Almost as long as there have been animated films, there have been complaints that they fall short of the Disney Standard. Sure, "An American Tail" was OK, but it was no "Bambi." Yeah, "Anastasia" was enchanting, but it was no "Snow White." True, "American Pop" displayed a certain rhythm, but it was no "Fantasia."
Which explains why DreamWorks is trying a new tactic with "The Prince of Egypt," the animated tale of Moses that opened nationwide Friday. Instead of inviting comparisons to the Disney classics of yore, studio co-founder (and former Disney executive) Jeffrey Katzenberg and his crew are attempting to separate themselves from them. Let Disney do the fairy tales and the kids' films, they insist. We're going to try something different, aimed at a different audience.
That may be the only way to match a studio that's not only the acknowledged master - when people talk about the golden age of film animation, they're talking about what Disney did 50 years ago - but has a seven-decade head start.
"At Disney, that's what the heritage is, that animation is used to tell fairy tales," says Katzenberg, who rejuvenated that studio's animation division (projects he oversaw included "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King") before leaving to co-found DreamWorks with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. "I loved making those fairy tales. I did not find that limiting or frustrating.
"The only thing that happened is that, in leaving Disney and starting DreamWorks, I had no interest in doing what it is that Disney does. That's their heritage, and I don't think anybody in the world does it as well as they do. For me to get into an enterprise in which the best I can do is to be Avis to their Hertz is just not something that would ever interest me in a million years."
The goal, he explains, was to do something "completely and instinctively different." And that's what he and the creative forces behind "The Prince of Egypt" believe they've done. The trick is getting people to think of the film not as a cartoon, but as an animated film - to regard animation as simply another storytelling technique.
"It's really difficult to communicate a new concept of animation, animation that's not a children's fairy tale," says producer Penney Finkelman Cox. "Animation is a technique for storytelling, and the story that we have to sell ... we have to sell it as a great piece of entertainment, and we have to sell it as a great ride, as a great action-adventure."
Adds art director Kathy Altieri: "The tone of the film dictated that we couldn't do what we'd done before. We couldn't do wacky, we couldn't do it in a kids' medium, because it's not a kids' story. It can't be that caricatured, it can't be that light and frivolous. We wanted a style that would let itself take itself more seriously, where we could look at our film and say, 'Hey, this is fine art.' "
And DreamWorks is gambling - to a reported tune of some $70 million to $100 million - that this fine art will appeal to all age groups.
"I think anything that's moving, affecting and inspiring is fun for me," says Finkelman Cox, "and I hope I'm the audience. I hope all my peer group is the audience, and I hope that anyone younger or older - I really hope this is for everyone. Because that's who I made it for."
What DreamWorks has come up with is certainly un-Disney. It's got a PG rating, something neither
Uncle Walt nor his successors would countenance. It's got the wrath of God leaving the first-born son of every Egyptian family dead (in a sequence far more explicit than the fate of Bambi's mom). And there's not a talking animal anywhere to be found. What comic relief there is is provided by the conjurings of the high priests Hotep and Huy (voiced by Steve Martin and Martin Short).
Not that anthropomorphism wasn't considered. Disney's films have done pretty well with talking crickets and singing crabs, and more than 70 years of tradition can be hard to buck.
"We went through that playing-it-safe mode," says director Brenda Chapman. "In the beginning, Rameses had cats, Moses had dogs. Moses had a valet sidekick that was going to be more comic. Steve Martin and Martin Short were going to be our sort-of Siegfried and Roy, we were going to do a sort-of Las Vegas campy number with [the song] 'Playing With the Big Boys.' But about six or
seven months into the shoot, we screened it and realized this just wasn't going to work, this is not a good way to tell the story."
"We had a lot of potential humor," says Finkelman Cox. "The more we came to know the material, to respect the material, to realize it was our responsibility to be faithful to the material, the more we had to say, 'This story has to stand on its own, you can't bolster it up with jokes.' "
Aiming an animated film at both children and adults is nothing new. In fact, animated films aimed at only adults or only kids have fared least well at the box office. Anyone who thinks "Pinocchio" wasn't made with adults in mind hasn't thought the movie through.
"Walt Disney was a genius, and there aren't many of them," says film critic Leonard Maltin, whose books include "The Disney Films" and "Of Mice and Magic," a history of animation on the big screen. "He understood that if he just made the films for kids, they wouldn't succeed. If parents didn't enjoy them too, he would fail."
Maltin isn't ready to predict how "The Prince of Egypt" will fare. But he says DreamWorks seems to understand the most important element of any animated film.
"Story, story, story. Everything else is important, but if you haven't got a great story and appealing characters, no matter how well you merchandise it, it's not going to succeed.
"Look at all those Don Bluth movies," he adds, recalling a former Disney animator who struck out on his own, creating such films as "All Dogs Go To Heaven" and "The Secret of Nimh." None of them burned up the box office.
"Don Bluth has never made a movie that wasn't attractive," Maltin says. "He knows how to do that. His weakness is story, always has been."
Katzenberg believes DreamWorks has found the right mix of story and technique in "The Prince of Egypt." Where is it written, he asks, that there's only one way to do animation - and only one studio that can do it well?
"I thought those [Disney] movies were such a different design than this," he says. "I thought they were brilliant ... but this is something quite different."
Pub date: 12/20/98