DreamWorks Animation Previews 2012 Slate

Every year, DreamWorks Animation puts their best foot forward with a presentation to show off early footage from their upcoming film slate, and this past week, ComingSoon.net was invited to the AXA Equitable Center in New York City along with a select group of film critics, movie writers, and the Hollywood Foreign Press to take part in a sneak preview of their 2012 offerings: the threequel Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted and Rise of the Guardians.

It was roughly a year ago that ComingSoon.net was at the Directors Guild Theater for previews of Kung Fu Panda 2 and Puss In Boots, both which did well globally, grossing over $500 million, but must be seen as disappointments with domestic grosses under $200 million.

Even though DreamWorks Animation still gets huge respect in the industry, having received Oscar nominations for both those 2011 releases, it still feels like they’re trying to keep up with Disney/Pixar in terms of prestige, since they haven’t won an Oscar in the Animated category since the first year with Shrek.

2010′s How to Train Your Dragon was clearly a step in the right direction for DreamWorks Animation in terms of quality storytelling combined with gorgeous animation, and this year, they’ve brought on a couple of impressive outside writers to give their films some industry credibility with Madagascar 3 being written by Oscar nominee Noah Baumbach (for The Squid and the Whale) and Pulitzer-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, who also wrote “Shrek: The Musical,” tackling the screenplay for Rise of the Guardians.

First up was Madagascar 3 with series regulars Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath joined by a third director for “Europe’s Most Wanted” in Conrad Vernon, a long-time DreamWorks vet who co-directed Monsters vs. Aliens and has been involved with most of their animated movies going back pre-Shrek. They gave us a quick recap of the two previous movies and how the four zoo animal friends–Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith)–had been left stranded in Africa by the penguins, who had gone off to gamble in Monte Carlo. They’re ready to go back home to New York City, so they go to retrieve the penguins leading to a trip across Europe visiting places like Rome, London and the Swiss Alps.

The directors then introduced Ben Stiller and Chris Rock who came out and did a bit of awkward impromptu riffing before introducing the footage, which would essentially be the first 25 minutes of the movie, starting with the four zoo friends staking out Monte Carlo from the bay wearing snorkels like in the poster image. They talk over their plan to sneak into the casino–being animals, they’re not going to exactly be welcome there–confront the penguins for leaving them in Africa, then figure out a way to get back to New York.

Along for the ride are King Julian (voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen), and his fellow lemurs Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer) and Mort (Andy Richter), who don’t understand the concept of “stealth” as they make their way to the roof of the casino and figure a way in. Once inside in a space above the casino floor, they look down through a large glass skylight to an odd-looking character at the roulette table, all dressed up in wigs and make-up like the King of Versailles, but it’s actually a front for the monkeys and penguins, who have created a command center for themselves inside this front where they make decisions on what number to pick in roulette.

While they’re crunching the numbers with computers to figure out their next move, the zoo animals high above them try to figure out their plan. There’s a bit of tension between Alex and Marty about who should be the leader, and Gloria finally gets sick of it and lunges forward as her weight sends all of them crashing through the glass skylight onto the casino floor and when the people see them they scream and run off, so they quickly try to escape.

We then cut to the introduction of Captain Dubois of France’s Animal Control, voiced by Frances McDormand, her office decorated with all sorts of animal heads showing that she means business, and when she hears that animals are loose in the casino, she makes that her #1 mission to capture them.

At the casino, the animals are still trying to escape, and Skipper the penguin whistles, calling a large RV (driven by another penguin) that crashes through the wall and as the animals pile in, the RV proceeds to destroy the casino as it haphazardly drives out. After it crashes through the front doors, the entire place explodes into flames behind them. From out of those flames comes Dubois on a Vespa, as we watch a chase sequence where so much was going on, it’s hard to describe everything in a lot of detail. (It was similar in that way to the chase sequence in Kung Fu Panda 2.) Dubois is like the T1000 though, completely unstoppable as the animals try to get away from her, racing through the streets and tunnels of Monte Carlo with her riding a scooter with her men behind her. Even when the penguins release a stream of fishes behind the jeep, she raises her scooter over her head and slides through them.

The animals end up at a make-shift airplane with a string of monkeys chained together to form a ladder as they make their escape and Dubois turns up on top of a building and she takes her scooter on a spectacular jump across the buildings, a distance which would seem impossible to jump but she leaps off the scooter at the last minute to make the last bit of the jump and land on the building as the last of the animals board the flying machine.

As seems to be the case every time they get together, their makeshift plane crashes leaving them in a trainyard, still being chased by Dubois’ men, and when they see the train for the Circus Zaragosa and Alex gets an idea. A tiger appears blocking the door to the train car, this being the Russian tiger Vitali, voiced by Bryan Cranston, and he’s joined by Gia, the cheetah voiced by Jessica Chastain and the Italian sea lion Stefano, voiced by Martin Short. Marty and Alex convince them that they’re circus animals so they allow them inside as the train pulls away and they’re able to avoid their pursuers.

Stefano is more open to the guests but Vitali is suspicious and we see him using his knife-throwing skills to intimidate their guests, who try to convince them that they are circus animals. Vitali tells them the circus doesn’t stand for stowaways, but just as he’s saying this, we see the penguins, monkeys and lemurs sneaking their way on board, but when they’re caught, Skipper says that it’s up to the owners of the circus whether they can stay. Cut to the same King of Versailles character from the casino, pulling out a pouch full of gems and dumping it in front of the circus owner who gives them the deed to the circus as he and the circus clowns pile into a tiny car and drive off.

After that, one of the directors came out to introduce another clip, a less finished sequence from later in the movie after the zoo animals have reworked the circus to be something more modern (and clearly inspired by Cirque du Soleil). We watch the performance, a huge light-filled spectacle with all the animals flying in the around the amphitheater to the tune of Katy Perry’s “Firework,” a sequence that turns into a montage where we see agents presenting a contract to the circus to go on an American tour.

Before we moved on, we were shown a rough 3D trailer for the movie–with no comment on when we might see it–essentially telling the same story we learned from the 25 minutes of footage, although there were a few other scenes, mainly with the zoo animals trying to adjust to circus life. We watch Melman trying to balance on a tight rope and Marty showing the others his circus act, essentially a bit of clowning around wearing a rainbow afro, which will likely be the bit that kids enjoy the most.

It’s hard to tell whether Madagascar 3 will be a big step up from its predecessor, though it does seem like it won’t just be the four main animal friends as the penguins, monkeys and lemurs seems to be a lot more involved with every step of the story, which also seems a lot more action-driven than the last couple movies.

Next up was Rise of the Guardians, a film that bears even closer comparisons to How to Train Your Dragon due to its literary source material, being based on William Joyce’s series of children’s novels, known as “The Guardians of Childhood.” An interesting connection is that Joyce just won an Oscar for his own animated short film, “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.”

After introducing producer Christina Steinberg and Lindsay-Abaire, director Peter Ramsay was brought out to talk about the origins and tone of the project, before they displayed the six main characters on a screen behind him with their voice actor counterparts shown below them.

Prominently displayed in the center was their take on Santa Claus, voiced by Alec Baldwin, called by his real name “North,” but here, he’s a warrior, a large imposing man with giant muscular arms tattooed with “Nice” and “Naughty” on either arm, as seen in the poster. Ramsay compared him to a “Hell’s Angel with a heart of pure gold.” To his left on the display was his second-in-command and another warrior, the Easter Bunny, who is a tracker and protector of nature known as Bunnymund, voiced by Hugh Jackman. To the right of them was Tooth, the Tooth Fairy voiced by Isla Fisher, a bright and colorful personality who looked like something out of Cirque du Soleil oddly enough and she’s surrounded by hummingbird-like helper fairies. She has it a bit tougher than the others because she works year-round rather than just at her respective holiday, collecting teeth which contain the memories of childhoods she collects and protects. The last Guardian was Sandy (the Sandman), who didn’t have a voice actor’s picture below him, because he doesn’t speak, instead using dream sand to create images above his head to communicate. Ramsay compared him to a cross between Harpo Marx and Buddah, because he’s the wisest member of the Guardians.

The Guardians’ job is to protect the children of the earth who believe in them, but their status is threatened by the return of Pitch, their name for the Boogeyman, as voiced by Jude Law, who is starting to get more kids to believe in him, so they enlist help in the form of a young recruit named Jack, voiced by Chris Pine, who as we learn is the embodiment of Jack Frost.

Before showing footage, Ramsay introduced Alec Baldwin who came out to say a few words, thanking Jeffrey Katzenberg for the experience and talking up the film’s production design, before Ramsay returned to present footage.

We watched the film’s opening scene of Jack Frost awakening floating underwater in a lake with a narration that makes it seem like more of a serious affair then some of DreamWorks Animation’s other movies, but that may be more due to the film’s literary roots. Jack floats to the top of the water then through a layer of ice on the surface and starts floating in the air as a bright full moon above shines light down on him. After waking up, he picks up a nearby staff and first learns about his new frost powers as he uses it to create a pattern of frost first on the tree and then he starts skating around the ice creating frost behind him. Afterwards, he goes back to his village but no one acknowledges his presence and when someone passes right through him, he realizes that he’s no longer the Jack from before.

We’re then transported to the North Pole where we meet North, a much burlier and muscular version of Santa with a heavy Russian accent – is doing a Russian accent in vogue with Emmy winners these days? But he’s definitely not the jolly St. Nick we’re used to. North’s elves have large over-sized hats with bells on top that cover most of their heads and torsos and you can hear them running around by those constantly-ringing bells. He’s busy working on a toy train made out of ice that transforms into a flying spaceship but then a giant Yeti slams open the door ruining his concentration and the toy break. As he gets pulled away from his work, he pulls out a giant sword, which also differentiates him from the Santa we’re used to, and he heads to a room filled with control panes and a giant globe with bright LED lights scattered across it representing all the kids that believe in Santa Clause and his fellow Guardians. A shadow casts itself over the globe that transforms into Pitch flying around taunting North, who tells the others to prepare for guests.

The next clip showed the first meeting between Jack Frost and the Guardians as they try to enlist him to join their cause in fighting off Pitch and Jack is introduced to each member and interacts with each of them. In this scene, we got to hear that Hugh Jackman’s Easter Bunny actually sports an Australian accent, which may be why Jack thinks he’s a kangaroo. North pulls Jack aside as the two of them walk through the workshops where the large Yeti-like creatures are making all the toys while the elves are running around underfoot, and North tries to convince Jack that his place is with the Guardians, which is why the Man in the Moon personally selected him, reminding Jack of the giant moon overhead when he got his frost powers. They finally arrive at a cavern where Santa’s sleigh is parked and they’re joined by the other Guardians who pile into the back as it flies out through the icy tunnels into the night sky.

We then watched a 3D trailer for the film, which will premiere in front of Titanic 3D next month, showing a lot more of the Guardians in action, especially Sandy, whose dream sand can be used to create things on a much larger scale then what we see in the footage.

In a sense, Rise of the Guardians looks like an edgier The Polar Express with less of the modern humor we’re used to seeing in DreamWorks Animation movies, but it definitely looks as different from their movies as How to Train Your Dragon, which may be a good thing, and releasing it around Thanksgiving is also a wise move.

As always, it’s great to see what DreamWorks Animation has planned for the coming year even if this year’s presentation felt like a more low-key affair maybe due to the lack of Jeffrey Katzenberg’s presence, but also, the Stiller/Rock and Baldwin intros didn’t have the same charisma and personality of what Jack Black and Antonio Banderas brought to the event last year. Even so, the movies look good and that’s all that matters.

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted is out on June 8, followed by Rise of the Guardians on November 21.

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