Tag Archives: 2000

Joseph: King Of Dreams

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

joseph 2This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary.  In celebration, Callum Petch is 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.


Bonus Entry #1] Joseph: King Of Dreams (7th November 2000)

Direct-To-Video

Direct-to-video rarely signals quality.  This, I think we can all agree on.  Sure, sometimes a just-plain bungled or vindictive release plan can cause something great to slip through the cracks (Man Of Tai Chi for the UK, and apparently this fate is going to befall Snowpiercer for most countries for some utterly bewildering reason), but most aren’t worth the time of day.  They have budgets that resemble a Lifetime Original Movie at best, dreadful acting, poorly constructed stories, and oftentimes exist solely to cash on in whatever or whoever is currently popular at the time of its release or to ring some extra cash out of an audience with goodwill towards a great movie from a few years back.

It’s particularly bad in animation.  Everyone’s realised so at one point or another.  You wander into the DVD aisle at your local supermarket, and you see it flooded with knock-offs or cheap sequels.  Late in 2011, as DreamWorks’ Puss In Boots was entering theatres, for example, I saw a DVD entitled Puss N Boots that even apes the DreamWorks’ art style to a degree that could genuinely confuse the less-attentive doing browsing.  I’m pretty sure that I saw several parents during that time period actually do a double-take on it, having to give it a closer inspection before realising and moving on.  Hell, that one got so bad that its Amazon listing actually has to have “(Not DreamWorks)” in the title!  As for sequels… I really don’t think I need to clarify that I’m referring to Disney in that regard, right?  You all know that there are only two great ones (The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride and Pooh’s Grand Adventure) and that the rest are mediocre at best (the Aladdin sequels) and wretched at worst (Mulan II and Cinderella II).  And I’m pretty sure that you already know about the twelve Land Before Time sequels.

So it’s definitely strange that DreamWorks Animation have so far only had one direct-to-video film.  No, really, just the one.  Those Madagascar and Shrek holiday specials?  They were TV specials that got a home video release for the extra money (in the case of the How To Train Your Dragon and Valentine’s Day Madagascar ones, those are shorts and aren’t really the same things as a full-on direct-to-video feature), although we may touch on those at some point in this series if there’s time.  The only direct-to-video feature that DreamWorks Animation have produced is this one, Joseph: King Of Dreams.  It’s especially weird as, let’s not forget, we’re talking about a company that ruthlessly franchises everything (even Turbo, which actually caused the company an overall loss, has gotten its own Netflix Original Series) and that it’s actually rather safe to assume that any film that doesn’t get a continuation of any kind is a stillborn franchise.  Even weirder is that this was the company’s fifth release, overall, and was in production during The Prince Of Egypt, a time when the company half-assed absolutely nothing.  Going direct-to-video could be seen as Jeffrey Katzenberg and co. wanting to expand their all-conquering reach to every facet of the animation industry, again that theory of having an all-encompassing range of animated fare brought under a company umbrella that signals quality, but it still feels weird to see just the one, and this early in its lifespan.

Mind, even if it weren’t direct-to-video, Joseph: King Of Dreams would still be facing an uphill battle by merely existing for it is a prequel (kinda, sorta, spiritually at least, depends on how you view a studio making two Bible adaptations in similar styles to one another) to The Prince Of Egypt.  As you may recall from three weeks back, The Prince Of Egypt is f*cking amazing.  It is so amazing that, nearly fifteen years on from its release, it still holds up and may even be one of the best animated films I have ever seen (one of these days I will actually sit down and try to figure out which actually are sat behind Persepolis).  If you want to come along and call yourself a prequel, spiritual or literal, to that film, you are going to be mercilessly scrutinised, my good fellow, and if you even come up even a little bit short then your privates are going to be nailed to the damn wall.  There are high standards, is what I’m getting at, and falling even a little bit short is going to be seen as a failure at some level.

Of course, if you watch Joseph with the sound off, maybe instead replacing the songs and dialogue with a fitting soundtrack of your choice, you’d be hard pressed to call it a failure of all but the most minor of kinds.  It’s not as pretty as The Prince Of Egypt, of course not (reduced budgets will do that), but is has aged just as well.  Movements are wonderfully fluid, shot composition is fantastic, CGI is kept to the bare minimum or is so well integrated that I didn’t notice it, there’s good usage of lighting and shadows, animals are theatrical-release quality…  It looks a lot like Egypt except that there’s a bit less detail and a slightly smaller scale (wide shots of expansive sets and landscapes don’t feel wide, for example) which betray the lower budget.  The dream sequences, though, look astounding.  It’s the way that they blend and utilise several different art styles yet never have the end result look a mess.  Joseph’s early dreams employ a swirling background that gives off the style of a living painting, all of them accurately capture the symbolic yet ultimately shifting nature of dreams without becoming disorientating, some employ the camera-swivel effect that Beauty & The Beast’s ballroom dance made famous and it creates this very dream-like off-ness to the scene, whilst the visualisation of Pharaoh’s dream takes full advantage of the fact that CGI doesn’t age well to purposefully create this otherworldly and foreboding imagery.

I mean, I shouldn’t be surprised that it looks this good.  Reminder, this was a film made at a time when DreamWorks were young and hungry, with something to prove, and didn’t half-ass anything.  They even went into the production knowing from the outset that this was destined for a direct-to-video release and yet refused to let the animation quality suffer.  There’s heart and soul being put in, here, the result of a team refusing to settle for good enough.  Compared to most animated films that go direct-to-video nowadays (or, in some cases, get called up for the cinema), it’s a visual tour-de-force.  The reflective gold decorations on Joseph’s coat look better and more convincing than the gold featured in The Road To El Dorado and, lest we forget, they had to write an entire program from scratch to render gold in that theatrically-released film!  If the sound was off, if they only paid attention to the visuals, and they hadn’t seen The Prince Of Egypt (the slight lack of detail and scale is missed but not as badly as one might think), I imagine that several people would actually fail to believe that this is a direct-to-video film even if they were told it was.

Unfortunately, that’s about where the good comparisons end to The Prince Of Egypt.  See, whilst that film invested its narrative with good pacing, emotional stakes, and a willingness to not sugar-coat its darker sections and themes, Joseph: King Of Dreams is a bit of a mess, one that attempts to do too much in too short of a timeframe without much of an emotional connection.  In fact, I was genuinely not in the slightest bit surprised to have found out during my research of the film that it had a very troubled production.  The film’s co-director wrote an entire article on the eve of its release about the disastrous first act story-reel screening he had in early 1998 and the major reworking that had to occur for it to be usable.  Apparently, proceedings at that stage made no sense and lacked characters, instead just being a series of disconnected events that happened with little rhyme or reason.  This is a fundamental issue, as you may be able to gather, and it’s a hard one to correct in an animated production where a whole bunch of work has already been done and the release date is two years away.

Credit where it’s due, they did fix the issue.  Proceedings do make sense and there are characters with motivations and the like.  The problem is that everything feels rushed and completely lacking in depth.  To compare it to The Prince Of Egypt (which is something I’m going to keep doing even though, in all honesty, it’s kind of an unfair comparison), that film’s emotional centre works because it takes half of the film before we actually hit the liberation of the slaves conflict.  Prior to that, we get the character work, we learn about Moses, about Rameses, about Egypt, the stakes involved, why we the viewers should care.  There’s an expert usage of pacing going on in Egypt and it’s that pacing and that character work that imbues proceedings with emotional heft.  It takes its time, doesn’t rush (presumably because the actual meat of the story is rather short and simple by comparison), lets us get a sense of who these characters are and what they’re like so that the emotional moments matter.

In that respect, Joseph was probably doomed from the start.  To try and invest this story with the kind of emotional heft that Egypt had, like it very much wants to, it needs a runtime longer than 70 minutes (75 with credits).  The story of Joseph is too large and expansive to be able to adequately do justice in just over an hour, at least from what I can gather here.  And unlike with Egypt, Joseph can’t get away with focussing on one specific part of his story because it all feeds into the conclusion of him forgiving his brothers; without that, you have no emotional climax.  So, really, this is a story that needs a feature-length runtime, otherwise you just get a rather dry retelling of the tale like the one we’ve ended up with here.

For example, the central relationship that propels the film’s opening and close is Joseph’s relationship with his brothers.  The basic strokes of the relationship are presented, they’re jealous of him because his father favours him over them, but it doesn’t really go further than that.  We don’t even really see their side of the equation, they’re only shown to be wanting to be kind to him once and that’s during the opening song before they’re shut out by the over-coddling Jacob.  I understand the concept of narrative economy, but this is a bit too economical.  None of his brothers really feel like people, they certainly don’t feel like individuals, and the fact that most of the opening of the film is sped through in a musical montage where they’re basically background filler doesn’t do them many favours.  Maybe it was a deliberate choice, to keep them one-dimensional and unempathetic so that we don’t end up siding with their idea to sell Joseph into slavery, but it’s the wrong one.  Not only does it make the conflict at the end, will Joseph forgive his brothers when they unwittingly re-enter his life in desperation, lack stakes or investment (why should Joseph forgive those who were only ever utterly terrible to him; also, weirdly and despite that, the sequence unwittingly makes him come off as a bit of an arsehole, I feel), it also feels like a cop-out when Egypt was willing to humanise Rameses and give him depth even though he was a full-on abusive slave-dictator come story’s end.

Meanwhile, the relationship in the middle part of the story, concerning Joseph and his slaver Potiphar, similarly feels rushed.  Hell, it barely feels like Joseph has kicked off his shoes before he gets falsely imprisoned for two years.  So the scene where he forgives Potiphar, supposedly the rebuilding of this strange kind of friendship the two had fostered before the falsified attempted rape, either rings hollow or kinda is just a thing that happens despite the film trying to make a big deal out of it.  The passage of time is especially weird, two years supposedly pass between Joseph being sold off and him being thrown in prison but on-screen depictions make it seem like it’s only been a few months, at best, or a few days, at worst.  It gets better later on, the length of his stay in prison is well-communicated and the time span afterwards becomes very clear due to the laid out milestones, but it just adds to the overall lack of real involvement.  So much of this film takes place in montage, backed by what feels like an endless number of songs, that it only compounds the one-dimensional nature and lack of emotional involvement.

Speaking of, the songs are decent.  There’s a bit more variety to them than in The Prince Of Egypt (contrast the prior embedded “Miracle Child” with “More Than You Take” which is embedded below this paragraph), “You Know Better Than I” is lyrically well-done and captures the intended “God has a plan for all of us” vibe and mood much better than “When You Believe” did in Egypt, and there are several instances of Jodi Benson singing and that is never not a wonderful thing to hear.  The problem is that there are too many of them.  Way too many of them in too short of a time-frame and they crop up so often that I found myself wishing that they’d just stop for ten minutes and let the characters lead the story instead of yet another damn song and montage.  Their frequency also means that, despite the variety, they eventually just blend into one another.  There’s also an issue where song lyrics end up being played over dialogue and sounds that are going on on-screen; the non-song sounds and words being too quiet to overtake the mix but too loud to block out and dismiss, so many lines in the songs get muddled in the rest of the mix.  It’s not a frequent occurrence, but it happens often enough to be really distracting and feels rather amateurish every time it does happen.

So, as it turns out, there is a reason why Joseph: King Of Dreams has languished in obscurity for the 14 years since its release (I mean, be honest, did you really remember this film before opening this entry?).  It’s a very pretty film that has significant narrative and emotional shortcomings, one severely hampered by its direct-to-video nature and shortened runtime.  Nothing really to write home about.  Let’s bring this entry home, then, by attempting to answer the big question that appeared near the start: why is Joseph the only direct-to-video feature-length that DreamWorks Animation have ever made and released?  Well, me being me, I have a couple of theories if you’ll indulge me for a paragraph or five.

Theory #1: It has been said that there were plans for more direct-to-video Bible story adaptations if Joseph was a success.  I imagine that DreamWorks were banking on this being a rather successful little supplement to their cinematic films; maybe pump a new one out every year around about Christmas and reap a nice consistent cash flow from the more religious or simply parents who want to get a stocking stuffer for their kids and, hey, cartoons always keep them quiet.  The fact that it’s 2014 and that the only DreamWorks Bible films we have are still The Prince Of Egypt and Joseph: King Of Dreams should give an indication as to how well it ended up doing (even though, as much as I’ve tried, there seems to be no sales data of any kind for it out there).

Theory #2: Direct-to-video really isn’t all that profitable.  Or, at least, not to the degree that DreamWorks would have liked for it to be.  I mean, it’s still a profitable market (let’s not forget that there exist twelve goddamn Land Before Time sequels), but it’s not really profitable enough to consider diving into on a frequent basis unless you have giant safety nets behind you.  I mean, how many films that go direct-to-video do you think generate decent returns, especially the kind of returns that are able fund feature-length animated films with the visual fidelity DreamWorks aspire to?  Disney could get away with doing this in the early to late 2000s (when even their theatrical films were tanking hard, but we will come back to that) because they often made enough money to be worth the cost of making them and they still had the safety net of their merchandising arm.  DreamWorks… don’t, and especially not at the time that Joseph was released into the wild (more on that in two and three weeks from now), so it’s too much of a risk for what has proven to be too little reward.

Theory #3: Direct-to-video is basically dead in the animated realm.  They wouldn’t have tried again in the early 2000s as they didn’t have the financial safety blanket if everything went balls up, they wouldn’t try it in the mid-2000s as they basically released everything they made in cinemas (they average 2 films a year back then, 3 nowadays), and they wouldn’t try it today because pretty much nobody does it anymore.  There’s a reason why The Land Before Time series finally went extinct a few years back, whilst Disney just send anything that was planned to go direct-to-video (I’m specifically referring to the Planes and Tinker Bell franchises) to cinemas now.  Why shouldn’t they?  They make actual money in cinemas, practically every goddamn animated film makes money in cinemas now.  Why not shake down gullible and/or desperate parents for extra money by making them pay twice for a film that they would otherwise only have to have paid once for in the hopes of keeping their kids quiet?  It’s proven to work.

Plus, DreamWorks Animation nowadays simply can’t afford to take the risk.  There’s a reason why the Madagascar and Shrek franchises just plain refuse to die, and that’s because they’re pretty much the only ones that actually still bring in money for the studio.  Most of their original films, their risk-takers, their attempts at trying to mature?  They’re failing.  They have been for a while, now.  Sure, they appear to turn a profit, but they keep causing the company to have to make write-downs.  Rise Of The Guardians?  $300 million against a $145 million budget sounds like nothing to sniff at, but they still had to list a write-down of $83 million and lay off 350 employees.  Turbo?  $282 million against a $127 million production budget plus a maximum $175 million marketing budget; write-down of $13.5 million.  Mr. Peabody & Sherman?  $268 million against a $145 million budget and still they had to take a write-down of $57 million.  This is why, despite having taken $535 million so far and having exceeded the gross of the original, some people are claiming that How To Train Your Dragon 2 has been a financial failure and they honestly might not be wrong.

So of course they’re not going to touch the direct-to-video market with a bargepole.  Of course the movie of The Penguins Of Madagascar is going to be a full-fledged cinema release.  Of course they keep bringing back Madagascar and Puss In Boots for cinema sequels.  They can’t afford otherwise.  It’s a problem that’s been affecting most of their non-franchise films for a long time now (as we’ll discover as the series progresses), and it’s why their schedule has at least one sequel every year.  Simply put, if their films underperform, the company stands a good chance of collapsing.  There is no safety net, especially seeing as even apparent sure bets like How To Train Your Dragon 2, now the highest grossing animated film of the year, aren’t even completely safe bets any more.  They don’t have the time, they don’t have the money and they can’t take the risk to go direct-to-video, especially since their television arm is infinitely more lucrative than any potential direct-to-video venture would be.

Those are my guesses, anyway.  Whatever the reason, it leaves Joseph: King Of Dreams as the black sheep of the DreamWorks Animation canon.  A one-off experiment that failed miserably and has since faded into near-obscurity.  Does it deserve such a fate?  Eh, kinda, quite frankly.  It’s very pretty and I appreciate the effort to try and bring theatrical production values to the world of direct-to-video, but the film beneath the visuals is wholly unremarkable, emotionally unaffecting and insanely rushed.  It’s diversionary enough, but in comparison to the film it spawned from it is simply not good enough.


Next week, we get back on track and look at the film that changed everything.  The film that announced DreamWorks Animation to the world.  The film that would shape feature-length animation for the decade to come, for good and for ill.  Shrek.

A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!

Callum Petch will be your god, he’ll be your girl.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Chicken Run

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

chicken-run-2000-3-g-640x509

This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary.  In celebration, Callum Petch is 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.


04] Chicken Run (23rd June 2000)

Budget: $45 million

Gross: $224,834,564

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%

Say what you want about DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, the man had vision at the start of the company’s lifespan.  Let’s not forget, the company’s (planned) first film was a biblical epic the likes of which had never been attempted in animation, let alone in Hollywood at all for a good 30/40 years prior.  He jumped feet first into the wholly-CG realm well before any other Pixar imitators.  He got the company to throw money behind a buddy-comedy adventure that time has been much kinder to than contemporary critics and filmgoers were.  He had a real vision for his animated company; he wanted to rival Disney but, quite clearly, wanted to do it on his own terms with films that weren’t just pale imitations of what Disney were churning out.  He wanted an animation company that could hop from genre to genre, animation style to animation style, all aimed at a slightly older filmgoer instead of merely pacifying the youngest, but brought together under one roof with a company name that people could look at as a sign of quality, build trust in the consumer that their time and money weren’t going to be wasted.

So of course one of the first things that Katzenberg would do upon co-founding the company would be to hunt down, sign to a contract, and inject a rather large cash flow into cult British stop-motion animation company Aardman Animations.  Why wouldn’t he?  Prior to Katzenberg knocking on their front door, Aardman had built up quite the reputation in their near-three decade existence as Britain’s premiere animation studio with such creations as Rex The Runt, Morph and the Oscar-winning short (that would later be expanded into an ad campaign and later still full-on television series) Creature Comforts (1989).  They also made the iconic music video for Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” (1986) and, weeks before the DreamWorks deal was officially announced, they also released Steve Box’s stunning animated short Stage Fright (1997).  But, of course, they didn’t truly start making giant waves with the public until A Grand Day Out (1989) introduced them to Nick Park’s Wallace & Gromit, their household name status becoming truly assured with their follow-up shorts The Wrong Trousers (1993) and A Close Shave (1995), which both also won Academy Awards.  The company was on the brink of superstardom, all it needed was a film that could announce its presence to the world.

Again, enter DreamWorks.  By the time the deal had been signed in December of 1997, Chicken Run had been in pre-production for a good year and already had the financial backing of Pathé, and the critical prestige of Aardman (and particularly Chicken Run’s three-time Oscar-winning co-director Nick Park) meant that practically every American studio with money to throw around was desperate for a piece of the pie (the box office success of Don Bluth and Gary Goldman’s Anastasia a few weeks earlier, at a time when it seemed like any non-Disney animated release was a license to throw millions of dollars into a big ol’ fiery pit, may have also helped somewhat).  In the end, though, Katzenberg won out through sheer, bloody-minded persistence; he’d been courting the company since he first saw Creature Comforts.  It seemed like a perfect marriage, both companies even extended their deal, as Chicken Run was wrapping up production, for another four feature films.  Later history would show this to be far from the case (there’s a very good reason why their new films are being released primarily by Sony Pictures Animation), although a squabble over the film’s score would offer a brief glimpse at the creative differences that both studios would dissolve into, but at the time this was basically all leading up to a fairy-tale kind of ending.

And it did.  It really did.  Chicken Run opened at the beginning of the Summer, with its only competition being the disastrously performing Titan A.E., entering the charts at number 2 (behind Me, Myself & Irene).  The film proceeded to ride that complete lack of competition to a six week run in the Top 10, where the most it dropped between weeks was 40% in Week 5 when Pokèmon: The Movie 2000 replaced it briefly as the big new animated movie on the block, a domestic total in excess of $100 million and slightly-larger than that foreign total as well.  It even out-grossed Disney’s official entry into their animated classics canon for the year, The Emperor’s New Groove, and was only kept from being the highest grossing animated film of the year by Disney’s other animated film for the year (retroactively added to their animated classics canon later on), Dinosaur.  Critically, it was universally applauded, so much so that DreamWorks actually launched a campaign to get the film nominated for Best Picture.  It failed, sadly (Chocolat got in over it, if you’d like a reason to get really angry today), but it has been said that the film was popular enough with Academy voters for it to lead to the creation of the Best Animated Feature award for the next ceremony.  The film also failed to pick up the Annie Award for Best Animated Film because, well, it came out in the same twelve month window as Toy Story 2.

But other than the unfortunate shut-outs with regards to awards (seriously?  F*cking Chocolat but not Chicken Run?), this was basically the outcome that multiple hokey underdog stories use for their feel-good endings, only in reality and fully-deserved.  I was six upon the VHS release of Chicken Run and even I felt a tiny little something upon seeing the Aardman logo preluding a feature-length (not that I would have understood the full significance, obviously, I was still only six).  Growing up, my parents were very generous to stock the “please, for the love of God, pacify the bugger the five minutes” VHS collection with an armada of cartoons.  Disney films, BBC cartoons, Toy Story, Tom & Jerry collections, Looney Tunes collections, all that stuff, so I had a pretty early introduction to Wallace & Gromit.  The beauty about them, as is the beauty with most of Aardman’s best work, is that they work on multiple levels.  They’re not aimed specifically at families or children or anything like that.  Like damn great movies, they just aim to tell good stories with the knowledge that everybody, regardless of age, gets something out the best stories.  So, as should surprise no-one, Chicken Run ended up on regular rotation when it hit VHS.  It was funny, fast, linked in terms of tone and style to Wallace & Gromit, and I always had an affinity for stop-motion animation.  The fact that the DVD we eventually traded up to contained extensive clips of practically every Aardman short ever made beforehand admittedly helped matters.

The thing that I was dreading, though, upon sitting down to watch Chicken Run for this feature, the first time I have watched the film in at least 4 years, was that my earlier obsession with the film during my youth would dilute much of its impact.  For the longest time I couldn’t watch any classic episode of The Simpsons because my near cult-like devotion to a Season 4 boxset that I got one Christmas, and any of the numerous showings of any episode on Sky1 and Channel 4, had stripped most of those episodes of their humour and entertainment value.  There was a part of me that was worried I’d be left sitting on the outside of this film, mechanically looking at its deeper meanings and such rather than being drawn in and becoming invested in proceedings.  As mentioned just a few moments ago, though, the best Aardman works work on multiple levels with the same level of enjoyment being gained no matter which level you end up looking at it at.  And that ended up being true of Chicken Run, many of its jokes may have diminished from over-consumption as a child, but I was still able to be entertained because, thanks to my older age, I could truly grasp the multitude of ways the film ends up working in.

For example, the mood, structure and feel of the film are very classic.  Despite being a millennial release that was in production for the entire back-half of the 90s, Chicken Run feels even older than that.  The obvious comparison, primarily because it’s an affectionate parody of it, is the 1963 classic The Great Escape but it goes further than that.  The whole film has the feel of classic Hollywood and, more specifically, the kind of films that crop up on Channel 4 when they need to fill a couple of hours of television time during an early weekday afternoon.  I realise that that could read as an insult, but it’s really not.  There’s a warm, inclusive feeling to the film that lacks from most animated films these days.  Unlike, say, The House Of Magic or Planes or anything like that, Chicken Run aims at a general audience instead of just the youngest of children, and whereas that could lead to a bland or just plain lack-of-an identity it ends up working excellently.  It feels classic, a film out-of-time, like if The Great Escape was made by British filmmakers and filtered through that off-beat mind-set we used to be so good at.  It’s why none of the jokes feel out-of-place or tonally misjudged, whether they be a practical hurricane of poultry-based puns delivered by rats Nick and Fetcher, some well-timed physical comedy during the montage of escape attempts near the beginning of the film, or a bit where the chickens realise that they’re all for the chop and Babs knits herself a woollen noose.  It all fits the all-ages mood and the British touch keeps any of them from coming off as obnoxious or ill-fitting, most of the gags being rather underplayed, really.

Speaking of that mood, of a film that feels (again, very much in a good way) older than it is, the animation, much like most of Aardman’s stop-motion creations, feels very stuck in the late 80s and early 90s.  The way that the film’s imagery and colour-scheme seems rather washed-out, the low-key lighting of most scenes, I might have even seen some film grain, at points.  I’d like to use the phrase “charmingly rustic”, because that’s the one that keeps sticking out in my mind right now, but I’m not sure it fully fits.  It conveys the positive opinion I have, though.  Many animated films, particularly in this age of CG, are often on a mission to have “the most graphics” or to just blindly copy the style of whatever the latest hot animated film was; unsurprisingly, it dates those films pretty quickly (for example, this clip from TMNT was from a film that released in 2007).  Yet the Aardman style still looks pretty darn good.  The decision to shoot at 20-frames-a-second instead of 24-frames-a-second in order to save money does cause a bit of a stiffness here and there, but it adds to the charm, more than anything.  The works of Laika may have surpassed Aardman’s stuff technically in the years since, but there’s a cosy feel to Aardman’s productions that I like.  It may have something to do with my having grown up a devoted Aardman fan (you are looking at one of, like, ten children who actually stuck with Chop Socky Chooks for more than 45 seconds), it may not, but it’s there and it’s very much a plus.

As for things that I didn’t notice until this go-around?  The way the film handles scale and stakes.  Chicken Run is actually really clever in this regard.  The film is very small-scale, although there’s the really large cast of extras, there are only nine prominent characters and even less than that that the film expects you to full invest in.  You become worried for the nameless extras because Ginger is worried for the nameless extras and because Mrs. Tweedy is an unrepentantly evil person.  It gets that not every character needs a name, arc and recognisable character trait for you to be worried about their outcome; if it’s shown to be important to the main character, like how the continued survival of the chicken community in a freer land is to Ginger, and the film makes an effort to demonstrate why that’s the case, then it is expected that the audience will swiftly follow.  Also helping matters is just how quickly the film sets up the price that failure to escape will have on these characters; literally the first scene after the credits montage involves the death of Edwina, played dead straight at that, showcasing just how real the stakes are to our cast.  It’s splendidly well-done story work.

But that scale also manifests itself in more visual ways.  What struck me first, above all else, was the shot of the camera pulling back to show the entirety of the chicken farm in one image as the title fades into view.  I realised how small the map of the world’s film actually looked, how there’s very little space, how all of the huts barely looked like they could fit one chicken let alone twelve, how each of its landmarks look barely a stone’s throw away from one another.  But then we switch to the viewpoint of the chickens and there seems to be real distance between huts, how the courtyard (for lack of a better term) suddenly does seem like it could support an entire herd of chickens, and how every hut actually ends up more like a TARDIS than the thing we just clapped eyes on.  It should seem inconsistent, especially whenever Mr. Tweedy opens one of their roofs to inspect what’s going on, a mess of scene geography, yet strangely it isn’t.  I think of the little one-take scene where Ginger is walking through the hut the other chickens are turning into a makeshift plane and my first thought doesn’t go straight to “how on earth could all of this be happening in that tiny hut?”  Because the film does such an excellent job at communicating just how big the scenery and sets are and seem to the chicken cast, it makes it much easier to go along with because the film never truly breaks that scene geography, instead flitting between different viewpoints simply due to the angles and placements of camera shots.  Now, in fairness, this works better in certain scenes than in others, specifically the height of the chickens compared to the Tweedys never truly feels consistent or convincing, but it’s still much less of an issue than it could have been because, again, the world is so brilliantly constructed.

I guess I should also admit that it wasn’t until this viewing that I grasped the not-exactly-subtle debts that World War II paid to its production design.  Before you start laughing, I would like to remind you that it had been a very long time since I’d seen Chicken Run and that, for some utterly bewildering reason, I was never properly taught about World War II until I hit secondary school.  Are you all finished judging me?  Good.  So the production design borrows very heavily from World War II POW camps, with some Concentration Camp elements thrown in for good measure.  Now, yes, this is because the film is an affectionate parody/homage (take your pick) to The Great Escape, but it also helps bleed into the scale and stakes stuff I’d just mentioned.  Although the place is never exactly an oasis, it ends up becoming rather multi-purpose, perfectly fitting the mood of whatever tone the film wants to go with.  And, in practically every shot outdoors, the fact that the fence is nearly always in view creates a constant reminder of just how close freedom truly is for the cast.  The fence uncomplicated but very effective in its required in-universe design, much like many POW camps.  Plus, you know, there’s the fact that Mrs. Tweedy’s chicken pie machine and plan to turn all of the “vile, loathsome little” chickens into pies calls to mind The Final Solution somewhat and basically makes her Hitler.  It all adds into the stakes without overriding the film too much, there’s just enough of a gap between the subtext of the WWII design and the overriding prison break narrative that one can enjoy the film without appreciating, or getting uncomfortable at, the parallels.  Again: the benefits of aiming at a general audience instead of one specific group.

Of course, Chicken Run isn’t perfect.  In fact, having watched it so much as a child and this being my first viewing in years actually seems to have made it easier for me to identify the flaws in the film.  The plotting, specifically, is very generic and thuddingly obvious.  It’s paced fantastically, something that’s not exactly a given when directors jump from shorter-form productions to feature-length (as just one example, both Inbetweeners films suffer from pacing issues), and it’s all executed with a tonne of heart and love but it still feels perfunctory at times.  “And now here’s the scene where the seeming answer to everyone’s prayers appears… and now here’s the action scene where we demonstrate how much of a threat the pie machine is… and now it’s the All Is Lost Moment, complete with dramatic thunder and rain because of course.”  One can call the beats to the second.  It’s not much of a problem, primarily because the film instead packs a lot of fun beats into its characters to make up for the lack of originality in the plotting, but it still feels too generic; like Peter Lord & Nick Park and the film’s screenwriter, Karey Kirkpatrick (who pops up frequently throughout DreamWorks’ history; we’ll come back to him), were operating out of some kind of “My First Feature-Length Screenplay” guidebook to be safe.

Also, and maybe I’ve just been spoilt by my years of ingesting as much of the animation as I can have time for, but I think the voice acting is very hit-and-miss.  On the hit side, especially on the hit side, there’s Miranda Richardson as Mrs. Tweedy (who I am just going to assume was cast purely on the back of Blackadder II because, c’mon, you know it makes sense) who plays every line damn near perfectly and her refusal to ham it up all of the time actually helps sell the character as even more threatening than she could have been.  Tony Haygarth as Mr. Tweedy bumbles with half-clueless ineffectualness brilliantly, Benjamin Withrow as Fowler does a dead-on “Back in my day…” ranting old veteran voice but also manages to get that same voice to deliver sincere emotional heft when he congratulates Rocky for helping sabotage the pie machine, whilst Timothy Spall and Phil Daniels (yes, really, I was surprised too) easily slide into the snarking comic relief roles whilst still, with a little help from the script, managing to imbue the characters with actual character instead of just pun-delivery.

Where things fall down is with regards to the leads.  Mel Gibson, who plays Rocky the Rooster, isn’t bad, he’s certainly far better than a man having to deliver the majority of his lines over the phone sounds like he’d be, but he does really undersell a lot of the material.  His character demands for him to be more boisterous, more showy, more American than Gibson and/or the people directing his performance seem willing to go.  It works for when his character development changes him to be more humble, when he develops a conscience, but less so for the time he spends otherwise.  The real issue comes from Julia Sawalha, who plays Ginger.  She’s really flat most of the time, there’s a lack of energy and of real emotional connection.  A lot of her lines, whether they’re an upset cry to the heavens, an excited reveal of a plan, or a tender opening up to Rocky, are delivered in the same very underplayed and often-lifeless fashion and it really took me out of the experience.  The same relatively-detached underplaying that worked for Mrs. Tweedy doesn’t work for Ginger; Ginger needs some heart and passion invested in her line readings which either Sawalha didn’t want to do, couldn’t achieve, or had directors who weren’t looking for them in the first place which is the wrong way to go as it turns out.

Finally, and this is the case for a lot of films in general but I still feel the need to bring it up, I don’t buy the romance between Rocky and Ginger, nor do I think it really needed to happen.  I understand why everyone involved felt like it did, Rocky needs to have his shameful exit at the two-thirds mark and then needs a reason to make a big heroic return in the finale and what quicker way than to have him and Ginger become attracted to one another, but it still feels wholly unnecessary.  Hell, I basically just explained the fact that it was basically done for obvious plot’s sake rather than any natural reason.  Them hooking up just feels like something that everyone felt just had to occur because “that’s how these things go, I guess,” but it’s still not really an excuse.  The film could have just had them turn into becoming close friends instead of lovers, the romance starts at the halfway point with a dance and then Rocky getting over his sexist tendencies and referring to Ginger by name, and it still would have worked in both a narrative and character sense.  Instead, they get together because that’s how these things go and deviation from “My First Feature-Length Screenplay” was expressly forbidden in its foreword.  It’s not a deal-breaker, it’s just a personal pet peeve of mine, not helped by how we’re over a decade on and this kind of thing still hasn’t really changed in the film industry.

I realise that I sound a bit down on Chicken Run, but I’m not.  Really, I’m not.  It’s a damn great, often brilliant film and one that certainly justifies the love, acclaim and fairy-tale ending to the pre-2000s Aardman Animation story.  The effects still hold up especially so since they’ve been bettered, the jokes still pack some laughs that a childhood of running the VHS on loop couldn’t suck the entertainment from, the setpieces are entertaining and exciting, and the film’s mood is endlessly relaxing and charming, the kind that is often lacking from most animated films nowadays.  Again, I was worried that revisiting this film would only result in a souring of the memories, but the refusal to just stick to one specific age-group (and the fantastic work that’s put into making that not create a tone that wildly slides all over the place) ends up showcasing even more aspects of its brilliance and discovering other, newfound reasons as to why it works.  It turns out that it’s not an outstandingly amazing film (unless the re-watch significantly lowers its quality, I have a feeling that Curse Of The Were-Rabbit will be closer to that), but it still succeeds at more than enough things, and its whole is great enough, for me to feel comfortable in the legacy that it’s established.


Chicken Run proved to be the breakthrough smash-hit that Aardman Animations deserved, a runaway critical and financial smash that forcibly announced their presence to the world outside of the UK.  For DreamWorks Animation, it was just the success they needed to counter-act the undeserving failure of The Road To El Dorado.  Of course, it wasn’t primarily produced by them and many may have wondered if DreamWorks were actually capable of long-term staying power on their own terms.  Their next animated feature would silence those critics immediately, firmly put the company on the animated map, and completely re-invent and re-shape the animated landscape for almost the entire decade afterward, for better and worse.

But before we get to that, we have to take a quick detour into direct-to-video land for a prequel to The Prince Of Egypt.  Next week, we shall take a look at Joseph: King Of Dreams, the sole direct-to-video entry in the DreamWorks Animation canon.

A brand new instalment in DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST.

Callum Petch guesses it’s seen the sparks a-flowin’.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

The Road To El Dorado

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

This year, DreamWorks Animation turns 20.  In celebration, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full on retrospective treatment.


The Road to El Dorado Poster03] The Road To El Dorado (31st March 2000)

Budget: $95 million

Gross: $76,432,727

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 49%

1999 was a bad time to be anyone in animation not working for Disney.  Not in terms of quality, sweet merciful Maker no!  1999 gave us Tarzan, Toy Story 2, The Iron Giant, Fantasia 2000, Doug’s 1st Movie, Wacko’s Wish (the direct-to-video Animaniacs movie that not enough people give due credit to), the Dexter’s Laboratory TV movie Ego Trip, and South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.  That is the kind of embarrassment of riches that proves that today’s animated landscape can do much, much better.  Quality-wise, it was a near-untouchable year.  Financially… ever been stuck with a group of people in a factory as the place burns to the ground around you but you’re all still working as hard as you can because you just know the boss is going to fire you if you’re not pumping out quality products, even whilst your livelihood is going up in smoke before your eyes?  I’d imagine that being somebody who worked in feature-length animation in 1999 was kind of like that.

1999 was the year of bombs.  Tarzan made money, Toy Story 2 made money and South Park rode a nice wave of “AN ANIMATED FILM THAT SAYS THE F WORD?! WON’T SOMEBODY PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!” to relatively decent financial success.  Everything else severely underwhelmed and most bombed hardFantasia 2000, primarily hobbled by Disney’s… interesting release strategy, only made a $10 million profit.  Doug’s 1st Movie opened in a landscape free and clear of any animated fare and still only made $5 million opening weekend before proceeding, like everything else released in April of 1999 regardless of whether they shared the same target audience, to be crushed by the enormous popularity of The Matrix (although I should point out that its planned direct-to-video nature meant that it actually closed after nearly quadrupling its budget).  The excretable The King & I (because even 1999 had to have one outright puke-stain) failed to make back even half of its miniscule $25 million budget.  And The Iron Giant, primarily thanks to incredible mismanagement by Warner Bros.’ distribution arm (rushed late Summer release with next to no advertising), crashed and burned at the box office so spectacularly that it all but shut down Warner Bros. Feature Animation (the only reason it didn’t is because the live-action/animation hybrids Osmosis Jones and Looney Tunes: Back In Action did even worse).

2000 would end up just as bad and, in addition to a pair of very notable Disney bombs in 2001 and 2002, spelt doom for traditional animation in feature-length films, but we shall address that situation fully in a month’s time when we reach it.  For now, let’s return to DreamWorks.  1998 was a very good year for the company with both of their debut films releasing to large box office success, critical adoration and, in one instance, an Academy Award.  Unfortunately, the previously-mentioned competitive desires of its CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg had left the company without a release for 1999.  The plan was for Antz to open in March of 1999 and for The Road To El Dorado to release in late ‘99.  Neither scenario came to pass, Antz due to the A Bug’s Life feud which I am officially done referencing in this series as of now, El Dorado because… well… production on this film was “troubled,” let’s put it that way.  Reports of changes of directors, changes of tone, changes in intended audience (this started off planned at a PG-13 level) changes of story (which is absolutely killer mid-production in animation as anybody with a brain can tell you) and that many of the people who were working on The Prince Of Egypt were also working on this at the same time paint the picture of a film that had sealed its own fate long before release.

Oh, and then there’s the trailer.  Tell me, does this look like the kind of film that you must go and see with your kids opening weekend?

So, unsurprisingly, the film opened soft in the first weekend of April: second place with $12 million.  And though it held rather steady over the following month (rarely dropping over 30% between weekends), it wasn’t a strong performer during the week and soft drops mean little if you opened poorly to begin with.  It closed at nearly $51 million in the US, half of what The Prince Of Egypt was able to accomplish just fifteen months prior, and took only half that in foreign markets.  To date, it is the only DreamWorks Animation film to not make its budget back.  Critics, meanwhile, weren’t kind.  They lambasted its generic looks, its safe and edgeless humour, its formulaic plot, the fact it it’s lightweight and has little going on thematically and, in one bizarre case from Empire magazine, the fact that the two lead heroes seemed more in love with each other than the woman that comes between them (in fact, it’s actually been rumoured that the original plan was for the film’s leads to be lovers with one another, before being dropped because this was the year 2000 and such a move was, and still is unfortunately, considered commercial suicide).  Plans to create a whole franchise out of the film were very quickly scrapped and history would seem to write this one off as complete and total failure.

History would be wrong to do so, though.  See, 90% of the time, films that are both critical and financial duds are duds for a reason.  But, on that rare other 10% of the occasion, they end up unfairly maligned and being bewildering passed over at the box office.  They’re gems that never really got a chance to prove themselves.  And I think I know why such a fate befell El Dorado.  See, critics adored Antz because it tackled weighty themes and they adored The Prince Of Egypt for being an epic realised in animated form with a tone befitting such ambitions.  Past DreamWorks Animations were, in a way, making a purposeful play for critical praise.  El Dorado instead was aiming to be a swashbuckling adventure throwback, a sort-of road trip flick, a buddy comedy and a crowd-pleasing blockbuster, all mashed-up and fed through the lens of a kiddie-fied version of Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King.  It’s not trying to be deep, it’s not trying to be weighty, it’s just trying to be fun.  Of course, DreamWorks had proven themselves to be more ambitious than this, so critics were going to see this as a step back.  No wonder they were so hard on it.  Marketing, meanwhile, took the lighter tone to mean a license to aim at the youngest kids only, despite the film’s humour hemming closer to buddy comedies that are more enjoyable by older kids and especially parents.  No wonder most people stayed away.

It’s all especially a shame because The Road To El Dorado is a really good movie.  Fun is a rather undervalued commodity by a lot of people, but El Dorado has it in spades.  Real fun, proper fun, not the kind of “fun” that Transformers and its ilk traffic in.  This is a film that moves fast, where barely a minute goes by without something funny happening in some way, where proceedings are kept super lightweight and anything that threatens to bring that mood into something darker is near-immediately distanced and the party is back on.  It’s a film that wants to show you a good time, for you to sit back and let the witticisms, chase scenes, cons and overall silliness just wash over you.  And it owns that totally, which is why it works so well.  Plus, you know, the buddy dynamic is dead-on and excellently pulled off.

If you’re a regular visitor of the site, you’ll be aware that I saw and reviewed The Nut Job this past weekend.  I bring this up because El Dorado’s leads are rather similar to the lead in that film: they’re selfish, jerk-ish criminals who only look out for one-another and have little time for performing good or heroic deeds, but who eventually grow consciences for various reasons (Miguel due to bonding with the people of El Dorado, Tulio due to falling for a young native woman by the name of Chel who wants in on their scam) and end up risking their big scores to do the right thing.  In The Nut Job, this approach fails totally and just ends up creating an unlikeable dill-weed whose late-game change-of-heart rings false.  But it ends up working for El Dorado.  Why?  Well, one of the reasons comes from the fact that the two don’t remain jerks until the 80% mark, the film does a very good job of showing them slowly developing a genuine care for the city they plan on robbing.  If you’re going to do character work, you need to actually keep at it throughout the film, make it a thing whose progress you can actually track, and El Dorado does that very well.

The other reason is because El Dorado’s leads, despite being con artists attempting to swindle a mythical city out of their riches, are extremely likeable and entertaining guys.  You can do less-morally inclined lead protagonists, but if you want us to actually like them you need to make them entertaining (there is a very good reason why Guardians Of The Galaxy just made all of the money, after all).  El Dorado was created with the intention of making the show-stealing wacky, witty, and less clean-cut sidekicks that you normally see in animated films the lead characters and it works gangbusters.  These are two extremely funny guys whose frenzied life-partner dynamic is nailed totally, by both the script and their voice actors.  Tulio is Kevin Kline, so this outcome should surprise no-one who has seen A Fish Called Wanda, Miguel is Sir Kenneth Branagh which, again, should mean that this outcome surprises no-one.  They, in a rare case for animated movies (schedules and all that), recorded their dialogue together at the same time in order to better sell the rhythm, cadence and delivery of the material, improv in places and, overall, just better capture the chemistry the pair are supposed to have.  If you’re wondering as to whether it worked or not, here is the second half of the first scene the duo appear in.

They are a fantastic comic duo whose every bicker-filled interaction is hilarious, so the fact that they don’t start the film as paragons of virtue doesn’t matter.  They’re selfish and terrible, but they’re endearing.  They’re entertaining, and the fact that they’re entertaining is what makes it easy to care about them and to enjoy spending time in their presence long before their character arcs and development kick in.  If a character is entertaining or interesting to watch, the audience won’t mind the fact that they’re not stand-up folks and, thusly, your attempts to get them to care about the character will work superbly.  And so it goes here.  The dynamic the duo share is expertly conveyed, that sense of how much their partnership matters to one another being why its eventual crumbling carries some actual emotional heft and why its eventual rebuilding leads to a finale that can leave viewers with smiles for days on end.

Since it so effortlessly nails the buddy dynamic of the equation, the rest of El Dorado basically falls into place without much of an issue.  The whole movie, which lasts a brisk 90 minutes with credits, moves at a phenomenal clip, enough to let the fun of the whole adventure easily take one over but not so much that it screws up the pacing of the character arcs or the quieter scenes.  Action scenes are breezy and filled with fun little character cues to keep them from just being spectacle.  The comedy is of a very high standard; most of it, after all, coming from anything our two leads say or do but still finding time for some great pieces of physical comedy or silent eye-rolling snarking from Altivo, the horse that ends up inadvertently tagging along with Tulio and Miguel.  Chel (voiced with maximum sass and snarkiness by Rosie Perez) doesn’t get much to do but is a very fun compliment and foil to the dynamic of the two leads, and El Dorado’s high priest Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante) is a good villain because the film knows how to pitch him; threatening when necessary but with a pathetic-ness and radical-to-a-fault devotion to human sacrifices that it can mine for comedy.

That being said, there are two little snags with El Dorado that can’t be traced back to its intended “Hey, folks!  We’re here to help you have fun!  Let’s all have all the fun!” nature.  The first is the animation.  It’s not bad, a large quantity of laughs come from a fantastic set of choices in regards to facial expressions, character poses and well-timed movements and framing.  What it is, though, in terms of raw quality, is average.  The colour palette is a bit muted, the scale never seems to be quite as big as the film wants it to be, there’s a lack of detail going about the backgrounds and props, and character designs themselves (with the exception of the lead duo and the “yes, they really did manage to get away with a PG for this” design for Chel) are rather uninspired and flat.  More problematic are the CG enhancements which are frequent and most have not aged well at all; the one decent one is early on with the barrels that the duo hide in.  Almost all of the gold is rendered in CG, with the team apparently writing an entirely new piece of software because they wanted the gold to look gold instead of a shade of yellow, and it just looks phoney.  Again, the film doesn’t look bad, especially where it counts for the comedy, just average and it’s especially bewildering since the film cost $25 million more than The Prince Of Egypt did and that still holds up as, in my opinion, one of the best looking animated films ever released 15 years on.

As for the other snag?  Well, this may get me lynched by some people, but the songs aren’t great.  I know, I know, “How DARE you insult the work of Elton John and Tim Rice!”  Look, their songs for The Lion King are iconic and exceptional, some of the best ever committed to a Disney film (and we all know that is saying a lot), I am not disputing that.  Unfortunately, that means that I have high standards for them, especially so when all of the ads heavily trumpet the fact that El Dorado has six new songs by the duo, and the songs in this film aren’t even in the same country as those standards.  They’re all just really, really forgettable and they really break up the pacing of the film.  Most of the time they back montages, which is understandable, but they end up causing the montages to run for way too long, as they kinda just kill time until the song finally winds itself up.  “Friends Never Say Goodbye” is a particular offender of this and also isn’t helped by being very noticeably on-the-nose lyrically.  They’re not terrible, they’re just highly unnecessary, over-long and not good enough to make up for those facts.

The Road To El Dorado, like many actually great films that go unappreciated by critics and the general public at the time of their release, has managed to attain a sort of cult classic status on the Internet, where the art of animation and cartoons are taken very seriously indeed, and I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t relieved at that development.  It really does deserve a fairer re-evaluation by people, people who realise that a fun rollicking buddy-focussed adventure romp isn’t something to look down on and who haven’t been turned off by poor marketing (it even seems like some people at Disney were paying attention; think of Flynn and Maximus the horse in Tangled).  It doesn’t set any worlds on fire, it’s about as deep as the shallow end of a kiddie pool, and its animation isn’t exactly world-class, but The Road To El Dorado is damn great at what it aims to do: be fun.  It perfectly nails down the core relationship between Tulio and Miguel and, as a result, the rest of the film and the fun effortlessly slot into place to create a silly, breezy and highly entertaining 90 minutes.  It has no pretensions at being anything more than it is and I really appreciate and admire that kind of honesty in my films.  Honesty that I’m going to borrow because, frankly, the reason I really enjoyed this movie, and why it is way better than reputation suggests, is simply the fact that it is a tonne of fun and, sometimes, that’s all that one wants.  It’s a shame that audiences and critics circa 2000 didn’t seem to.


An undeserved failure with critics and the general public, El Dorado may have caused Katzenberg and the staff at DreamWorks Animation to get a little hot under the collar about their possible long-term staying power.  Fortunately, this was not the only film that they were involved in in the year 2000 and their next film, co-produced with a cult British animation studio, would give them the financial and critical praise that El Dorado lacked.  The animation studio: Aardman.  The film: Chicken Run.  Next week, we’ll take a good long look at the first of DreamWorks’ three collaborations with the creators of Wallace & Gromit.

A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!

Callum Petch got a taste of love in a simple way.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

A Decade In Film: The Noughties – 2000

The first in a new series of articles where  Failed Critics contributors look back on a particular decade in the world of cinema, choose their favoruite films from each year of that decade, and give us a little insight into the legacy those years have left us.

As this is Gerry’s (from the Failed Critics podcasts) own idea, he’s nabbed the noughties. Today he counts down his favourite films from 2000.

5. Meet the Parents

A remake of an independent film from 1992 and essentially little more than a comedy about families, Meet the Parents is somehow greater than the sum of its parts. Ben Stiller is his usual self and brings some good laughs, but it’s Robert De Niro who is the real star here with a wonderful comedic performance. It hasn’t aged as well perhaps as the likes of American Pie and Zoolander but these are situations we can all empathise with and it is this universality that makes it so consistently funny.

It’s more slapstick and slightly less gross-out than the other comedies of that era, making it more of a family-friendly and arguably complete film than most of its ilk. The sequels which followed it never quite reached these heights but it’s always worth a watch and at the very least helped inspire American Dad, Family Guy’s sister show.

4. Battle Royale

Brutal, violent and shocking, Battle Royale somehow manages to be genuinely thought-provoking despite its subject matter. Now a cult classic, it tells the tale of a class of high-schoolers who are forced to battle it out to the death on a remote island by their sadistic teacher, the iconic Takeshi Kitano.

The obvious inspiration for The Hunger Games, the film and the novel it was adapted from sparked massive controversies both in Japan and worldwide, with the Japanese Parliament trying to ban both. They succeeded only in generating more interest and the film has become one of the most successful in Japanese cinema history. Tarantino counts it as the only of the films released since the beginning of his career that he wishes he had made, and there is certainly a Tarantino-esque flair for combining violence with social commentary.

The Hunger Games made a big splash this year and James talked about this genre here. In my opinion this is basically a far superior original that was copied and made for Western consumption by Suzanne Collins 9 years after the Japanese novel’s release (Collins denies copying Battle Royale, for the record). If you’ve seen the Hunger Games and not this, go and rectify this immediately. Harrowing but brilliant, Battle Royale is that rarest of things – a violent action thriller with a deeper message that’s well communicated.

3. Snatch

Building on the success of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Guy Ritchie’s frantic cockney gangster film managed to combine comedy and brutal violence so perfectly that he practically spawned a new sub-genre. The cast is large and features the likes of Brad Pitt as an Irish-gypsy boxer and everyone’s favourite platform diver Jason Statham (seriously, look it up – he doesn’t just bang hot models you know) among many others. Ritchie’s supreme ability to manage such a large cast and juggle so many sub-plots is what makes the film so outstanding – all the characters end up being well developed and the world created is utterly believable.

Visually, the film is also great – fast paced, brilliantly edited and with an almost constantly moving camera. Whilst the film is very similar to its predecessor, the characters are brilliant enough to distinguish themselves, even if some of the actors are the same. With a whipping 163 usages of the F-word, Snatch’s dialogue could have been crude and boring; instead, it is consistently funny and created a cult following whose only downside is that your mate always quotes the film to you in certain situations. Must-see viewing for all Brits and surprisingly successful across the pond, this film helped put British cinema back on the map. Takings of £12m+ domestically and $30m+ in the US, from a £3m budget, certainly helped make our filmmakers an attractive proposition for studios.

2. Memento

Christopher Nolan’s mind-boggling thriller was made for just $5,000,000 and was only his second feature-length outing. Having garnered a lot of critical acclaim following its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, the film was a major success around Europe when it was released towards the end of the year; however the project struggled to find a US distributor initially and was passed up by the likes of Harvey Weinstein at Miramax. Once the film found a distributor and made its way onto US screens in March 2001, eventually grossing $25,000,000, Weinstein and his pals realised their mistake. Nolan hasn’t struggled for work since and went on to make some brilliant blockbusters.

The plot is complex, as Guy Pearce’s Leonard tries to overcome his amnesia and discover who murdered his wife. Running two strands of the storyline parallel to each other, with one moving in normal chronological order and the other in reverse, was a brave decision which put off the likes of Weinstein. It paid off massively. Memento was a breath of fresh air and managed to find the right balance of complexity, thoughtfulness and thrills.

I’m quite a fan of Nolan, as most of the world seems to be now, but I still think this is one of his finest films. I probably even prefer it to Batman Begins, and as you know I’m a big Batman fan. Accomplished, compelling and innovative, Memento launched the career of one of the biggest figures in the industry today with very good reason.

1. Gladiator

If one film dominated the box office in 2000, it was Ridley Scott’s swords and sandals epic. Russell Crowe is iconic as Maximus, Joaquin Phoenix is brilliantly sinister and scheming as Commodus, and Connie Nielsen is captivating as his sister Lucilla. It’s the casting outside of the three main protagonists where I think Gladiator really excels though – Oliver Reed famously died during filming and some scenes were added using CGI, but he’s absolutely fantastic throughout; Marcus Aurelius is played convincingly by Richard Harris; Djimon Hounsou launched his career off the back of his turn as Juba, Maximus’ companion in the arena. The characters have become so recognisable thanks to the excellent performances of all the cast.

That said, this was not an easy shoot by all accounts. Harris, at 70, could not be bothered to learn new lines when re-writes were made, although he reportedly became good friends with Crowe. Reed, on the other hand, is purported to have offered Crowe out at one stage having taken an instant dislike to the gruff Australian. Similarly, Crowe emulated Harrison Ford in clashing frequently with director Scott and the writers, and criticising the dialogue (as James mentioned on a recent podcast). The schedule was punishing and shoots went on so long that the film was altered significantly by the long days: the blurring in the opening battle sequence was necessitated by the light running out and everyone being too tired to come back again the next day, while the usage of CGI to replace Reed was preferred to going back and shooting scenes again by the now exhausted crew.

Despite all these difficulties, Gladiator is a cinematic triumph. Shying away from the clichés of the genre such as the Emperor languishing in a chair being fed grapes, Scott nevertheless builds on classic elements from films such as Ben Hur and gives them a vibrancy and reality that those productions never achieved. This Rome feels real, gritty, crawling with corruption, greed and malice. The North African setting looks dusty, hot and uncomfortable, the sets look lived-in rather than freshly constructed. The battle scenes are amongst the best I have ever seen and have set a benchmark, in my view, for all that has followed. We’ve probably all seen it, we all know it won 5 Oscars and it’s one of the most quoted and spoofed films in recent history, but we can’t forget just how great Gladiator is. Undoubtedly the best film of 2000.

Honourable mentions:

American Psycho
Amores Perros
Billy Elliot
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Road Trip