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Disney pencils in a return to hand-drawn film

Russ Britt
MarketWatch (MCT)

NEW ORLEANS - After what will be a five-year hiatus from the medium, Walt Disney Co. on Thursday unveiled a plan to jump back into traditional hand-drawn animation.

At its annual meeting, held in Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, Disney announced that its film "The Frog Princess" would be set in the stricken city and is scheduled for release in 2009.

It will be Walt Disney's first foray into traditional, two-dimensional animation - the medium that propelled the company to prominence under its founder and namesake - since the 2004 effort "Home on the Range," which fizzled at the box office.

Of late, the recently acquired Pixar has provided most of Disney's box-office momentum in the field of animation, with such hits as "Cars" and "The Incredibles."

"This movie is going to be classic Disney, but you've never seen this before," said John Lasseter, the creative chief of Pixar, who now oversees all of Disney's animation operations.

It's unclear, however, whether the company intends to follow "Frog Princess" with another hand-drawn effort. Studio spokeswoman Heidi Trotta said there Disney had no announcement on other hand-drawn films.

The move is a gamble because Disney's other recent hand-drawn efforts have joined "Home on the Range" as box-office disappointments. 2002's "Treasure Planet" was a huge failure, and the company was forced almost immediately to take a write-down on the $140 million-budget film.

To boot, "Treasure Planet" directors John Musker and Ron Clements are again at the helm for "Frog Princess." While the 2002 movie took a bath, the duo also was responsible for Disney hits "Aladdin" and "The Little Mermaid," the latter of which launched the company into its most recent era of animated hits, in 1989.

Laura Martin, an analyst for Soleil Securities, said "Frog Princess" has a chance at success if its creators manage to come up with compelling material.

"It doesn't matter what the technology is. It matters what the story is," she said. "It's clear that Disney is trying to integrate the best of the past with its animation franchise."

Asked whether audiences are becoming inundated with animated features, Chuck Oberleitner, who publishes the Disney fan site O-meon.com, said the lines are blurring between live-action and animated films as some movies now simply place actors in front of screens and use computers to create the backgrounds.

"There were over 200 live-action features last year, and no one said anything about too much saturation," Oberleitner said.

Disney's Lasseter said "Frog Princess" will be a musical in the same vein as "Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast." And it will feature, for the first time, an African-American lead character.

Oscar-winning songwriter and New Orleans native Randy Newman is writing the songs for the film and was on hand at Disney's shareholder gathering to perform one with a brass band.

It was as emotional a gathering as a shareholder meeting could get, as roughly 300 shareholders showed up, many of them from the New Orleans region. Several of those had had flooding in their homes.

Betty Edler, a Disney shareholder and resident of suburban Metairie, was at the meeting with her husband, Edward. The couple's home was deluged with 6 inches of water - a modest amount in comparison with most of the region's afflicted homes - but enough to force the Edlers to tear out sheetrock and completely revamp their first floor.

A shareholder for 10 years, Edler was grateful to be able to attend her first Disney meeting, which she said had come at an opportune time. "This city can use any kind of boost it can get," she said.

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