When families settle into their seats to watch DreamWorks Animation’s latest release Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, they’ll be welcomed by a set of new yet familiar faces.
To help trumpet in its latest era, the studio is unveiling a new curtain raiser, which will make its debut nationwide during special Nov. 26 “Caturday” early screenings of the Shrek franchise sequel — ahead of its Dec. 21 theatrical release. The 32-second dream-like sequence spotlights a number of the studio’s most popular and long-running franchises, before settling on its classic moon shot.
“We make dreams come to life on screen, so the idea was basically that you go into the dreams of a new child. They are taking you through this dreamscape and reintroducing you to these iconic figures that we’ve created over all these years,” says production designer Kendal Cronkhite, who helped lead the project. “The child is surfing, floating and flying through these kinds of galaxies, and bringing all those very different-looking film characters together into one piece.”
That journey begins with one of the animation studio’s latest titles, The Bad Guys, before leading viewers through interactions with characters in How to Train Your Dragon, Kung Fu Panda, Boss Baby and Trolls. Audiences are shepherded across land, sea and space, ending with Shrek — the title that producer Suzanne Buirgy likens to DWA’s Mickey Mouse.
“Shrek started the whole thing with really contemporary stories, a realistic look, contemporary jokes. It wasn’t timeless. It wasn’t classic. It was very there and now. And the use of celebrity voices was not really done in that frequency before DreamWorks came on the scene,” DWA president Margie Cohn says of the film-turned-franchise’s industry impact. “But what I love about Shrek is that it’s irreverent and spoke to the outsider. It became a symbol of what could be successful — that you don’t have to play by the rules. To me, that is a great banner for the brand.”
Throughout the process, viewers are guided by what Cronkhite describes as a “magical” reimagining of the DreamWorks human silhouette that sits on a crescent moon. Long known as the “moon boy,” it has been redubbed the “moon child,” with the team telling they stripped out “all kinds of genders specific things” from the original model so the silhouette could more widely represent the studio’s fans and young dreamers.
“We love the idea that we now have a moon child not necessarily a moon boy because we wanted that child to be appealing to everybody,” says Buirgy.
“At the studio, we like to say all dreamers are welcome here and when you think about who is the iconic dreamer, it’s that moonchild,” Cohn adds. “People wish upon stars, people look to the sky for inspiration. Having them come off the moon and surf through the sky, visiting new and familiar friends, you set the stage for the entertainment to come.”
Also undergoing slight design modifications are the animated characters themselves, whose art styles have been tinkered with to create stronger visual continuity. That includes characters like Kung Fu Panda‘s Po, who has less fur detail, while the Shrek trio was dusted off and upgraded in light of technological advancements in animation.
“The idea was with all the characters to take a simplification pass so they appear more like a graphic character in that graphic world,” Cronkhite says. “They will have a little less quality so that they fit into that space better.”
“We had our head of character animation, Sean Sexton, take a pass on everything over the top of the whole piece so that there was a consistency to it,” Buirgy adds. “Then we had three animators actually underneath who had specialized in those characters.”
All the characters are then set against a backdrop of 2D art, which serves as a metaphor for the material matter that connects all life and that which makes up dreams. “As humans, we all dream, so it’s part body, part magic, part REM. This is where our imaginations come from, so I wanted to have all of that in the DNA,” Cronkhite tells THR.
The curtain raiser also offers an imaginative new spin on the studio’s longstanding fairytale musical theme, composed and modified by Harry Gregson-Williams, who initially wrote the song with John Powell for Shrek. It addition to playing with speed, the theme features more strings (versus other studios’ reliance on horns and brass) to punch up the energy and create more of a “celebration” feel at the end, according to Cohn.
“The music is emotional. It’s our emotional connection to DreamWorks and so the question was how could we alter it slightly, have it fit what was going on visually, but keep that amazing theme,” Buirgy says. “It’s a more energetic opening than it has been in the past.”
“I love the romantic, emotional, pulls-at-your-heartstrings melody and I wanted to retain that as opposed to feeling like we are going to bust down your door,” Cohn adds.
Throughout its history, the studio has toyed with both standardized iterations of the curtain raiser (think the focus on the balloons versus the lure) and custom variants that ran before films like Bee Movie, Madagascar 2, Shark Tale, Monsters vs. Aliens and Megamind. Now the plan is to combine those approaches, with the studio sticking to the dream palette but leaving room to change which titles and characters are featured in the “biomes.”
All — minus maybe Shrek, says Cronkhite — are replaceable and could change as soon as 2023, according to Cohn. “If we open another movie with these characters, we don’t necessarily want to repeat the characters that will be in the next film, if indeed that’s what happens, so we’ve made it so that they’re ‘plug and play,’” Buirgy says. “You can literally pull one out and put a new character from one of our beloved franchises in place of another one.”
In all, the curtain raiser took around eight months to complete and was made by a team of 10 to 12 people, with upwards of 40 separate hands collaborating, consulting and contributing. That group was led by DreamWorks veterans with literal decades of experience between them: Buirgy, Cronkhite, and visual effects supervisor Matt Baer, who worked with Matt Trull, to figure out the technical elements of swapping biomes in and out, among other things.
It arrives the same year Cohn’s own greenlit slate begins to hit theaters and, perhaps full circle, ahead of a new era of the studio’s hit Shrek franchise which started with a more realistic CGI feel and now, with its Puss in Boots sequel, exemplifies an innovative storybook visual styling. It’s also debuting amid both the studio’s growing library of film-to-TV crossover series and theatrical release challenges for movies in general.
“I feel like we’re really making a strong creative statement going forward in terms of really trying to have one franchise. But how do you actually break through the clutter with originals? So I thought it’s a great time for a brand statement and to remind people of why they may have come to a DreamWorks movie,” Cohn says of the timing of the new curtain raiser’s release. “Not having a house style, not picking one character but picking from the diversity of characters we have in movies that have different tones exemplifies that alternatives are welcome here.”