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“I realized the day ‘Shrek’ came out (in 2001) that it was the end of one chapter and the beginning of another, and everything that came after that was, ‘How do we move the enterprise in that direction?’ ” Katzenberg says. “To us, to me anyway, ‘Shrek’ was the Holy Grail. It was the answer we had been in search of for seven years, which was ‘What is a DreamWorks animated movie?’ “
Looking at the current slate, the answer must be irreverent comedies that twist pop culture in some way — using A-list voice talent. (Two of Katzenberg’s top choices, Jack Nicholson and Arnold Schwarzenegger, have yet to agree to voice roles, but he vows to keep trying.)
Like “The Lion King,” Katzenberg came up with the kernel of the idea for “Madagascar,” essentially: What would happen if the cast of “Seinfeld” were on a deserted island, “only they were animals,” in the words of producer Mireille Soria.
Over five years, the creative team honed this idea into the tale of a vain lion (voiced by Ben Stiller), an adventurous zebra (Chris Rock), a nurturing hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and a neurotic giraffe (David Schwimmer) who live in the Central Park Zoo but end up being shipped off to the wild.
“The question is how to take the plants and animals indigenous to Madagascar and make them a little more fantastical,” Soria says. “We call it the ‘whack factor.’ ”
The “whack factor” is evident in every film now in production. After “Madagascar” comes “Wallace & Gromit — The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” an offbeat film produced by Aardman Studios, due out in October. Next year comes the Aardman co-production “Flushed Away,” the tale of a socialite rat (Hugh Jackman) who meets up with a sewer rat (Kate Winslet), as well as “Over the Hedge,” about a con-artist raccoon (Bruce Willis) and a sensitive turtle (Garry Shandling). Meanwhile, the next installment of “Shrek” begins production later this year for a May 2007 release, and the script for “Shrek 4” is already complete. In November 2007 comes “Bee Movie,” about a bee trying to shut down honey production, that’s written and voiced by Jerry Seinfeld.
“Every studio derives its style from the top guy,” says Steve Hulett, the Animation Guild’s business representative. “This was true of Walt Disney and Hanna Barbera, and now of Pixar with John Lasseter and DreamWorks with Jeffrey Katzenberg. They are the two major players in animation today.”
That’s not to say that DreamWorks Animation is guaranteed a good run. For one thing, more competition looms. After years of effort, Fox finally found success with “Ice Age” and “Robots.” Then there is Pixar’s perfect track record to contend with; even Katzenberg himself is a fan. He calls “The Incredibles” “brilliant” and says “Monsters, Inc.” “cracks me up.”
“They are the gold standard,” he says. “You can give them the benefit of the doubt right now that they are not going to miss. Life is such that some day they will, but now they’re six for six.”
Katzenberg says that, except at Oscar time, DreamWorks has never had to directly compete with Pixar because their theatrical and video releases are spaced far apart. “We don’t compete and never have, and unless we are dumber than dumb, never would.” (They have, however, competed in other ways. The first “Shrek” DVD debuted in 2001 on the same day Disney-Pixar’s “Monsters, Inc.” hit theaters. And the “Shrek 2” DVD debuted November 5, the day “Incredibles” hit the screen.)
But Katzenberg doesn’t discount a Pixar-less Walt Disney Feature Animation entirely, although he declines to comment on the corporate turmoil that has plagued the studio over the past 18 months. “I look at what Disney is doing,” he says. “They’re competitive, you bet. You ignore your competition at your own peril, and I don’t ignore my competition, ever.”
It’s easy to get the sense that the real competition will be against Katzenberg’s own past successes, particularly at a newly public, undiversified company where every release can make or break a stock price.
The demands are great: Dream-Works has scheduled two films per year through ’08. Disney has had a similar schedule, and as critics have charged that some of its recent releases lacked creativity. (A case in point is Disney’s “The Wild,” another zoo-animals-on-the-loose tale, due out next year.)
“One big question is, can you do more than one animated film a year?” says financial analyst Dennis McAlpine. “It’s really Jeffrey’s ball game. If you look at the valuation, people must think he can do it.”
Early test screenings for “Madagascar” were “on par with, if not stronger than, the original ‘Shrek’ movie,” Katzenberg says. Then again, he cautions that many times there is no direct correlation between test screenings and box-office results.
So how much does the CEO of DreamWorks Animation think “Madagascar” will earn?
Aware of the tendency for expectations to overwhelm actual results, he grows pensive and finally hazards a guess. “More than ‘Sinbad.’ ” He pauses for effect, then lets out a hearty chuckle.