Behind the Curtain at DreamWorks Animation

One of the highlights of last week’s SIGGRAPH in San Diego, Calif. was a special sneak peek at the animated features in development at DreamWorks. Studio principal Jeffrey Katzenberg and directors Tim Johnson (Over the Hedge) and Patrick Gilmore (Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas) were on hand to introduce invitees to the characters and storylines of SharkSlayer, Madagascar, Over the Hedge and Shrek 2.

The presentation, which also served as a recruitment pitch, included short clips of animation and an impromptu puppet show with Katzenberg donning plush representations of Over the Hedge‘s raccoon and turtle protagonists. And while all the projects will be computer animated, the audience was also treated to hand drawn storyboards and animatics revealing key sequences and plot points.

So what looks good? Sharkslayer looks like it could be a lot of fun. It will star Will Smith as the voice of Oscar, a loser fish who works in a whale wash (the underwater equivalent of a car wash). Things turn around for him when the son of shark Mafioso Don Lino (Robert De Niro) is knocked off and Oscar is in a position to take credit for the deed. Oscar at first enjoys the spoils of herodom but soon finds that being known as a sharkslayer can be dangerous to one’s health.

Judging by audience response, Jack Black will be a scene-stealer as one of Don Lino’s other sons. A major disappointment to Lino, Lenny is a shark who just can’t bring himself to kill and eat meat. Another performance to look forward to is Peter Faulk as elderly Godfather Don Brizzi. Doug E. Doug and Ziggy Marley are also sure to get a lot of laughs as a pair of cleverly designed Rastafarian jellyfish. The cast also includes Renée Zellweger, Angelina Jolie, Martin Scorsese, Kevin Pollak and Sopranos regulars James Gandolfini, Michael Imperioli and Vincent Pastore.

The coolest thing about Madagascar so far is the character designs, displayed as maquettes at the event. The jury is still out on the story, which has a set of pampered New York City zoo animals shipwrecked on a wild island off the coast of Africa. Ben Stiller provides the voice of a lion who learns that he is a predator and that the juicy steaks he’s accustomed to come from animals like his pals. Chris Rock plays his best friend, a zebra who doesn’t know if he’s black with white stripes or white with black stripes. The movie’s success will depend greatly on the chemistry between the two leads. Jada Pinkett Smith, David Schwimmer and Jason Alexander fill out the voice cast. DreamWorks has targeted 2005 for release.

Also slated for 2005 (holiday season) is Over the Hedge, adapted from the comic strip by Michael Fry and T. Lewis. This is another buddy comedy about woodland pals who awake from a long winter’s nap to find that a suburban housing development encroaching on their turf. While most of the animals fear the new neighbors, R.J., the con artist racoon (Jim Carey), convinces turtle friend Verne (Gary Shandling) and the others that there is a gold mine to be found in the trash cans and homes of the human invaders.

The filmmakers decided to frame all the shots from the perspective of the animals so that the human dwellings and vehicles appear massive in size. For instance, the wheel of an SUV appears to be several stories tall and a common household kitchen takes on cathedral-like proportions. While that creative choice may yield interesting possibilities, the decision to go 3D is a bit disappointing given the property’s 2D origins and the sheer beauty of the hand-drawn conceptual art shown. Still, the juxtaposition of Carey’s over-the-top antics with Shandling’s reserved wit should, in itself, be worth watching.

And what’s to say about Shrek 2? Like most sequels, it many not be as fresh as its predecessor, but, judging from the preview clips, it will be funny. And that’s all anybody wants. Antonio Banderas is especially hilarious as Puss ‘n Boots. Look for the return of the ogre in the summer of 2004.