'Continental Drift' creates backstory for new characters

Addition by subtraction is a well-known concept. But in the world of tentpole sequels, studios run the risk of subtraction by addition.

For every new character introduced in a franchise that hits, like “Shrek’s” Puss in Boots, there’s one that doesn’t, like “Star Wars’?” Jar Jar Binks.

Scribe Michael Berg, who has played a key role in every installment of Fox’s $2 billion “Ice Age” franchise, including this month’s “Continental Drift,” says new sidekicks, cohorts and love interests are essential to breathing fresh life into a world that audiences have already seen before. But the proposition is rife with danger.

“Adding a character is a delicate balance,” explains Berg, who wrote three new roles for “Continental Drift” and took a fourth from infancy to articulation. “If the writing and voice-performance work well with the original characters, the chemistry feels right, and it will seem like the character was part of the franchise from the beginning. Jessie in ‘Toy Story 2′ is a terrific example. Make a mistake, though, and the character feels like a gimmick.”

In the best-case scenario, a character works so well that it can launch its own new series, as was the case with the Antonio Banderas-voiced Puss in Boots, who emerged from the “Shrek” franchise to topline the DreamWorks Animation prequel. Bowing in October 2011, “Puss” earned $555 million worldwide and nabbed an Oscar nomination for animated feature. Similarly, Jessie has been rumored as the “Toy Story” character being poised for spinoff treatment.

Of course spinoffs only have an opportunity to go forth and multiply if the film they were in was a success. “Cars 2″ introduced two new characters, master British super-spy Finn McMissile (voiced by Michael Caine) and alluring spy-in-training Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), but it’s unlikely either will return for another lap. The sequel was widely panned, earning an un-Pixar-like 38% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

For “Continental Drift,” Berg found that the best way to work in the new characters — voiced by Peter Dinklage, Jennifer Lopez, Drake and Nicki Minaj — was to create a physical divide between returnees and the newbies.

“When I broke (down) the story with producer (Lori Forte), we talked how great it would be to spend time with our original gang of heroes without having to serve all the other characters, so we folded the newer ones into a ‘B’ story,” he says. “Fortunately, the idea of breaking our heroes off on a sheet of ice made sense physically. (After all), that does happen in the Arctic.”

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