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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 06/ 3/2009

Heart of the Matter: A Memo to DreamWorks Animation

By Michael Cavna

It's all too clear to see: For its next project, DreamWorks Animation should consider rendering the wizard of Oz. That's because L. Frank Baum's character could gift the studio's next 3D cartoon with the one thing it might just need most: A heart.

DreamWorks and Pixar have both now debuted their pioneering 3D animated projects this year -- "Monsters vs. Aliens" and "Up," respectively -- and critically and commercially, it's been no contest. "Up" has won mostly rave reviews. "Monsters vs. Aliens" got a much more lukewarm reception. The chief difference is that while "Monsters" has ridiculously cool special-effects -- all shimmering surfaces and stunning authored-in-3D cinematography -- "Up" offers all that, plus virtuosically plucked heartstrings.

The Missing Link, Ginormica, B.O.B. and Dr. Cockroach, Ph. D., prepare to battle an outer space threat in 'Monsters vs. Aliens.' (© 2009 DreamWorks Animation LLC)

Pixar veteran Bob Peterson, the co-director and co-writer on "Up," told Comic Riffs last week that 3-D is "just another tool in the toolbox" -- merely another trick at the magician's disposal. So you can bet that when a three-dimensional Woody gallops into theaters next year, "Toy Story 3" won't be a one-trick pony for the technology.

About "Up," Peterson said: "The general rule was: If you're sitting there thinking about the 3D, it's getting in the way of the emotional narrative. Breaking the proscenium was kept to a minimum."

Make no mistake: "Monsters" absolutely dazzled at times, especially during an action sequence set along the streets of San Francisco. The film's uber-talented stereoscopic supervisor, Phil "Captain 3D" McNally, explained to Comic Riffs how he and his team would alternate between 2D and 3D, to heighten the effect of the newer technology. "Within a two-second shot, we go from 3-D to 2-D to 3-D," McNally said of those "hybrid shots." "We're artfully manipulating it to play down and then play up the 3-D" so the action read smoothly.

But beneath all the revolutionary gee-whiz effects, there was the old-fashioned matter of heartfelt characters. I never cared near as much for Susan the 49-Foot-Tall Woman (despite interstellar science having spoiled her nuptials) in "Monsters" as I did for Carl Fredericksen, "Up's" cloud-bound tenant, let alone his Scout sidekick, Russell. Sorry, Ginormica.

Russell, left, and Carl Fredricksen in a scene from 'Up.' (AP Photo/Disney/Pixar)

To be clear, Comic Riffs heartily applauds the passion with which DreamWorks honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg has been spreading the inTru3D gospel. (His pre-"Monsters" barnstorming this year included a stop at The Post.) Cutting-edge animation can use such high-powered proselytizers. Katzenberg's passion, in fact, is the very reason I encourage the studio to push for revolutionary storytelling, as well.

When it comes to animation, DreamWorks has a mixed record. "Shrek" and "Madagascar" have been tremendously successful franchises that, like "Kung Fu Panda," will spawn already announced sequels (and perhaps one prequel) between now and 2012. And "Over the Hedge" was one of the better comic-strip adaptations in recent memory. On the other hand, "Shark Tale" and "Bee Movie" were laden (at times larded) with one-liners but didn't provide characters I'd give two hoots about. (And yes, I confess: I've seen every single computer-animated and stop-animated film that DreamWorks has made.)

DreamWorks Animation can learn from its own shortcomings regarding "Monsters," as well as from the past successes of itself and Pixar/Disney (as well as from "Coraline," which for my $10 is the second-best 3D animation released so far this year).

But perhaps more so, DreamWorks should fully tap an in-house talent who reigns supreme at creating characters who connect emotionally with audiences. When not scaring the bejeebers out of us with rogue truckers, man-eating marine life and weak-chinned Nazis, Steven "E.T." Spielberg arguably knows as much about creating heartfelt screen characters who appeal to adults AND children as anyone not named Capra, Seuss, Chuck Jones or Disney. Which is why I have the absolute highest of expectations for the Spielberg-directed animation "The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn" (whose U.S. release, alas, has been pushed back to late 2011).

Just know, DreamWorks Animation: I'm genuinely pulling for you to prove a genuine rival to Pixar in terms of heartfelt storytelling. Because if you -- and us -- are going to spend all that moolah on inTru3D glasses, why not do everything to ensure that the stories, too, are crafted with spectacular vision?

Do you tend to prefer Pixar or DreamWorks films? If you've got an opinion, by all means: fire away.

Russell, left, and Carl Fredricksen in a scene from 'Up.' (AP Photo/Disney/Pixar)

By Michael Cavna  | June 3, 2009; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  The Animation, The Riffs  
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Kung-Fu Panda had plenty of heart, and I just honestly can't see that it would have benefited at all from 3-D, had they gone that route. The scenes showing the extreme depths of the prison at the bottom of which the villain was held would have been a real "Oohhh!!!" moment, sure, but it would soon have been forgotten in the aftermath of all those "Awww!!!" moments that followed as the hero finally achieves his destiny.

Drop the stereo goggles, DreamWorks, and concentrate on the story. (Or if you insist on sticking with 3-D, do like the "Coraline" creators and at least buy a great tale from Neil Gaiman!)

Posted by: seismic-2 | June 3, 2009 1:36 PM | Report abuse

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