Is the Magic Kingdom prime for a coup?
Is the Mouse - grown-up, paunchy and maybe a little too self-satisfied - ready for a mugging?
Three major studios are getting ready to go head-to-head with the Walt Disney Co. on its hard-won turf, the animated feature.
This week, 20th Century Fox releases “Anastasia,” a modern fairy tale produced and directed by the best-known graduates of the Disney factory, Don Bluth and Gary Goldman.
DreamWorks Pictures and Warner Bros. - planning 1998 releases for “Prince of Egypt” and “Quest for Camelot,” respectively - are closely watching “Anastasia.” So are others in the big-bucks neighborhood.
“If it works, others might take heart,” Bluth said. “Disney’s worried to death.”
The producers accuse Disney of trying to squelch “Anastasia” by re-releasing “The Little Mermaid” last week and releasing “Flubber” a week later. The reissue of “The Little Mermaid” is nothing new for Disney, which has routinely re-released its animated features every six or seven years. “Snow White” has been released eight or nine times, according to David Davis, film analyst for the Los Angeles-based investment firm Houlihan.
Disney spokeswoman Terry Curtin said the releases were planned long before they learned of “Anastasia’s” release date, and that Fox was trying to drum up business by selling a “sexy story” to the media.
“Pepsi doesn’t say, ‘Coke isn’t letting us in on the market,”’ she said. “We can’t stop them from getting in movie theaters.”
The musical feature “The Little Mermaid,” already available on video, opened in third place at the box office with $9.8 million over the past weekend. It opened with $5.9 million when it was first released in 1989. “Anastasia” was shown only at one New York theater, earning a respectable $125,000. It opened in wide release Friday.
Attempts to compete with Disney’s feature-length cartoons are nothing new, and date back at least as far as 1941 and the Fleischer brothers’ “Mr. Bug Goes to Town” - released just four years after the Disney film that launched the genre, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
“Mr. Bug,” a charmingly detailed fable inspired by Frank Capra films, famously bombed and so set the tone for subsequent attempts: If you dare go up against Disney, do it modestly. Use cheap overseas labor for the animation, no-name actors for the vocals and if you make a little money, pat yourself vigorously on the back.
Non-Disney animated features were distinguished by almost cowering marketing: no tie-ins and quick TV spots, a brief matinee showing in suburban cinemas and then onto video.
Quality was also unimpressive: sometimes pleasing, but never memorable and certainly never approaching the breakthroughs associated with the Mouse Factory.
It was the amazing success of Disney’s “The Lion King” in 1993 that changed all that. Other major studios took note of earnings in excess of $330 million.
Fox went straight for Bluth and Goldman, the only team to score profits - albeit modest ones - with productions pitted directly against Disney blockbusters, including “An American Tail” (1986) and “All Dogs Go to Heaven” (1989).
The studio set them up on 66,000 square feet of prime Arizona real estate and provided them with state-of-the-art computer techniques, including scanners that create the closest thing to 3D around so that you don’t need goofy-looking tinted glasses.
It also typecast top-level actors and actresses for the voice parts - spunky Meg Ryan plays the spunky princess Anastasia, and sleazy-cool John Cusack plays the sleazy-cool con man Dimitri.
Perhaps most significantly, Fox is not stinting on the promotion: Tie-ins include everything from jewelry to bananas to CD-ROMs.
The studio wants a return on its $100 million investment, and producers anxiously note that the last two Disney releases, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Hercules,” barely earned that much.
The anxiety is manifest in the close watch Fox took on the script. Previous Bluth/Goldman outings have been praised for their animation but criticized for shallow story lines, and the studio insisted they select one out of a dozen existing properties now owned by Fox.
It came down to “My Fair Lady,” the 1964 Rex Harrison/Audrey Hepburn vehicle, and “Anastasia,” the 1956 movie starring Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner.
“‘My Fair Lady’ had been done too well,” Bluth said. “Audrey Hepburn put the peg in it.”
Instead, they went with the story of the youngest daughter of Czar Nicholas, long rumored to have been the sole survivor of the 1917 murder of the royal Romanov family by revolutionaries.
The 1956 movie takes place years later in Paris, with a con artist’s attempt to train a fake Anastasia to reap the lavish reward offered by the surviving Romanovs.
Bluth and Goldman saw the depressing original as a launching point. They wound up discarding the unhappy ending. In their version, Anastasia is indeed the princess (credit that 1990s phenomenon, repressed memory syndrome), but they maintained the two principals’ journeys of self-discovery.
The writers skirted the complex issue of the Russian Revolution by blaming the murder of the Romanovs on the fulfillment of a curse by Rasputin. The priest-gone-wrong, voiced by Christopher Lloyd, pursues Anastasia from the grave.
The film’s charm lies in its look: There’s a thrilling train wreck, Anastasia moves with the appropriate assurance of a young woman who does not realize her own grace, Dimitri’s desperate con is reflected in well-observed tics, and the dance sequences are stunning.