So much for Canada stealing all that production work from Hollywood: The Walt Disney Co has now confirmed that it is closing its animation facilities in Vancouver and Toronto four years after opening them, laying off more than 200 staff and dealing a significant blow to Canadian animation.

Canadian sources on the West Coast say that the Vancouver facility has already been effectively shut in the past few weeks after equipment was shipped out from the plant. The Toronto studio has been left only with a skeleton crew - basically one animator, one director, one producer and a lone assistant.

In a statement issued to Screen International on Monday night, Disney confirmed the closures: "Walt Disney Animation Canada will cease active animation production in Toronto and Vancouver in Spring 2000."

"Our experience working in Canada for the past four years has been outstanding," explained Disney. "However, accelerated production schedules that prompted Disney Animation to locate in Canada have changed. As a result, we find that production needs are covered by pre-existing facilities, and we are unable to maintain an animation studio in Canada."

Several sources within the Canadian animation sector said Disney now plans to reactivate its production of Peter And Jane -- the Peter Pan cartoon sequel started in Canada but suspended this past autumn -- at facilities in Australia and Japan. One source added that Disney's Australian animators are being paid by the piece as opposed to salary.

Walt Disney Animation Canada opened in January 1996 to produce direct-to-video product and, potentially, theatrical releases, amidst much hoopla about tapping into Canada's deep pool of animators. The combined facilities produced the direct-to-video title Beauty And The Beast: Enchanted Christmas in 1997 and collaborated with Disney subcontractors in Australia and Japan on Pocahontas II: Journey To The New World.

Peter And Jane, the sequel to the 1953 cartoon classic, was originally intended as the studio's first theatrical release but was downgraded to a home video title before work was suspended. Rumours about a closure have lingered ever since last autumn when work on the sequel was suspended.

The Disney studio closures follow reported layoffs at Fox Animation Studios in Phoenix, which will see a 75% chop in employees in favour of outsourcing. The six-year-old Fox operation sprang into existence with similar confidence in the strength of the cartoon market and at a time when animation talent was at a premium. Now it seems there is a surplus of animators and fewer projects to go round.

The Toronto and Vancouver closures have left staff feeling "deceived," especially since Disney made a multi-year commitment to the Canadian government in exchange for special dispensation under the Industry Canada guidelines. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one employee said that the skeleton crew left in the Toronto office is now just a token display of that commitment. That source, like so many others in Toronto and Vancouver, joined Disney for the job security.

Disney was at pains this week to stress its continuing good ties with Canada, pointing to its various subsidiaries and affiliated operations that still operate in the country, among them Disney Interactive Victoria, Buena Vista Home Entertainment Canada and Walt Disney Records plus all the on-going live-action production of various film and TV productions. Disney also holds the licensing rights to the image of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Disney's statement singled out the co-operation of the Ontario Film Development Corp, the Toronto Film & TV Liaison Office and the Ministry of Economic Development & Trade as being key to the success of the last four years. In addition, the studio paid tribute to "the world-class artists and executives who have produced exceptional animation."