LOS ANGELES -- Walt Disney Co., in a bid to continue its complete dominance of the animated-film business, has yet another card up its corporate sleeve -- 'A Goofy Movie.' Disney plans to roll out the 78-minute feature Friday at 1,500 theaters. The film will represent Disney's entry at the start of the key Easter vacation week, now viewed as the warm-up for the brutally competitive summer season. At the same time, Sony Corp.'s Columbia has a major project coming out -- a Will Smith/Martin Lawrence gunfest called 'Bad Boys,' the first film in five years from producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. MGM's United Artists will also roll out swashbuckler 'Rob Roy' with Liam Neeson and Jessica Lange. As for Disney, 'A Goofy Movie' is the first full-length feature for the studio's 63-year-old animated dog Goofy. In the film, the loveable pooch takes his son Max on a fishing trip as a way of bridging the generation gap. Goofy made his first appearance as Dippy Dawg in 1932's 'Mickey's Revue.' Since then, two Goofy films -- 'How to Play Football' (1944) and 'Aquamania' (1951) -- have been nominated for Academy Awards. Chances are that while Disney might not do blockbuster business with 'Goofy,' it has little to worry about from animated-film competition. That's because moviegoers have consistently supported Disney animated films and ignored most others. In recent years, Disney's 'The Lion King' topped $312 million in domestic ticket sales, while 'Aladdin' went past $217 million and 'Beauty and the Beast' hit $140 million.
All three also sold more than 20 million home videos, easily the film business' most-profitable segment. To try to cash in on the bonanza, other studios have started to ramp up production of animated films. But that hasn't worked so well, as Ted Turner's New Line Cinema found out last fall when it put out 'The Swan Princess' at a time when Disney had re-released 'The Lion King.' Similar to Disney animated films, 'Swan Princess' featured a romance involving a princess and prince, as well as talking turtles, birds and frogs to provide comic relief. Yet while 'The Lion King''s re-release took in $45 million, 'Swan' did not even reach $9 million. 20th Century Fox also had no luck with its high-priced Macaulay Culkin bomb 'The Pagemaster,' which mixed animation and live-action scenes. Still, animation has attracted big attention right now, particularly with Hollywood heavyweights Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen pulling together their DreamWorks SKG studio. Hollywood experts credit Katzenberg with reviving Disney's animation division in the mid-1980s, while DreamWorks has been bidding recently for Disney animators' services. Time Warner Inc. has also pledged to expand the animated feature film business at its Warner Bros. studio, vowing to release at least one such movie each year by 1996. Similarly, MGM plans to release 'The Pebble and the Penguin' later this spring. A variety of studios have taken on animated projects in recent years. However, the only successful non-Disney film came this summer, when New Line released 'The Mask,' also an animation/live-action mixture. The 'Mask,' starring Jim Carrey, wound up taking in more than $120 million. Still, animation is not a sure thing. The genre produced two flops in 1992 -- 'Cool World' and 'Bebe's Kids.' The industry also had several 1993 disappointments, including Universal's 'We're Back!,' Warner's 'Batman: The Mask of Phantasm' and 20th Century Fox's 'Once Upon a Forest' -- none of which passed $10 million in domestic box office. Things did not improve last year, when Warner released 'Hans Christian Andersen's Thumbelina.' The film, made by Don Bluth, a former Disney animator who created such hits as 'An American Tail' and 'The Land Before Time,' generated little interest. Separately, the independently produced 'Happily Ever After' bombed late last spring. Animation is not cheap ('Thumbelina' cost $27 million) and needs about two years of work to get to theaters. 'Swan Princess' carried a $21 million price tag, while Fox's 'The Pagemaster' cost an estimated $30 million. And Disney, of course, is not standing still. It has begun a massive publicity campaign for 'Pocahontas,' the studio's designated blockbuster for this summer. Disney has also been working on 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame.' And in the meantime, don't bet against anything less than a solid showing for 'A Goofy Movie.'