LOS ANGELES - Many in the media have been skeptical about DreamWorks Animation's long in the works 'Shrek" spin-off, "Puss in Boots." A solo movie for a supporting character that stole just part of "Shrek 2"? The studio, on the other hand, has taken the origin story of the seductive feline swashbuckler much more seriously. On Friday morning "Boots" stole the show during DreamWorks Animation's now annual yearly preview from its stablemate, the much more anticipated "Kung Fu Panda 2." Before explaining why buzz will be growing for "Boots," some thoughts on Jack Black's return to animated action.
The first "Kung Fu Panda" was a critical, box office marvel and favorite of this writer. Before "How To Lose Your Dragon" debuted, it was considered the best film the company had produced and is still a merchandising and licensing marvel. But where do you go with a sequel? Well, the new film will answer the question many would ask the Panda who has a goose for a father: Where did Po really come from?
The presentation began with CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg holding court with some initial comments before introducing director Jennifer Yuh and eventually franchise star Jack Black who then read off five most important things you need to know about "Kung Fu Panda 2" (which you can figure out on your own) The filmmakers and Black told the assembled media they are impressed that the overall action style has been bumped up and that while Po is unquestionably the Dragon Warrior, he's still got that lovable clumsy side to him. Black also insisted he's had to improve his fighting skills in real life because so many people believe he actually is a kung fu master. He provided a demonstration of his new techniques that met with the crowd's approval as well as fashioned a running bit on his continued shortness of breath. Black brought back Katzenberg, a "Master of Zen" like Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who finally prepped the audience for what they would be viewing this morning. In something of a surprise, the studio screened the entire first hour of "Kung Fu Panda 2," although unfinished and in 2D (don't worry theater owners, the final version will be in the more profitable 3D format).
From what was previewed, there are some really smart and exciting things about "Panda 2." Gary Oldman seems inspired as the villain Lord Shen, a gorgeously designed white peacock who, like most villains, is a bit insecure in what others think of him. Michelle Yeoh appears as a soothsaying goat who keeps trying to eat Shen's cloak and the first hour ends with a massive set piece battle as our heroes -- the Fearsome Five and Po -- try to escape a collapsing tower (I think they'll be O.K.). There is also a continuing motif of cute rabbits/bunnies being in danger that's, um, cute. What wasn't as fresh was the obvious "where did I come from?" scenes featuring Po and his pop that fall flat, too many running through city streets sequences that feel incredibly repetitive and an overall plotline that seems very rushed. Part of the magic of the first "Panda" was that it played out like a true live action film. There were quiet moments (especially with Oogway) and true danger set up with the villain, Tai Lung. Lord Shen is impressive and fun, but I'm not sure anyone in the audience will be worried for our champions. So far, and granted, this is just one hour of the film, "Kung Fu Panda 2" feels a bit too much like a "Shrek" sequel. That's not meant as an insult, but perhaps it's just the nature of animated franchise sequels. Let's hope the final product has a killer third act and surprises us.
Katzenberg then returned and segued to "Puss in Boots." Before bringing director Chris Miller ("Shrek the Third") up on stage, the industry veteran told a story about the unexpected phone call he received a few years ago form a filmmaker he greatly admired. The writer/director wanted to find out more about 3D animation and Katzenberg brought him to the company's Glendale campus where a creative partnership slowly started to form (not before Katzenberg experienced the filmmakers' own "Man Cave" where his creative inspirations occur). That director was none other than Guillermo del Toro.
Del Toro has a producing/consulting deal with the studio and will be working the upcoming "Rise of the Guardians" as well as "Boots." The admitted workaholic then talked for almost 10 minutes about his love for DreamWorks, but don't let me tell you, here are del Toro's own words (insert your own laugh track).
His daughters know he's going into the DreamWorks campus because...
"I'm in a really good mood and I skip breakfast which is very rare. The first thing I noticed, the collegiate atmosphere, the beauty of the campus and the fact they gave you three meals for free. It awakened my ambition."
On working with Katzenberg
"You don't come to work with Jeffrey and slack it off. You cannot cruise. I am a workaholic, but next to Jeffrey I'm a slacker. By the time I'm taking a shower and waking up, he's closing deals in China, France and Europe."
The use of "we" when talking about DreamWorks
"We feel we are growing into what we want to be. Bill Damaschke has a great phrase that I have adopted for myself when we are working on a project like 'Puss,' 'Guardians' or 'Kung Fu Panda.' He always says, 'I love the 2013 incarnation of this shot.' And I think the 2013, 2014 and the next decade incarnation of DreamWorks has me really, really excited."
Why he fell in love with animation
"Animation to me is a medium that has been treated as a genre and it was treated like a genre for kids. It's really a medium that allows filmic expression unlike any other medium. You saw 'Kung Fu Panda 2.' We are making very bold choices formally and I believe form is content. To me, being a complete control freak of the form, I wanted to be part of this medium. I wanted to join and learn and I'm learning so much. If you see an animated film you have an experience unlike any other movie because the films are so painterly they are operatic visually. They are hypnotic in many ways and I think 'Puss' will prove this."
On Katzenberg challenging him
"I became very nimble working with Jeffrey on this, physically I'm a wreck, but I've become very nimble working with Jeffrey because he won't let an easy answer go easy. He'll go, 'Why? Where? What?' And with my fellow directors there I am inspired and I really I have been growing -- also physically too -- because of my contact with people like Tom and Jen and Chris. I really want to make my craft better and for a 46-year-old fat Mexican this is a unique opportunity. I actually have the opportunity to better myself besides the INS who also asks me to better myself."
Why he was convinced 'Puss in Boots' was something special
"The reason I wanted to become so involved with "Puss" is because I came in and I was thinking, 'It's gonna be a spin-off of a 'Shrek' character and my expectations were immediately demolished because Chris wanted to do a work of incredible beauty of singularity. He came in with the ambition of narrating a great Sergio Leone Western combined with a heartbreak story of friendship against an every changing landscape that went with great agility from a Western, hardcore tone to a huge hijinks adventure to an incredibly delicate landscape of fairy tale lore. I was absolutely transfixed by this."
And one last zinger...
"I have found a home. I have found people who will feed me and I will not let that go."
Director Chris Miller ("Shrek the Third") and Banderas then followed with the most noteworthy thing being the Spanish icon's love of his alter ego and the fact he records all his dialogue in English, Spanish, Catalan and, surprise, Italian. Then, we saw a good 15-20 minutes of "Puss" and it's clearly not just a little "Shrek" sequel.
The origin story -- set long before Puss meets the big green ogre -- finds our swashbuckler arriving in a seaside port. After proving to the local cretins he shouldn't be laughed at for his adorably furry identity, he discovers that the Bonnie and Clyde like team of Jack and Jill posses magic beans worth a fortune and worth stealing. Fearing nothing, Puss sets out to take the beans from the couple (they aren't brother and sister…I think, but are hilariously voiced by Amy Sedaris and Billy Bob Thornton) who are shacked up at a local hotel. Just when he's about to pounce another thief appears on the scene -- a masked black cat named Kitty white paws -- and ruins his chance at getting the beans. They end up confronting each other in a (wait for it) cat club where it's Tuesday Dance Off night. That sets up a very entertaining tango where Puss is shocked to find out his adversary is a she and voice by none other than Selma Hayek.
Besides the film's gorgeous look (only the humans remind you of "Shrek"), it's the ingenious touches and adult humor that will go over kid's heads that made "Puss" feel more original than anyone thought it could be. Granted, there is a lot more of the film that hasn't been seen and those first 20 minutes of "Megamind" sure looked good last year. With Del Toro involved, however, we're willing to bet "Boots" might be the first must see movie of November.
"Kung Fu Panda 2" opens nationwide and in 3D on May 26. "Puss in Boots" opens nationwide and in 3D on Nov. 4.
For year round entertainment news and commentary follow Gregory Ellwood on twitter @HitFixGregory