Penguins glide over animated glut

Before 2006, no major-studio CG-animated pic had flopped. This year, only three of the 15 toons in release were standout hits. And only one of those three came from one of the many new production houses hoping for a piece of the magic: Warner and Village Roadshow’s “Happy Feet,” produced by f/x studio Animal Logic in Australia.

Unlike Fox/Blue Sky’s “Ice Age: The Meltdown” and Disney/Pixar’s “Cars,” the dancing penguin movie — which has grossed more than $160.2 million domestically — did not come from folks with established track records.

When the script for “Happy Feet,” which was originally developed by writer-director George Miller at Universal, came to WB, it looked to have plenty working against it. Miller had never helmed a toon, and Animal Logic, his longtime f/x partner, had never produced an animated film.

Warner, meanwhile, has had an unsuccessful history with feature toons, including late ’90s disappointments “Quest for Camelot” and “The Iron Giant” and the summer’s “The Ant Bully.”

The studio didn’t hold back its bet on “Happy Feet,” though. After first giving the pic a greenlight over three years ago, WB and Village Roadshow execs approved a significant budget boost along the way, to nearly $100 million, based on what they initially saw.

Originally planned to have about 500 shots, “Happy Feet” ended up with nearly 900. Many of the additions were closeups, forcing Animal Logic animators to make the penguins’ fuzzy feathers look real and eyes come alive.

“You don’t get many opportunities where you can make a case that you’ll hit a home run, but based on what we were seeing along the way, we knew we really had a shot here,” said Chris DeFaria, Warner exec VP of animation and visual effects.

In plotting the marketing campaign, Warners treated “Happy Feet” as an event movie instead of an animated family pic. Pixar does the same with its movies; DreamWorks’ “Shrek” franchise also appeals to all four quadrants of the moviegoing public.That meant Warners borrowed a page from Pixar, or its own “Harry Potter” franchise.

“We attempted to say that this is a movie for everybody,” said Warners prexy of domestic marketing Dawn Taubin. “You have to go beyond families.”

Taubin’s marketing team worked closely with Miller and Animal Logic from the start, helping streamline the production process.

The heavyweight list of marketing partners included Comcast, Blockbuster, Taubman Malls (operator of the Beverly Center), Doubletree Hotels and General Mills.And in a first, pharmaceutical giant Roche used “Happy Feet” as the centerpiece of its multimillion-dollar flu vaccine campaign.

Warners and Village Roadshow also knew they had to get the word out early in unique ways, since “Happy Feet” wasn’t finished until very close to its release date, precluding any early screenings. The studio instead showed 20 minutes of the film to press early in the fall and cut three different trailers out of the footage that was ready.

Boasting strong legs, pic looks likely to do nearly $200 million at the U.S. box office, with a healthy foreign perf as well. It has also picked up several critics’ awards and will almost certainly get an Oscar nom in the animated feature category.

There was also some luck along the way. Warner Independent’s 2005 breakout hit “March of the Penguins” gave an unexpected boost to the popularity of Emperor penguins, which just happen to be featured in “Happy Feet.”

“No one anticipated this when we greenlit the movie four years ago,” said Village Roadshow chair-CEO Bruce Berman. “There is no way of measuring the impact, but ‘March of the Penguins’ prepped the culture to view penguins as entertaining animals.”

In a year when even DreamWorks Animation topper Jeffrey Katzenberg admits there have been too many toons about a wisecracking crew of talking animals who encounter a strange world of human beings, that made a big difference.

Now its success has energized WB’s animation aspirations, as well as those of other studios that hope to work without side toon houses to make pics that could compete with entries from Disney and DreamWorks.

It is also all but a certainty that the singing penguins of “Happy Feet” will be waddling and dancing their back onto the bigscreen within a few years.

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