We know, we know…if you’re a film fan, you’re being deluged with stuff right about now, be it the year-end new releases hoping for awards love or the just-announced Sundance lineup. And yet it’s not too soon to start thinking about March, July, and November of 2013, certainly not as far as Dreamworks Animation is concerned, as their big titles for next year were given a showcase yesterday morning on the company’s new home turf: the 20th Century Fox lot. For the next five years, the plan is to do three animated features a year, some of which, we were told, will feature familiar characters (i.e., sequels – but to what? The Madagascar and Shrek storylines are basically wrapped. A penguin spin-off is happening, but what else? More Guardians?) while others will be all-new.
Actually, let me walk back the last comments a tad – “familiar characters” may not always mean sequels. Indeed, the highlight of the presentation was a look at Mr. Peabody & Sherman, a CG adaptation of the Jay Ward characters. Yes, I did say highlight, and sympathize with your suspicions: from the Dave Thomas/Sally Kellerman Boris & Natasha to Brendan Fraser as an unfortunate Mountie, Hollywood hasn’t exactly been able to “Do-Right” with Bullwinkle and his animated pals. But with Jay’s daughter Tiffany as a consultant, it looks like they might finally have gotten one right.
For those that don’t know – and I have only the sketchiest of knowledge, seeing as how the first generation of Cold War kids are the original fan base – Mr. Peabody is a super-intelligent dog who has adopted a human child named Sherman, and together they travel through time in furtherance of the boy’s education. To use a modern pop-cultural reference, Mr. Peabody’s personality feels a bit like a less obnoxious Niles Crane (Frasier references aren’t obsolete yet, are they?) and fear not, Dreamworks has not watered down his large vocabulary for the sake of the kids. The cast, which includes Stephen Colbert and Mel Brooks, also implies a smart satirical bent.
Firstly, we were shown what seems to be the teaser trailer, beginning with the original 2D cartoon (specifically, Peabody’s self-intro in the cartoon above), then pulling back and panning around to reveal that it’s on a flatscreen TV, being viewed by the fully 3D Sherman (Max Charles), who wonders what he’s watching. Mr. Peabody (Modern Family‘s Ty Burrell) explains that it’s them in the past, and then says they’re going to use their time machine (“the WABAC”) to go into the future. The future where everyone has Internet in their heads, asks Sherman? No – the future date of November 1st, when their movie comes out.
The movie begins with the duo going back to the French revolution and a meeting with Marie Antoinette, which leads to trouble when Sherman wanders off looking for some cake. We were then shown an unfinished clip of Mr. Peabody being taken to the guillotine, as Sherman looks on in horror and asks what he can do. Mr. P tells him to stare right where he is… as the sun reflects off his glasses in just the right way, and he escapes. Asked how he did it, he goes into Guy-Ritchie-Sherlock-Holmesian detail about how he calculated the spacing of manholes, weakness of the wood and the angle of the sun off Sherman’s glasses. Escaping to the sewer, they encounter Robespierre, whom Peabody tricks into dropping his sword, as the surf a sewer current on a manhole.
That’s just the intro. Afterward, the plot kicks into gear as we follow Sherman to his first day of school. Here, in history class, he makes a new enemy in the form of bratty blonde Penny Peterson (Ariel Winter), who is duly embarrassed when Sherman announces to the class that the story of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree is “apocryphal.”
Sometime after that scene, we are told that Sherman gets into a fight with Penny after she tells him he’s a dog because his father’s a dog. Called in to the principal’s office, Mr. P misunderstands and starts proposing an AP curriculum for his boy, before learning that he bit Penny, and lawsuits may be in the offing, including a call to child protective services about the fact that a dog has a human son.
To make peace, Penny and her family are invited around for dinner, but in a bid to get Penny to stop threatening him, Sherman tries to impress her by showing her the time machine. He doesn’t want to let her inside it, but she taunts him by saying that if he always does what people tell him, that makes him a dog.
And that’s all the footage we saw – the story really kicks off from there, it seems, as Sherman loses Penny in ancient Egypt. Events which unfold will also take them to the Renaissance and the Trojan War, as it becomes evident that time tampering could affect the fate of the universe.
The animation was mostly unfinished, but didn’t necessarily seem like it would be state of the art – nor does it have to be (Jay Ward’s original animation was about as primitive as it gets). The key is to keep its humor smart, while simultaneously getting kids interested in history. So far, it looks to be on the right track.
The other two movies being previewed, Turbo and The Croods, seemed like much more typical Dreamworks fare, with the obligatory over-familiar pop song as conspicuous as ever (House of Pain’s “Jump Around;” Jet’s “Are You Gonna Be My Girl”). Both also star Ryan Reynolds. To me, that’s a good thing – he’s a funny guy whose leading-man looks get in the way of respect, which is not so much of a factor in voice-over.
In Turbo, he’s a snail who’s obsessed with Formula 1 racing – in keeping with a theme that pervaded all three presentations, the opening of the movie, which we were showed, featured another 2D-to-3D fakeout, as a car race we initially see in vivid detail turns out only to be on TV in the background, and playing VHS tapes no less (I know it takes a long time to make an animated flick, but… VHS tapes?). His brother is played by Paul Giamatti, which likely represents the only time that sentence will ever be written. Needless to say, snails have a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to quickness – there’s a sequence where Turbo times himself trying to run the length of a 12-inch ruler, and is overjoyed that he sets a new record of 17 minutes.
Later, he finds his way out into the real world when he falls into traffic, and winds up being on the hood of a car that enters a Fast and Furious-style street race. Accidentally sucked into the engine and near-drowned in nitrous oxide, he finds himself changing at a molecular level, attaining the powers of a race car complete with headlights in the eyes, tail indicator lights and of course super-speed, which comes in handy when he’s kidnapped by a taco vendor for use in after-hours snail racing. The other racing snails, whose shells are decked out like sports cars, are voiced by the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Snoop Dogg, and Maya Rudolph.
Since snails aren’t that expressive as animals, the use of their eye-stalks as “hands” where appropriate is a nice touch. Still, it feels a little formulaic, like Dreamworks saw the merchandising success of the Cars movies and wanted some of that for themselves.
Though The Croods appears to be anchored by Emma Stone, whose presence is always welcome, the main appeal to me (and others, I suspect) is Nicolas Cage as a caveman. Sure, I’d rather see that in live action, but still… Nic Cage as a caveman. Once again, the movie’s beginning features 2D becoming 3D, this time via cave paintings that come to life, as Emma Stone’s Eep narrates the story of her life in the last caveman family to survive in their valley, the others having all met horrible ends. As such, Cage’s patriarch is super-protective and never lets anyone leave the cave except to hunt for food. But when Eep does, she meets Guy (Ryan Reynolds again), an evolving type who has discovered such things as shoes and fire, and who tells her the end of the world is coming. Turns out he’s predicting continental drift, and the first warning sign is a massive avalanche that rips the Croods’ cave apart and reveals a lush new outside world that feels pretty much like Avatar‘s planet Pandora. The animals they find there are in a state of evolutionary flux, and tend to be half-and-half type things: whales that walk on land, piranha birds that swirl in tornado formations, mammoths with leopard-skin patterns, a carnivorous version of the exotic bird from Up, etc.
There are what are sure to become some classic new Cage-isms in what we saw – when confronted with fire for the first time and becoming scared of it, for example, he loudly advises his son, “Try hiding it in the tall, dry grass!” Plus there are numerous versions of him making like an ape expressing dominance and simply roaring gibberish, in the manner of Homer Simpson. Visually, though – and I know this has been in the works for nine years, so it may be unfortunate coincidence – the similarity to Avatar of the visuals is a bit much. And “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” on the soundtrack is very unfortunate; in a movie that otherwise seems to lack gratuitously “modern” jokes (e.g. the automatic customer service menu gag with the witch in Brave), a more classic score would be more appealing.
With that said, though, I spoke to a small child afterwards and she told me she loved the looks of Turbo and The Croods more so than Mr. Peabody. This could be because some of the Mr. Peabody animation was rough and unfinished, but I also suspect it’s because the other two are more visceral.
The Croods opens March 22nd, Turbo opens July 19th, and Mr. Peabody & Sherman opens Nov. 1st. All three movies will be in 3D.