The moviegoing public caught a bad case of chatty mammal fatigue last year when more than a dozen computer-animated films were released in succession. There were rats and penguins, bears and cows — a veritable blur of fur and feathers. In fact, more four-legged stars and their winged friends crowded theaters in those 12 months than in the last four years combined. That's why it's no small relief that, when it comes to 'toons this summer, there will be a new kind of box office battle taking shape. It's called interspecies warfare.
Sure, there will be more talking rats and perky penguins, but this time that animal intelligence will square off against a new breed of "humanimation" at the multiplex — a Japanese scientist, a mustard yellow family and, assuming he counts as human, a big green ogre and his fairy tale friends.
Here's an early look at what the contenders have going for them.
"Shrek the Third"Opens: May 18
Pros: DreamWorks Animation and Paramount Pictures know how to pick a release date. As the first 3-D animated comedy of the season, when it opens for a third time in lucky mid-May, "Shrek the Third" will have only a superhero and pirates trying to plunder its treasure. That may sound like a savage box office duel, but in the past live action and animated films have happily coexisted at the box office. (Last year, "Casino Royale" and "Happy Feet" earned about $40 million each on their co-opening weekend while "Minority Report" and "Lilo and Stitch" shared the same frame successfully in 2002.) Plus, with its previous successes, "Shrek" has a built-in fan base.
Cons: Does familiarity breed contempt? It could be that three times is overload rather than the charm. The real trick for "Shrek" will be luring every generation into the minivan, since both it and "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" seek the same family audience. Still, its odds are looking pretty good. Based on an early 30-minute sneak peek of the latest "Shrek" installment, the land of Far, Far Away is still rich with culturally astute references, delving into situational comedy in 67 new sets with 23 supporting characters.
"Paprika"Opens: May 25
Pros: It's got a hip futuristic plot that involves a genius scientist by day, who operates under cover by night as Paprika, a "dream detective" who enters people's dreams and explores their unconscious thoughts. Writer-director Satoshi Kon's ("Tokyo Godfathers") latest cloud-hopping and reality-puncturing effort imagines a psychedelic animé sci-fi adventure that has already played the festival circuit, including the prestigious New York and Venice International Film Festivals, in addition to being short-listed by the academy for best animated feature Oscar consideration.
Cons: Beautiful young Dr. Atsuko Chiba's code-name, Paprika, may have a pinch more panache than, say, Mrs. Dash Hamburger Seasoning Blend, but somehow the film's eponymous title lacks a certain zest. Also, Japanimé tends to speak to the hearts and minds of effete art-house crowds, rarely breaking through to wider audiences, despite often heroic feats of storytelling.
"Surf's Up"Opens: June 8
Pros: No matter how many times we see them, penguins are still adorable. And "Surf's Up," a mockumentary about a bunch of wave-riding penguins, is based on unusual storytelling approaches, such as archival footage, underwater camera photography and docu-style sports lensing, all of which looks inspired in a completely computer-animated movie. The movie may long be considered a maverick, testing new waters in the mores of CG animation.
Cons: In the world of surfing, surviving a triple hold-down (three consecutive waves without surfacing for air) is close to impossible. But Sony Pictures Animation's marketing department is staring down that tunnel. First, there's the burnout factor after all those past big-screen penguins — "Happy Feet," "Madagascar," even "March of the Penguins." The next potential crusher is scheduling; "Surf's Up" opens just three weeks after "Shrek" and will have to compete for the attention of the ogre's — not to mention Capt. Jack Sparrow's and Spider-Man's — straggling fans. Lastly, it's about surfing. An animated, family-oriented surf movie released in the summer may seem like a no-brainer, but surfing is a niche that has yet to win box office gold.
"Ratatouille"Opens: June 29
Pros: Disney-owned Pixar Animation Studios has yet to miss. Weighted heavily on "Ratatouille's" side is director Brad Bird, a known Pixar patriot, who previously hit big by putting an unknown superhero family on the screen with "The Incredibles." His new computer-animated movie is set in France and stars an unusual top French chef — a rat named Remy. A sneak peek shows "Ratatouille" embodies some classic Disney themes: believe in yourself, follow your dreams, the value of friendship. To top it off, a trip to Paris by way of the local theater will offer lovely 'toon renditions of the misty River Seine, Notre Dame and a bustling French kitchen in which man and rat unite forces to keep their five-star restaurant aligned.
Cons: It's about a rat. A rat preparing food for humans. And last year's "Flushed Away" from DreamWorks Animation — also about talking Euro rats — failed to catch on big with audiences, taking in about $65 million at the box office.
"The Simpsons Movie"Opens: July 27
Pros: How about 20 years of a rabid fan base for starters? Come July, the beloved cartoon family — Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie, and a supporting cast of thousands — will venture far afield of its usual antics in misfit Springfield. In the silver-screen debut, the story line (referred to by creator Matt Groening as "Homer's odyssey") boasts blockbuster action: a pack of rabid dogs, torch-carrying angry mobs, flaming fireballs, slow-motion bullets, canyon jumps and massive shootouts. Movie fan sites have already posted glowing early reviews, although whether those are the musings of real fans or just marketing plants from 20th Century Fox has yet to prove out.
Cons: The couch potato factor haunts Springfield's leap onto the big screen. Will fans really pay for a movie when the cartoons are available for free right there on their TVs? Meantime, we can all brace ourselves for the return of the once-ubiquitous "Cowabunga" and "D'oh!" as we walk down to the local Quik-E-Mart for chips and a beer.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun