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An Aard-knock life

Brit toon banner's not a big draw for D'Works

Just two films into a five-picture deal, DreamWorks Animation and Aardman are on the verge of calling it quits.

After the second commercial disappointment in as many years from the quirky British claymation studio, insiders say DreamWorks Animation is unlikely to put any more Aardman toons on its sked. Instead, the Blighty company is believed to be looking for a new theatrical partner — likely one that doesn’t have “Shrek”-sized expectations for its releases.

Aardman films have consistently been a hit with critics and are said to be a personal favorite of DWA topper Jeffrey Katzenberg. But “Flushed Away,” a CGI collaboration between Aardman and DreamWorks, opened to $18.8 million last weekend, the lowest bow for a CGI toon from Katzenberg’s studio since 1998’s “Antz.”

Even if the foreign take is stronger, that won’t make up for the $100 million-plus production cost.

Last year’s Oscar-winning claymation release “Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” (which technically didn’t count under the five-picture deal since Aardman owns the characters) did well overseas, but grossed just $56.1 million at home, forcing DWA to take a writedown on its earnings.

Neither matched the performance of Aardman’s 2000 hit “Chicken Run,” which took in more than $100 million in the U.S. and abroad, leading to DreamWorks’ confidence in the deal.

But after two subsequent misses, DreamWorks Animation seems to have concluded that the Aardman style just isn’t appealing enough to American auds.

Going forward, its development is focused on jokey, pop culture-savvy takes on classic tales, in the vein of “Shrek” and “Madagascar.”

Studio already has its slate set through 2009, including sequels to both those pics, Jack Black starrer “Kung Fu Panda” and comicbook adaptation “Monsters vs. Aliens.”

As for Aardman, it’s hard at work on upcoming CBS series “Creature Comforts.”

Studio does have one project still in development at DWA: John Cleese-penned caveman pic “Crood Awakenings.”

But unless that film becomes a lot more sarcastic and a lot less British, it doesn’t stand much chance of getting released by DreamWorks Animation.

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