The Shrek Effect

For as long as anyone can remember, the word "animation" has been synonymous with the name Walt Disney. They have ruled this roost unchallenged ever since Mickey was a newborn mouse. Of the six highest-grossing animated films of all time, all are Disney. At the top of the heap roars "The Lion King," with $312.9 million in domestic grosses alone. But the movie's box-office revenue is only part of its remarkable success: add in merchandising, video, the stage spinoff and theme-park attractions, and "Lion King" has generated an estimated $1 billion in profits--not revenue, profits--for the Disney empire.

Numbers like that can make the competition drool with envy. Into the breach rushed Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Bros. and DreamWorks, hoping to loosen Disney's stranglehold on the market. Last year, after the sci-fi fantasy "Titan A.E." crashed and burned at the box office, Fox retreated from the field in defeat, closing down its animation department. Warners, after the disappointment of the acclaimed "Iron Giant," has reduced its production to a trickle. DreamWorks mounted the most furious assault, led by revenge-minded former Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, who had overseen Disney's great run of animated-musical hits but left the studio on bitter terms with former colleague Michael Eisner. But neither "Antz," the self-important "Prince of Egypt" nor the lambasted "Road to El Dorado" made a serious dent in Disney's armor.

But thanks to a big green ogre named "Shrek," the landscape has suddenly shift-ed. Its computer-generated sword has Mickey Mouse wounded and bleeding--and not just because of the satirical swipes this DreamWorks gem takes at its rival studio. With more than $160 million in grosses in its first three and a half weeks alone, "Shrek" has emerged as the summer movie to beat, animated or otherwise; even Disney's live-action "Pearl Harbor" will get slimed in a head-to-head battle for box-office supremacy. An IMAX version of "Shrek" is in the works, and a pleased-as-punch Katzenberg has already ordered up a sequel.

With its perfectly timed comic beats, its hip irreverence, its surprising love story and its shiny computer-generated imagery (CGI)--a combo that seems to have tickled adults' funny bones as much as children's and charmed women as much as guys--"Shrek" has some Disney executives privately worried. This week Disney unveils its animated summer rival, "Atlantis: The Lost Empire," an ambitious, PG-rated action adventure that faces stiff competition in the marketplace. "I look at 'Shrek' and say, 'Yes, it's formidable'," admits Thomas Schumacher, the head of Disney's feature-animation division. "But I also have to face 'Tomb Raider' on the same day, 'Dr. Dolittle 2' one week later and 'Cats & Dogs' after that. I'm going to get pummeled on all sides." Is the real story "Disney: The Lost Empire"? One analyst familiar with the studio's finances thinks that "Atlantis" (which is aimed at the same young-male audience "Titan A.E." vainly pursued) could be the first film in the studio's franchise to merely break even.

And now the dueling studios have a new prize to fight over: the Oscar. This year's Academy Awards will be the first to include a category for best animated feature. With the exception of "Beauty and the Beast," no animated movie has ever been up for best picture, and the animators were feeling slighted. "Atlantis" highlights both Disney's animation strengths and its ever more apparent weaknesses, and it raises a question: has the hallowed Disney legacy become as much a burden as an asset? The movie is a curious hybrid of old and new techniques--mixing traditional cel animation with CGI--and of old and new sensibilities. Its hero is gangly, smart young linguistics expert Milo Thatch (voiced by Michael J. Fox), who leads a motley team of mercenaries on a dangerous underwater expedition to find the mythical lost city of Atlantis. At first the tale, set in 1914, seems like a musty attempt to evoke the spirit of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," but once it reaches Atlantis it turns into a kind of subterranean "2001: A Space Odyssey," complete with trippy light shows and New Agey philosophy.

This part is good, bombastic fun, a feast for the eyes and ears (Gary Rydstrom's sound effects are aural dazzlers). The awe it evokes may be kitschy, but we'll take awe any way we can get it. Still, the Atlantean fireworks coexist uneasily with the tepid humor of the first half and a cast of human characters that seems drawn from a back drawer in the Disney archives. In true Disney fashion, the movie kills off the Atlantean heroine Kida's mother in the first few minutes (how many moms must die in the service of The Mouse?), then jumps to Washington, D.C., where it introduces an eccentric old billionaire who will fund the expedition, a slinky femme fatale, a benevolent black doctor, a feisty Latina truck driver, a sardonic chain-smoking woman out of a '40s film, a deceptively affable military commander (James Garner) and Don Novello's genuinely funny demolitions expert, Vinny Santorini. (The voice casting is decidedly old school compared with "Shrek's" Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers.) This unlikely gaggle is meant to contain something for every demographic, but it only accentuates the fact that "Atlantis," for all its technical razzle-dazzle, seems too highfalutin to appeal to children yet not sophisticated enough to seduce adults.

Disney's "Dinosaur"--which, like "Atlantis," has no musical numbers--suffered from a similar problem. It soared visually, but the story line remained earthbound, in thrall to a Disney family tradition that requires nobly sentimental messages. All the best work that has emerged from Disney recently--the two "Toy Storys" and "A Bug's Life"--has come from John Lasseter and Pixar. These movies, like "Shrek," seem far more plugged in to the contemporary pulse. One scene in DreamWorks' fractured fairy tale that sends audiences into fits of delight is the moment when Princess Fiona serenades a feathered friend like the heroine of Disney's classic "Cinderella." Uh-oh, you think, now things are going to get sappy and pious. Then pop goes the swelling birdy: a perfect slapstick symbol of the sea change in public taste.

In the era of "South Park," "Chicken Run" and "Shrek," Disney has good reason to watch its back. Further complicating matters is the fact that live-action films, relying more and more on CGI to create fantasy worlds, are edging closer and closer to animation. The anything-is-possible advantage that hand-drawn images used to have over photographed reality means nothing today, when anything is possible in videogame-inspired fantasies such as "Tomb Raider" or a dino-ridden "Jurassic Park III." This summer alone will bring such category-defying features as "Osmosis Jones," which mixes Bill Murray with cartoon characters; "Final Fantasy," whose lifelike leads are all computer generated; and "Cats & Dogs," where audiences will be guessing which critter is CGI, which a puppet and which the real McCoy. The Academy may have an increasingly tough time figuring out just which movies should qualify for that new Oscar of theirs.

Ironically, what "Shrek" and the "Toy Story" movies have over almost all of the recent Hollywood products is the old-fashioned virtue of tighter, more focused storytelling. These witty screenplays leave most of their live-action competitors in the dust: there's not an ounce of extraneous fat on their bones. Every scene has a purpose, a point and a payoff. Inspired by the constraints of 90-minute running times (to fit kids' short attention spans), these CGI movies seem to be the only studio products these days that understand that good movies are built from the bottom up. You never hear of an animated movie rushing into production before the script is finished, which happens all the time in the ego-dominated world of star-studded, special-effects-driven live-action movies. (If the new comedy "Evolution" had spent as much effort on its screenplay as it did on its computerized creatures, it might have gotten the belly laughs it aspires to, and not just chuckles.) Genuine team efforts, these delightful concoctions may be on the cutting edge of the newest technologies, but they are throwbacks to the old Hollywood studio system, when craftsmanship counted.

Disney may lose the current round to DreamWorks, but the battle for supremacy in the New World Order of animation is just beginning. The folks at the House That Walt Built aren't ready to concede that animation Oscar to "Shrek" just yet. They think their next Pixar feature--"Monsters, Inc.," coming in November--is going to give the big green guy a run for his money. And we'll all be grateful if they're right. The way so-called "grown-up" Hollywood movies have looked this year, animation may be the audience's best hope.