KANSAS CITY — On a recent visit to his hometown, filmmaker Eric Darnell asked kids at a Kansas City elementary school how many of them had seen his animated film "Madagascar."
"Every kid had seen it," he said. "Now that's gratifying."
Darnell's sequel, "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa," opened Friday, as did "Role Models," an R-rated comedy starring KC-reared actor Paul Rudd. A third Kansas City native, "Saw" franchise director Darren Lynn Bausman, opened "Repo! The Genetic Opera" in larger markets.
Was there something in the water here as those three grew up?
"When I left KU and struck out to be an actor," Rudd said, "one of things I always felt I had going for me was that I was from Kansas City. It's a place that's truly representative of the mood of the country."
Rudd is typically self-deprecating about his contributions to "Role Models." In fact, he frets that he might have blown it.
"I often wonder if the ideal demographic can even buy tickets to this movie," the Shawnee Mission West grad said. "We've created a kids movie that no kid can get into."
He and co-star Seann William Scott play a pair of energy-drink hucksters who run afoul of the law and are sentenced to mentor at-risk kids as community service. The film has been getting strong reviews, mostly because it's really, really funny. And it's not just Rudd's performance; he also contributed to the script.
"I hadn't planned on writing a movie," Rudd said. "But it turned out to be a really interesting process."
Rudd says he tweaked his character, Danny, and his relationship with Augie, a geeky kid Danny is mentoring.
"I liked the idea that Danny and Augie were actually soul mates, misfits who felt out of place in the world," he said. "I actually relate to those guys. My father was a massive history buff who did these Titanic tours, Civil War tours ... so I understand the level of enthusiasm of people who immerse themselves in another time and place."
Rudd's father, Michael, died recently, which prompted a visit home from New York, where the younger Rudd lives with his wife and 4-year-old son. Rudd said that the recent illness and death of his father intensified feelings about his roots.
"There's something very nice to be said about the Midwest and the people here," he said. "I've seen it this last year with what my dad went through. The way the community rallied around my father ... there's a noticeable difference from the way things happen in a high-powered place like Los Angeles."
Darnell's "Madagascar" made nearly $200 million at the U.S. box office and more than $400 million worldwide in 2005.
The sequel is expected to dominate this weekend's ticket sales.
Not too shabby — but writer-director Darnell said it's not about the money.
"I always felt there was more to do with these characters," he said. "But I've learned in this business that you never know what to expect. You have some ideas, you dive into the development process, and the best things in a movie are often those that seem to come out of nowhere when artists put their heads together."
Darnell, a Shawnee Mission East grad, said when he first struck out as a filmmaker, he had a purist's idealism.
"I didn't care if anyone liked my movie or if it earned a penny," he said. "I was ready to live in a mud hut if necessary for the sake of my art.
"That's changed. I lost my sense of entitlement and instead developed a willingness to do what it takes to entertain the audience. I approach the whole process humbly."
Darnell studied at the University of Colorado under famed experimental animator Stan Brakhage. He says he enjoys working with the likes of Ben Stiller, Will.i.am and Sacha Baron Cohen, but even he has days when he thinks he's had enough.
"But usually it's hard to imagine having more fun than this," he said. "The 'Madagascar' movies have now taken up about eight years of my life. The first year or two are pretty relaxed. You're coming up with ideas, picking and choosing, shaping the story. When formal production begins, you find yourself on a treadmill, always feeding the beast."
Both Rudd and Darnell say growing up in the Midwest had profound effects on their outlooks and careers.
"I've always felt it was weird that movies usually were set in California," Rudd said.
"I think I relate to the audience because I come from a place where people don't know much about the entertainment business. It's doesn't play that important a role in their lives. At the same time, I'll hear people in the business talk about New York and L.A. and maybe Chicago, but they seem to know nothing about the rest of the country."
Darnell said he usually can recognize fellow Midwesterners when he encounters them.
"They have a relaxed quality, a courtesy and consideration for other people," he said. "That's a big part of growing up in a place like Kansas City."
California has a reputation as a mixing pot of cultures, but Darnell said that in his estimation, Kansas City is less homogenous than the movie business.
"For me, not aspiring as a kid to be a filmmaker was a good thing," he said. "I studied all sorts of stuff. I majored in biology, then got into broadcasting and journalism, where I learned to write. Having a well-rounded background has served me well — I can converse both with the guys who write computer programs and with actors."
As a Midwesterner, Darnell said, he still shakes his head when he considers the clout he's built up in the entertainment industry.
"I still think of myself as this guy from Kansas," he said. "But when I walk into a room and everyone shuts up and looks at me ... I'm like, 'What just happened?'"