CCI, Day 1: Warner's "Ant Bully," "Happy Feet" & "TMNT" Panel

Warner Brothers presented previews of three computer-animated feature films in a panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego Thursday, with the new "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" film dominating the proceedings and commanding the attention of the majority of the audience. The TMNT presentation included exclusive footage as well as the world premiere of the teaser trailer, which is now available at Apple.com.

"The Ant Bully," which opens July 28 in both standard and IMAX 3D formats, led off the panel with a presentation by Director John A. Davis ("Jimmy Neutron"). Davis moderated the low-key panel, which included Character Designer-Concept Artist-Animator Sarah Mensinga, Lead Character Designer Buck Lewis, Art Director Consani, and Concept Artist Bob Eggleton.

Based on a children's book by John Nickle, "The Ant Bully" tells the story of Lucas, an unhappy young boy who vents his frustrations on the anthill in his backyard, until the ants retaliate. Using a magic potion to shrink him to ant-size, Lucas is sentenced to live in the colony as an ant. Lucas comes to appreciate the ants and ultimately assists them in battling against an exterminator voiced by Paul Giamatti. Others in the cast include ants voiced by Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and fan-favorite Bruce Campbell as a strong, brave, and not-too-bright ant named Fugax.

Produced by Tom Hanks for his Playtone Pictures company, "The Ant Bully" will be presented in some venues in IMAX 3D. The entire film is in 3D, which presented some problems for animators, as Davis explained: "There are a lot of 2D 'cheats' that we could use for things like smoke and dust, but in 3D they don't work; they appear as flat images like a billboard, so we had to do everything in full 3D animaton."

Addressing the inevitable comparisons to "Antz" and "A Bug's Life," Davis said, "Ultimately, I decided that if the story is different dramatically from those other films - and the story should be the reason you want to make a film - I decided that, yeah, this story is compelling, that it can be told, and I can do a lot of things that we haven't seen in other movies about bugs, and, well, there's a lot of movies with cowboys in them. There's 'Blazing Saddles' and 'Brokeback Mountain,' so why not?"

Prominent among the differences between "The Ant Bully" and the other ant films is the biological accuracy in this film; the major deviations from nature are in the heads, which were given more expressive humanoid faces, but the legs and bodies are very close to those of real ants. The ants' "arms" were reversed to provide more human gestures, but they are structurally identical to an ant's forelegs.

Another primary element is in the nature of the ant society; the film-makers actually tried to create an alien culture totally different from human society, rather than making the ant-world familiar to us. There are no pop-culture references or sly references for the sake of a laugh. The ants' culture is drawn largely from various aboriginal societies, featuring tribal markings and body paint.

The second film in the presentation was "Happy Feet," which features Elijah Wood as a tap-dancing penguin (the tap-dancing sounds are provided by Tony-winning dancer Savion Glover). Directed by George Miller and featuring the voices of Robin Williams and Brittany Murphy, "Happy Feet" revolves around the idea that penguins sing a "heart song" to attract a mate. The hero, Mumble, cannot sing, but he can dance, and that just may be enough.

After the "Happy Feet" trailer was screened, the panel moved to the main event, the new "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" film, in a presentation and Q&A with director Kevin Munroe.

Munroe explained the film follows in the pattern of "Superman Returns," in that it pretty much follows "TMNT II" in continuity, with a few passing references to some events from "TMNT III." Despite the enduring popularity of the Ninja Turtles as a cartoon series and being generally considered by the public to be a children's property, the new film is aiming for a broader audience; Munroe says that this is an "all-ages" film in the best sense. While it is a film that children can enjoy, it can also be enjoyed by anyone of any age.

"Animation is not a genre; animation is a medium. This is a comic book genre film in the animation medium," he said.

The trailer is scheduled to run at screenings of "The Ant Bully" next week, and the film will appear in theatres early next year.

"We're shooting for March 30, 2007," said Munroe.

Munroe describes the film as a character-based comedy. Peter Laird controls the franchise -- "He's the Godfather of all things Turtle." -- and he wanted to recapture the attitude of the original comics, which were fairly serious and rooted in the sibling relationship among the characters.

"There aren't any fart jokes in this movie," Munroe said.

Responding to questions from the audience, Munroe denied the rumor that John Woo was involved in the film.

"Wouldn't that be cool?" he asked, before explaining that Woo had never been involved.

When asked about the vocal actors, he replied, "Robin Williams is doing every voice ... Please don't blog that; it's not true." He then said although there should be an announcement within about a month regarding the cast, none of the Turtles are celebrity-driven performances.

"When you hear Leonardo, you should be aware that it's Leonardo, not Tom Cruise doing Leonardo." The one cast-member that was cited was the actor voicing Splinter.

"We had one name: Mako."

Shredder will not be the featured villain in the new film, but there are some key moments that will set things up for his eventual return.

"He's not the bad guy, but he's not gone from the series."

One attendee asked, "Is there going to be any, like, human-on-turtle action?" to which Munroe replied, "Security!" He then explained that there would be no such thing, and that this was one thing Laird felt very strongly about, that there would be nothing that even suggested such a thing.

The audience seemed pleased with the teaser and the exclusive footage shown, as well as by Munroe's apparent enthusiasm for the project. He told about his first meeting with Peter Laird, explaining he had brought along his own copy of TMNT #1 that he had bought in 1985, so that even if he didn't get picked to direct the film, at the very least he could get his comic autographed. After the meeting, he looked in the comic and found that Laird had drawn a sketch of a menacing Raphael saying "To Kevin - Make a good movie or else! GRR!"

Central to making a good movie was the need to capture the Turtles' relationship and personalities. To that end, the director was able to record all four actors in the same sound booth together, so their dialogue and interplay would sound more natural and spontaneous.

Another question referred to some of the characters who appeared in the original cartoons from Fred Wolf Productions; would Bebop and Rock Steady finally make it to the big screen? Munroe never stated firmly one way or another, but the footage shown seemed to include a character who resembles a rhino, so the answer to the question could be "maybe."

The film also follows up on the April O'Neil/Casey Jones relationship.

"We're moving forward with that; they kiss this time," the director revealed. He also explained the couple hits a rough spot in their relationship because April wants Casey to give up his vigilante ways, which he finds very difficult.

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