DreamWorks head honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg is a modern-day Dr. Dolittle.
As animation chief, first at Disney and now at his own studio, Katzenberg has been talking and negotiating with cartoon animals for two decades.
"Animals can talk in animated films whenever they want to. If they don't it probably means they had tough agents," jokes Katzenberg in a telephone interview from his offices in Los Angeles.
In DreamWorks' newest animated adventure Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, the swashbuckling hero has a pet dog names Spike.
The seafaring canine drools and barks a lot, but he doesn't speak like the donkey voiced by Eddie Murphy in Shrek or Mel Gibson's rooster in Chicken Run.
"For Sinbad we wanted a whole different kind of reality. It's meant to be a fun adventure that the audience sees from a more real point of view.
"It's not a world of talking fairytale creatures or a barnyard of talking animals," says Katzenberg, who nixed the idea of talking equines in Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, DreamWorks' movie from last year. "It's always arbitrary when we decide whether animals will talk or not but once the rules are set you just don't deviate. Like the horses in Spirit, Spike talks without actually talking.
"If the writers, animators and directors do their jobs, children know what these characters are thinking."
Sinbad is being released Wednesday on the heels of Disney and Pixar's Finding Nemo, which at a $250 million US gross in just four weeks of release could become the summer's biggest blockbuster.
Katzenberg couldn't be happier for his friends at Pixar. "It's a brilliant, brilliant film. John Lassiter and his people are talented guys. They've turned out five remarkable movies in a row. They're the best in the world. Their work is inspiring."
DreamWorks has its own underwater adventure in Sharkslayer, which will be released Nov. 2004.
"All the characters talk in this one because it is a humanized, fishafied world," says Katzenberg. "Will Smith plays this wheeler, dealer, schemer who dreams of hitting the big time in the sea mob world. A shark clan is planning a take-over of his reef. The godfather shark is about to eat Will when an anchor falls and kills the shark. Of course Will takes the credit and one big lies leads to another."
Katzenberg is proud to announce that joining Smith in the voice cast are Robert DeNiro, Peter Falk, Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Renee Zellweger and Martin Scorsese. "For Sinbad, we have Brad Pitt as the voice of Sinbad with Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joseph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer and Dennis Haysbert.
"The top people in all fields in the business want to be involved in these films because they are no longer trapped in the kiddie movie ghetto they once occupied."
DreamWorks will release Shrek 2 in the spring of 2004. It was the first film to win an Oscar in the new animated feature category.
"We're so excited about Shrek 2. Julie Andrews joins the cast as Fiona's mother and John Cleese plays the father. Rupert Everett is Prince Charming with Jennifer Saunders as the Fairy Godmother and Antonio Banderas as Puss in Boots."
RETURN TO ROOTS
Katzenberg says he is thrilled animation is finally enjoying the popularity and respect it enjoyed during its golden years under Walt Disney. "When I arrived at Disney in 1984 Michael Eisner pointed to a building and said: 'That's the animation department. It's your headache now.'"
As Katzenberg is proud to point out "all that is history now and it was hard work but the success of animation has surpassed anything I hoped for back then.
"I believed in the job I was given to return Disney animation to its heritage and, as I have always said, it wasn't that onerous or impossible an assignment.
"Walt had left bread crumbs the size of Volkswagens so I knew what path to take to go back to the roots of animation."