Maverick Spirit

Producer Jeffrey Katzenberg gives animators free rein to blend old and new techniques in 'Stallion of the Cimarron.' He's wild about the results.

May 29, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Call it cockiness. Conceit. Or maybe just plain naivete. But it's what gives producer Jeffrey Katzenberg the confidence to repeatedly take movie animation where others haven't - but where he's sure audiences will follow.

The DreamWorks co-founder, fresh off a Best Animated Feature Oscar for Shrek, is trusting that gambler's luck will remain with him for Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, a combination of traditional two-dimensional and computer-generated three-dimensional animation he believes represents the new frontier for film.

"This film is absolutely state-of-the-art, for this moment, right now," he says during a brief interview in a Washington hotel, still pumped from the positive reaction the film received during an advance screening the night before. "Traditional animation, in its pure 20th-century form, for me, is dead. It's a phoenix that is about to be reborn - into a new, stronger 21st-century digital world."

Spirit, the story of a wild horse that refuses to be broken, no matter how far civilization encroaches on his wild lands, certainly has an interesting pedigree. It arises, Katzenberg says, from combining his love of horses ("There's something about looking into the eyes of that animal that made me want to tell his story") and Jack London's Call of the Wild ("I'd never read anything that got me so inside the point of view of an animal") with his admiration for the revisionist Western Dances With Wolves and the old-fashioned blow-'em-up Die Hard films.

"I tried to think of a movie experience in which there was an indomitable spirit," he explains, "and I kept coming back to Bruce Willis' Die Hard. No matter what happens to this guy, no matter what they do to him, no matter what they throw at him, this guy has a sense of humor, he keeps his wits about him, he goes on to the next thing and he never loses his hope, never loses his courage. The guy walks across glass and cracks a one-liner. I made the animators watch that movie about 10 times."

Despite all that, Spirit is far from a safe bet. It's a Western, no longer the most popular of genres. Though it features whole herds of horses, none of them talks (none of the other animals does, either).

And if some may scoff that traditional animation has no place anymore, that audiences demand the computer animation of films like Toy Story, Shrek and Monsters Inc., Katzenberg scoffs right back. The trick is not to ignore 2D, he says, but rather to enhance it - and put it in service of a story he's convinced will bring audiences flocking to the theater.

A different approach

"What we're doing," he explains, "is utilizing that aspect of [traditional animation] that is so amazing and fantastic, but deploying it in a whole new way, in which it can be competitive and can succeed.

He acknowledges that such recent 2D films as Disney's Atlantis and Hercules, as well as his studio's El Dorado, didn't exactly set the world's box offices on fire. But that's not because of how they looked, he says, but rather how they were made.

"I don't want to name any of them, but you know the movies I'm talking about," he says. "Were any of those great movies? I don't think so. I know they weren't, as a matter of fact. And that's why they didn't work. They didn't work not because they were 2D, they didn't work because they just weren't great."

Animated resume

And Katzenberg has been responsible for his fair share of great animation. As an executive with Disney, he used The Little Mermaid to marry animation with Broadway in a way that revived the medium, proving audiences (not to mention critics) would still respond to a film that relied on the artist's palette rather than the actors' emotions. With Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, he achieved high-water marks of modern animation that set box-office records.

After bolting from Disney to form DreamWorks (with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen), he green-lighted The Prince of Egypt, an animated take on the story of Moses that featured some of the most beautiful, most intricate 2D animation in recent memory. And then, embracing the more cutting-edge 3D technique, he produced Shrek.

But even given all the acclaim for his big green ogre, he's not ready to embrace computer animation wholeheartedly.

"What it is about traditional animation that I love, and what I think is so special and singular about it, is that there's something that is very personal and very intimate, an emotion that is created when an artist creates a character with [his] hand. It's an organic thing that occurs."

In computer animation, he says, "when you create a character, it's actually an engineering process that occurs. You're literally moving lines around. And because of that, there's an emotion that you can not achieve today in computer animation. At least not yet.

"What I'm doing," he explains, "is taking traditional animation and trying to yank it into the digital world. At the same time, I'm taking digital animation and trying to yank it into the traditional world."

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