2011 was a rather fantastic year for DreamWorks Animation. Though they relied entirely on sequels or spin-offs to already successful franchises, both Kung Fu Panda 2 and Puss in Boots were praised by critics, earned a good chunk of cash at the box office, and landed Academy Award nominations for Best Animated Feature. It’s success that will be hard to duplicate, but DreamWorks is going to try with both Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted and Rise of the Guardians arriving in 2012.

This morning I was invited to a special presentation by DreamWorks Animation where other journalists and I were given the chance to watch extended - albeit unfinished - footage from both of the studio’s newest titles as presented by the directors of each movie. What I saw was promising, suggesting that the animation giant could be in line to have their second big year in a row.

First up at the presentation was Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, which you’ve actually already seen a little bit from if you’ve seen the first trailer. There to show off the 25 minutes of footage were directors Tom McGrath, Eric Darnell, Conrad Vernon as well as star Jada Pinkett Smith, who plays Gloria The Hippo in the franchise. Though almost everything we saw was from the very start of the film, it didn’t waste any time getting into the action. While I won’t go into too much detail, as I don’t want to ruin the movie, within the first few moments of the story features a casino heist, a major car chase that leads into an aerial fight, a plane crash, and all of the main characters joining a defunct circus. If it’s any indication of the final product it should be an action filled ride.

In addition to the first few scenes, they also let us watch a sequence from later in the film where the animals put on a Cirque du Soleil-type routine that, while not completely finished, was visually spectacular. The only thing that gave me pause about the footage was how they used Julian, the lemur voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen. While I can’t say that I’ve seen the other Madagascar movies and it may make more sense in context, but all the character did during the footage was sing moderately out-of-date pop songs that weren’t very funny. Hopefully that element is toned down in the final cut and that there’s more of Skipper the penguin instead.

While not as polished as Madagascar 3 - and it really shouldn’t be, as it’s not out until November - Rise of the Guardians was the real highlight of the presentation. Dreamworks showed us 15 minutes of footage total, split up into two scenes and in addition to looking really cool (it has a distinct style I’ve never seen in one of the studio’s films previously) it also has an interesting approach to characters that have been a part of all of our childhoods.

Starting at the top is Santa, called North in the movie, who is no longer the jolly old fat man who we know and love, but is, instead, as described by director Peter Ramsey, “a Hell’s Angel with a heart of gold” (his arms feature tattoos reading "naughty" and "nice," as seen above). Alec Baldwin voices North, but what’s really fascinating about the performance is that he’s using a full-blown Russian accent. Next is the Easter Bunny, renamed Bunnymund, voice by Hugh Jackman. While we didn’t get to see too much of the character in the scenes, he is tall, speaks in an Australian accent, has black accents in his grey fur and is rather aggressive. Next is Tooth – the tooth fairy voiced by Isla Fisher – who looks like she’s half human/half hummingbird and flies around with two mini-fairies. Then there’s Jack Frost (Chris Pine), the central protagonist who is known for being a bit of a prankster and is the newest member of the Guardians, though he is extremely resistant at first. The Sandman, known simply as Sand, is a mute character who speaks by making shapes out of sand above his head. Lastly there’s The Boogyman, a.k.a. Pitch, who serves as the film’s main villain and is voiced by Jude Law. Because the existence of The Guardians is entirely predicated on children believing in them, Pitch is on an evil mission to destroy kids’ imaginations and rid the world of The Guardians forever.

The footage itself was largely made up of exposition, setting up who the characters are and the threat presented, so it’s hard to make note on the film’s tone, but the imagination and creativity behind the story was what I found most impressive. It would have been easy to simply copy and paste all of the holiday characters into one story, but the tact that they are taking makes the whole thing much more interesting. From what I saw the only thing that gives me real pause is the choice of Pine to voice Jack Frost. The character is drawn to look like a young adult, and the movie actually begins with the characters “birth,” but Pine’s voice is a bit too mature and doesn’t really fit the style. It may mesh well in the final product, but it was a bit off in the footage.

As both movies draw closer to release obviously we will be seeing more from them. And while Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted already has a trailer out there, you won’t have to wait long for the first look at Rise of the Guardians as the first trailer will be released on April 6th. In the meantime, if you wish to read more about each film you can head over to our Blend Film Database HERE and HERE.

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