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Disney's Last Dud?

Think ink or stink ink? Disney's (NYSE: DIS  ) latest animated feature film, Home on the Range, is off to a lousy start. The company that pioneered full-length animation saw its latest generate just $14 million at the box office over its opening weekend. To put that in dud perspective, that's not much more than the $12.1 million Treasure Planet mustered in its 2002 debut on the way to producing a pathetic $38.2 million domestic total.

Remember when Disney's golden animated features drew huge crowds and rave reviews? This latest entry didn't even contend for a medal this weekend, coming in fourth against more popular releases by rivals Sony (NYSE: SNE  ) , MGM (NYSE: MGM  ) , and Time Warner (NYSE: TWX  ) .

This may be Disney's last stand in hand-drawn animation. After watching Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation Pixar (Nasdaq: PIXR  ) hit it out of the ballpark with computer-rendered enhancements, Disney has been slowly dismantling its animation division and partnering with upstart computer animation specialists in hopes of landing the next Pixar.

But that could be a huge mistake. Blaming the medium instead of the messenger is akin to blaming your tailor because you gained a few pounds. You simply can't make a blanket statement that hand-drawn animation is dead and that computerized renderings are the way of the future.

Ten years ago, Disney released The Return of Jafar direct to video. The company bragged that it was more profitable than its blockbuster live action flick, Pretty Woman. I would argue that it has proven far more costly. Realizing that folks were willing to buy an inferior Aladdin sequel, Disney went on to milk its classics with hollow, cut-rate follow-ups. It diluted the perceived quality of the originals by stuffing the distribution channels for the sake of churn.

Would Finding Nemo have bombed if it were hand-drawn? I doubt it. Would Home on the Range have been a box-office blockbuster if the barnyard critters were dolled up on high-end Silicon Graphics (NYSE: SGI  ) machines? Nope.

There are plenty of computer-animated television shows out there, but the favorites are hand-drawn, like SpongeBob and Rugrats. It's not the format. It's not pixels versus inkblots. It's the story. In the end, Disney's franchise and the animation medium may have been sullied and diluted, but like its own classics, it was by the stroke of Disney's own hand.

Did you see Home on the Range? Do you think that hand-drawn animation has become obsolete? What will the company do once Pixar goes away come 2006? All this and more -- in the Disney discussion board. Only on

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares in Disney and Pixar. He's not bad, he's just overdrawn that way.

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