by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Apologies for the week’s break. Swamped schedule and I needed way more time to prep myself for this entry.
Last year, DreamWorks Animation celebrated its 20th anniversary. To mark the occasion, Callum Petch has been going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment. Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.
Author’s Note: With only 2 weeks, which have been filled with stuff to do in addition to getting these shows watched, to research these 6 shows sufficiently, I have not had time to watch every single episode of every show. With the exceptions of All Hail King Julian and The Adventures of Puss In Boots (as those have so far only seen 5 episodes released from them), my thoughts on each of these shows are based on a 4 or 5 half-hour episode sampling from each show, with the episodes chosen at random, across each of their seasons.
The last time that we looked at DreamWorks Animation’s television arm, things weren’t doing so well. The studio had tried three times to launch an original series of its own and all three instances ended in unambiguous failure. Toonsylvania was a sub-par Saturday Morning Spielberg riff that was screwed by the network and forgotten about soon after, Invasion America was a confused and dull X-Files wannabe that didn’t even get a proper first run, whilst Father of the Pride was such a doomed public crashing and burning that DreamWorks have elected to forget that it ever existed.
As we deduced the last time we paid a visit there, one of the main reasons why those shows failed was because they just weren’t very good. They had no original voice, nothing to make them stand out, and if they did have something different then the bodged execution hindered it completely. Despite being original shows, they were too pre-occupied with cribbing from other shows. They’re also, with the exception of co-production Neighbors From Hell (which will not be covered here), the beginning and end of DreamWorks’ original television output. Presumably terrified of pumping significant money into non-safe bets, and also because DreamWorks are all about franchising everything (as we already know), the studio stopped making non-movie-connected programming.
Instead, their television output from 2008 onwards has consisted solely of spin-offs, both of a stand-alone and between-film nature. It makes good financial sense – again, DreamWorks are all about franchising what successful films they have, although they have (to their detriment) really been reticent to fully jump on the merchandising bandwagon, and you’ve got a near-guaranteed audience built-in if the film’s a hit – and can even make good creative sense, too, since you’ve already got the world, characters and tone set up, and can deepen those really well-liked characters who get short-changed in the constraints of a feature-length film.
In this decade, there have been 7 different DreamWorks Animation Television shows, with an eighth on the immediate horizon, but the flood took a while to arrive. Despite launching in March of 2009, after a November 2008 preview, The Penguins of Madagascar (Nickelodeon, 2008 – Present, 3 seasons, 145 episodes and 4 still unaired) was the sole series on screen until Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness (Nickelodeon, 2011 – Present, 3 seasons, 70 episodes and 10 still unaired) launched in September of 2011. I get why, DreamWorks still didn’t really have any franchises prior to Kung Fu Panda’s Summer 2008 success, Shrek is not a series that would adapt well to a weekly TV format because there isn’t much you can do with the concept (as each subsequent film would demonstrate), and there’s no point sinking the amount of money required to get an all-CG TV series going if nobody’s going to turn up to watch it.
Premiere ratings of 6.8 million viewers, the biggest premiere for any new show in Nickelodeon history at the time, curbed fears that audience demand wouldn’t exist and once those ratings remained stable over the show’s opening weeks, making it an out of the box hit, the floodgates would truly open. Kung Fu Panda was next up, although it would miss its planned 2010 air date, with Dragons (Cartoon Network, 2012 – 2014, 2 seasons, 40 episodes; Netflix, 2015 onwards) and Monsters vs. Aliens (Nickelodeon, 2013 – 2014, 1 season, 26 episodes) following each year after that, whilst their recent Netflix deal has seen a surge in DreamWorks-related programming, first with Turbo FAST (Netflix, 2013 – Present, 1 season, 26 episodes), All Hail King Julian (Netflix, 2014 – Present, 1 season, 5 episodes so far), The Adventures of Puss In Boots (Netflix, 2015 – Present, 1 season, 5 episodes so far), and VeggieTales in the House (Netflix, 2014 – Present, 1 season, 10 episodes so far, will not be covered here)… but we’ll come back to that.
In theory, most of these shows should be slam-dunks, too. They’re based on franchises that did great business as movies and are relatively beloved by kids and animation fans alike, and each of them very much seems tailor-made for TV, requiring minimal tweaking to make work. The Penguins of Madagascar takes on a silly classic 11 minute cartoon set-up (amplifying the slapstick cartoon nature of the films to their logical endpoint), Legends of Awesomeness and Dragons (which semi-reboots itself each season with a different subtitle each time) aim to be TV versions of the films that they’re based off of (mixing comedy with drama, action, and heart), whilst Monsters vs. Aliens pulls away from Susan to focus more on the overall ensemble and be a cross between the wacky 11 minute shorts of The Penguins of Madagascar and a sitcom of sorts. All Hail King Julian is a straight sitcom set pre-Madagascar, The Adventures of Puss In Boots is a swashbuckling action-comedy with elements of drama, and Turbo FAST is a formulaic cartoon.
Of these, the cartoons and comedies, with the exception of Monsters vs. Aliens – and we will touch on why that one doesn’t work in due course – work best for a variety of reasons. For one, the writers for each of the various shows just seem to get comedy better than they do comedy-drama hybrids. Shows like Kung Fu Panda, Puss In Boots, and Dragons have a tendency to come up with plots that are either too complex and busy to adequately deal with in just one 22-minute episode (the Dragons pilot, especially, is really bad about that) or don’t have enough going on in them to justify 22-minutes (the “Duchess” episode of Puss In Boots all but advertises its endless filler with giant neon signs), with the dramatic beats often either sped through or overly laboured on.
For another, they suffer most from flanderisation. In having to do a weekly, often multiple season television series, it can be hard to keep on writing characters in a multi-faceted complex manner like they exist as in the movies. Therefore, at some point, that depth will be accidentally or purposefully sanded down into more singular characteristics to fit the story the writers are trying to tell. Occasional character beats will turn into full-blown tics and catchphrases – I only watched 4 episodes of Dragons and I’m still worried that “Bud” is now permanently seared into my eardrums – certain elements get blown out of proportion – Po’s naivety and over-earnestness more often than not ends up manifesting as full-blown childishness and selfishness, a complete betrayal of his character – and they’re rarely for the better.
But, more simply, the comedies are just better written than the action comedy-dramas. In part due to the flanderisation, in part due to the story scope issues, in part due to pacing issues, the latter just never really hit me like they should have. The comedy is often too broad, the drama never quite emotional enough, the action technically impressive but never really exciting or tense. There’s a lot of plates to juggle, basically, and, for me, the shows never really manage to shake off the feeling that they’re just lower-quality versions of the superior films. They have the voice of the parent franchise, alright, but they still never truly connect, they always feel… off.
Take, for example, “A Tigress Tale” (from Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness, Season 2, Episode 18). On paper, this is an episode tailor-made for myself: a Tigress-focussed story about her finding what seems to be her perfect paradise – a Kung Fu training centre with a tough, firm mentor who pushes her further and an environment that takes Kung Fu very seriously – only to discover that she does crave companionship and fun. The execution, however, never quite sticks. To sell the change, she starts the episode as moodily serious, even outright hating Po despite the first film showing her beginning to enjoy his company, which feels forced and clunky. The pacing is too fast to give off a decent enough impression that Tigress misses her old life, and the ending, where Po helps her escape, ends up making her personality evolution in Kung Fu Panda 2 (this series is set between the films) seem like it hinged on this one moment instead of something that naturally happened over time. The episode just didn’t work, basically.
The comedy series don’t have to worry about overreaching story-wise or staying overly consistent to the way the films do their characters and such, however, because their only end goal is to be funny. They can exaggerate certain character aspects – like Skipper’s crazed leader antics, or Mort’s stalker obsession with King Julian, or Chet’s safety-conscious ways – and get away with it as long as they don’t go too far (they rarely do) and if the resulting jokes are funny (they often are). And since, unlike with Dragons and Kung Fu Panda, none of them purport to be tied to their respective franchises and their eventual future – The Penguins exists in some kind of alternate universe where the Penguins and the Lemurs got back to the zoo somehow, Turbo FAST changes and alters the premise to suit its own needs, and All Hail King Julian is only technically a prequel to Madagascar – they get to go nuts world-building and gag building without fear of contradiction down the line.
For example, I found a marked difference between an episode of The Penguins of Madagascar from Season 3 and one from the beginning of Season 1. Not only has it cleaned up the pacing flaws and finessed the art style to keep the lower-quality animation from being distracting, but there’s a wider range of characters that recur from episode to episode outside of the main cast – the villainous Mr. X kept popping up in the episodes I chose – and minor callbacks to prior events. It feels like its own universe instead of just an off-shoot of a movie. Dragons does have continuous plot arcs – although I somehow picked primarily standalone episodes – but it feels restrained, as if the writers know that they have to save the big stuff for the movies, whilst Kung Fu Panda doesn’t have any continuity outside of two-parters (as far as I’m aware) which explains its pacing and characterisation issues.
As for the one comedy series that doesn’t work, Monsters vs. Aliens, that’s a case of the show trying to force its source material into a suit that it’s not comfortable for. Pretty much every other show is operating within or near-enough to its general wheelhouse to not feel like there’s been a major disconnect between the film and the series. Monsters vs. Aliens, however, is a singular-character-focussed feminist sci-fi action movie with (mostly failing) moments of comedy spliced in. It doesn’t fit well with the loud ensemble sitcom-ish comedy series that the show forces it into. Susan gets shuffled to the back by necessity, which buries that feminist heart, again by necessity, the episodes strain to adhere to their set formula, and the show is loud. Like, headache-inducingly so. The show doesn’t work, basically, despite it being the best looking of the CG shows.
Which is as good a link as any to talk about the animation. Now, obviously, these shows can’t look as good as the films that they’re based on because they don’t have the budget. No show has that budget. Therefore, each show has to adapt its art style in order to remain visually appealing. Most simply reduce their level of detail, because their parent franchises have gifted them an art style that works well regardless (Kung Fu Panda, in particular, comes off excellently). Others turn into the skid and embrace the lower-budget by emphasising the squash and stretch capabilities and changing the character designs to make them look like playable dolls (The Penguins of Madagascar). Others are able to deliver images and sequences that are almost film-quality, but fall down due to inconsistent character animation and subtle little details (Dragons whose character animations, in particular, switch between semi-naturalistic and semi-robotic depending on the episode or scene).
What most of them suffer from, however, is a general feeling of lifelessness. Thanks to the lower budget, there’s simply not enough money available to create bustling streets and worlds filled with extras which means that there’s lots of empty space and lots of re-used character models. That’s understandable, but the problem is that some of the shows keep drawing attention to it. The Adventures of Puss In Boots is set in a once hidden city, which seems like a built-in defence mechanism against this sort of criticism, but even with that the town still feels empty and hollow. There are seemingly only 10 residents of this city and all of them are cast members, which doesn’t help, whilst the bandits are all literally copy-pasted from the same guy all of the time, which really doesn’t help. Coupled with the lower-than-usual CG quality and sub-par boarding – a problem for the majority of the shows mentioned here, just plain uninteresting layout and storyboarding – it begs the question of why the show was done like this in the first place.
Especially since Turbo FAST ditches the CG style and is instead a Flash-animated cartoon. That is a decision that pays off. Yes, the art style occasionally veers a little too “early-to-mid-2000s EXTREEEEEEME” and it has this habit of artificially lowering the brightness at more complex points (presumably to get Flash and such to actually make the damn scenes), but otherwise the show looks fantastic. The art style is distinctive, the colour scheme is aesthetically pleasing, the boarding and layout are often striking, there’s a legitimate sense of life thanks to being able to afford extras, and the animation itself is consistent and so smooth that there were many times that I had to forcibly remind myself that this was Flash instead of traditional animation. None of this should be surprising, the show’s animation company is Titmouse, Inc. – who did the animation for the criminally short-lived Motorcity and who DreamWorks approached to work on this from the outset – but it’s still the best-looking of these shows by a country mile.
Oh, I almost moved away from close analysis without mentioning Clover from All Hail King Julian! Now, throughout this long and ridiculous series, I have frequently brought up DreamWorks’ troubled relationship with the female gender, because animation does have a gender problem, and their TV shows (from what I have seen, I must qualify that) continue that mainly through exclusion. All of their shows, barring The Penguins of Madagascar, have at least one female member of the main cast – The Penguins does feature Marlene the Otter, but she’s in the secondary cast and factored into none of the episodes I managed to see – and pretty much all of them (again, from what I have seen) get nothing to do. Astrid, Susan, and Viper barely factored into their shows, whilst Burn simply sticks to the same overly attached girlfriend role she had in her film, Tigress retains the overly serious and joyless side of her first film personality, and Dulcinea of Puss In Boots has the barest sketch of a personality at the moment besides “excessively kind and polite”. They’re barely featured and, when they are, they don’t get to be more than a one-line-one-trait summary. Exclusion.
Which is why I bring up Clover. Clover, in stark contrast to her fellow female characters, is a full-on character. She is the paranoid, self-confident, power-abusing bodyguard to King Julian who is always alert, nervous and/or intimidated by the previous King Julian, and devoted to her job. And she is hilarious! No, seriously, she is a comical force of nature as the show takes her no-nonsense archetype and plays it for genuine comedy. She’s not the straight man, she’s allowed to look the fool and be as stupid as everybody else in the show in her own way, something that many comedies seem worried to try doing for some reason. Couple that with India de Beaufort’s magnificent vocal performance, who takes already funny lines and turns them hysterical through her delivery, and you get one of the strongest female characters in DreamWorks’ entire history because she’s a proper character!
Admittedly, that’s not saying much, but just let me have this, OK?
So, at a time when DreamWorks have been struggling majorly with their cinema releases and could really use the eyeballs and network money that commercial television can bring them – the Dragons series has even been pulling in numbers close to those of non-event episodes of Adventure Time – why move to Netflix? Why seemingly limit the potential audience outreach? Well, for one, Netflix is actually reaching a tonne more homes now – 57.4 million worldwide at last count – so the built-in potential audience is already massive. For two, Netflix, it turns out, is apparently very hands-off when it comes to exerting control over the shows created, which undoubtedly must please those working on them to no end.
And for three… Well, Nickelodeon really hasn’t been doing so well recently. They’ve taken a major step back with their animated programming – shows like The Legend of Korra were unceremoniously booted online, The Fairly Odd Parents still exists although you wouldn’t believe it considering how irregularly new episodes of their once flagship show are being aired, and they are still actively giving Breadwinners money and airtime – and, in the last few years, they’ve begun unnecessarily screwing about with their cash cows. The reason why The Penguins of Madagascar is still listed as “2008 – Present” instead of “2008 – 2012” is because Nickelodeon straight up refuses to just air the last 4 episodes, already, two and a half years on. Kung Fu Panda’s third, and seemingly final, season has managed to air 18 episodes in about as many months because, again inexplicably as the series still draws good ratings, it keeps going on endless months-long hiatuses without warning and with no return date.
So with Nickelodeon not exactly being the most reliable of networks right now – not to mention the fact that Monsters vs. Aliens was cancelled in part due to the network wishing to make “more ‘Nickish’ shows”, the network’s ratings generally being in the toilet, and the possibility that this may all be being done out of spite for the Netflix move – and Cartoon Network treating Dragons well but its potential growth being rather stunted for now, it makes sense for DreamWorks to move to Netflix. After all, Netflix is offering hands-off stability with room for viewer and programming expansion. For a company that’s currently in financial turmoil on its home turf, the cinema, why wouldn’t it look for a nice bit of stability in a field that it’s doing well in?
But now we close with the question that has under-pinned this entire push to the finish line: why? Why is TV successful? Why was The Croods a success but Turbo wasn’t? Why have DreamWorks been succeeding in television but not at the cinema? Why is this their stable platform? It’s a big important question, one that I can’t speak with full authority on, but I do have a theory. DreamWorks have been creating TV shows that, for the most part, represent the spirits and tone and style of their successful films. They are extensions of these films, the Dragons and Kung Fu Panda series especially, but delivered on a weekly basis. It’s more of what worked (kind of, but I’m a jaded 20 year-old so what do I know).
And kids are more than likely going to eat that up. What kid hasn’t come away from a film that they’ve loved mentally wishing for more of it? More time with their favourite characters, more time in that universe, new twists, new surprises, new characters. These shows offer that on a weekly basis, which undoubtedly satisfies and interests kids like those, and also explains why certain box office prognosticators worried that the Dragons TV series may have cut into potential box office demand for How To Train Your Dragon 2. They may continue to fulfil the perception that DreamWorks only think of stories, films, and television as so much interchangeable product that you simply scale for size, but can you really blame a company for offering supplies to a prominent demand?
Point is, their shows are fulfilling a need and that need seems to be becoming the company’s main income source right about now. As their film business crumbles around them, the stability afforded by their television arm justifies its continued existence even if the shows weren’t any good. I mean, honestly, most of them kinda aren’t, but they’re connecting with the target audience, and in a way that the studio was seemingly incapable of doing pre-2008, so what do I know and what do I care? At least they’re trying. There’s clear effort put into each of these shows, which again is more than I can say for most of the pre-2008 output, and it’s paying dividends. Time will tell if those dividends are strong enough to keep them propped up in case their film output continues to underwhelm.
Next week: we finally bring this whole thing to a close, as we look back at what we’ve covered, fill in the gaps of 2014, and then look ahead to the future to see if we can fashion some sort of optimistic ending out of all of this for DreamWorks Animation.
The DreamWorks Animation Retrospective will conclude next Monday at 1PM BST!