If there was ever any question and there was a decade ago - rest assured that the Walt Disney Co. is still king of the animation hill.

Like any kingdom, Disney has its challengers. But this, of course, is the "magic" kingdom, and any and all who have dared to confront the studio on this turf have been handily put down - if not slain like the proverbial dragon.And that includes all competitive fronts - theatrical features, subsequent video releases, straight-to-video productions, television programs . . . .

Disney also continues to stretch its animation muscles, always striving to achieve something new and innovative.

For example, when "Toy Story" opens in theaters next month (on Nov. 22), it will signal more than merely the arrival of another Disney animated movie.

"Toy Story" is the first feature-length film to be drawn entirely with the use of computers, a groundbreaking event in itself. But, along with the success of "Pocahontas" this past summer, it also marks the potential for the long-held promise that Disney would eventually release two animated pictures every year.

Of course, if you count "A Goofy Movie," which came out last spring, we've had three this year. Whether that will actually happen every year, however, depends on how well - and how quickly - future films come together. Each is still an arduous project that takes three years - or longer - to produce.

"Some years we'll release two, some years there will be one - and there may be years when we'll see multiple pictures," according to Tom Schumacher, vice president of Walt Disney Feature Animation.

There are eight animated features in various stages of production or pre-productionright now, Schumacher told the Deseret News in a telephone interview. He also verified a number of specific projects in the works and detailed some of what we'll see in the upcoming "Fantasia Continued."

Next summer's film, which is on track to be released in June, is a musical version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," with voices provided by Kevin Kline, Demi Moore and, in the title role, Tom Hulce (who performs both the speaking and singing voices of Quasimodo).

"We don't talk about much beyond that," Schumacher explained, diplomatically side-stepping questions about projected release dates for other films.

But with fully-staffed, up-and-running animation studios in Paris and at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., as well as the Disney headquarters in Burbank, Calif., the goal of a couple of films a year does not seem out of reach.

This amazing recent resurgence in Disney's success has also spurred the proliferation of animation departments at other major studios - Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, Turner, Dream-Works, etc. - though the track record for non-Disney efforts remains less than impressive.

Last Christmas the independent production "The Swan Princess" took a dive, earning only $8.5 million. In April of this year MGM's "The Pebble and the Penguin" left moviegoers cold and took in a mere $3 million. Other efforts in recent years, such as "Thumb-elina," "We're Back," "Rock-A-Doodle" and "Once Upon a Forest," have also failed to make a dent in the box office.

But for Disney, even "A Goofy Movie," which opened against "The Pebble and the Penguin," earned a healthy $35 million. And the stop-motion experiment "The Nightmare Before Christmas" a few years ago also made money.

There would seem to be little question that "Disney" remains a franchise name that John Q. Moviegoer equates with high quality.

And theatrical films are not the only Disney animated features on the horizon. The remarkable earnings of the straight-to-video "Aladdin" sequel "The Return of Jafar," has prompted the studio to step up production on made-for-video releases.

While Robin Williams did not participate in "Jafar," he has been lured back to provide the Genie's voice for a second video sequel, "Aladdin and the King of Thieves." A "Lion King" video sequel is also in the works. (Disney is also plunging into live-action made-for-video movies, with the sequel "Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves," starring Rick Moranis.)

"The interesting thing about direct-to-video business will be whether titles unrelated to (theatrical) films will do well," said Schumacher. " `Return of Jafar' is predicated on the fact that you know what `Aladdin' is, and other projects are built around pre-existing properties. But now (Disney Home Video) is also developing original titles for direct-to-video release."

Amazingly, little more than a decade ago Disney's animation future was in doubt. After the failure of 1985's "The Black Cauldron," the most expensive Disney animated film up to that time, the studio was on shaky ground.

But Roy E. Disney, Walt's nephew and the one of the company's largest stockholders, stepped in to save the day.

"Roy was such a staunch defender of animation," Schumacher says. "You have to give Roy an enormous amount of credit." After the "Black Cauldron" debacle, Roy Disney pushed for a smaller, more character-driven piece, resulting in "The Adventures of the Great Mouse Detective" (1986), which was a modest but encouraging success.

Then came "Oliver & Company" (1988), another hit, and the animation department seemed to be finding its legs. But it was "The Little Mermaid" (1989) that signaled an unprecedented roll. "Mermaid" became the biggest animated hit ever and was followed in quick succession by annual offerings - the modest hit "The Rescuers Down Under" (1990), and then the wild successes of "Beauty and the Beast" (1991), "Aladdin" (1992) and "The Lion King" (1994), each more popular than the one before. ("Lion King," with more than $300 million in domestic earnings, managed to go where no animated film had gone before, as it climbed into the top-five list of all-time movie moneymakers.) And this past summer's offering, "Pocahontas," was also a huge success.

After next year's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," we'll see:

- "Hercules," scheduled for summer of 1997. Schumacher says the voice cast is set, but it's not ready to be announced. "This one has a gospel quality to it, much of it narrated by five singing characters called `The Muses.' "

- "The Legend of Mulan" is based on a classic, 2,000-year-old Chinese legend and is the first to be completely animated by the Florida studio. Voices include Ming-Na Wen, who played June, the main daughter in "The Joy Luck Club," with singing provided by Lea Salonga, who starred in "Miss Saigon" on Broadway and was Jasmine's singing voice in "Aladdin." " `The Legend of Mulan' is not so well-known here," said Schumacher, "but it's quite well-known in Asia."

- "Tarzan," complete with songs. "Why do `Tarzan'?" Shumacher asks rhetorically. "Well, you've never seen Tarzan's relationship with the gorillas, as it is in (Edgar Rice Burrough's) book. It's a movie that organically has humans and animals talking to each other, both living in a real animal world and a real human world. There's extraordinary potential for comedy and music."

- And, of course, "Fantasia Continued," to be in theaters sometime in 1988. When "Fantasia" received its initial release in 1940, Walt Disney intended that segments would be dropped and new pieces added every couple of years. But because the film was initially a financial failure, the idea was abandoned.

Schumacher verified that "Fantasia Continued" will retain "Night On Bald Mountain," "Dance of the Hours" (with the famous dancing hippos), "The Nutcracker Suite" and Mickey Mouse as "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." And he said there are no plans to throw in any pop music sequences, which puts to rest rumors that a Beatles tune might be included.

New segments will include "Pomp and Circumstance" featuring Donald Duck, Hans Christian Andersen's "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" set to music by Shostakovich and the film will open with what Schumacher calls "a quotation," or a brief bit of music from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony - along with other elements that are still being worked out.

As for the competition gearing up at other studios, Schumacher says "There is an enormous number of talented people working in the animation business today, and everyone is searching for a way to fit into the marketplace, to follow their own dreams.

"The way we do it is very unscientific. We make movies that are interesting to us, to Michael Eisner (Disney's CEO) and Roy Disney."

"Toy Story" will be outside the official "classic" list ("The Hunchback of Notre Dame" will be No. 34.) But Schumacher says the computer-animated film is absolutely eye-popping. "We couldn't have made this movie in traditional animation. This is a story that can only really be told with three-dimensional toy characters.

"Some of the shots in this film are so beautiful." He added that the entire Disney animation contingent, from Burbank, Orlando and Paris, got a peek this week at a small portion of the film and "were quite blown away by it."

Though computer technology is being used in all of Disney's cartoon features now - and has been used to some degree since "The Great Mouse Detective" - Schumacher is confident that traditional animation will never be entirely replaced.

"You're seeing the artists pour their souls out through this medium and that's the key factor in what we do. I'm not fearful that the soul of the artist will ever be replaced."