Dis drawing on N'awlins charm

'Princess' sets up well for locals

In New Orleans for its annual shareholder meeting, the Walt Disney Co. announced Thursday that "The Frog Princess," the company's first hand-drawn animation project in years, will be set in the Crescent City and feature what John Lasseter called "the very first African-American Disney princess."

Disney Animation has started production on "Frog Princess," which harkens back to classic Disney fairy tales and is set for a 2009 release. "Aladdin" and "The Little Mermaid" creators Ron Clements and John Musker are the creative forces behind the musical, which will also have a "soulful singing alligator," said Lasseter, chief creative officer for Pixar and Disney Animation Studios

In a surprise, Randy Newman, who spent his childhood in New Orleans and is writing the music for the film, performed a song from "Frog Princess" for the shareholders and received big applause.

Lasseter also noted that "Toy Story 3," now in production, is set for a 2010 release via Pixar Animation Studios.

During the 2 1/2-hour shareholder meeting, company executives and shareholders lauded CEO Robert Iger for his leadership, people skills and ability to blend the traditional Disney magic with a strong financial performance.

Iger made several gestures to show that his team is committed to including old and new fans of Disney and connecting the company's legacy to its future. He welcomed Roy Disney, the nephew of Walt Disney, saying: "It is good to have you with us." Shareholders gave a round of applause to Disney, a former company executive who battled Iger predecessor Michael Eisner.

Chairman John Pepper later took a shareholder question about whether the company could add a member of the Disney family to its board or executive team. "We're really not looking at a member of the Disney family" even though the firm always wants to have the "best talent in place," he replied.

Iger also stated that "great creative success is at the heart of financial success" and that he wants to build on the Disney legacy. He lauded Lasseter for his contagious passion.

Lasseter told the audience that Tom Hanks and Tim Allen are back on board for the "Toy Story" sequel to voice Woody and Buzz Lightyear. The film is written by Michael Arndt, who recently won the original screenplay Academy Award for "Little Miss Sunshine."

"We got a great story," Lasseter said.

Discussing other animation projects, Lasseter mentioned Pixar's "Wall-E," written and directed by Andrew Stanton ("Finding Nemo"). The film is set 700 years in the future and centers on Wally, a little robot on Earth cleaning the trash-covered planet after the humans have evacuated it.

Lasseter also plugged Disney Animation's "American Dog," directed by Chris Williams, about a dog with superpowers who suddenly realizes he is only a TV character and must learn to live in the real world.

Iger plugged Disney's "exciting slate of movies" this year, including "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," "Meet the Robinsons" and "Ratatouille," with the company showing well-received clips from the latter two.

Several shareholders thanked the board members on hand for staging the meeting in New Orleans, and Disney announced that ESPN and ABC Sports plan to bring 50 executives to the city next month to the Slidell Boys & Girls Club to build a playground, refurbish a basketball court and donate sports equipment.

One particularly cantankerous shareholder, Evelyn Davis, who has earned fame for traveling the country to harangue board chairs and CEOs at shareholder meetings, made herself heard. She objected to "this Internet nonsense," demanding that Disney issue proxy and other shareholder materials the old-fashioned way, not digitally.

She also interrogated Pepper about whether putting TV product on the Internet hasn't been cannibalizing Disney's business.

Davis complained that Disney accepts "communist propaganda" in the form of advertising from Venezuelan companies and said that board compensation consisting of stock options is "the root of most evil."

Pepper took her comments in stride, though at one point he had her microphone shut off so he could squeeze in some responses to the numerous issues that she raised.

As has been a recurring theme of late, another shareholder pleaded her case for Disney releasing "Song of the South" on DVD, which Iger said last year he would not do because the 1946 animated film is considered by some to be racially insensitive.

This time, though, Iger said that several requests have encouraged him to revisit his decision. "We have decided that we would look at it again," he said.

A representative from the Parents Television Council presented an award to Disney board members for the company's family-friendly approach to TV programming. The representative, though, then complained that ABC Family Channel is a misnomer because there is too much content there that is inappropriate for young children.

And, as also has become customary, a shareholder complained that Disney too often allows actors to be seen smoking on TV and in films.

At the meeting, all 11 board members that Disney had nominated were elected. Shareholders also agreed with the board in rejecting shareholder proposals regarding anti-green mail payments and a stockholder rights plan, also known as a "poison pill."

Georg Szalai reported from New York; Paul Bond reported from Los Angeles.
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