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The Stars Come Out for the DreamWorks Animation 2011 Press Preview

I’m here for DreamWorks’ press event promoting its 2011 releases Kung Fu Panda 2 and Puss in Boots. A sequel and a spin-off, hmmm…I walk in, keeping my fingers crossed; the first Panda is one of my favorite animated films of recent years – why mess with perfection? And a skeptic might uncharitably describe Antonio Banderas’ feline swashbuckler as a one-note character: can he carry an entire film on his furry shoulders?

DreamWorks' head Jeffrey Katzenberg talks about his studios' successes of the past year.

Seems like I was at the DGA Theater on West 57th Street in Manhattan just yesterday, but actually it was the week before at the NY International Children’s Film Festival’s opening night, watching Mars Needs Moms. Now its five days later and I’m back for DreamWorks’ press event for its 2011 releases Kung Fu Panda 2 and Puss in Boots. A sequel and a spin-off, hmmm…

I walk in, keeping my fingers crossed; the first Panda is one of my favorite animated films of recent years – why mess with perfection? That movie seemed so complete, so self-contained, with Jack Black’s Po character fulfilling his destiny as the Dragon Warrior; how do you build on it without repeating yourself?  And a skeptic might uncharitably describe Antonio Banderas’ feline swashbuckler as a one-note character: can he carry an entire film on his furry shoulders?

Well, we’ll see… Jeff Katzenberg starts the festivities with a recap of last year’s successful trio of releases: How to Train Your Dragon (“one of the best reviewed films of the year” he tells us), Shrek Forever After and Megamind – and their $1.6 billion box office total. (“A year of awesomeness.”) Panda 2’s director is Jennifer Yuh – the first Panda’s head of story, creator of its 2D dream sequence and choreographer of its non-stop kung-fu combat. Later, at the post-screening buffet she’ll tell me her inspiration for those battles came from a lifetime watching Hollywood action flicks and Hong Kong martial arts epics. But back in the theater we’re being treated to the first half of Panda 2. The sequel’s starting point is a throwaway gag in the original: just how did Po come to be adopted by a goose? And what happened to the panda’s own family? Let’s just say the film’s villain is involved: Lord Shen, a white warrior Peacock voiced by Gary Oldman who has family issues of his own – and a big-ass cannon he’s not afraid to use. Panda 2 doesn’t stint on kung-fu action; if anything, it’s more intense and outrageous than the first time around, with a camera that’s almost as much in motion as the warriors.

Jack Black, part Kung Fu Master, part dumpling.

When not in action mode, tight close-ups abound, as much to get up close and personal with the characters as to show off DreamWorks’ ever more subtle detailing of fur and other textures. (And no doubt to help the characters pop off the screen come May 26 when it premieres in 3D, as opposed to the flat version we were shown.)

Voice-wise everyone from the original is back, joined by Oldman, Michelle Yeoh as a soothsaying goat, Jean Claude Van Damme (that’s right, Jean Claude Van Damme) as a kung-fu croc and Victor Garber (in an extremely brief appearance) as “Master Thundering Rhino.”

The voice of Po, Jack Black.

The preview ends and who walks onstage but the Panda himself, Jack Black. The man describes Oldman as “one of my favorite actors, especially when he’s playing villains,” then shares five tongue-in-cheek “secrets” about the film. (I liked number five the best: “Po discovers his roots but there’s more to the story than even he suspects that packs a magical, emotional wallop.”)

Jeffrey returns to talk up a mystery man who “lives in a man-cave an hour and a half outside of L.A.,” was a creative consultant on Panda 2, an executive producer on Puss in Boots, (DreamWorks’ fall release) and “spreads his genius wherever he goes.” Earlier on I’d noticed what looked like a fat, long-haired fanboy sitting just on the aisle across from me. The ‘fat fanboy’/mystery man takes the stage; it’s Guillermo del Toro who tells us “animation’s grown into a true powerhouse for any storyteller…backlit hair, flowing textures – it’s the perfect medium for a control freak like me.” Joining the parade of live-action directors who’ve crossed the street to animate a feature, del Toro (who now considers himself “part of the DreamWorks family”) has his original story Trollhunters in the works at Katzenberg’s studio – “a home for my creative needs.”

Guillermo del Toro attended the event. He now considers himself “part of the DreamWorks family.”

Next up, Puss in Boots director and DreamWorks stalwart Chris Miller. Puss, he tells us is the cat’s origin story, “from kittenhood until he earns the name Puss in Boots.” He also reveals the feline has gone by any number of names, including “el Diablo Gato, The Furry Lover, Cupacabra, and The Ginger Hit Man.” He goes on to share another name: Zach Galifianakis who will voice Puss’ pal Humpty Dumpty.

Puss in Boots director Chris Miller.

We only get thirteen minutes of Boots, wherein Puss arrives in your typical medieval fairy tale town in search of magic beans for a plot point they didn’t quite explain in the clip. Said beans are in the possession of an exceptionally ugly looking Jack (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jill (Amy Sedaris). Trying to swipe them Puss comes up against Kitty Softpaws, a female rival (wearing a leather mask, kinky!) voiced by Salma Hayek. The clip ends with Puss borrowing a guitar and a move from Quick Draw McGraw, giving a cat hassling him the El Kabong treatment.

The film’s star voicer is on hand as well. Antonio Banderas assures us, in his velvety Spanish accent that he doesn’t have an accent, but only adopts one for his movie roles. The screening ends and we march next door to the ritzy hotel where DreamWorks treats us to said buffet. (That’s why I’m in this business, for the food.) In the men’s’ room I find myself washing my hands next to Banderas. I take advantage of our proximity to ask him if he and Salma were mocapped performing the tango that ended the clip shown. He lets me know they weren’t and back upstairs Jack Black likewise claims he wasn’t festooned with ping pong balls to capture Po’s kung fu moves.

Jeffrey Katzenberg introduced del Toro as a creative consultant on Kung Fu Panda 2, an executive producer on Puss in Boots, who “spreads his genius wherever he goes.”

Co-inkydink department: later that afternoon I catch a Red Riding Hood screening courtesy of Warner Bros. That fairy tale’s been turned into an atmospheric ‘who’s the werewolf?’ mystery, courtesy of Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke, and like that franchise Hood is filled with sexy gals and hunky guys.

Here’s Gary Oldman onscreen again, not a villain this time, but an arrogant werewolf hunter. For all the liberties taken with the original story, we do get to hear the classic “Grandma (Julie Christie, who’s held up quite well) what big eyes you have” exchange.

Last co-inkydink of the night: on the way out of the multiplex I catch a poster alongside the escalator featuring another Red Riding Hood in another animation sequel: Hoodwinked Too, arriving in April, a month ahead of the panda.

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