Disney Animators Cite Cheapness as Big Cause of Sinking Atlantis

If you haven’t witnessed it yourself, someone has surely told you about the scene in DreamWorks SKG’s Shrek in which the title ogre finds his beloved swamp overrun with Disney characters, from Cinderella to Tinkerbell. “Dead broad off the table!” Shrek bellows in a Scottish burr, in reference to the casketed, comatose Snow White, exiled there by the venal, solipsistic and short Lord Farquaad, who happens to look a whole lot like the tall, real-life Disney chief Michael Eisner–the longtime nemesis of Jeffrey Katzenberg, former Disney studios chief and current DreamWorks partner and Shrek producer.

But in order to apply this giddy image to show business, you first have to turn it inside out: It is Mr. Eisner who has found Shrek squatting on his once-unassailable turf, threatening the remnants of Walt Disney’s animation empire.

Ordinarily, the pugilistic Mr. Eisner would have something in his arsenal to fend off any challenger to Disney’s summer superiority. But those prospects seem to be dimming. On June 15, Disney released Atlantis: The Lost Empire , a damp, airless cartoon that grossed only $20 million in its opening weekend, making it the poorest summer debut in Disney’s recent history. And this past Christmas there was The Emperor’s New Groove , a minor addition to the Disney canon, the first animated feature to be green-lighted after Mr. Katzenberg’s 1994 departure.

Indeed, it’s been a long while since Disney trotted out an honest-to-goodness children’s blockbuster. Pixar’s Toy Story and A Bug’s Life were made out-of-house, in San Francisco. And don’t even mention The Tigger Movie .

No, Disney was reborn in the late 1980′s with Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and the profit centers called Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King –movies that Mr. Katzenberg micromanaged when he spearheaded the animation division. These movies opened strong and featured compelling stories, inside jokes, double-entendre, direct sentiment and witty animation. They kept kids in theaters all summer with their parents next to them.

Like Shrek .

Suddenly, the allegations made by Jeffrey Katzenberg in his acrimonious 1995 lawsuit against Mr. Eisner–that his magic had elevated Disney to dizzying profit heights–were ringing true. Mr. Katzenberg was not always right (check out The Road to El Dorado ), but there is a feeling that when he left the Magic Kingdom, he took the Leg-of-Tadpole Cookbook with him.

Neither DreamWorks nor Disney executives would comment on the record for this piece. But one high-level Disney executive, who requested anonymity, said, “If DreamWorks makes Shrek a third time–not a second time, but a third time–I’ll say, ‘Wow, good on ya.’ But one film is not a trend.”

Disney’s early summer has been rough, with tepid critical and consumer response to Pearl Harbor , 4,000 company-wide layoffs and the exit, after just a year and a half, of studio president Peter Schneider.

With Atlantis’ gurgling descent came news that Disney would fire 500 in the animation division, the artistic backbone of the Disney brand, and that those who remained would have their salaries cut by 30 to 50 percent. Many longtime artists have quit, and some are openly griping that since Mr. Katzenberg departed, there’s been no executive at Disney who’s bothered to pay attention to the quality of the stories they’ve been telling.

“Starting with The Little Mermaid , Jeffrey was at every storyboard meeting, at every session,” said Tom Sito, an animator who was the head storyboard artist on Pocahontas , Mr. Katzenberg’s last hands-on Disney project. “Jeffrey was a right-in-the-trenches kind of producer and is very much into the story. He doesn’t give notes like ‘That character’s hair is the wrong color.’ He says, ‘I don’t believe he loves her, and without a love story you don’t have a movie.’”

That kind of down-and-dirty narrative investment was sorely lacking in Atlantis, which one animator still working at Disney called “technically proficient, but very deficient in terms of storytelling and character.”

Another animation artist, who requested anonymity, said that “when Katzenberg left [Disney], the studio went into this major spin about how Jeffrey wasn’t the key to the success of the films. But the artists knew better.” Disney, he said, wanted to make it sound as if Mr. Eisner, Mr. Schneider and Roy Disney, Walt’s nephew and the executive behind Fantasia 2000 , “were all going to do the same thing … but they are just not as intense as Jeffrey is.”

Another complaint is that Disney executives have been distracted. When Disney animation chief Tom Schumacher and Mr. Schneider “got the Tony for The Lion King ,” said one animator, “a lot of animators said they’d never be seen in Toon Town again.”

There has also been budget-crunching. With Disney’s stock on shaky ground, Mr. Eisner and his colleagues have taken measures to stop the bleeding, and they started with animators. In a posting on the Motley Fool Web site on June 22, Dave Pruiksma, a 20-year Disney veteran animator who quit in May, wrote that Disney executives’ “contempt for the hard-working artists that actually make the films is palpable.” His posting continued: “Rest assured, none of these executives are suffering while Walt Disney’s beloved studio crumbles around them. Oh, except perhaps for Mr. Schumacher whom, I am told, recently lost the service of the butler in one of his residences.”

Industry sources blamed the shoddiness of the product on a lack of focus, plus cost-cutting. The legend of Mr. Katzenberg’s perfectionism and work ethic started with his decree, “If you’re not at work on Saturday, don’t bother coming in on Sunday”–which led some to call Disney “Mouschwitz” when he was there. His projects were constantly rethought throughout production, frequently at great cost: Aladdin lost two characters and four completed Howard Ashman songs late in production; The Lion King , which started darker, gained the flatulent sidekicks Pumba and Timon. It grossed more than $700 million worldwide.

Some artists feel that frugality rules the current Disney regime. Mr. Pruiksma told The Transom that Mr. Katzenberg had decided late in the game to expand the character of Chip the teacup in Beauty and the Beast, which Mr. Pruiksma animated. But he said of his recent experiences animating the chain-smoking, deadpan Mrs. Packard in Atlantis : “From a character animator’s standpoint, there were missed opportunities … the old guys always thought through things. But with Atlantis , it was more about filling the screen with action than developing characters and story. And that’s what makes Shrek popular–the writing and the vocal performances.”

And on his Motley Fool posting, Mr. Pruiksma wrote of Mr. Schumacher, who has run Disney animation since January 1999, “Hope springs eternal that Schumacher will leave. Feature animation as a whole and in fact the entire animation artistic community is waiting with bated breath for this biggest of problems to leave feature animation permanently and take his corrupt and incompetent regime with him.”

Since 1995, “salaries [for animators] have gone up, up, up with a good marketplace,” said one high-level Disney executive, who asked not to be identified. “Now those salaries are going to come down. And it’s not unexpected that people are going to be unhappy about it.”

As for Mr. Katzenberg, who was in Europe at press time, he’s got to be as happy as Shrek with a slug sandwich. Some insiders see Shrek as a shrewd acknowledgment that the fairy-tale formula that revived Disney in the 90′s can’t be recycled anymore. Where Atlantis looks like a politically correct rehash of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea , Shrek is a modern fairy tale by way of Entertainment Weekly ‘s obsession with Hollywood power. Mr. Sito, one of the storyboard artists on Shrek and president of the animators’ union, said that Mr. Katzenberg “lives and dies on his ability to engage what the public wants.” Mr. Sito also suggested that Shrek ‘s script can be read as a direct response to charges that The Road to El Dorado wasn’t funny. Said one Disney animator, who requested anonymity: “Who can tap into great storytelling and make it relevant to an audience today? Today, it’s Jeffrey. Ten years ago, it was Disney.”

Of course, Shrek ‘s success is just the beginning: Many animators interviewed remarked on the good buzz about Lilo & Stitch , a classically animated cartoon that Disney will release in summer 2002. And Disney’s CGI arm, Pixar, which created both Toy Story and Toy Story 2 , will release the much-anticipated Monsters Inc. in November. But John Lasseter, the computer Wunderkind behind Pixar, though classically trained by Disney’s “nine old men,” has, said one insider, “an uneasy alliance” with his parent company and keeps his own digs in San Francisco, far from Mr. Eisner’s Southern California stronghold.

For Jean-Louis

The men and women in chef’s whites crowded into the immaculate kitchen of Daniel Boulud’s eponymous restaurant, and it was hard not to be impressed. It was Sunday, June 24, at approximately 5:20 p.m., and more than 21 chefs and their crews stood and listened to the game plan for the evening’s benefit dinner–190 diners, $500 a plate–to help pay the medical expenses of chef Jean-Louis Palladin, who is battling lung cancer.

The line-up: Jean-Georges Vongerichten; Michael Demers, of Mr. Palladin’s Las Vegas restaurant; Daniel’s chef de cuisine, Alex Lee; Park Avenue Cafe’s David Burke; Lespinasse’s Christian Delouvrier, and its former chef, Gray Kunz); Gramercy Tavern’s Tom Colicchio; Cello’s Laurent Tourondel; Le Bernardin’s Eric Ripert; Tribeca Grill’s Don Pintabona; Montrachet’s Harold Moore; chocolatier Jacques Torres; Olives’ Todd English; Rocco DiSpirito, the chef at Union Pacific; Ducasse’s Alain Ducasse; pastry chef François Payard; Balthazar’s Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson; Chez Louis’ Matthew Tivy; Ariane Daguin, of D’Artagnan; and Michael Ginor, of Hudson Valley Foie Gras. It was like an All-Star team in aprons, and the chefs did in fact pose together for a photograph during the evening like a baseball team, laughing and crowded together, exuberant in their white home uniforms.

Mr. Boulud explained how the cooks were going to stay out of each other’s space and egos, and the restaurateur Drew Nieporent and his wife Ann arrived and began to greet the chefs. “Every time I kiss one of them, I smell a different herb,” Mrs. Nieporent said. Mr. Nieporent, carrying a bag of photos of Mr. Palladin with various chefs, waded to the front of the crowd to get the signatures of the participants. “The magnitude of this,” Mr. Nieporent said as he scoped out the players. “We have a lot to be thankful for,” said Mr. DiSpirito. “The guy invented the rock ‘n’ roll-chef lifestyle.”

Though a place had been set for him at the head table, Mr. Palladin, who was in Washington, was not up to making the event. But his friends were intent on documenting the evening. His lawyer, Ralph Hochberg, roamed the restaurant with a snazzy-looking camera, taking pictures of the participants.

As the clock neared 6 p.m., the chefs dispersed to their stations. The American chefs were responsible for the cocktail reception: Mr. Burke set out lollipops made of smoked salmon, velvety foie gras, goat cheese with a nutty shell. Mr. Pintabona served up briny Malpeque oysters topped with caviar, nestled on a bed of cucumber sorbet. In homage to Mr. Palladin’s love of organ meats, Mr. Tivy offered grilled duck hearts filled with a tiny dollop of foie gras.

By 7 p.m., when dinner was scheduled to begin in Daniel’s main dining room, the restaurant was a cross-section of the culinary culture, heavy on New York: chef Jacques Pepin; Café des Artistes owners George and Jenifer Lang; Mr. Vongerichten’s partner, Phil Suarez, and his wife Lucy; Osteria del Circo co-owner Mauro Maccioni; Windows on the World president David Emil; Daniel Johnnes, the wine director at Montrachet; Ibrahim Fahmy, the general manager of the Essex House hotel, who put up Mr. Palladin when the chef was in town for treatment; wine importer Anthony DiDio; San Domenico owner Tony May; Gourmet editor in chief Ruth Reichl; New York magazine food writer Gael Greene; and Jean-Marie Amat, chef at the Saint-James Relais & Châteaux, outside of Bordeaux, who came bearing three bottles of Chateau Petrus ’90.

Mr. Kunz told The Transom about the first James Beard dinner in Las Vegas, where Mr. Palladin’s Napa restaurant is based. Participating chefs were asked to donate a spoon or an article of clothing to be displayed on a bulletin board. “Jean-Louis gave his underwear,” Mr. Kunz said with a laugh. “They’re still up there.”

Before dinner, Mr. Boulud stood. “My life changed a little bit because of Jean-Louis; of course, my career also,” the chef said, explaining that Mr. Palladin had helped him land a job at the Polo, at New York’s Westbury Hotel. Then Mr. Boulud introduced Mr. Palladin’s statuesque daughter Verveine, who shyly told the audience that her father was “doing O.K. right now. And he’s very sorry he couldn’t be here, but he loves you all and he thanks you so much for being here.”

Mr. Boulud wished the crowd ” Bon appetit ” – but before the first course could arrive, he was back at the microphone with a boyish smile on his face. “In the life story of Jean-Louis, there is always one young woman,” he said, and the crowd erupted in an appreciative laugh for Mr. Palladin’s girlfriend, Tanya Bogdanovic. Mr. Boulud thanked her for taking such good care of Mr. Palladin, including making numerous trips “back and forth from restaurants … to bring meals to Jean-Louis.”

The four-course meal, prepared by the French contingent, followed. Each course featured two different dishes delivered in alternating order to the tables, which meant that in order to sample all of the entrées, one had to rely on the generosity of the person sitting next to him or her. For the fish course, Mr. Ripert sent out a plate of steamed halibut on a bed of sweet-pea puree, along with sugar-snap peas with oregano and black truffle sauce. It looked like a piece of minimalist art and contrasted with the more textured-looking dish of spice-crusted striped bass in sweet-and-sour broth that Mr. Vongerichten prepared for the same course.

In between courses, GQ food writer Alan Richman and Bloomberg culinary correspondent Peter Elliot conducted a live auction. The bottles of Château Petrus went for $3,000. And bidding for a package that featured dinner for six guests at all five of Mr. Nieporent’s restaurants intensified when Mr. Boulud’s publicist, Georgette Farkas, noted that the package came with the private-reservations number for Nobu. The package went for $3,900.

The crowd became quite spirited, and when it became hard to hear Messrs. Elliot and Richman, Ms. Bogdanovic suddenly took the microphone.

“We’re here for my boyfriend, her daughter and many of you that are here, his friends,” she said, her voice a little tremulous. “And we’d like to raise some money, and I know that most of you here would like to beat what we did in Washington.”

(A few weeks earlier, $250,000 had been raised at a similar event in the old Jean-Louis space at the Watergate.)

One of the last auction items produced some of the most heated bidding. It was a fall pig roast for 80 prepared by Mr. Boulud, who assured the crowd that for the final months of the 250-pound beast’s life it would be raised on “apples, chestnuts and buttermilk” at Four Story Hill Farm in Pennsylvania. Foodie Roger Yassen wanted the pig. So did Mr. Nieporent, even though people kidded him that in his current dieting state–he’s lost 70 pounds in a matter of weeks–he couldn’t eat it. “Listen, I’m kosher and I want the pig!” Mr. Nieporent yelled. And he got it, with a bid of $12,000.

Finally, Mr. Elliot put up an item akin to a baseball signed by the ’61 Yankees: one of Mr. Boulud’s chef’s jackets, signed by all of the participating chefs. San Domenico’s Mr. May paid $2,500 for it, with the stipulation that Mr. Palladin also sign it. The final figures were not in at press time, but the auction raised $101,195, the dinner brought in more than $84,500, and another $8,500 was donated by people who couldn’t attend.

Then there was a commotion at the entrance to the main dining room.

There, staring intensely at the crowd, stood the chefs themselves. As Mr. Boulud called their names, they threaded their way through the tables and the applause, pausing in front of Mr. Palladin’s daughter and his girlfriend to receive kisses of thanks.

George Lang, the Café des Artistes owner who has seen a thing or two in his life, watched. “How much they work for five minutes of glory,” he said quietly. But his face made it clear that the glory had nothing to do with it.

–Frank DiGiacomo