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A decade ago, Utah native Richard Rich was the co-director of Walt Disney's animated features "The Fox and the Hound" and "The Black Cauldron." More recently, he has turned out animated specialty videos on the Bible, American history and the Book of Mormon.

And now he is co-writer and director of his first independent animated film, "The Swan Princess," which opened Friday in theaters across the country.Yet, surprisingly, Rich is not an animator.

"I like to think of myself as a storyteller," Rich said in a telephone interview from his offices in Burbank, Calif., last week. "And there is no better medium to tell uplifting, family-type stories than animation. In fact, it may be a plus that I'm not an animator. If you are a particular kind of artist, you may spend a lot of time making that area perfect. But I want to make the story perfect, so I don't get bogged down in just one small area."

Rich is also a strong believer in movies with values, and he resigned himself long ago to the idea that he'd likely be eaten alive in Hollywood if he tried to make live-action pictures. "In the Hollywood scene, no one expects you to have vulgar scenes, nudity or swearing in animated features. So, I don't have to give that to them."

Born in Ogden 47 years ago, where he also grew up and went to school, Rich later attended Brigham Young University, majoring in music theory and composition. Upon graduating, he was hired by the Walt Disney Co. in 1972 and started in the mail room.

It wasn't long, however, before his music talent brought him to the attention of the studio bosses, and he soon found himself working as an assistant animation director on "Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too." That experience led to assistant directing stints on "The Rescuers," "Pete's Dragon" and the Christmas featurette, "The Small One," for which he also composed a song.

Next came co-directing responsibilities on "The Fox and the Hound," which was released in 1981, and then Disney's most ambitious animated feature of the early '80s, "The Black Cauldron."

Unfortunately, the latter film, a 70mm, big-budget effort, was a bomb at the box office. As a result, Disney's devotion to animation began to sag. And while that lack of commitment would turn around in 1989 with "The Little Mermaid," in 1985 it appeared that feature-length cartoons would no longer be a Disney priority.

Disillusioned, Rich left Disney, formed his own animation production company and began working on short videos. But returning to features was never far from his thoughts, and as he saw his former Disney colleague and fellow Utahn Don Bluth achieve success with "An American Tail" and "The Land Before Time" - and, of course, the resurgence of Disney animated features that has come along with a vengeance in more recent years - Rich began searching for the right project. The result is "The Swan Princess."

"I wanted to do a fairy tale," Rich said. "And it had to have romance, a great love story. So, when we started looking around, we came across the `Swan Lake' story. But not the ballet - the original story, the German folk tale.

"We got every version of that story, about a princess being transformed into a swan. We looked at more than 20 versions.

"And the very first day we were working on it, I had this image of a swan on a lake and asked myself, `What animals could be her friends?' And I came up with this little turtle and a frog sitting on its shell. And then we got John Cleese and Steven Wright and they really gave the characters life."

Deadpan standup comic Wright is the voice of "Speed," an ironic name for the slow-moving turtle. Cleese affects a phony French accent for the pompous frog, Jean-Bob, who isn't really French and imagines that he's an enchanted prince, waiting for that kiss from a princess that will make him human.

"We knew we wanted a little frog with a phony French accent and we looked at `Monty Python and the Holy Grail,' actually looking for another actor. And then Cleese came on as the French taunter, shouting insults from the top of the castle. As soon as we heard him yelling, I said, `That is Jean-Bob.'

"So we contacted John and sent him the script, but he had just finished doing `Fievel Goes West' for (Steven) Spielberg and he wasn't sure he wanted to do another animated film right away. But he read the script and fell in love with Jean-Bob.

"And Steven Wright - talk about lucky casting. We had our cast and crew party last night and he was there, and he is exactly off-stage like he is on-stage. He never leaves that character, so it must be him."

Other voice talents in the film include Jack Palance as the villain and Sandy Duncan as a queen. "Palance was just a lot of hard negotiating. To our surprise, he had never done animation before, and he has such an animatable voice, extremely broad. We studied his voice sessions so we could use his gestures and facial contortions. And Sandy was wonderful. She came in and did this mid-Atlantic accent, which was just perfect."

The script went through 12 drafts over more than two years, during which time Rich and friends peddled the project to the major movie studios. But they could find no takers. In fact, executives at every studio said the same thing: "Disney is the only one that can do it."

The process was valuable, however, since each studio made script revisions and Rich was able to take the best of each and employ them in the movie. "In a way, it was polished by all of the studios," he says.

Rich says he understands why the other studios feel no one but Disney can have success with full-length cartoons. But he also feels strongly that it is a false perception. "To make an animated feature work, well, you're dealing with expectations. And what the audience expects is the type of storytelling that Disney tells, something that works for adults and works for children.

"We knew that with `The Swan Princess," we had to meet those expectations. So we did tests to see where the audience would laugh, and we found that kids don't laugh at the same lines (of dialogue) that the adults laugh at."

When the project neared completion, New Line Cinema picked up the film for domestic distribution (it opened in some 1,300 theaters Friday). And the Sony Co. (Columbia and TriStar Pictures) will release it overseas. Then, next year, Turner Home Video will release "The Swan Princess" on video.

But the film was made entirely without studio funding, with 275 artists working on the project at its peak. The $30 million budget was absorbed by private investors through Rich's own production company and two other corporations, forming Nest Entertainment as a holding company. "New Line is distributing - but we own the film."

As a result, Rich is now quite happy the studios didn't buy into the project. "I like the independence. It gives me complete creative control." And he adds, "But I would never ever take credit for making this picture. I know it takes a multitude of talent to make a picture like this."

Nest has also signed up with 70 licensees for merchandising of some 900 products, from action figures to straws to valentines. "Next to a Disney show, this is the biggest marketed movie in that area. A number of companies that would love to get on the bandwagon for Disney just can't, since Disney's marketing is already all tied up. So we've provided an opportunity for that."

Rich says the domestic theatrical release date of Nov. 18, 1994, was actually scheduled about 21/2 years ago. During the interim, Disney had set its upcoming animated feature "Pocahontas" for the same date. But later, Disney postponed the opening and "Pocahontas" is now scheduled for a May 1995 opening.

"We were elated at Disney moving `Pocahontas,' " Rich said, "though I wish they weren't (bringing back) `The Lion King' the same day." In addition, the Macaulay Culkin combination of live-action and animation, "The Pagemaster," opens on Wednesday, Nov. 23.

But Rich isn't worried. "We think audiences will take families to see both - and if they like one better, they'll probably go back and see it again."

And, of course, Rich hopes "The Swan Princess" is the one they'll come back and see again. One element he expects to be in his favor is the film's romance. "It's true. I do like love stories. And you know, Derek and Odette (the hero and heroine of `The Swan Princess') are very real to me. I know them. And then I think, `Wait a minute - they're just drawings.' But they've become so real to me. And the idea, of course, is to convince the audience that they are real.

"We really tried desperately to make a prince and a princess story that would portray them as equals. Most stories are told from one point of view or another, and basically `The Swan Princess' is the story of Derek. But we tried really hard to make the Odette character his equal. Not stronger, but equal. I hope we've achieved that."

Though he admits that directing "The Swan Princess" is so all-consuming that it probably shortened his life, Rich is already preparing his next animated feature, "Feathertop." "He's a scarecrow, and he's based loosely on an idea from Nathaniel Hawthorne's story of the same title.

"We've nicknamed it `An American Fairy Tale.' It's about a scarecrow who, through an enchanter's powers, has the illusion of looking like a real man. It is a `Pinocchio'-type story but with more serious overtones.

"And, of course, there's a love story."