Yesterday, I was invited to the Director's Guild of America in Hollywood, to preview new footage from two DreamWorks Animation movies, Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted, due in theaters June 8, and Rise of the Guardians, opening nationwide November 21. One of these movies is the third installment of a successful franchise that has already taken in over $1.2 billion worldwide from its first two movies, and the other is most definitely not a sequel to Legend of The Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, which is apparently the first thing that comes to mind whenever I mention Rise of the Guardians to anyone else. However, after watching the footage presentation, it's clear that both movies carry on the esteemed tradition of animated quality that DreamWorks Animation is known for.
First up, we previewed Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted, which continues the journey of the Zoosters, who are still trying to find a way back to their beloved New York City, after detours in Madagascar and an African wildlife preserve. At the end of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, the penguins head off on a gambling retreat to Monte Carlo, with the rest of the clan - Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer), and Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) - content to wait it out in Africa... for a little while.
Before we watched the footage from Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted, actress Jada Pinkett Smith took to the stage, to briefly speak about her experience working on the animated sequel with the trio of directors Eric Darnell, Conrad Vernon, and Tom McGrath.
"I have to say, this was the first time, as an actress, that I had to work with three directors at the same time, and it was very easy. It's been a blessing to work with such a great and talented group of people for this movie, and I hope you enjoy watching this as much as I enjoyed participating in making it."
We were shown the first 20 minutes of Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted, which starts off with Alex, Marty, Melman, and Gloria emerging from the waters just outside Monte Carlo. They're trying to get the penguins back, who have stayed in Monte Carlo far longer than originally planned, so they can all return to New York. The penguins have set up an elaborate disguise, with the help of some chimpanzees, which allows them to continue their gambling hot streak. Alex, Marty, Melman, and Gloria devise a plan to break out the penguins and chimps, which goes horribly awry, and not only creates chaos in the casino, but puts legendary animal control expert Chantal Dubois (Frances McDormand) on their trail. After a fantastic high-speed chase through the streets of Monte Carlo, which includes a nifty nod to The Matrix and some great one-liners from Alex ("I don't drive, I'm a New Yorker"), the animals narrowly escape the clutches of Chantal Dubois, whose relentless pursuit establishes her right away as the perfect foil for the Zoosters. However, the chimpanzee's makeshift plane/helicopter thing crash lands near a rail yard, where they discover a traveling circus. By posing as the circus animals they clearly are not, Alex, Marty, Melman, and Gloria sweet-talk their way onto the train and meet a new trio of characters. Vitaly (Bryan Cranston) is the skeptical tiger, who has a penchant for throwing edged weapons and doesn't trust these newcomers. Gia (Jessica Chastain) is a jaguar who doesn't exactly trust the Zoosters either, but is more willing to give them a shot than Vitaly. Then there's Stefano (Martin Short), an Italian sea lion who is extremely affable and a little dim. When the chimps and penguins catch up with the train, it is revealed that they used their human disguise, and their cache of jewels, to buy the circus outright, which sets up these city-slicker animals trying to rebuild a failing circus.
They also showed us another scene, which occurs towards the end, which shows off the new, revamped circus, although the footage was largely unfinished. However, the opening scenes were quite a treat, with some wonderful animated action sequences and witty one-liners, which is sure to be another big hit at the box office.
From a franchise with seven years of name recognition and hundreds of millions in box office receipts, we segued into Rise of the Guardians, which, as director Peter Ramsey puts it, has been, "flying under the radar for three years now." The movie is based on the novels by William Joyce, which put an innovative spin on childhood characters such as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, Sandman, Jack Frost, and the Boogeyman. Peter Ramsey, who makes his feature directorial debut with Rise of the Guardians, broke down the characters and what sets them apart from their traditional definition. First up we have the leader, North (Alec Baldwin), a burly version of Santa Claus who has intricate tattoos with "Nice" and "Naughty" on each of his massive forearms, and is described by Peter Ramsey as, "a Hell's Angel with a heart of gold." BunnyMund (Hugh Jackman) is the Easter Bunny, and also a fierce tracker and warrior. The voiceless Sandy represents the Sandman, who seems to have some dazzling tricks up his CGI sleeves. The Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) is relatively the same character, although each tooth contains your most precious memories from childhood, which she keeps safe for you. Last up we have Jack Frost (Chris Pine), who has been wandering without purpose for years before being discovered by the Guardians, soon after the sinister Pitch a.k.a The Boogeyman (Jude Law) returns. On top of all that, Rise of the Guardians sets up the notion that these Guardians depend on children all over the world believing in them, so, essentially, if the kids stop believing, the Guardians stop existing. Jack Frost is brought into the fold at a time when nobody on Earth believes in him, which will certainly change as the events of this story unfold.
"I think for me what was most special about this was the idea that the imagination is powerful. As an actor, everything you learn is that there's something about the beauty of childhood that you shouldn't lose, that you want to get back to. It's always striving to get back to this joyful, uncynical time where anything is possible, and that is the fight of this movie. That is the fight of these Guardians. It's the fight against cynicism and adulthood where things are compartmentalized and there are boundaries, barriers and walls put up. That was really what resonated with me. Also, I think what is really important to the story is the idea of the outsider, and poor Jack begins this not only not being believed in by anyone, but not really having a community, not really having any friends, quite honestly, for hundreds and hundreds of years, if you can only imagine. I think that idea, that feeling of being alone, wanting friendship, and wanting a community is very human and something we all feel and want. I'm honored to be a part of this. I really enjoy the process. I feel like it's one of constant exploration, there's always stuff to find and I love the people involved."
Like Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted, we were shown the opening scenes of Rise of the Guardians, which opens on Jack Frost's origin story, for lack of a better term. After he ascends from the frozen water, he quickly starts to discover what he can really do: control the aspects of cold weather. We see the playful, adventurous, and mischievous nature of Jack in these early scenes, but he gets a rude awakening when he comes across a town, and nobody can see him. We learn the moon told him his name Jack Frost, and that was all he told him, many, many moons (sorry) ago. After that intro, we venture up to the North Pole and meet North, who apparently has an affinity for making railroad sets out of ice. And then... North speaks. I was rather surprised that Alec Baldwin breaks out a Russian accent for North, which sounds great, but was just unexpected. In North's lair, there is a globe with millions of little glowing lights, which represent each child who believes in the Guardians. When a black cloud envelops the globe, North realizes Pitch is back, and he puts out the signal for his Guardians to assemble. The next scene shows Jack Frost arriving at North's lair, after the Guardians realize they need Jack to be the next Guardian... because the moon chose him. We also get some great adversarial banter between Jack and Bunny, and a look at North's crazy pad, his tricked-out sleigh, and an interesting spin on who actually makes the toys at the North Pole.
All in all, I was very impressed by both Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted and Rise of the Guardians. I'm glad they put both of these on display together, since they are both so very different. Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted represents the fun-for-the-whole family popcorn comedy, which kids and adults alike will likely want to see over and over again, while Rise of the Guardians takes the stories we grew up on as a child, and flips the script in very unique and compelling ways, while still retaining the popcorn excitement.
That about wraps it up from my day previewing footage from Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted and Rise of the Guardians. The new trailers for both of these DreamWorks Animation tales will be released in the coming weeks, so be sure to stay tuned.