In one corner: the challenger, Anastasia, the first production from 20th Century Fox's new $500-million, Phoenix-based animation studio. In the other corner: the defending champ, The Little Mermaid, Disney's re-release of the 1989 "classic", which grossed nearly $90 million in its initial release.
At stake: potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in box-office, video rentals, sequels and--yes, it's sad but true--even Dole bananas, 200 million of which are in grocery stores right now with Anastasia stickers on them. The banana gimmick shows the lengths at which rival studios will go for a piece of the animated pie that Disney fostered with hits like The Lion King (good for more than $300 million domestically).
Fox honcho Bill Mechanic (a Disney veteran) has placed its future in the hands of Disney-veterans Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, the creative minds behind An American Tail and All Dogs Go to Heaven. Their Anastasia is a historical epic with celebrity voices and lots of cute, wise-cracking sidekicks who aid an orphan (voiced by Meg Ryan) in discovering her stately roots.
The Mouse House, which has lost Jeffrey Katzenberg, the creative force behind its animated movies to DreamWorks (currently in production on The Prince of Egypt), is not going down without a fight: It has rolled out Mermaid for a 17-day run, just long enough to blunt Anastasia's opening, and will reintroduce Hercules (coupled with George of the Jungle) to discount houses next weekend when Anastasia goes wide. Disney has gone as far as to buy up all of MovieFone's ads, so Fox could not promote its film on the popular ticket-buying phone service.
Anastasia opens this weekend in New York and expands nationally November 21. Mermaid started its 17-day run Friday (November 14). On Monday, audiences will know which studio was fastest to the draw.