SAN FRANCISCO — While there may still be a few moviegoers lining up for that little space movie about distant rebels and knights, Dreamworks is hoping audiences are ready for something completely different. The company's big summer release, the computer-animated "Madagascar," opens Friday. Featuring a slate of big-name actors in voice roles (Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett Smith), the story follows a hapless quartet of New York zoo animals as they are mistakenly shipped out to the rain forests of Madagascar.
The film is one of seven animated features due out in 2005, and the producers clearly hope to ride the wave of excitement about the style of filmmaking that began with "Toy Story" and blossomed into box-office gold with the two "Shrek" films. Eleven more computer-animated features are due out next year, one from every major studio.
But this wave of talking creatures and toys leads some observers to wonder if the industry isn't in the early throes of another boom and bust cycle, much like that wave of interest in traditional cel animation that began with Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King" and petered out with "Titan, A.E." and "The Prince of Egypt."
"One of the problems with technologies becoming easier to do is that it will be very tempting to simply put more films into production," says Ray Greene, author of "Hollywood Migraine: The Inside Story of a Decade in Film." "I'm not sure if you want to have studios pumping out four to five animated films a year because nobody will be happy with the box office."
Executive producer Jeffrey Katzenberg says he's not worried because "Madagascar" deliberately targets the broadest possible audience. "Walt Disney used to say, 'I make movies for children and the child that exists in all of us,' " says the Dreamworks president. "With a wink to Disney, I say we make adult movies that appeal to the adult in every child."
"Madagascar" has a retro look and derives humor from the way the creatures move. Melman the giraffe (Rock) wraps his neck in knots and Gloria the hippo (Pinkett-Smith) grabs her toes and bounces, conjuring memories of the hippos in tutus from Disney's "Fantasia." Alex the lion (Stiller) stretches and squashes himself in the time-honored tradition of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Road Runner, and every other Chuck Jones classic.
"We didn't want any limitations of anatomically correct movements," says Rex Grignon, head of character animation.
Adults will revel in the movie's nods and winks to classic films of the past 30 years such as "Chariots of Fire," "Saturday Night Fever," "Apollo 13," "Planet of the Apes," "American Beauty," and more. "All the boomers will identify with going back to their roots," says Kendal Cronkhite, the production designer.
Although everyone on the team emphasizes that the film is not about the latest gee-whiz animation tool at Dreamworks, they say it nonetheless represents yet another technical landmark in the evolution of computer animation. The studio's goal with computer animation "has always been to give artists the freedom of the old hand-drawn cartoons," says Phillippe Gluckman, Visual FX supervisor.
When they began the project several years ago, they couldn't get the kind of fluidity that hand-drawn animation has always had. Now, he adds, " 'Madagascar' shows that we can."