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Audiences form tight relationships with the characters and stories they love, so when several of the year’s biggest animated films dared to revisit beloved IP or extend the lore of the characters via a sequel, they were potentially walking on sacred ground.

The filmmakers behind “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” “Trolls Band Together” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” all had to reckon with audience expectations, while also carving out something new. In many cases, animation technology had also evolved over time to give the filmmakers options not available just a few years ago. Each had to balance the look of the characters from previous years with what they could be now.

“Super Mario” super fans and co-helmers Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic came to the movie with their own experiences as players of the original Nintendo game, and were determined to stay true to the feeling of the game and the characters in it. They even spent time studying marketing materials from the original game that dictated exactly how the characters should be represented so they’re presented in a cohesive way. This helped the animators make choices in moving the characters from their traditional, very simple in-game animation to a fully blown CG look that made sense to the viewers. The filmmakers also wanted to update certain aspects of the characters themselves.

“I think their core personalities, like the Nintendo characters, are so cute and so approachable and so easy to know,” says Horvath. “Everybody’s a really clear personality and has a really clear look, and that was our core approach with the characters. Mario has a strong sense of justice, like a Captain America kind of character, and that kind of explained to me why he would try to save Princess Peach for the last 40 years. Luigi is very nervous in the games, so that’s who he is in the movie. Then, Princess Peach was the character that I think we changed the most and we’re really glad that we did because audiences resonated with her. In the game, she’s a damsel in distress who needs to be saved, but the games that I liked the most are the ones that I can play with my kids and they’re the multiplayer games. And Princess Peach is often like a playable character. So, that was a great touch point in the game that correlated with the script that was being written. She’s an active character, and she can fight, and she can take care of her kingdom and it actually makes a lot of sense to think about the toad characters who would need somebody really strong, like Princess Peach, to protect them to keep them safe.”

Audiences embraced the updated characters and animation style leading to an international box office of more than $1.3 billion for “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.”

With “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem,” there were decades of turtle incarnations in the past. The characters had been everything from comic book characters to live-action heroes. Helmer Jeff Rowe and writer Seth Rogen decided to take the look of the characters toward something organic that had a 2D feeling — like it had been ripped from the page of a teenager’s three-ring binder.

The actors voicing the characters were encouraged to riff on each other during recording, and the characters were also written like real high school kids struggling with their lives. Sure, they’re mutant ninja turtles, but they’re also actual teenagers who have problems that will seem familiar to any teenager or anyone who has been a teenager.

“I think for us, these characters needed to feel like real teenagers, so they talk like teenagers and they’re played by real teenagers,” says Rowe. “They cut each other off and they get in fights with each other. The camera is shaky and we wanted it to feel like a skate video. Doing something really clean and polished, or chasing that kind of appeal, just did not make sense for this version of the turtles. This is a city environment that they’re in, so you see all these kind of gritty images around them that are done in a style that’s more unfinished and raw. They are living in a sewer. They’ve got really big ideas. They have a character who is like a single dad taking care of them. They want to belong. They’re really passionate. They see themselves as very capable. But it’s clear to the audience and it’s clear to everyone but them that they have a lot to learn. There’s some growth and some training that they need to do. They’re so passionate about what they’re doing but they have no idea what they’re doing.”

While “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” took their characters and the overall look of the film in a new, hand-drawn direction, “Trolls Band Together,” the third installment in the “Trolls” franchise, aimed to extend its pop musical tradition set forth in the original 2016 film.

Known for over-the-top color choices and a firm pro-glitter agenda, the “Trolls” movies strike a careful balance between the glee of main character Poppy and her grumpy counterpart Branch. In “Trolls Band Together,” the filmmakers wanted to ground this duo with family history and set them on a course to triumph over some new villains.

“One of the pleasures of making this kind of trilogy is being able to make three films where you have our characters kind of grow up along with the people watching the movies,” says helmer Walt Dohrn. “So, you’re a young person who sees the first movie when you’re a very young kid but you yourself have matured over the course of the movies, so we wanted to do something more complex with the story this time. I think that’s a great connection. It also allows us to dig deeper into the kind of psychological architecture of the characters in a way that you couldn’t if it was just one film. We’re delivering on the familiarity that the audience has with these characters. What’s equally exciting is this challenge of new characters, these new villains we have in this movie, and the new things we haven’t done in the past. I think that the crew gets really excited about the opportunity to create something brand new, as well.”
Since the “Trolls” movies have been around awhile and Dohrn has worked on all three, audiences have given him feedback over the years about what they want to see the characters do. But he still weighs story points carefully.

“I’m definitely a director where I listen to the audience but not pander to them,” says Dohrn. “It’s funny, we want to keep that kind of contentious chemistry between Branch and Poppy. There was one really great fan group, a big fan group that had this petition going online to have the two of them kiss. It shows how much they care about the characters and how invested they are in them. Even if the audience wants us to have characters do something, we still have to find an authentic way for them to do it. That’s what it’s really all about.”

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