By DONALD PORTER
As you read this, it is, perhaps, one of the most critical weekends in Richard Rich's life.
The Ogden native and former Walt Disney Studios director is going head to head with his onetime employer today, and many in the industry are watching with great interest. Today, two animated motion pictures -- Rich's "The Swan Princess" and Disney's "The Lion King," duke it out for big bucks at the nation's box offices.
"The Swan Princess," Rich's first feature-length animated film since departing Disney in 1985 -- and the debut animated feature from his own company, Rich Animation Studios -- is hoping to stay in the game alongside Disney's well-oiled marketing machine and the re-release of "The Lion King." Already the top-earning animated film in history, Disney yanked "The Lion King" from theaters two months ago in the hopes that its November re-release would reap a new round of profits.
"That ruined my day when I heard that," Rich says by phone from his Burbank office. "We thought we really had the season to ourselves. There are so many more things (involved in Disney's plan to re-release its film) than just coincidence. What can I say?"
It is plain to him, Rich explains, that Disney is looking to stomp on the competition. Therefore, he and his distributor, New Line Cinema, decided to hold fast to their original release date and not move it up a week or two to avoid a confrontation with "The Lion King."
"We have advertised from day one that our release date was Nov. 18," he says. "We just decided we were going to stick with it. If we had moved, they probably would have moved, too. It's too bad."
Rich pauses for a moment, considering what to say about the Disney plan. "Their approach, a little bit, is ‘Help us become the greatest animated feature, the biggest-grossing film of 1994. We need your help. Come back and see it again.' That's really what they're asking." (To date, "Forrest Gump" leads the 1994 box office tally with earnings of $291 million, $25 million more than "The Lion King" 's $266 million grosses. With a good holiday run, "The Lion King" could conceivably pull ahead by year's end.)
The business showdown aside, Rich is ebullient about "The Swan Princess."
"We've produced a film we think is the equal of any out there in the world of animation," he says, heaping praise on his company's 300 employees. (Rich Animation Studio is the third-largest animation company in the business.)
Indeed, Rich is a long way from where he was the last time this newspaper spoke with him, immediately following the release of "The Black Cauldron," a PG-rated dark experiment in Disney animation. The film marked Disney's return to animation's classical form and was presented in a wide-screen format. But it failed at the box office despite plenty of critical praise and has yet to be released on home video. In fact, the biographical information supplied with the press kit for "The Swan Princess" fails to mention that Rich co-directed "The Black Cauldron." Why?
"Well, I don't know," Rich says. "Probably because that was a dark movie, and I've learned an awful lot after that. There was no reason to scare the audience with an animated film.
“At that time at Disney there was a whole different atmosphere. There were lots of things happening and they were going to do a dark picture and that's what it is. And it's probably because ‘The Swan Princess’ and ‘The Black Cauldron’ don't equate as equal pictures."
Years earlier, Rich wound up directing animated films the way no other-director at Disney ever had. After graduating from Ogden High School, attending Weber State College and graduating from Brigham Young University -- with a degree in music composition -- Rich headed off to Hollywood to make his mark.
In 1972, he was hired at Disney's traffic department and spent 18 months delivering mail around the studio lot, meeting people and making connections. Eventually, his musical background and dogged persistence paid off, and he was hired as an assistant director in Disney's animation department, where he became the only non-animator in the company's history to ascend to the ranks of director. As an assistant director, his credits included "Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too," "The Rescuers" and "Pete's Dragon." His first full director's credit was "The Fox and the Hound."
Rich left Disney -- a mutual parting of the ways he describes as "the luckiest thing to ever happen to me" -- in January 1986, and formed Rich Animation Studios. Subsequently, he was approached by Jared Brown, whose Living Scriptures company was looking to branch out from audio cassettes of the Mormon scriptures to half-hour animated videos based on Book of Mormon stories.
“We did that and it met with really good success," Rich says. "And then we decided we would go into the New Testament and do it on more of a national basis. At that time we did ‘The King is Born,’ which was the first in that series, and (Brown) formed a company called Family Entertainment out of Dallas. … But I always told Jared, ‘Look, I want to do features. That's what I'm going to do.’ ”
To that end, Rich wrote a script called "Rabbit Hill," but wasn't too pleased with it. Then he decided to adapt a fairy tale for the screen, and co-wrote a screenplay called "Swan Lake" with Brian Nissen.
"I kept on talking to Jared, and we were shopping (the ‘Swan Lake’ script) around town and we were getting closer and closer, we felt, to finding someone to support us."
Then, Rich says, Brown struck on the idea of pooling their resources: combining Rich Animation, Family Entertainment and Cassette Duplicators Inc., a cassette-duplicating operation in West Valley City that makes all of the company's videocassettes, under the umbrella of one big company -- Nest Entertainment.
“We would then use all of our resources to finance ‘The Swan Princess,’ as it became known," Rich explains. "That was two and a half years ago, and then we went into production on it."
Thirty months and $40 million later, the film is in theaters, sporting the voice talents of Jack Palance, John Cleese and comedian Steven Wright. Palance supplies the voice of the evil Rothbart, who is determined to become king through the use of black magic, kidnapping a princess whom he turns into a swan by day. The princess finds help in the form of Jean-Bob (Cleese), a frog who believes himself to be a prince, and the frog's pal, a droll turtle with the ironical name Speed (Wright).
Rich says Palance had never done any voice work in animated films prior to "The Swan Princess."
“It seems like such a natural voice" for animation, the director says. "Plus, he added a comic timing to his dialogue that really helped us lighten up the character."
Cleese, however, was not their first choice.
“We wanted someone who could do a phony French accent." They stumbled on him while looking at another actor who had been in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," in which they saw Cleese doing a funny French accent as “the taunter” on a castle wall.
Still another voice employed in “The Swan Princess" is Utah actor and playwright James Arrington ("Brother Brigham Live," “Farley Family Reunion"), who summons an English accent for the character Chamberlain. Yet another Utah connection in "The Swan Princess" is the film's music, which was composed by Lex de Azevedo (“Saturday's Warrior").
With "The Swan Princess" completed, Rich isn't sitting idle. He's already under way on the production of his next animated feature, “Feathertop,” and his company continues to do half-hour videos.