Arts & Culture » Eye Drive

A workplace that's a real bear



You'd think the animators at Disney/MGM Studios would be thrilled.

After all, the buzz swirling around Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida's next release, "Lilo & Stitch," has been nothing but positive. Test audiences seem to love this offbeat cartoon about the unlikely friendship between a 6-year-old Hawaiian girl and a genetic freak from another world. Which is why the Mouse predicts "Lilo" will do huge box office once the film hits theaters in June.

In years past this would be cause for celebration. But that was then. This is now. Disney Co. cost cutters are constantly on the prowl, and being an animator of a film that's anticipated to be a hit doesn't translate into job security anymore.

But wait, you say. They wouldn't really shut down the Central Florida animation complex, would they? They spent almost $80 million to build those animators their own state-of-the-art studio in 1998. Surely Mickey wouldn't just up and pull the plug.

Tell that to the folks at Disney's Secret Lab. These California-based animators -- who created the photo-realistic reptiles that roamed through the summer 2000 release "Dinosaurs" -- also had a state-of-the-art studio created just for them. Mickey invested more than $100 million into acquiring and then retrofitting an old Lockheed plant in Burbank with top-of-the-line equipment. The lucky artists assigned to the hi-tech facility had the very best to work with.

Of course, the Mouse only OK'd the Secret Lab because Disney execs dreamed the unit would regularly churn out films at least as artistically ambitious (or, more to the point, at least as financially successful) as Pixar's "A Bug's Life" and "Toy Story" series. But when "Dinosaurs" proved to be an expensive disappointment, Disney appeared to lose its enthusiasm for homegrown computer-animated fare.

Killed was the unit's followup project, "Wild Life," a satirical version of "Pygmalion" built around a cross-dressing pachyderm called Ella Font. And just last week Disney announced that the Secret Lab will close its doors, barely two years after it officially opened. These days, all that cutting-edge technology is only being used to update animators' resumés.

So the folks in Florida are nervous -- and more so because their already-in-production follow-up to "Lilo & Stitch" -- titled "Bears" -- is said to have story problems.

Mind you, this project's had story problems since its inception in the mid-1990s. Set in the Pacific Northwest before the white man arrived in the New World, Bears tells the somewhat mystical tale (at least by Disney standards) of Phoenix, a young Native American. This 15-year-old is angered when his father -- the tribe's kindly and wise chief -- is accidentally killed by a mother bear trying to protect her cubs.

Immediately wanting revenge, Phoenix urges his older brother -- the tribe's new chief -- to form a hunting party to kill the bear quickly. When his brother refuses, the rebellious teen rushes into the wilderness to act on his own. Wanting to teach this hot-headed young man a lesson, the spirits of the forest turn Phoenix into the very thing he wants to kill: a bear. To survive, Phoenix must befriend another bear. This wise old grizzly (not-so-originally named Griz) then tries to teach the adolescent the ways of the forest.

Naturally the angry teen comes around, learning valuable lessons about the cycle of life that come in handy when the bewitched young man learns that his brother finally has formed a hunting party. Now determined to avenge their father's death, the new chief has ordered that all bears be killed. In order to keep himself and his new friend safe, Phoenix must tap all that he remembers from his days as a human as well as what he has learned as a bear.

The movie tries to marry Native American folklore to elements borrowed from Disney's two biggest animated hits, "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King." But at a test screening last month, studio execs found the first act too serious, the second act too comic and the third act just confusing. The production team was sent back to Orlando with orders to simplify their troubled storyline.

The unsaid message: Do it quickly. Rumors are flying that, among its other cost reductions, Disney wants to cut back its current two-new-animated-films-per-year production schedule. If so, the problems would make "Bears" a candidate for cancellation, putting a few more Central Florida animators out on the street.

Is it any wonder that, in spite of having an apparently sure hit movie in the can, Disney's Florida animators are feeling like they're barely hanging on themselves?

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