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This holiday season, it's ''A Bug's Life'' versus ''Prince of Egypt''

DreamWorks and Disney battle it out for animation domination

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Now it came to pass that a certain man went out of the House of Disney to sojourn in the Studio of DreamWorks. And the name of the man was Katzenberg. And the others who did dwelleth with him at DreamWorks were named Geffen and Spielberg. And they said unto their people, Come, let us also reap the harvest of animated films, and let us deal wisely with Disney, lest they beat us at the box office.

But behold, this new kingdom of DreamWorks would distress them not in the House of Disney. With a mighty hand and some blessed computer technology from their brethren in the Valley of Silicon, the House of Disney would anoint the screens with goodness of their own making, much as they had done for generation upon generation…

Hallelujah! The unholy war between the animation studios at DreamWorks and the Walt Disney Co. is finally more than just behind-the-scenes babel. DreamWorks — in a bid to dismantle Disney’s veritable monopoly on high-end animation — took the battle public last month by releasing Antz ahead of schedule. Soon you’ll see the explosion of the next two grenades — A Bug’s Life, Disney’s own insect feature, opening Nov. 25, and The Prince of Egypt, DreamWorks’ epic take on Moses’ story, due Dec. 18.

The clear winner in all this is, of course, the audience, which is now being treated to some of the most innovative animation to come along in years. But the story of how these movies got made is an eye-bugging drama of biblical proportions. It begins in 1994 when Jeffrey Katzenberg quit as chairman of Disney Studios, where he’d miraculously reignited the animation division with movies like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. He officially resigned Aug. 23, though he remained at the studio through September of that year — an important detail in the war of wills and words to follow.

On Aug. 25, director John Lasseter, the wizard from Pixar Animation Studios who was already working on Disney’s 1995 hit Toy Story, went to Disney with a pitch for A Bug’s Life, an animated movie about life inside an ant colony. Within a year of taking his place at DreamWorks, Katzenberg had given legs to his own animated ant movie — a project called Antz, featuring computer animation by Pacific Data Images.

Katzenberg has said he knew nothing about Lasseter’s pitch; and that it wasn’t until a DreamWorks executive named Nina Jacobson pitched an animated ant movie to him in 1995 that he ever considered doing Antz. But Lasseter was outraged. ”We were about a year and a half into our movie when we heard the news. My reaction was ‘Why? Why would Jeffrey do that?’ It was just yucky.” Adds Pixar Chairman and CEO Steve Jobs: ”There’s no disputing the fact that the day Jeffrey left Disney, he knew we were making A Bug’s Life; he knew what the story was and everything else.”

Katzenberg denied ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY’s repeated requests to be interviewed for this article, but DreamWorks producer Penney Finkelman Cox admits, ”We knew when we started making Antz that there was a movie called A Bug’s Life, but we didn’t know what part ants might have in it.”