New releases provide challenges to marketers

When it comes to toon tentpoles, sequels are easy, while originality spells risk.

So where does that put this year’s animated offerings?

Fox’s “Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!,” DreamWorks’ “Kung Fu Panda” and Pixar’s “Wall-E” signify major departures for their respective studios. As such, marketing efforts have been under way since last summer to message each film’s unique qualities to audiences.

“Horton,” which opens Friday, marks the first adaptation from Blue Sky Animation, the team behind the “Ice Age” franchise. Since kids aren’t likely to make this connection, Fox is pushing the fact that this beloved Dr. Seuss story boasts two A-list comedians, Jim Carrey and Steve Carell.

“Horton definitely feels like a unique character,” says Fox Animation prexy Vanessa Morisson, dismissing comparisons to Carrey’s Grinch. “The movie has the heart of what you saw in ‘Ice Age,’ but (the cast) infused these whimsical classic characters with their own modern-day spin.”

In other words, the film combines certain trademark Seussisms, such as narration that rhymes, with a fair share of pop culture references.

That approach served DreamWorks well on the “Shrek” series, but it doesn’t float for the “timeless” quality “Kung Fu Panda” directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne had in mind for their martial arts homage. (The film, which opens June 8, screens at ShoWest tonight in Las Vegas.)

According to Stevenson, “We asked ourselves the question, ‘What if Akira Kurosawa shot a Jerry Lewis movie?'”

With Jack Black voicing the title role, laughs would come naturally, but not at the expense of the epic feel they were trying to create: In a version of ancient China where humans never existed, five critters invent kung fu’s key styles according to their unique animal qualities.

“It really all goes to serve the comedic high concept of the movie, which is stuffed animals beating the crap out of each other,” Osborne explains.

In Pixar’s nearly dialogue-free “Wall-E” (June 27), a trash-compacting droid left behind on an uninhabitable Earth falls for a newer model beamed down from space. In the robot romance that ensues, the characters communicate primarily in a language hatched by Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt (the brains behind R2-D2).

Risky? Sure, but after dealing in such safe subjects as monsters, toys and cars, Pixar proved it could make even a culinary-inclined rat appealing.

DreamWorks hedges its original-idea bets with a “Madagascar” sequel due in November. The studio also plans to present a brief 3-D demo of its 2009 release “Monsters vs. Aliens” at ShoWest today.

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