BetteBack November 13, 1988: Bette Signs On To Oliver And Company

Syracuse Herald Journal
November 13, 1988


Animation is painstaking, time-consuming work. For every 5 to 7 feet of-hand-drawn figures, amounting to a fleeting five seconds on screen, an artist labors an entire week.

One 70-minute feature film, like the studio’s new release, “Oliver and Company,” which opens nationwide Friday, spreads over four years. A full year of that four is. devoted solely to the animation.

It seems hardly worth the trouble. But within four years, the number of animators at the Disney emporium has leaped from 170 to 400, causing the one-floor building in suburban Glendale to strain at the seams.

When “The House the Mouse Built” officially opens its new Florida, studios this spring, 80 more will be added to the payroll IS IT A MATTER of pride over dollars? Scarcely. Although ^Walt’s nephew, Roy E. Disney, serves as vice chairman of the board and corporate officer, the day-dreamifigdays of his uncle are over.

Hard dollars are at stake and the new Disney regime, headed by studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, president Michael Eisner and .Frank Wells, means to put them in the company coffers.

“Animation is not perceived as merely a children’s vehicle. It has a wider univers e to it,” says Katzenberg. That wider universe is the ancillary market where product spreads from theater to home .video to cable. A few years ago, only network TV and theatrical rerelease brought additionaTrevenue from showing movies.

Ancillary also includes the lucrative licensing of toys, recordings of tunes from musical films, story and comic books and, in the Disney realm, attractions in its theme parks.

STILL. LIKE ANT other industry, animation thrives on constancy, not on churning out all these products once every four years. For Disney, it has been successful because the classics, such as “Snow White,” “Pinocchio” and “Cinderella,” are ever green, as are those
park rides. ‘”¢’_” ”¢

Several years ago, Disney thought it had found a solution to speed up production when computer technology changed the face of the art But critics and the public alike rejected the results in “Robin Hood” Animators literally went back to the drawing board. And a compromise was arrived at where characters would continue to be hand drawn while computers would -be used for the backgrounds.

“Oliver and Company” marks the dawn of a new era – one animated feature per year. Besides the combination of computer and hand drawn, the process has been stepped up with the addition of more animators and the expansion of project development.

Next year, Disney has its choice of three features. In various stages of development are “Rescuers Down Under,” sequel to the 1987 hit, an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, “The Little Mermaid,” and an Arabian Nights fantasy

ALTHOUGH INSPIRED by Charles Dickens’ classic, “Oliver Twist.” there is a contemporary spin on the 27th animated film from Disney. The simple fact that the story has been updated to the ’80s and has been set in New York City, rather than London, indicates a shift from the traditional approach More significant is the presence of a pair of superstar rock singers, Billy Joel and Huey Lewis Joel was approached to sing one of the tunes, but was so enthusiastic that he wound up doing the scroungy dog, Dodger.

Also important is the casting of Bette Midler as Georgette, the pampered poodle. Her last four films all were hits for Disney.

A couple of new-to-Disney musical voices were recruited for the score. Barry Manilow, Midler’s former accompanist, favored his friend with “Perfect Ain’t Easy,” while the “Little Shop of Horrors” composer, Howard Ashman, turned out Lewis’ solo, “Once Upon a Time in New
York City.”

Like the look of Manhattan in the movie, these performers and composers bring a more hip look to the film. Katzenberg admits reflecting the ’80s pleases him. So does having such popular music artists as Joel and Lewfs. But he contends that the studio never will buckle into casting a performer for marquee value.

NOR DOES HE believe the look and sound of “Oliver and Company” will become dated and cost the studio money in rereleases down the line. The executive says, “I don’t believe it will hurt the shelf life Even the music won’t date. Lewis’ ballad should be valid for 50 years
Even Billy Joel’s song is a classic piece of music. Look at ‘West Side Story.’ I£ hasn’t aged a bit.”

However, casting can and does influence animators. Voices are recorded before the characters are animated So, although a semblance of character has been sketched, the addition of voices often changes the final look on screen.

In “Oliver,” animators say they were inspired by Cheech Mann’s “spontaneity and energy” as the chihuahua Tito The ratty-looking canine emerges as the scene-stealer of the film.

Creating performances in this style would give method actors gray hair. They would have been stunned, as well, to learn that Midler and Mann didn’t record at the sametime, despite acting, singing and dancing together.

WHETHER “OLIVER and Company” rockets to the top matters only marginally. It is “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” that sealed the happy fate of animation at Disney With more than $100 million already in the till, its lure of both adult and child audiences and its praise for ground-breaking techniques, Disney and “Rabbit” partner Steven Spielberg have agreed to agree.

Katzenberg ended the rumors by announcing officially a sequel will be produced, adding, “It’s too early to say when, but everyone wants to do it.”

Two other projects will spin off that megahit, the studio chairman revealed. “We are exploring the notion of a featurette involving the primary characters. And we’re going to do a couple of Maroon cartoons. You know, like the one with Roger and Baby Herman that opened the film.”

Featurette, a once proud word that had vanished from studio vocabulary for many years, looks to become a staple once more. Besides the Maroons, Katzenberg said the addition of the Florida studio will mark the rebirth of cartoon shorts, starring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and other favorite characters. Ӣ

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