When he starts on a new movie for the Walt Disney Co., animator Glen Keane likes to pass out a slender book called Art & Fear. It helps him and the artists he supervises cultivate their inner fraidy cats, the better to tame them. ”Fear is a really important element in making any kind of art,” says the 48-year-old draftsman, a 28-year Disney veteran and the master designer behind the buffaloesque Beast and the plucky mermaid Ariel, among many other characters. ”You have to sort of…not know if you can do it. That’s what helps drive you.”
The inspirational tome was never more relevant for Keane and Co. than in the anxious, uncharted course of making Treasure Planet, Disney’s Thanksgiving-weekend cartoon release. The $90 million-plus feature, which reimagines Robert Louis Stevenson’s adventure novel Treasure Island as a space fantasy decked out with flying galleons, represents much more than just Disney’s bid to snatch a share of the holiday-season box office from the jackpots hogged by Harry and the hobbits. As a feature-length cartoon that seeks to synthesize traditional hand-drawn animation and computer-generated (CG) era visuals, it’s a referendum on the studio’s future course — and on Keane’s. ”This film is either the first of its kind [at Disney] or the last,” says codirector Ron Clements, who with John Musker also helmed The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. ”I hope it’s the first.”
The answer may already be distressingly clear. Treasure Planet’s opening holiday-weekend gross of $16.6 million was among the most disappointing ever for a major animated release. If the film doesn’t top $100 million — an uphill battle — by the end of its maiden theatrical voyage, it could strand Disney’s veteran corps of ‘toon artists in mighty choppy waters. In fact, the studio’s long-lived feature animation branch, which goes all the way back to 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, is already engulfed in a sort of perfect economic storm.
The public’s appetite for fully CG films, from Disney partner Pixar as well as new competitors, has exploded. Meantime, the studio’s own traditional-style features have brought sputtering returns. And despite the solid success this summer of Disney’s largely hand-drawn Lilo & Stitch, management is hungry for ways to dress up its oldfangled 2-D craft with more newfangled 3-D accessories.
That’s where Keane, perhaps the studio’s most gifted traditional animator, saw a chance to buoy both Treasure Planet and his colleagues’ careers. ”As we marry with the computer,” he says, ”I want to make sure that artists like me keep hanging on to our pencils.”
Toward that end, he teamed with CG artist Eric Daniels to make the character of interstellar pirate John Silver — an ursine alien take on the original’s ”Long John” — a walking experiment in pencils-meet-pixels convergence. Silver is rendered partly as a computer-animated cyborg (as supervised by Daniels), with a metallic peg leg, a high-tech telescopic eyepiece, and a robotic arm that’s dexterous in ways no hand-drawn form could be. But the rest of his bear-like body was penciled in by Keane and a crew of 2-D craftsmen, built around a voice provided by stage actor Brian Murray.