Returning brands deliver final installments

A successful animated brand is often the gift that keeps on giving.

Properties like DreamWorks Animation’s “Shrek,” Pixar’s “Toy Story” and Warner Bros.’ “Looney Tunes” — all in contention with this year’s Oscar ani races — have spawned everything from Broadway musicals to ubiquitous merchandise and buzzed-about bigscreen shorts.

The three mega-franchises, each headed in divergent directions, illustrate why beloved toon hits never really die.

“There is always an interest from Warner Bros. in keeping these characters alive and introducing them to a new generation of kids,” says Allison Abbate, who produced the bigscreen Road Runner short “Coyote Falls,” which ran before the studio’s summer kid pic “Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore.” “The time felt right to take a stab at it.”

One of three “Looney Tunes” shorts spawned by Warner Bros.’ TV division this year, the critically lauded 3-minute “Coyote Falls,” offers a blend of throwback characters and cutting-edge 3D CG animation.

Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and the Roadrunner appear ripe for a revival, with a new TV series on deck and rumors of a bigscreen feature percolating. But “Shrek” and “Toy Story” are undoubtedly heading into the sunset, at least in their current bigscreen incarnations. Still, their legacies will be palpable via myriad showbiz avenues.

The four-part “Shrek” film series, which has already earned $2.94 billion at the boxoffice worldwide and inspired a 3D theme-park attraction, a Broadway play and an upcoming West End production, will hardly miss a beat theatrically thanks to a spin off of the Antonio Banderas-voiced character Puss in Boots, scheduled to bow in 2011.

And yet, Shrek had become such a staple of the DreamWorks slate since the first film bowed in 2001 that some employees at the studio have never worked on anything else. With the studio increasing its output to five features every two years and sequels in the works for “Madagascar,” “Kung Fu Panda” and “How to Train Your Dragon,” DWA topper Jeffrey Katzenberg decided it was time to give the green ogre a rest. The “Puss in Boots” feature is imagined as a prequel, delving into the character’s pre-”Shrek” backstory.

Though the Pixar team views “Toy Story 3″ as the final chapter in a film series that has already nabbed $1.94 billion in global ticket sales, drawing the saga of college-bound Andy and his childhood toys to a close, the studio does plan to keep Woody and Buzz Lightyear alive through a series of shorts to be shown before future Pixar movies. The characters will also continue to be featured in lucrative theme-park attractions and on merchandise thanks to one of the most booming ancillary markets for an ani property. Though Pixar remains tight-lipped about potential spinoffs, Woody pal Jessie the Cowgirl — one of the most popular Halloween costumes this year — would be an obvious target.

Still, keeping a franchise alive without becoming overexposed poses a challenge for studios. Pixar, in particular, has been very careful to avoid diluting its boxoffice hits in the marketplace. Only “Toy Story” has received sequel treatment to date, though “Cars 2″ and “Monsters, Inc. 2″ are scheduled to bow in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

“?’Toy Story 2′ was 11 years ago, and you don’t usually see a gap like that between sequels,” explains “Toy Story 3″ helmer Lee Unkrich. But even “Toy Story” courted consumer fatigue and confusion when Pixar partner Disney tried to maximize the property’s profitability by launching an ice show featuring music by Randy Newman, a “Toy Story” musical aboard the Disney Wonder cruise ship, the direct-to-video film “Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins” and a Buzz Lightyear TV series. Those projects led to a period of frosty relations between the distributor and the producer.

After Disney bought Pixar in 2006, creative chief John Lasseter was able to squelch a straight-to-DVD sequel and put a proper finale to the series in motion at Pixar. “Those 11 years gave us some distance and perspective,” says Unkrich, who edited the first “Toy Story” and went on to direct what has become the studio’s top-earning, best-reviewed feature to date.

Though “Toy Story 3″ seems poised for award-season play, the question remains whether Academy members will consider an animated sequel in the best picture race. In general, Academy voters eschew sequels — “The Godfather: Part II” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” being among the exceptions. That question could even impact the animated feature category, where “Shrek 2″ is the only sequel to be nominated so far (“Toy Story 2″ predates the category by a year).

“But animated sequels are often so good and of such high quality that they don’t seem out of place standing next to the art-house gem,” explains Abbate, no stranger to the Oscar race, having produced past nominees “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “The Corpse Bride.” “The process, which involves painstakingly making each and every frame the best it can possibly be, is the same,” whether creating an original animated property or trying to meet — and exceed — the level of work established earlier in a respected franchise. “Ultimately, the playing field is pretty even,” she says.

More Eye on the Oscars: Animation Preview articles:
New toons seek to establish fresh franchises | Veteran toon franchises wrap it up | 16 pics vie for Oscar nom

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