“I’m here because I am terrified of Jeffrey Katzenberg,” moderator Craig Ferguson said at the start of DreamWorks Animation’s Comic-Con International presentation.
The late-night comedian joked that his relationship with the DreamWorks chief stretched back to when he “understudied for Shrek.” Now a voice in the studio’s How to Train Your Dragon franchise, Ferguson presented a reel of DreamWorks’ upcoming animated offerings and welcomed select directors and voice cast, including Jim Parsons, John Malkovich and Benedict Cumberbatch — the latter two making their Comic-Con debuts.
The session began with a teaser for 2015’s Home, featuring Parsons as a ne’er-do-well alien named Oh, who befriends a human woman named Rihanna. The two set out on a road trip across the world and eventually find they must save it from the rest of Oh’s race. Director Tim Johnson and Parsons took to the stage to discuss the film, which is based on Adam Rex’s 2007 book The True Meaning of Smekday. The director read the book when it was first released and led the studio to acquire the rights soon after. He and his team worked tireless to “find the write rhythm to translated Rex’s work to the screen.”
Parsons first became involved when he was invited to send tapes to Katzenberg. Ferguson said he too had to send audition tapes to the executive. Trying to explain the unorthodox audition process, Parsons said, “When you first see your voice with the character, it takes an adjustment period and someone like Jeffrey knows if it’s going to the jibe.” The actor also said he was “horrified” by his performance in the first part of finished animation he saw, but added “animators are the greatest excuse-makers for your performance” and incorporated any defects he found in his voice work into a likeable finished product.
Ferguson asked him if seeing concept sketches or rough animation changed his performance. “Working in animation is like working in a vacuum,” Parsons responded. Though he has had some recording sessions with Rihanna and fellow star Steve Martin, he explained, “Tim is the only other acting presence — as the director — in the room. He paints a good picture of it, but when you see it finished, it’s amazing.”
Johnson said Parsons’ performance did have an effect on how the character was eventually animated. “[It] is something the animator listened to closely,” he said.
The director then showed a clip featuring Oh and Rihanna’s character Tip cornered by alien forces at the Eiffel Tower. In the movie, the aliens are in the process of renovating the Earth to suit their needs, and the tower floats above the city in an anti-gravity bubble. When Tip upsets the gravity control on the tower, she and Oh are pursued by Captain Smek (Martin) across the city, leading to chaos on the Paris streets. The film is scheduled for release on March 27, 2015
Johnson and Parsons then left the stage as prop man appeared with a life-size prop from B.O.O.: Bureau of Otherworldly Operations, a DreamWorks film scheduled for release on June 5, 2015. Ferguson said it will focus on “the afterlife’s uber-cool law enforcement” unit and feature the voices of Seth Rogen and Melissa McCarthy, amongst others. The prop, a “hauntlet,” is a study model of one of the items the characters will use in the film. “It has a psychic probe and ecto-nets,” Ferguson said, admitting he was nervous to have a probe on stage.
After brief concept reel for B.O.O., The Penguins of Madagascar directors Simon J. Smith, Eric Darnell and Skipper voice actor Tom McGrath sat down to discuss the film. Sensing the mood of the audience, Ferguson quipped, “Oh, there’ll be noise when Benedict comes out.”
According to Darnell, the film is a direct result of McGrath’s involvement with the character in the first Madagascar film. “We wanted Robert Stack to play Skipper,” McGrath recalled. “He had that momentous straight man voice.” The actor passed away before production began, so McGrath stepped into what was original meant to be a small part. So small, in fact, that Skipper and the other penguins were almost cut from the first film. But after three Madagascar features, several video games and an 80-episode TV series, everyone involved agreed the penguins deserved their own movie.
The film serves as both an origin story, revealing how Skipper and his fellows first left Antarctica, and what McGrath called a “big spy thriller.” He offered praise on the directors for giving the characters added depth and an expanded setting.
“I got to make a movie with Benedict Cumberbatch and John Malkovich,” he added. With that, Malkovich sat down. In the film, he plays Doctor Octavius Brine — aka “Dave.” McGrath described the character as a “renowned geneticist, cheese enthusiast and frequent NPR pledge drive contributor.”
“When they presented this to me, it was three-and-a-half years ago. It was such a funny idea to have my voice be the voice of an octopus. It seemed like a no-brainer,” the actor said. He revealed a little of Brine’s motivation, saying the character “feels he had his life ruined in every zoo or aquatic park because the penguins were cute and he got no attention.”
When Ferguson noted the character resembled Malkovich, the actor said, “It looks a bit more like my youngest sister.” According to Smith, Malkovich’s commitment led to a change in the character, adding, “We directly lifted the physicality from his performance.”
Following a scene in which the penguins escape Brine’s octopus henchmen in the canals of Venice, Cumberbatch finally joined the rest on stage. After cheers and a surprising number of camera flashes, the actor simply said, “Greetings.”
“Many people are happy that you’re here,” Ferguson said.
After a few more shouts from the audience, Cumberbatch described his character, “a sort of all-action wolf” named Classified, leader of a team called the North Wind. “They look after animal welfare,” he explained. “He’s after Octavius Brine and gets the penguins to learn as much about him as they can so he can do the ‘professional’ work.” He added Classified underestimates how “professorial” the penguins can be and overestimates his own abilities.
Cumberbatch also admitted he did not have to audition for Katzenberg, much to Ferguson’s dismay.
As Ferguson opened the floor to questions, he jokingly warned, “If there are any Sherlock questions, Comic-Con is cancelled.” Though not asked about Sherlock, Cumberbatch was asked what sort of preparation he did for the role in Penguins. “I worked at Yellowstone Park as a wolf,” he joked. “Things got hairy, pardon the pun, when I became [the] alpha. Two weeks in, I discovered two of the other wolves were Christian Bale and Daniel Day Lewis.”
Asked what sort of material influenced them growing up, McGrath said he gravitated to anything that featured a group working together. “These groups from SWAT to The A-Team to Star Trek, the penguins are kind of an amalgam of those sorts of teams,” he explained.
“I liked a huge number of things,” Malkovich said. “But only if they starred Halyey Mills. I was also a huge fan of Leave it to Beaver.”
Cumberbatch admitted that The Hobbit actually served that function. “That was the first book my dad read to me. It was my imaginary space as a kid,” he said, citing TV shows like Manimal and Knight Rider as contributing to that childhood space as well. He also mentioned that growing up around two actors, “I heard a lot of ‘adult stories’ I shouldn’t have been hearing.”
Asked what new techniques the actor learned for voice acting, he said, “The most useful thing is to do the [reading] of a book. You’re the narration, but you’re also all the characters.”
Darnell explained to a fan that the film “maintains the continuum” of the Madagascar feature series, purposefully leaving the supporting characters from the TV show in their own corner of reality. “It was a deliberate decision to take the penguins out of their comfort zone,” added Smith.
Finally, Malkovich was asked if there were any major differences between working in animation and “PG” rated movies. “I don’t think about the ratings, I don’t understand them very well,” he said. “You can chop off someone’s head off, make a milkshake of them and ‘it’s good’ [from the ratings board]. But if you show someone’s thigh or upper arm…”
“Upper arm?” asked Cumberbatch.
“It’s that strict [now], Cumberbatch,” said Ferguson.
The Penguins of Madagascar opens Nov. 14.