Guillermo del Toro’s animated hopes (and his ‘Hobbit’ reaction)

Jan. 26, 2012 | 6:13 p.m.
Guillermo del Toro

Guillermo del Toro (Jay Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

When nominations were announced this week for the 84th Academy Awards, the most fascinating — and startling — category was animated feature film. “The Adventures of Tintin” – which won the Golden Globe in that category – wasn’t nominated at all. Instead, Gore Verbinski’s old West adventure “Rango” made the list, as did two international entries — “Chico & Rita” and “A Cat in Paris” – that present vibrant adventures with a classic hand-drawn approach. Rounding out the category were two DreamWorks Animation releases, “Puss in Boots” and “Kung Fu Panda 2,” and don’t think for a minute that went over well at the Emeryville headquarters of Pixar. “Cars 2″ didn’t win over critics but there was still hope that it would bring home the automatic Oscar nomination that has become a Pixar tradition. No one was happier about the nominations than Guillermo del Toro, who is now working closely with DreamWorks Animation on its projects. Our Geoff Boucher chatted with him in the days leading up to the nominations.

GB: It must have been satisfying for you to watch the success story of the two big DreamWorks Animation releases, “Kung Fu Panda 2″ and “Puss in Boots” – as a consultant on the first and very active executive producer on the second. Would you say the deal you have with the company represents a new career chapter for you?

GDT: In many, many ways, yes. With “Puss,” I was really feeling like part of the team creating it. With “Panda,” I was very involved but I also came in late enough in the process that a lot of the decisions had been made. On “Puss in Boots,” I felt like one of the many parents that the movie has. Every experience I’ve had at DreamWorks has been really rewarding in terms of how they connect with the audience. Following “Kung Fu Panda 2,” all of the audience test screenings and seeing it get a really strong foothold and then “Puss” also getting the CinemaScore [grade of A-] that it got and getting the critical consensus that it got — all of that is hugely satisfying. With both there was the requisite notions of a sequel — or a prequel — but we wanted in both cases to some degree to establish the personality of the movie individually.

pussinboots2 Guillermo del Toros animated hopes (and his Hobbit reaction)

"Puss in Boots" (DreamWorks Animation)

GB: On the surface, either movie could have been perceived as a money-grab — with “Puss in Boots,” a spin-off film from a franchise like “Shrek” could easily be pretty watered down by the time it reached the screen. I imagine the challenge was proving the cynics wrong.

GDT: From the beginning the director, Chris Miller, and his team were very clear that they wanted to create a different universe and not have it be, in any possible way, a spin-off from the “Shrek” universe. The reference of Sergio Leone and the idea of making the fantasy elements really, really earnest and beautiful set it apart. We have the ironic things – like Humpty — but, for example, traveling through the magic beans and the beanstalk and into the  giant’s castle is a genuine, bona fide, hard-core fantasy sequence. It was really quite gorgeous and not ironic at all. There are elements in the movie too, that are emotionally counter-intuitive to Hollywood animated films [of this size and type], like having a villain with a real complexity and personality who ultimately finds his redemption instead of, you know, just being killed off. Those things, on the outside they may seem like small steps but to me they are huge.

GB: We heard your voice in the film too,  the parts of Moustache Man and Comandante. Can you talk about that side of the job?

GDT: Well, I make voices in all my movies; I do creature voices in every movie I make — “Pan’s Labyrinth, ” “Hellboy,” “Hellboy 2,” “Mimic.” In every movie I play a monster, here and there.  I did some dubbing when I was young as an actor in Mexico. [In "Puss"] we used my voice as a scratch track at first but everybody got used to it and we ended up using it for good.

GB: In this digital era we’re seeing the accepted definitions of animation and live-action really blur in interesting ways. It’s also interesting to see directors like Gore Verbinski and Steven Spielberg go into animation and people like Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird cross in the other direction. Give us some of your thoughts on the churn of the scene today.

GDT: As you know I’m a big believer in transmedia and part of the things that I hold is that this sort of permeable membrane between digital and animated filmmaking and live-action filmmaking needs to become this blurry for miracles to occur in genre films – I’m talking about big, audience-oriented films [of fantasy and sci-fi] and you’ll see that frontier continue to be blurry because the digital tools are becoming more user-friendly and more necessary for the delivery of the big action sequences, creatures and effects.

kungfu2 Guillermo del Toros animated hopes (and his Hobbit reaction)

"Kung Fu Panda 2" (DreamWorks Animation)

GB: It’s intriguing to watch the way the technology can be used so differently in different hands. Watching “Tintin” was to see Spielberg’s sense of velocity and action construction fly off in new directions and in “Hugo” I felt as a viewer that Martin Scorsese was bringing a unique deftness to the use of 3D. As a fan of film, it feels like there’s new frontiers being mapped.

GDT: It does, and Bad Robot and J.J. Abrams released that iPhone application to put special effects in your iPhone. More and more on YouTube you’re seeing almost-professional level or professional-level special effects being done by people on their computers for nothing more than creating a viral video or things like that. The line is blurred by that and the line is blurred by the flexibility of video game engines. But I do think it will only affect big-budget genre movies, I don’t think it will affect the way rest of cinema is done.

GB: I have to ask, I know you have your hands full with “Pacific Rim,” but your history with “The Hobbit” is such an unusual one; “The Hobbit” trailer is out now and I was wondering if stirred up a strange mix of emotions for you?

GDT:  You know, not really, not at this stage. I’m very happy the movie is in the right hands and I’m very to happy see — I’m actually elated to see images. I think it’s great to see the trailer. Think about it, I’m so fully immersed now in “Pacific Rim.” I’m 47 and I never in my life have had as good an experience making a movie as “Pacific Rim” has been. It’s been a joy every morning from every point of view and I cannot tell you how much I’m enjoying it because I have nothing to compare it to. Part of it is how involved and invested the guys from ILM have been. It’s been amazing.

– Geoff Boucher

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