'Toon In Tomorrow

To many people, Hollywood animation means the Disney cartoon--which in a slow, six-decade decline has seemed increasingly aimed at the very young and insatiably sweet-toothed. Over the years, dozens of would-be animation moguls have threatened a revolution. But last year, the studio that proved a mouse can talk bounced back into animation's big time with a jabbering cartoon rabbit named Roger, followed by Oliver & Company, the highest-grossing single-release animated feature in history.

And starting Friday, as if to prove that the third time's the charm, Disney will be reaffirming its position at the medium's forefront with its 28th animated feature, The Little Mermaid--an irresistible fantasy that recaptures the humor, vitality and timelessness of Uncle Walt's early, hand-drawn classics.

Yes, The Little Mermaid has all the formulaic trappings of cute, anthropomorphized Disneyana. But it entertains like a razzle-dazzle Broadway musical, crammed with witty visual details, flamboyant Busby Berkeley-style production numbers and a passel of sly and sassy tunes by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, that celebrated songwriting team responsible for Little Shop of Horrors.

Disney's first animated fairy tale since Sleeping Beauty thirty years ago, The Little Mermaid is based on Hans Christian Andersen's story of a young mermaid who yearns to join the human world after meeting the prince of her dreams. The heroine gets both help and hindrance from a lively cast of undersea creatures--including a Jamaican crab who wails like Bob Marley, a deliciously ruthless octo-legged sea witch and a monumentally misinformed seagull.

With the exception of comedian Buddy Hackett as the gull, the voice actors have been cast from Broadway rather than sitcoms and game shows, giving the Little Mermaid soundtrack an instant freshness. But it's the script, the songs (which are woven into the plot, adding to the film's sense of theatricality) and mostly the animation--splashes of bright, rich colors and fluid movements--that make the characters memorable.

For those purists who feared the Hollywood animator's art was on its last, wobbly legs, The Little Mermaid shows there's plenty of life in the old form yet.

The company bearing Walt Disney's signature logo has dominated that form so long, it's generally assumed that Mr. Disney invented it. Wrong. He only perfected it. A prime factor of Disney's success was his progressive outlook in the technical field. After introducing frame-by-frame synchronization of dialogue and music in 1928's Steamboat Willie, he added glorious color with Flowers and Trees in 1932. He became the first to use a storyboard in planning a motion picture, and he sponsored the development of the multiplane camera, which creates the illusion of depth and is still regarded as the medium's single most important advancement.

When Walt Disney died in 1965, so, it seemed, did animation technology. Without it, theatrical cartoons became increasingly expensive to make and increasingly unprofitable to release. So Hollywood naturally became increasingly reluctant to invest in them.

Enter the microchip.
Disney, the ultimate fount of hand-drawn cels (those clear acetate sheets that make up a single frame), currently uses computers only to generate backgrounds and special effects. As it continues to perfect the use of digital techniques as creative tools, the company hopes to raise animation to new levels of artistry while continuing to lower its cost. (Disney refuses to divulge financial information on its films, but in the last two years the price tag on an average animated feature has dropped from $12 million to around $3 million.)

Conventional wisdom says classic "full animation" will never make a comeback because it's too costly and time-consuming. Not so, says Mermaid co-writer and co-director Ron Clements, interviewed at the film's recent Orlando, Florida, press launch. "Once we get our computers up to speed, we'll be able to do things that animators of the Thirties and Forties could only dream about."

"Computers generate a level of believability and depth that up to now would have been difficult, if not impossible, to pull off," adds Clements' partner, John Musker. "But you have to be careful. Computers aren't a cure-all panacea. Animation is an artist's medium. The computer should only be used to help speed the process."

Armed with the mighty microchip, the Disney factory is in the midst of a major animation push. In various stages of production are The Rescuers Down Under (a sequel to 1977's The Rescuers), due next year; a Mickey Mouse featurette based on The Prince and the Pauper; musical features derived from Beauty and the Beast and 1001 Arabian Nights (both with scores by Ashman and Menken); and two new Roger Rabbit shorts, including Roller Coaster Rabbit, set for double-billing with a live-action feature next summer.

These films, like The Little Mermaid, represent a rare animated breed: They're made entirely (or close to it) in the U.S. Almost unnoticed, much of America's animation business has taken advantage of lower costs found in Japan, South Korea, and--of all places--Dublin, Ireland, the headquarters of Disney's leading cartoon rival (see related story on this page). Although Disney ships its TV-show animation work overseas, company chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg insists that all animated theatrical fare will continue to be made at home.

"For Mermaid, we had a minimal amount of inking and painting done in China," he says, "but I can't foresee having to go out of the country again. We're ready to do everything right here. Five years ago, there were 170 employees in our two feature animation departments. Today there are over 650. We're committed."

Katzenberg views The Little Mermaid as a "second coming-out party for animation. There was a time when animated films weren't solely perceived as children's films; they were perceived as movies. I think Mermaid will help us find our way out of that isolated area."

Vice Chairman Roy E. Disney, Walt's look-alike nephew, believes the renaissance began two years ago. "The real turnaround started with The Great Mouse Detective," he observes. "While not a spectacular success, it did a lot for us in the sense that people saw it and said, `Yeah! That's what they used to do!' And the reaction we got from Roger and Oliver was, `My God! I actually liked a Disney animated film!' Each of those movies was enormously helpful to the broader picture of the art. They spread the word that it's okay to like cartoons."

Lyricist Howard Ashman, who also co-produced The Little Mermaid, likes cartoons. In fact, the award-winning theatrical whiz is thinking of switching careers for them. "This may be the last place to do musical theatre," he says. "Certainly the Broadway musical is in deep water, and the conventional screen musical is dead. But somehow, it's still comfortable to see animated characters break into song and dance. Storytelling music is at home here.

"Also, animation is the most truly collaborative medium there is. You always hear the big cliche about how collaborative theatre is, but usually there's one person calling all the shots. It's an auteur form. Animation isn't. Everyone leaves his mark."

Roy Disney agrees. "Look at the credits. They're five minutes long. And there's not a soul listed who can say, `That's my idea, that's his idea.' When it works, the whole project blends into one idea.

"You know, for as long as I can remember, I've been asked to define `The Disney Magic.' That's dangerous territory. The best you can do is to make movies you like. Well, I've seen The Little Mermaid several times, and I still like it. To me it says, `Hey! we're back in the business.'

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Michael Burkett