Animation Rejuvenation

November 26, 1992

Walt Disney Productions several years ago turned up a tarnished lamp it had lost long before. The discovery has been spewing riches ever since.

Disney first rubbed the lamp with the animated picture, "The Little Mermaid," in 1989. The film drew $84 million into North American box offices, did well in video release and continues, three years after the movie, to spawn toy products.

Last year, Disney released "Beauty and the Beast," a story old as time that Walt had dreamed of making before he died. "Beauty" outdid "Mermaid" by $50 million to become the top grossing animated film of all time -- and the first nominated for an Oscar as Best Picture. Disney's stock price jumped last spring as soon as the company announced -- surprise! -- that the picture would go on the home video market; sure enough, within days of the release a month ago, it became the top-seller in the brief history of videodom.

This holiday season, Disney is banking on an urchin to win hearts the same way as did the mermaid, the bookish beauty and the beast. "Aladdin," the Arabian Nights tale of a boy, a girl and a chameleonic genie, just hit the theaters. It is, as did its predecessors, generating rave reviews and monster box-office receipts. Toy spinoffs were out even before the film.

Disney now has taken several animation classics out of cold storage and turned them into found money, notably "101 Dalmatians," the 1961 picture that grossed $60 million in its re-release. And Disney isn't the only studio tapping the renewed affection for film animation: Steven Spielberg, creator of some of the most popular movies with humans, has also had a few animated hits about a mouse named Fievel. His cartoon version of the Broadway hit, "Cats," now in production, is also much anticipated.

What's behind this phenomenon? The "baby boomlet" of the last decade surely has a lot to do with it. Baby boomers, the first TV animation generation, don't mind parting with some of their disposable income on the few wholesome offerings out there for kids. Also, the Disney films, with musical scores the likes of which haven't been heard in 30 years, have smitten adult audiences, too. Some of that credit goes to the late Howard Ashman, a native Baltimorean, who co-wrote the Academy Award-winning tunes in "Beauty and The Beast," and wrote some lyrics for Aladdin as well.

For Disney, it remains to be seen whether a blockbuster with 6 6TC boy in the title role will go over as big as the last two films, which provided young girls with rare and needed heroines. Until audiences are satiated, however, Disney and its competitors intend to keep rubbing that lamp.

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