, than in front of an animated movie, such as The Incredibles. The joke is funnier if you're not expecting animation. Like that trailer for the "South Park" movie that evokes the memory of Walt Disney through the old-time footage, and then Cartman pops up on screen.

Either way, Disney is going to have an uphill battle promoting "Chicken Little." DreamWorks can say "from the creators of 'Shrek' and 'Sharks Tale' " and Pixar can just say "Pixar Pixar Pixar". But there is nothing "Disney" about "Chicken Little." There are no princesses, no fairy tale elements, no big Broadway melodies. And the voices are less a who's who than a simple 'who?' "Scrubs" and "Garden State" 's Zach Braff leads the group, followed by Amy Sedaris, Steve Zahn, Joan Cusack and Don Knotts. Not a whole lot for the marketing folk to work with. (Creatively, however, big name actors and actresses don't necessarily make the movie, look at the smaller name cast of "The Incredibles" that were, quite frankly, incredible ...)

So Disney faces a huge risk opening "Chicken Little." If this movie doesn't open with huge numbers, what will happen? Is there any chance that "Chicken Little" can open like the three computer animation movies of 2004? "Shrek 2," "Sharks Tale" and "The Incredibles" all set records. If the little rooster doesn't perform in line with these films, you can only assume there will be lots of unhappy Mousketeers in Burbank next July.

DreamWorks' "Madagascar," on the other hand, has everything going for it. First off, it looks like it'll be the first good looking DreamWorks Animated picture. Also the trailer throws in "From the creators of 'Shrek' and 'Sharks Tale' ". I'm sure that won't hurt. Lastly, DreamWorks has stunt cast the heck out of the picture, with names like Chris Rock, Ben Stiller, Jada Pinkett-Smith and David Schwimmer.

And look for Fox to do pretty much the same thing with their next animated film, "Robots," which is due in theaters in March of 2005. Because "Blue Sky" 's first project for that studio, "Ice Age," did so well  (That film -- during its initial domestic release -- grossed $176 million. Earning significantly more money than Disney's most successful traditionally animated films of the past five years -- 1999's "Tarzan" [$171 million] & 2002's "Lilo & Stitch" [$145 million] -- did), they can now promote this Chris Wedge movie as being "From the makers of  'Ice Age.' " Plus -- when it comes to promoting "Robots" -- Fox is sure to mention that Ewan McGregor, Halle Berry & Robin Williams are doing voices for the film.

So -- when it comes to hatching "Chicken Little" -- the Mouse clearly has its work cut out for it. That said, Disney doesn't have it as tough as Sony Pictures Animation.

Sony Pictures Animation, a division of Sony Pictures Digital, might have the most uphill battle of them all. They seem to be going the DreamWorks route of big name stars for their first movie, "Open Season," set to open in 2006. Martin Lawrence, Ashton Kutcher and Debra Messing provide voices for the main characters (a bear, a deer and a human), all inspired by the humor of syndicated cartoonist Steve Moore (In the Bleachers).

Because Sony didn't have a feature animation division to pilfer talent from, it has had to acquire artistic "free agents" from the other major studios. They've signed Jill Culton away from Pixar as director on "Open Season." Culton was head of story on "Monsters, Inc." and worked on the story team for "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2." Anthony Stacchi, co-Director of "Open Season," was recently part of the development team on the traditionally animated "Curious George" at Universal. The next film from Sony, the mock-umentary "Surf's Up," scheduled for a 2007 release, is being directed by Ash Brannon, who co-developed and co-directed "Toy Story 2" and Chris Buck, who directed Disney's "Tarzan." Sony definitely has pilfered the top talent from their competitors, but is 2006 a few years too late?

All of the talent flowing from one studio to the other means that each film will be more similar to the next in Production Design, Storytelling, and Technology. No studio will stand out with a specific "house style" at all. And sadly Fox's "Robots," DreamWorks' "Madagascar," Disney's "Chicken Little" and Pixar's "Cars" all coming out in 2005 is the tip of the iceberg. 2006 has "Wallace and Gromit" creators Aardman Animation joining the game with "Flushed Away," their first computer animation feature. Also coming out is Sony's "Open Season," Fox's "Ice Age II: Meltdown," Disney's "A Day with Wilbur Robinson" and some movie called "Shrek 3" from DreamWorks. Pixar might have a movie in there, but, as usual, they're extremely tight-lipped about what happens post- "Cars."

So what happens next? I doubt Disney, DreamWorks, Fox, Sony, Pixar, Aardman can all stay in the animation game releasing a movie or two each year. Who will hit a home run? Who will leave the park before the nine innings are up?

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