Tag Archives: animation

Moana

moana

“Don’t you want to be the hero?”

As much as it may force me to sacrifice one of my man cards (I’m a massive, tattooed, bearded, former cage fighter; I can spare a couple), I can’t help but love Disney animated films. I adored Zootropolis earlier in the year. Not because it tries to cure all forms of xenophobia with a cute bunny, but because it was a fun film to watch. To spend a couple of hours every other week for a couple of months watching it in the cinema with my three year old was an awesome way to spend my Saturday mornings.

It’s also the only film this year who’s cinema trips comes close to the number of times I saw Deadpool.

So now the House of Mouse have squeezed in a second feature for the year, screwing up my favourite animations list for the upcoming Failed Critics awards and, possibly, thrown a wrench in the works for certain other upcoming rewards.

Moana is the strong headed teenage daughter of a tribal chief on a Polynesian island. Having discovered “The Heart of Te Fiti” as a toddler on the beach, Moana finds herself as the one person, chosen by the ocean itself, whose destiny is to travel across the seas to find a long missing demigod, Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). Foregoing the responsibilities of being a future chief, the young girl follows what she believes is her destiny and heads out to the open ocean to find the shapeshifting god that can save her tribe’s island from dying.

But her travels aren’t easy, and even once she’s found the banished god amongst men, the journey to return the Heart to its rightful place is wrought with danger and the unlikely pair must learn to work together so Moana can save her people and Maui can be the hero he wants to be.

First things first. I went to see this film having read more than one review that said the Maui’s musical number “You’re Welcome” is a song to rival “Friend Like Me” from 1993’s Aladdin. I’ll be honest, this put my back up a little bit and I rolled into the screening already on the defensive. Between being my favourite animated movie ever, and having a real personal and emotional connection with almost all of Robin Williams’ comedy works, I was ready to tear this film apart.

But I can’t. It’s just amazing.

No, the song doesn’t compare with Williams’ musical numbers. But Johnson’s Maui (not Maui’s Johnson – that’s the Brazzers XXX parody you’re looking for) is easily the best sidekick SINCE the Genie.

Another strong female character for Disney, Moana is immensely fun to watch and cheer for. She’s not infallible and she’s not the smartest kid on the block, but to watch her grow up in front of us is awesome. She grows from simply being a hotheaded kid to someone who doesn’t just get done what she needs to get done, but learns about herself, her path and her destiny along the way. Guided by not much more than her gut and her determination, to see this youngster succeed is an absolute pleasure.

Like the Genie before him, Maui – and his tattoos – steal the show. This cocky, arrogant, cheeky demigod is simply The Rock’s personality transplanted to the magical hero. Maui is what drives the story forward. Painted like a bad guy by Moana’s tribe, when we finally meet him and his story is revealed, we get to see the big man – this God on Earth – as a humbled hero looking to prove himself not just to the world, but to himself as well. You can only get so far on confidence alone and we see Maui grow almost as much as we see Moana. I mean, there’s almost certainly some dry-humping do-gooder out there complaining that the representation of the demigod plays to overweight Samoan stereotypes, but screw those guys. He looks cool!

Maui’s history is told through his tattoos, a gorgeous traditional Polynesian design that the hero talks to. Marked by the gods every time he does something to earn one, his ink is a storyboard of his life that includes more than one depiction of the man himself. It’s this silhouette that Maui talks to, argues with, and he brings a huge amount of laughs with his relationship with his tattooed self. The pokes, prods and insults that our hero suffers at the hands of his tattoos are an absolute show stealer.

The bottom line, Moana isn’t a film with as strong and serious an undercurrent as Zootropolis. But it is a story with a point. It’s a story about a strong woman proving she’s strong. It’s a story about a strong headed woman pushing back against a culture that tries to stifle her. More than anything else, it’s a fun, feel good family adventure with laughs aplenty for kids and adults alike.

It’s an exhilarating 100 minutes that I’m genuinely looking forward to sharing with the wife and kid once it hits general release. I dare you to give me a better measure of a movie than one you’re excited to share with the family.

Moana is released in cinemas nationwide on Friday 2nd December.

Inside Out

Inside Out is beautiful.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

inside outI’ve sat here for the last three hours trying to figure out how to start this review.  See, Inside Out is a fantastic movie – that much is not up for debate.  It’s not only the best Pixar movie released this decade, it might genuinely be the best thing that they have ever done.  It’s certainly their most emotional and their most emotionally honest, no surprise given that the film’s director and main creative force is Up and Monsters, Inc. director Pete Docter whose work is characterised by emotional honesty and an uncanny ability to zero in exactly on everyone’s weak-spots.  This is quite possibly the best film that I have seen all year, and if it hasn’t bested Mad Max: Fury Road then it is right up there.

It’s also a film that gains a lot of its power from my own emotional baggage.  This is a film that is fantastic as a movie in many objective ways, but it’s also a film that connected with me so thoroughly, so totally, and so attuned to myself that my opinions and thoughts on it are mostly informed by that fact.  In other words: this film is amazing by itself, but it is transcendental to me because of my various issues and experiences.  So, to properly explain that, I would have to talk about this film and myself in-depth for a very prolonged stretch of time: both no-nos in the world of film reviewing.

Therefore, you can expect this review to be much less in-depth, and much shorter, than my other animation reviews because I’m going to stick to surface-level criticism and analysis.  By which I mean, why the film is a fantastic film.  For those of you who do care about why I love the film as much as I do, there will be a spoiler-filled and very personal post on my own new website – callumpetch.com, tell your friends – later in the week where I will engage in all of the writer no-nos in an attempt to properly explain how the film connected with me and why I put it right up there with Fury Road.  That all OK?  If not, too bad, I’m the one writing this stuff.

So, Inside Out.  Now, normally when we label an animated feature as small-scale, what we mean is that the main cast is smaller than usual and that the stakes are slightly more personal than usual.  Look at something like Big Hero 6.  Most of that movie pivots around Hiro and Baymax, and the main stakes come from Hiro working through his grief.  However, the film still has a rather large secondary cast, the stakes outside of Hiro’s emotional state are much wider-reaching, and the film still has multiple large-scale action beats and setpieces.  In a way, Big Hero 6 is a small-scale film, but in many respects it’s not that much different from your standard big studio animated movies nowadays, that often trade more and more on bigness.

Not so with Inside Out.  Pete Docter’s newest masterpiece commits completely to that small-scale, utilising it to wrestle with big concepts and never once succumbing to the requirements of The Big Studio Animated Family Feature Factory.  Throughout Inside Out, the stakes remain deeply personal and the events on screen reflect it.  When 11 year-old Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias) finds herself uprooted without warning from her lovely home and life in Minnesota to inner-San Francisco by her parents, her emotions, led by Joy (Amy Poehler), try and help her adjust to this change.  Things swiftly go wrong, however, when Sadness (Phyllis Smith) accidentally turns a joyous core memory sad and, in the chaos, she and Joy are ejected from Riley’s headquarters with all of the core memories.  Dumped into Long-Term Memory, the pair have to make their way back whilst Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader) attempt to perform damage control since Riley can no longer feel Joy or Sadness.

Essentially, the stakes are purely about whether Riley can avoid emotionally shutting down now that she’s been forced away by circumstances beyond her control from her enjoyable life.  There is no villain, no purposefully antagonistic force – one would think that Anger or Disgust would work to make Riley’s life hell but, in reality, they’re just trying their best to stand in for Joy – and there is no one major specific event that brings this issue to light.  It’s all the little things – the disappointment in a new house, the loneliness that comes from not knowing anyone, the discovery that your friends’ lives don’t stop once you leave them, finding out that your new nearby pizza place makes garbage food – that slowly break someone down as they struggle to adjust.  How someone who has spent most of the best moments of their life feeling happy struggles to understand that feeling sad and showing that you feel sad are not bad things.

Those are the stakes, that’s the scale, and Inside Out commits completely to them.  There’s no giant threatening outside force, there’s no big action-packed finale.  This is a quiet melancholy tale about emotional maturation, and specifically the emotional maturation of a young girl as represented via a look at her cute and often funny little emotions.  The film is funny – it has many gut-busters and ends on what will quite frankly be the funniest gag I see in any film this year – and it has many utterly inspired scenarios and usages for its central conceit of a glimpse into one’s brain, but it is primarily this low-key story about a serious subject and it never once contradicts or downplays that in favour of big setpiece sequences or excess melodrama.

Instead, the film hits upon something real and never loses sight of that kind of honesty.  It never pulls its punches, never sugarcoats anything, and that leads to some of the most emotionally affecting sequences in Pixar’s history.  Because they’re working so close to reality, and only very slightly dressing it up with distancing parallels – like how Monsters, Inc. uses monsters and scaring as a parallel for our natural resources, or (more relatedly) how Toy Story uses the toys we played with as a kid to look at growing up – there ends up being this unavoidable directness with how it handles these vital sequences, and the fact that it never plays a single one of these as anything other than these quiet moments of important realisation and self-improvement adds to that.  The most drastic action that Riley takes is still befitting that intimate feel, raising the stakes but not in an excessively dramatic way.

And that abounds throughout.  From the way that Joy and the others treat Sadness because they don’t understand her necessity, to the way that the film is always on Sadness’ side even when it’s mining her for quality jokes, to the way that the film keeps its focus locked firmly on Riley and her headspace – it only steps into the heads of other characters once during the movie itself, before using that idea during the credits for a series of rapid-fire gags to send the audience home happy – to the way that the film is able to take advantage of things like how Riley’s dreams are made but doesn’t outstay its welcome in them.  Every aspect of this film has clearly been carefully deliberated on to achieve that balance between realistic and distancing buffer, fun joy and heartbreaking sadness.  It’s a perfectly melancholy movie whose tight personal view is never once sacrificed for any reason.

That’s why Inside Out works.  There’s also some outstanding voice work – especially from Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith – some gorgeous animation, and another brilliant score by Michael Giacchino (who just always seems to create his best work when associated with Pixar), but those are really by-products of Pete Docter nailing that scale and tone.  By remaining small-scale throughout, by remaining openly emotional throughout, and by remaining honest and upfront about the subject that it is handling throughout (because it would have been so easy to put in some kind of antagonistic force in order dilute the emotional potency), he and the entire team at Pixar have created one truly mesmerising piece of cinema.

This is the kind of film that puts most grown-up dramas about emotional wellbeing to shame, this is the kind of film that proves what animation is capable of, this is either the best or the second-best film that I have seen all year.  Inside Out is not optional.  This is mandatory viewing.  Go and see this movie right the hell now.

Callum Petch is waking up feeling good and limber.  He now writes primarily for his own website, callumpetch.com.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

The Problem With Illumination

…and, in fact, most animation studios in general.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

illuminationBy now, you should have been able to read my review of Illumination Entertainment’s Minions.  If you haven’t read it yet then firstly shame on you and why do you not want me to become successful?  But, in any case, here are the cliff-notes: it’s really funny, I had a load of fun, Scarlet Overkill is amazing, and the Minions themselves are still wonderful comic creations.  I really liked Minions.  Still do, in fact, despite whatever I end up typing in this article.  However, a nagging realisation has stuck with me since I got out of the film and it’s something that concerns me for the studio’s future.

I can’t really tell you what the difference is between Illumination and every wannabe-DreamWorks pretender to come along since the mid-2000s.

I mean, yeah, Illumination has Despicable Me, and that’s all well and good, but somebody asked me on Twitter whether they’d enjoy Minions as the humour of Despicable Me turned them off of those films and I honestly drew a blank when trying to describe what exactly was so special about the Despicable Me humour.  I’ve spent the last few hours re-watching clips of both films to try and figure out what makes the Despicable Me brand, in comparison to any other animated brand out there, and the most I can come up with is that it’s willing to be a bit more openly cartoony than most other animated features.  Sure, its character designs – and therefore, if the designs of The Lorax and the upcoming The Secret Life of Pets are anything to go by, the standard character designs of Illumination in general – are distinctive and unmistakeable, but that’s really all that makes Illumination stand out from the field.

Again, I really like Minions and I really liked Despicable Me 2 when I saw it, but I still can’t tell you what separates them from ten-hundred other American animated features desperate to become the next best thing, besides the fact that they’re really damn good at what they do.  The one thing that does sort of separate them, slightly wackier humour than is usual in today’s animated features, is even running the risk of being outdone by Sony Pictures Animation if Hotel Transylvania 2 is able to deliver on the promise that the underwhelming first film had – since that and the Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs series might finally change the studio’s reputation to something other than “Those People Who Helped Make TWO Abominable Smurfs Movies”.

Instead, they’re still just yet another animation studio making family films in a medium already drowning in animation studios making family films.  For example, tell me something that makes Hop different from any number of similarly-awful live-action/CGI hybrids from the mid-2000s besides the fact that this one paid Russell Brand money to voice act.  Anything at all.  This is an animation studio that managed to turn Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, a brilliant low-key cautionary tale about the dangers of excessive deforestation, into another loud whizz-bang CG animation that’s nearly indistinguishable from anything released in, say, 2007.

Just over a week ago, Illumination released the trailer for their next film, The Secret Life of Pets, which you can view above.  I really, really dug it.  It may have reigned in the wacky cartoony-ness of the Despicable Me humour significantly, but it also couched that in reality.  This was a trailer that got most of its laughs through exaggerating observations and ideas that we have about our pets, and its short little vignette form allowed it to maintain the quick pace that Minions has.  It probably wouldn’t be sustainable if it were a feature film exactly like this, but it’s a strong basis and, even with the usage of pop music (although I do appreciate the leftfield choices of Basement Jaxx and System Of A Down), it has a unique feel and personality that’s decidedly lower-key than most of today’s animation.

Then I read the film’s plot synopsis.  This is taken straight from Wikipedia.

Taking place in a Manhattan apartment building, Max’s life as a favorite pet is turned upside down, when his owner brings home a sloppy mongrel named Duke. They have to put their quarrels behind, when they find out that an adorable white bunny named Snowball is building an army of abandoned pets determined to take revenge on all happily-owned pets and their owners.

If you’re anything like me, your heart and enthusiasm promptly sank about 12 feet once you finished reading that.  It just bugs and irritates the hell out of me to see a film with as much unique and original potential the The Secret Life of Pets’ first trailer showcased, instead turn out to be – or, I should actually say, appear to be, since who knows how the actual film will turn out – an animated version of Cats & Dogs, with the blueprint of a million other animated films buried in it, especially Toy Story.  It could still be a great version of that loud whizz-bang CG animated family feature, but I’m tired of studios not trying to carve out an identity beyond “We make loud whizz-bang CG animated family features”.

I mean, it makes sense that Illumination have yet to establish a unique brand and voice, their founder is Chris Meledandri.  From the early to late 2000s, he was the President of 20th Century Fox’s Animation department, with him being a big part of the early years of Blue Sky Studios, another animation company who – despite having released films for the last 13 years – have still yet to carve out an identity besides “We make loud whizz-bang CG animated family features”.  That’s especially a problem because Blue Sky’s debut feature, Ice Age, actually did have a unique and distinctive voice and identity of its own, being more melancholy and reflective and (slightly) mature than other films that came along then and since, before the sequels (and everything else the studio has ever done) proceeded to stamp out the unique parts in favour of ridiculous cartoony spectacle.  WHICH IS FINE, but it means that I have yet to see a Blue Sky movie that has truly stuck with me besides that original Ice Age, because their films, even Epic’s attempt at an action-fantasy, don’t do anything that a hundred other animated features aren’t already doing.

That means that, in the 13 years that Blue Sky Studios have been releasing movies, they still don’t have any unique or discernible identity besides “That Animation Studio 20th Century Fox Owns”.  That makes them the studio equivalent of Silly Putty, they can mould and shape themselves into whatever they want to but they’ll never be their own unique thing because they’re too indebted to everyone else to have their own identity – which I guess does make them the perfect folks to make The Peanuts Movie after all (side note: PLEASE DON’T SUCK).  Blue Sky have had 13 years to break out of that mould, and they’ve instead continued to settle for being Another One in a sea of likeminded competitors.

But, really, this is more just a problem with animated films in general, right now.  Animation is a medium and therefore capable of so many things, so many stories, and so many genres.  Yet American and British feature animation, and the foreign ones that manage to get a release in English-speaking countries, is resolutely family and kid-oriented, to tie back into that post-1950 belief that animation is only for children.  But it’s patently untrue, the booming TV animation market should have dispelled that notion, yet we very, very rarely get adult or even teenage feature animation – the last one that got a wide release (which I classify as over 1,000 theatres) was 2009’s unfairly underrated 9, a PG-13 action-adventure that unfortunately bombed majorly because, well, animation is for kids, right?

It’s basically a self-perpetuating problem.  Feature animation is in a sort of rut – and I want to specify the “sort of” because some outstanding and all-time great animated features are being made and released – because it believes that feature animation is only “loud whizz-bang CG family features”, a belief reinforced by a public who reject anything adult that isn’t tied to a recognisable property (hence why The Simpsons Movie was a mega-success) but keep flinging money at these mostly interchangeable films – in writing this article, I discovered that Ice Age 3 and 4 have made $897 million and $887 million worldwide respectively – which undoubtedly prevents these studios from creating their own unique identities because, hey, why turn away free money?  And with foreign dollars being ever so important in today’s filmmaking landscape, and slapstick and spectacle translating flawlessly no matter the language, this probably isn’t going to change any time soon.

That’s ultimately a shame, because animation is capable of so much more than this, yet right now I honestly can’t tell you much of difference between any of the animated features that are not put out by Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, Laika, or Aardman, and only Laika of those five is less than twenty years old.  Animation studios need to carve out their own different identities, they need to aim to create something special, something unique.  There really isn’t much separating Blue Sky Studios and Illumination Entertainment, at the moment, and this is not how things should be.  Blue Sky have been around for 13 years, so they’re rather set in their ways and identity by now.  Illumination are barely half a decade old.  It’s not too late.

Callum Petch can’t live on, live on without you.  Listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio (site link) and follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Minions

Minions is a precision-tuned, finely-honed, 91 minute joke machine.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

minionsThe best parts of the otherwise middling Despicable Me, which I’ve never quite gotten as a whole in the same way everybody else seems to have, were the Minions.  I mean, what’s not to love about the Minions?  Their design is simple yet distinctive and adorable, their collectively simplistic and mischievous personalities are endearing, Pierre Coffin’s voice work – that combines words of various languages and straight up babbling into nonsense sentences – of each Minion is stellar, and they’re home to the film’s best examples of ridiculous physical comedy.  They’re great comic inventions, so it makes sense that the second Despicable Me would double down on their screen time and that they would eventually, much like their Madagascar counterparts in the form of The Penguins, get their own solo spin-off movie.

It also stands to reason that their appeal would run out quickly when turned from minor comic show-stealers to vital part of the plot to main stars of their own movie.  However, much like The Penguins, that’s yet to happen.  Despicable Me 2 was far better than the first movie, although the increased Minions screen-time is not the sole or even main reason for that, and Minions manages to keep up that comic momentum for pretty much all of its 91 minutes.  Unlike the Penguins of Madagascar movie, Minions is not a film that wants to add legitimate emotional depth to its comic creations, barring one small little scene cribbed straight from The Land Before Time.  Instead, it just wants to turn them loose for 91 straight minutes of loud, ridiculous slapstick silliness.

And that’s OK, because it works!  Or, at least, it worked for me.  There are some lame gags, namely whenever the Minions break out into choreographed song-and-dance routines, but most come thick, fast, and with a resounding cleverness and intelligence to the way it performs its slapstick.  The rhythm and pacing of the film’s comedy is such that film almost never lingers on any punchline for an excessive amount of time, perhaps best epitomised by a short gag where the Minions escape from a polar bear by swimming away on a sheet of ice only to immediately try turning around when they spot a grizzly bear on the other side of the lake, with the film cutting to a different scene almost as soon as the second bear is revealed instead of holding it for diminishing laughs.

That kind of blistering pace is kept up throughout the film.  Don’t like this one joke?  Don’t worry, another 7 will be along in a few seconds, maybe one of those will take your fancy instead!  The story – which, for what it’s worth, involves Minions Kevin, Stuart, and Bob (all Pierre Coffin) trekking off to find a boss for their kind to serve, stumbling into the life of female supervillain Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock) in the process – zips by as a result, being the launching pad for the gags instead of anything worthy of proper scrutiny, and any and all attempts at creating legitimate emotional depth will be undercut at every last opportunity by one gag or another.  Again, this would be a problem if the film wasn’t riotously funny, but I found it to be, I was in hysterics pretty much the entire time.

Strangely though, for me, the Minions almost end up being upstaged in their own movie by the supporting cast.  By its prequel nature, Minions gets the chance to explore the world of villainy more than both of the Despicable Me movies have been able to, which allows for a whole bunch of utterly ridiculous gag characters to make brief appearances – a time-travelling villain who keeps bringing his future self back for menial tasks, a prideful sumo wrestler, a unicycle-riding clown who juggles and spills bombs, one beautifully brilliant bait-and-switch that I don’t plan on spoiling here.  Their appearances are short but memorable and, although the film still doesn’t dig as deep into its world as I would like for it to do, they help shade in the world, make it feel like there is a world outside of our otherwise limited cast.

Which brings me onto Scarlet Overkill.  I love Scarlet Overkill.  I love everything about Scarlet Overkill.  I love her initial owning of her sexuality.  I love her amazing fashion sense.  I love her driven personality that starts off as affable and slowly goes more crazed and straight up evil as the Minions keep inadvertently screwing up her plans.  I love her wonderfully exaggerated facial expressions and body language.  I love Sandra Bullock’s slowly-unhinging voice work.  I love her relationship with her husband Herb (Jon Hamm), a relationship that is shown to be rock solid and filled with genuine devotion, in a sharp contrast to how most marriages are shown in movies, yet doesn’t fully define her life.  I love how much the film is willing to make her the butt of the joke and how funny she gets to be.  I love how she doesn’t command the film despite being, arguably, the best thing about it.  …I just think that she’s an amazing character, basically.

Animation-wise, Minions sticks to the Illumination standard, with simple yet endearing character designs in very good yet not amazing environments.  That said, Minions does show Illumination making strides in terms of technical strength, even if they still haven’t quite carved out an identity of their own yet.  Specifically, I really like the film’s commitment to shading.  Rather than working entirely from primary versions of the film’s various yellows and oranges, Illumination instead utilises different strengths of each colour to create this warm, comfortable glow that’s most noticeable when Kevin and Stuart are searching for Bob in a New York shopping mall.  It almost feels like a warm nostalgic filter that works very well for the 1968 setting, but also keeps the visual style from being a garish technicolour overload.

As much as I found myself laughing at Minions, though, I did also find myself missing that emotional undercurrent that could have pushed the film into being fantastic instead of just great.  Again, the film proceeds to undercut any attempt at legitimate emotional depth with a gag at any time; even the collective depression of the Minion tribe is played for ridiculous laughs instead of anything we’re supposed to take seriously, whilst the bond between Kevin and Stuart and Bob mostly just comes down to ‘these three share screen-time together’.  That is all fine because, again, the film is funny enough to make this a non-major issue, but I recalled how Penguins of Madagascar was able to foster a legitimate emotional depth and connection between its main protagonists and how pulling that off managed to push that film into being one of last year’s best animated features.  So I ended up a little disappointed in that not being the case here, especially since one of the reasons why Despicable Me 2 was such an improvement from the first one was because that emotional grounding was there.

Nevertheless, and despite it still not painting enough of a distinct or unique identity for Illumination to capitalise on in future films (more on that later this week), I really enjoyed Minions.  I’d been having a really miserable past few weeks prior to walking into the film, and so all I wanted it to do was make me laugh and cheer me up.  I just wanted something to laugh at for 91 minutes, I wanted what the film was selling me.  And I did.  A lot.  I laughed from the opening credits, that trace the origin and evolution of the Minion species, right up until the close, where it ties the whole story back into the standard Despicable Me series far quicker than I thought it would.  That is all I wanted, and that is exactly what I got, so I am more than satisfied with Minions.

Callum Petch made the scene, week to week, day to day, hour to hour.  Listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio (site link) and follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Moomins On The Riviera

Moomins on the Riviera is willing to be different, so it’s worth your time.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

moominsI can’t sit here and tell you that I particularly enjoyed Moomins on the Riviera.  Not in the usual “I am invested totally in this and believe this world and love these characters and find this entertaining and even somewhat funny” way, in any case.  The fact of the matter is that I laughed, in any capacity, about maybe 3 times throughout the entire film, and that I still rather tired of it at about the hour mark of its 80 minute runtime.  In the traditional sense, I didn’t really enjoy Moomins.

But that said… I do rather like it.

If you’ve been following this website and/or myself for the past few years, you’ll know that I get through a lot of animation and, in fact, I make it my mission to see every last one that comes out in cinemas regardless of quality.  Therefore, I have seen a lot of mediocre-to-bad animated features in my time, mostly by non-major studios.  See, what they, and most foreign animations that get a wide release, fail to do is craft out unique identities of their own.  They instead settle for mediocrity and sloppily adhering to formula or just plain copying the more successful companies in the hopes that the successful money will magically roll down to them.  Hell, I basically just got done ripping into Two By Two for this two weeks back!

Moomins, however, opts to carve out its own distinct identity, refusing to conform to modern animation trends and desiring to be different.  Most obviously, there’s the fact that this is a traditionally-animated feature, handled expertly by Sandman Animation, instead of CG.  Already this film is in my good graces as I am a sucker for traditional animation, but that alone is not the reason why Moomins looks so great.  It is, after all, very simply designed and is mainly powered through limited-animation.  Instead, it’s the design and colour of the world that makes that work so.  Everything in the film is drawn with such a charming simplicity, from the characters to the environments to the rain to even crowds of people, a lack of extraneous details, that it makes a refreshing change from the busy “everything everywhere all at once” nature of most modern animation.

That’s not mentioning the colouring, though, which is the film’s visual trump card.  The palette is very relaxingly warm, lots of oranges mixing effortlessly with whites and blues, with clever shading adding definition to the world and differentiating between certain buildings and background characters subtly but brilliantly.  It’s a relaxing colour palette, too, that accurately communicates and portrays the low-key soft nature that the film is going for.  It builds an identity beyond the fact that it’s traditionally animated, feeling decidedly newspaper comic-strip-y (which is where the characters come from but which I have no prior experience with, I must admit), and the fact that it commits to that simple and rather minimalist nature the whole way through is to be applauded.

That low-key identity carries over into the non-visual elements of the film, too.  Moomins on the Riviera is very low-key in everything – there’s only one chase, all lines of dialogue are delivered in this consciously soft manner, and the jokes are simple but understated, even delivering physical comedy in an incredibly quiet and deadpan manner.  More importantly, Moomins is a weird film.  It’s so low-key, so quietly innocuous and deadpan in the way that it delivers its material, that it can flit from everything from the Moomins electing to live on the bed of their large expensive hotel room, to a rich aristocrat who just wants to live like a penniless bohemian artist who only sculpts elephants, to a group of pirates who appear in the film’s first 10 minutes and then are never seen again, and yet still feel like a cohesive film.

The tone is so off-beat, so low-key, so deadpan that I have to admit a fondness for it even though I was never really truly entertained by the film – especially since some of its cast, specifically the nasally and massively unlikeable Little My and the unbearably shallow and irritating Snorkmaiden, are far too often not pleasant to watch.  The feature-length animation landscape outside of The Big Three – still Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks until Illumination are able to launch a good non-Despicable Me film – is mostly too generic and interchangeable, filled with soulless imitators or risk-averse opportunists.  Hell, even The Big Three have got distinct brands by this point that they don’t try breaking out of enough.  To have a film like Moomins come along with such a distinct and off-beat personality, even if it doesn’t quite work for me, is a legitimate breath of fresh air that I have to respect.

Therefore, I’m willing to give Moomins on the Riviera a passing grade and recommend you all give it a try.  I can’t guarantee that you’ll like or enjoy it, but it is something different and we should encourage different, especially something different that commits totally to and succeeds at that something different, even if it’s not completely to my tastes.  Again, I didn’t really enjoy the film, but I do rather like it and it’s unlike most animated fare out there nowadays.

Callum Petch has still got a losing streak.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Two By Two

Despite a decent premise and above-average animation, Two By Two is content to be as formulaic and uninteresting as humanly possible.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

twobytwoI’m struggling to think of an animated film released this decade that has uglier main character designs than the ones that Two By Two sports.  Not the animals that still exist today, save for the King lion who has a really distracting quiff because nobody remembered how bad it looked on Alec Baldwin Lion from Madagascar 2, those all look fine, although they do suffer from the film’s excess colour palette.  The film’s main characters, however, are not real species of animal, so the film’s designers get free reign with regards to their design.

And, oh hell, are they ever unpleasant to look at.  The Nestrians are coated in excess fuzz, they have too many differently-shaped appendages and so little rhyme or reason as to their construction that they basically look like somebody just kept gaffa-taping a children’s playset of shapes together until they got bored, their nose grabs the attention in a bad way, their colour scheme is unnecessarily garish… I get that the point of the film is that the Nestrians are always out-of-place no matter where they are, but they just look plain hideous.  The Grymps are a little better, but they suffer from ill-fitting eyes and needless body patterns that look like bad henna tattoos, whilst the Griffins are just kinda not pleasant to look at, and not in an intended “fierce predator” way.

It’s a shame that those characters are so unappealing to look at, too, because the animation is actually pretty decent compared to most mid-league animated fare.  I mean, the colour palette really is sickeningly bright, and instead of looking convincingly wet during any one of the numerous sequences involving water, characters instead end up looking like shined vinyl models of themselves, but otherwise things are rather decent.  Character animation manages to tow the line between “limited animation” and “just plain cheap” rather well, there’s a nice lived-in feel to the ark, and there’s some decent boarding here and there.  If the character designs weren’t so ugly, this would be an OK movie to look at.

I mean, it’s not a particularly good one to watch.  Yeah, Two By Two is not good.  It’s not bad, but it’s not good, either.  This itself is a shame because the film frequently hints at a much more interesting and entertaining movie than is presented here.  The plot involves two Nestrians, a father and son called Dave and Finney respectively, and two Grymps, a mother and daughter called Hazel and Leah respectively, trying to survive the inbound flood by taking passage on Noah’s ark.  The Nestrians, however, aren’t on the guest list to board the ark and are basically left to go extinct.  Dave stows he and Finny away on the ark, however, by pretending to be Grymps, which causes extra problems when Finny and Leah accidentally miss the launch of the ark and have to find a way to survive the flood and the Griffins hunting them.

There are actual large scale stakes there as well as thematic touches like the strongest deciding who gets to survive and what not – a group made up of the king lion, a flamingo, and an elephant check and decide who is allowed on the ark or not, and they are a group that can barely hide their contempt for the other species – but Two By Two actively goes out of its way to not touch on them.  The extinction risk is left unspoken and is completely undercut by a brief indulgence in cartoon physics that, unsurprisingly, make the life-and-death stakes feel insincere, whilst that thematic underpinning also goes untouched until the ending where, in a very brief line, it’s promptly dropped completely and explained away as a misunderstanding.  It’s a film that seems terrified of getting even slightly dark, keeping up the day-glo sunshine tone regardless of how boringly formulaic it makes the final product.

In a way, that puts it in close proximity to DreamWorks’ recently released Home which back-grounded its themes of colonialism in favour of misfits finding each other, whilst Two By Two backgrounds its themes in favour of things like parental love and finding friends and your place in the world.  But where Home gets away with it by having likeable and entertaining characters, Two By Two’s cast are all really grating.  The Nestrians, who are both excessively optimistic and panicky, are too shrill and irritating, the Grymps, who pride themselves on being loners and hate company, are too needlessly uptight and angry, the Griffins are basically just boring Cockney “Infinity +1” villains, and the other two characters who tag along with Leah and Finny – an overweight land creature named Obesey, and the parasite that lives on top of him and is voiced by radio DJ Chris Evans for some bizarre reason – are incredibly uninteresting and poorly voiced.

So that ends up leaving Two By Two feeling rather emotionally hollow and making its formulaic beat-by-beat nature really obvious.  That’s a shame because the film isn’t bad, really, again excepting its awful lead character designs.  There are a few genuinely funny gags, some scenes are entertaining, the actual animation is fine, and it all works competently, even with flat line readings all about the place.  It’s just not particularly good, or interesting, or original, or doing anything really to adequately justify taking up 80-odd minutes of anyone’s time, especially with how actively it steers itself into formula to avoid those far more interesting avenues.

In fact, that formula was far better served in Ice Age, which actively addressed the extinction stakes and thematic undertones that Two By Two strives to avoid.  Ice Age adopts the appropriate melancholic tone, has pleasant to look at characters who are entertaining to watch and likeable, and aims to be more than just an 80 minute time-killer.  Basically, although there’s nothing fundamentally or majorly wrong with it, there’s no real reason to recommend Two By Two, either.  You’re better off leaving it to drown.

Callum Petch has seen so much he’s going blind.  Follow him on the Twitters: @CallumPetch

Callum is one of a number of guests that occasionally makes appearances on the Failed Critics Film Podcast, hosted by Steve Norman and Owen Hughes. Unfortunately, you won’t find any of our previous 250 episodes dedicated to a Two by Two review, but you can catch up with one of our more recent editions of the slightly shambolic movie podcast by clicking the link at the top of this page, streaming directly from acast.com/failedcitics, or subscribing in iTunes (or whatever your favourite podcast app of choice may be)!

Into The Bunker (S2:E2)

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @Callum Petch)

Spoilers of varying degrees for Gravity Falls abound throughout this article, up to and including a short scene from Season 2 Episode 8 “Blendin’s Game”.  You are strongly advised to go and watch Gravity Falls before reading this article.  Trust me.

gravity falls“Mabel, how can everything be so amazing and so terrible all at the same time?” – Dipper Pines

Throughout Secondary School, I had a crush on a very close friend of mine.  From pretty much the moment I saw her, I was rather head-over-heels – she was funny, tough, kind, smart, good-looking, and she voluntarily chose to acknowledge and associate with me, which meant a lot since my first year or so at Secondary School was a relentlessly lonely and miserable experience otherwise.  We hung out a lot, talked a lot, there were frequent out-of-school-hours email conversations (not IM or anything like that cos have I ever mentioned that I was a really weird kid), and became really rather close.

I also never properly told her how I felt.  I hinted a lot, wrote godawful blatantly manipulative blog posts expressing my feelings hoping that she’d never read them but steering her towards them anyway (because goddamn was I ever a sh*tty teenager), and one time – during a really, really stupid idea that our school only implemented once – I bought her a Valentine’s Day rose from our school reception and explained it away as a friendship thing.  She almost certainly figured it out because I was nowhere near as subtle as I thought I was and she was not stupid, but we never openly acknowledged it, as if we realised that bringing it into the open would make things uncomfortably weird.  And I planned to never tell her, because I could live with just being her friend.

Except that I couldn’t.  I really couldn’t.  Save for one very short and incredibly bad experience at the outset of Secondary School – another reason why my first year or so was awkward and horrible – I had never had a girlfriend (still haven’t to this day), but Secondary School is Secondary School and damn near every last one of my friends – and the majority of the people I was at least on good speaking terms with – ended up in romances of varying degrees of seriousness and success, which left me feeling left out and lonely, because I never had that experience.  Further compounding the problem was that, as friends of mine typically tend to do, we started drifting further apart the older we got, going from tight-knit buddies in Year 8 to very occasional acquaintances by Year 10.

Having realised this, and likely spurred on by the fact that my crush on her just would not die, I asked if she could meet me one lunchtime to talk.  I couldn’t have been any vaguer or, as far as my memory recalls, slightly creepy, which would have been part of the reason why she never turned up.  I took this incredibly personally.  Soon after, I arranged, through the school’s Student Services, to have her meet me for about half an hour so I could get an explanation and tell her everything, as if that would somehow change things.  That second part didn’t happen.  Instead, I non-specifically and non-committedly alluded to things in sh*tty ways, refused to accept her excuse of her having her own life and her own friends, and generally acted like a horribly possessive jerk.  The meeting ended with neither of us satisfied and, for the remaining 18 months of Secondary School and 2 years of Sixth Form that we shared, we basically never spoke to each other again.

You know how I said earlier that I was a sh*tty teenager?  That transcends just being a sh*tty teenager, for me; that was me being a pure bona-fide grade-A asshole.  I have regretted everything to do with it for the past five and a bit years.  I regretted it the moment I stepped out of that room and I still did nothing to make it right due to the resultant awkwardness between us keeping me from trying to make amends no matter how much time passed.  Seeing her was just this constant reminder of how badly I screwed up and how utterly sh*tty of a person I was, how I refused to just accept being friends with her instead of slightly creepily possessively crushing on her, and I honestly don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself for it.


The Dipper Pines-Wendy Corduroy runner throughout the first season of Gravity Falls – where the 12 year-old Dipper develops a major crush on the 15 year-old Wendy – is a very divisive subject for fans of the show.  In one camp, it’s a funny, sweet, and often painful to watch plotline that constantly finds new ways to cover seemingly old ground, and excellently and realistically handles the difficulty of being friends with somebody you are quite possibly in love with, especially accentuated by the fact that, since Wendy is 3 years older than Dipper, there is only one way this story can end.  In the other camp, it’s pointless re-treading of familiar ground that wastes Wendy’s character potential by limiting her solely to stories about Dipper’s crush on her and her relationship with jerk-ass teenager Robbie, especially since there’s only one way this story can end so why bother dragging it out.

I fall into the former camp and it’s because of my experience with that girl – whose name I haven’t divulged here because she deserves better than being associated with my dickishness.  That extended awkward push-pull between having a crush that causes you tangible physical anxiety every time you accidentally think of them in that way, versus wanting to not blow that friendship you’ve built up with them by openly admitting that feeling to them, is excellently represented in Dipper Pines, which in turn resonates deeper in me and causes multiple conflicting feelings every time the plotline is brought up.  I sympathise with Dipper’s situation, I cringe and suffer along with him whenever he puts his foot in his mouth, I laugh at his jealous hallucinations of people like Robbie, I desperately root for him to beat his crush or to just admit to Wendy his true feelings, since I’d gone through all of this before myself – just without the age gap as she was in the same year as me.

It helps that Dipper shares multiple aspects with me when it comes to this type of thing: he stumbles over his own words frequently, he overthinks and over-plans every last scenario because he’s terrified of failure, he’s at his best when he just lets the situation overtake him, and he will never admit the truth to Wendy because he’s afraid of what will happen, but he also can’t just stay friends at this moment in time because the crush is killing him.  This is not meant to short-change Wendy, incidentally, who is a funny, cool, sarcastic, well-rounded and flawed character who feels like a person, someone who clearly exists outside of the show’s usage of her.  These two are incredibly well-drawn characters who feel real and that extra resonance that I have with the material wouldn’t be there if that depth wasn’t there.

This all comes to a head in “Into The Bunker”, the second episode of Season 2.  It starts off like it’s going to be yet another episode in which Dipper trips over his feelings, which I don’t have a problem with as again this kind of constant circling really can happen, in a B-Plot whilst the A-Plot pushes forward the overarching mysteries of Gravity Falls, Oregon – which are way too numerous and in-depth to touch on here; seriously, this show has the kind of attention to continuity and plotting (without ever sacrificing them at the expense of character work) that would make most live-action adult dramas feel like they’re half-assing it.

Instead, the mysteries of Gravity Falls take a backseat to bringing this runner to its logical end-game.  Despite his insistence otherwise, Dipper cannot keep hanging out with Wendy without telling her of his feelings.  When he exposes Robbie’s deception and brainwashing in “Boyz Crazy”, he’s mainly doing it out of selfish desires of wanting to have Wendy to himself, although he doesn’t realise so until after he pushes his luck too far.  By “Into The Bunker”, it’s reached breaking point, he even brings along his planned feelings speech, that he scrunched up at the beginning of the episode, in his jacket pocket because he can’t let it go.  His twin sister Mabel, fed up with all of this and realising that the sooner that he admits his feelings to Wendy the better, proceeds to shove the pair of them into what turns out to be a Decontamination Chamber to make sure that Dipper has no way of avoiding the issue.

In the end, his constant dodging and inability to come right out and admit his feelings nearly gets himself and Wendy killed by a shape-shifter, and he once again only realises this when he thinks that she’s been killed.  Running from his problems has solved nothing and if it hadn’t turned out that the ‘dead’ Wendy was actually the shape-shifter and that the real Wendy was just off-screen and heard every word of Dipper’s anguished and regretful admission of his true feelings, then he would have gone through the rest of his life carrying that regret and guilt, never letting him go.  It is, to me at least, the literalising of what metaphorically happened to me, as my refusal to just come out and say it cost me one of the strongest friendships that I ever had.

That’s what makes the conclusion of the episode so goddamn beautiful to me.  With the truth now out in the open, Wendy and Dipper sit down and talk.  They actually talk.  Wendy admits that she kinda always knew – “You think I can’t hear that stuff you’re constantly whispering under your breath?” – she lets him down easy, Dipper understands, and the two resolve to remain friends because that, above all else, is what matters out of all of this.  And though Dipper doesn’t actually feel any better at the time by getting these feelings out in the open, the change sticks and Wendy’s subsequent appearances with the gang exist in awkwardness-free purely platonic friendship stakes.  Hell, to further drive home the point, when Dipper and Mabel travel back in time about 10 years in “Blendin’s Game” and bump into younger versions of Wendy and Tambry, he feels super-awkward when Young Wendy mentions how cute he is, as if he now understands how he made Wendy feel.

And as I sat there watching the conclusion of “Into The Bunker”, through non-stop waterfalls of tears, the awful way that I handled the first friendship that I made in Secondary School came into clear-as-day focus.  I always knew that I treated her sh*ttily, that I should have handled the situation better, that I was as pure an asshole as they come with regards to how things ended, but I don’t think I realised the extent of it and how much different things could have been until Gravity Falls laid it out in front of me like that.  Because Dipper and Wendy are so well-drawn, because the writing felt so natural, because I saw so much of myself and my own experiences in the story’s progression, it hit me like a jackhammer-shaped freight train when the inevitable conclusion came around.  “I should have just told her and moved on,” I thought to myself constantly over the next several days as the episode refused to leave my brain.  “The aftermath may not have been as smooth, but at least we could have moved on.  At least we may still have been friends.”

There is a tonne more to “Into The Bunker” – the absolutely terrifying John Carpenter’s The Thing-referencing shape-shifter villain, the outstanding animation, the way that the narrative excellently pulls the bait-and-switch on the seemingly answers-focussed plotline in favour of character-work, the badassery of Wendy, the way it balances horror and drama with comedy, The Gravity Falls Bargain Movie Showcase – and they are all individually reason enough as to why the episode could be inducted into this wing of Failed Critics, but they’re not the reason why this episode hits me so.  It’s the payoff.  It was always going to be the payoff, and though the show has and will improve even on this in the years to come – “Not What He Seems” exists, after all – for me it’s probably never going to top that final scene in the woods where Dipper and Wendy sit on the fallen tree branch and just talk.  No other scene in television is going to hit me like that scene did the first time.

In a perfect world, I would have been more like Dipper Pines in that moment, where I accepted what happened, accepted the consequences, moved on, and tried to retain that friendship.  I didn’t do that.  That will stick with me for the rest of my days, but at least I know that Dipper will be OK.  He did it right.  One of us did.

Callum Petch has got love to kill from a man of steel.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water

The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water is really funny; enough for it to overcome what flaws it has.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

spongebob out of waterBefore we properly get to reviewing, I need to put out a request to all animation studios.  Ahem…  STOP REGIONALLY RE-CASTING CERTAIN ROLES!  See, for some reason, certain animated films have started developing a habit of dubbing over minor roles with British ‘celebrities’ instead of their original voice actors.  Pixar’s Cars re-cast the role of Lightning McQueen’s arsehole manager from Jeremy Piven, because Entourage – have I ever mentioned that I am not a fan of Cars – to Jeremy Clarkson, because… I’m drawing a blank.  Big Hero 6 had YouTubers Dan and Phil – they were the scientists reporting the status of the Krey-Tech experiment in case you wondered why there were random distracting British accents in that scene and, no, I don’t know who they are either.

And now, The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water recasts seemingly its entire seagull cast with British ‘celebrities’, most recognisable of which being Alan Carr.  And I know that that’s the case because the credits list the original VAs for each of them and Carr’s name is not inexplicably listed between people like Rob Paulson, April Stewart, and Billy West – seemingly none of which are actually in this version of the film, and I’d recognise their various voices damn near anywhere.  I’m not going to mark the film down for these problems, there’s no point since I can just import the correct version from America when it hits Blu-Ray, but I do want the animation industry to know this: I AM ONTO YOU.  Stop devaluing the hard work of the minor players by telling them that their work can be replaced when the film goes to other English-speaking countries by stunt-cast mediocre actors who often flub their lines and sound like they did their work on the other end of a poor quality phone line.  So stop it.  That is all.

Anyways…  The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water.  There’s something I need to clear up before I tell you whether it is any good or not, because the marketing has misrepresented this one so badly.  See, despite how the film’s marketing has told it, Sponge Out Of Water spends very, very little time actually out of the ocean.  In fact, I would estimate that the gang spend, at the very most, 20 minutes above the surface, with 10 of those being dedicated to the superhero stuff that has been slapped all over the marketing, and this is all at the end of the film.  You know that section in The Spongebob Squarepants Movie where Spongebob and Patrick are carted off to the surface before promptly being rescued by David Hasselhoff?  The surface elements here are about twice that length, maybe thrice, tops.

Consequently, yes, the plot takes forever to really get going, especially since the film itself makes it really, really obvious as to who (Antonio Banderas, who only occasionally looks like he’s having a miserable time) has really stolen the Krabby Patty formula that Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) and Spongebob (Tom Kenny) have been fingered for and why it is happening.  It’s not much of an issue, because that’s more time spent in Bikini Bottom and I’ll come back to that, but it does highlight how little of the heart that powered the first Spongebob film is in this one.  The first was a very funny film, but it was also a very sincere film powered by characters with genuine love and filmmakers who were similarly invested enough to let that heart take centre-stage when required.  Sponge Out Of Water doesn’t really have that, undercutting what moments of pathos it starts towards with a joke at the expense of that pathos.

As a result, the film probably won’t have the same replay strength as the first one did.  It’s aiming to be a joke machine, which isn’t inherently a bad thing – and the insistent status-quo nature of the Spongebob universe, in terms of events and character traits and character dynamics, does provide some of the film’s best gags – but it does mean that I am picking apart the points where the film doesn’t work a lot sooner than I normally would have.  There’s also the film’s main dynamic, where Spongebob tries to break through to Plankton and teach him the value of teamwork, which does contain some very funny gags, like Plankton’s near-total inability to pronounce the word due to the concept being so alien to him, but treads too closely to the classic show episode “F.U.N.” to impact fully – there’s even a duet between Spongebob and Plankton over the pros and cons of teamwork that is nowhere near as good as “F is for friends that do stuff together, U is for” you know the rest.

This all being said… … …I laughed.  I laughed a lot.  Spongebob Squarepants has been all over the place since the first movie, veering from great (Season 4) to mostly terrible (Season 5 to about Season 7) and more recently settling on pretty entertaining (Season 9), but Sponge Out Of Water finds everyone on near-top form – most likely not co-incidentally, this is the first time since the first movie that the show’s creator, Stephen Hillenburg, has been involved in the creative process.  Jokes come very thick and very fast, trading on physical comedy, character comedy, gross-out comedy, fourth-wall leans, and complete randomness in equal hilarious measure.  I had plenty of big hearty belly laughs – which certainly seemed to make the kids in my screening less self-conscious about how loud they were allowed to laugh – with enough smaller chuckles, giggles and smirks between them to keep the occasional dry spell from being a problem.

But even when I wasn’t laughing, I was still entertained, primarily by the fact that I got to watch a traditionally-animated feature film on the big screen again.  Look, what can I say?  My formative years were shaped by Classic Era Disney VHS tapes, I will always have a soft spot for the medium regardless of how well it’s pulled off.  As for Sponge Out Of Water, it looks like an episode of the TV show, just with the budget allotted to be able to trash the various sets a lot more than usual.  I don’t mean this as an insult, by the way.  Spongebob’s art style and animation quality are so distinctive and ingrained by this point that messing with that would likely cause more harm than good.  You know how the first film looked?  It’s like that.  Pretty much exactly like that and, again, that is not a bad thing.

The film’s best looking moments are, as is probably expected for Spongebob, when it gets weird.  Art shifts are an even more frequent occurrence than one might expect but they all benefit greatly from the extra cash available.  A trip inside Spongebob’s mind is rendered in a semi-Flash day-glow sickening manner, there’s one semi-recurring character whose body is stop-motion and whose cape is CGI with the two never quite gelling which brilliantly amplifies the utterly weird effect of the character’s entire existence, there’s a recurrent suitably trippy art shift that I would not even dream of spoiling for you, and the bonkers final scene is done in clip-art style Flash.  It all looks great, too, because they still adhere close enough to the traditional sequences to feel like they come from the same film.

Oh, yeah, and there’s the live-action sequences.  Because they’re just the last 20 minutes, they suffer the most from joke decay, it really is just every single one of the same jokes that have been repeatedly thrown your way for the past 6 months one after another, barring a few great instances.  That said, although they’re a step down from the prior 60 minutes, they’re still fun.  Mike Mitchell, of the criminally underrated Sky High, handles these sequences and he pulls off the exact level of self-aware staginess required for these segments, whilst the CG looks great with fuzzy toy-style character designs, and the animation gets more than close enough to the half-pose-to-pose-half-squash-and-stretch style of the Paul Tibbitt, a series mainstay, directed animation segments.

So, although it’s nothing particularly brilliant and doesn’t reach the heights of its first cinematic excursion, I still really enjoyed The Spongebob Movie.  It’s a much-needed course-correct for the series as a whole – you’ll find that Spongebob is much less irritating and that most everybody is less of a total jerk, here – and though it fails to follow through on its heart properly, it’s still funny enough and made with enough care and love to succeed.  I don’t know if it will hold up as well on a second viewing, the true test of a comedy for me, but I went in with high expectations and come out rather satisfied.  Of course, if you don’t like Spongebob then you should disregard everything I have said here because this is only really for fans.  But, as a fan, I laughed.  A lot.  Plus the ending fulfilled a need I didn’t even know I had, so there’s that.

Just maybe import the Blu-Ray from America when that time comes, eh?  I mean, I’m sure that April Stewart and Cree Summer are just thrilled to hear that Paramount Pictures believes that STACEY SOLOMON can do their jobs just as well.

Callum Petch will spoil, spoil all the fun.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

The DreamWorks Animation Retrospective Conclusion

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

On October 12th 2014, DreamWorks Animation SKG celebrated their 20th anniversary.  On July 15th 2014, Callum Petch decided to mark the occasion, as well as bring himself up to speed with the films he missed, by going through their canon from 1998 to 2013 and giving everything a full-on retrospective treatment.  After 35 weeks – 27 for the theatrical films, 1 for their sole direct-to-video feature, 2 for their television output, 4 weeks off for various workload-related reasons, and this week – the series now comes to an end.  If you have missed any entries, you can catch up here.


dreamworks collage

Conclusion

So, here we are.  I’m going to be honest with you folks, I never actually expected to finish this thing.  When I started this ridiculous quest way back last July, I had no pretensions into thinking that I would actually make it through all 30 planned weeks of content.  I have a very uncanny ability to start long tasks and never actually finish them, usually giving up at about the halfway point, and I expected that this one would be no different.  I even decided to turn my journey through DreamWorks Animation’s history into a weekly series of articles in order to ensure that I wouldn’t just drop the whole thing circa Shark Tale, and I still thought that I’d stop long before 2014 was out.

Yet, as should be obvious, I didn’t.  I made it through all 30 weeks, missing my deadline for non-workload related reasons only once – Madagascar 3, which instead went live 3 days late due to my initial inability to crack the article.  What started as a personal catch-up goal and a way to keep myself occupied throughout the Summer months at home that were draining my sanity, turned into a weekly routine that I put immense effort into, which is not to say that I didn’t put a tonne of effort into the first 8-or-so entries – go back and look at how many research links I included in those early pieces to make my arguments as airtight as possible – but there was certainly a point when I started going out of my way to ensure that these were the best that they could be.

And, for the most part, I think they are.  I’ve found myself going back through older entries in this series every now and again and being legitimately surprised that I actually wrote them.  As anybody who knows me knows, I have major self-confidence issues and especially have a habit of retroactively disliking pretty much anything I write, especially when I read other people’s writings instead: how they can read films deeper than I can, how their arguments are better constructed, their articles better written, more intelligent, etc.  Yet, I continue to look back on these articles and, for the most part, my personal issues with many of them simply boil down to my not having enough words to touch on everything I wanted to.

You can even see an evolution in my writing style as the series goes on, too.  What started off as a ginormous wall-of-death where paragraphs went on forever and point changes were about as smooth as changing gears in a near-totally rusted lorry, became much more aesthetically pleasing with more frequent clip breaks, less cluttered paragraphs, and with more natural changes between points which themselves aren’t lingered on excessively.  I also swear less, now.  Yay!  The exact focus of the Retrospective changed as the series went on, with things like box office performance and the animation landscape at large lessening and increasing in importance week-to-week, but there’s still a remarkably consistent set of through-lines throughout this series – gender, the DreamWorks voice, marketing and box office, etc.

I realise that you’re probably not in the slightest bit interested by my public self-reflection, but there is a reason for my doing so.  After all, I noted from Day 1 how this was going to be just as much a personal experience as it would be a film-focussed studio retrospective, with my prior experiences with animation and DreamWorks being mined and examined for material in order to aid the retrospective nature.  And though they stopped being so explicit at about the midway point – which was the point I jumped ship prior to this series – they still factored majorly into each entry.  I mean, otherwise these entries would have just been dry Wikipedia-style summaries and about half as long.  So, over these past 30 weeks, I’d like to think you’ve learnt a bit about myself in addition to learning a lot about DreamWorks; I know I have.

For example, I’ve learnt that staying up until about 3am on a Monday morning finishing and formatting these articles is an absolute killer and I cannot wait to rediscover what a full good night’s sleep is.  But I’ve digressed and self-indulged long enough.  Let’s move onto DreamWorks Animation SKG.

One of the benefits of doing this series on a weekly basis and never once pre-writing an article in case I miss a week – which bit me in the arse precisely 3 times, which is way less than I thought it would – is that I could keep it topical and work in commentary on major events and stories that have happened to DreamWorks as they ocurred, instead of waiting until the end of the series to do it all in one fowl swoop.  Therefore, 2014 has already been covered in various entries throughout the series – most specifically Joseph: King of Dreams, Bee Movie, and Puss In Boots – whilst the studio’s releases for the year have already been reviewed and can be found on the site – or, in the case of Mr. Peabody & Sherman, via the Wayback Machine for my old website, although that one is due a retrospective of its own in the future – so I don’t need to waste time setting up the situation.

So… where do we leave DreamWorks?  Why are they in such dire straits?  Well, Home actually provides a nice walking example as to why their features just aren’t taking off anymore.  Now, I really like Homeas you can find out for yourself by reading my review – but it’s also nothing particularly special or vital.  It’s a nice, fun, heart-warming low-key animated family film.  For me, the animation fan who sees everything regardless and only cares about how the film works on its own terms, this isn’t a problem.  For families who don’t have limitless disposable income and who have to choose which of these smorgasbord of animated features to take their kids to, this is a problem.

As I have mentioned frequently throughout this series, the animated feature landscape is significantly different and more open than it was back when DreamWorks were breezing past $350 million worldwide (minimum) regardless of what they put out.  Where before it was pretty much them, Pixar, and Blue Sky (to a degree), now DreamWorks are jostling for position with every film studio and their attempts to get back in on the animation game.  For myself, the animation fan, that’s excellent news.  For DreamWorks, this is really bad, because they can no longer guarantee $350 million worldwide (minimum), not when they’re having to compete with Illumination and Sony Pictures Animation and a resurgent Disney, who all have something to prove and who put their all into each film to make damn sure the audience turns up.

DreamWorks, however, don’t aim for the stars with each film.  They don’t always try something new, they don’t always swing for the fences.  Again, for myself, the animation fan who doesn’t automatically see more modest ambitions as a knock against the film, that’s fine.  But for families, who don’t have enough money to be able to see and try animated films that aren’t taking risks, that is not.  This is why Turbo, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, and Penguins of Madagascar failed; they didn’t push boundaries and didn’t aim to be anything more than extremely well done modest animated films in a time where the public want something new.  Variety’s Peter Debruge, in a rather negative review of Home, hits it best.

“From a creative standpoint, this is the studio’s least exciting feature yet — Hardly its worst, execution-wise, but entirely lacking in the risk-taking spirit that has spawned such successful franchises as Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and Dragon.”

Again, as a fan, I don’t see a modest animated film as inherently a bad thing as long as it’s done well with a tonne of heart, but a public with less money and time on their hands will skip the more modest film in favour of the swinging-for-the-fences-spectacular every time.  DreamWorks are no longer vital, they are no longer fresh and bold, and they are not giving viewers any particular immediate reason to turn up to every one of their films.  As I have touched on before, a DreamWorks film is not an Event.  A Disney film is an Event, an Illumination film is an Event, Pixar films are Events, Blue Sky films are possibly starting to become Events.  A DreamWorks film is primarily something you take or leave, at this point.

Because of the way that their studio has to be run – with franchising being the order of the day, multiple films being released each year, and TV show spin-offs littering the standard and digital airwaves – DreamWorks films are more products than anything else.  For every How To Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda, there has to be a Turbo or a Home.  They can’t put their all into every film and they can’t take risks in every film because they don’t have the capacity to do so and they need a safe bet or two in case the bigger risks fail tremendously.  Of course, nowadays the public are turning away from safe bets unless they’re part of franchises and even then those aren’t safe – Penguins of Madagascar just lost DreamWorks $57 million, after all, and I find it hard to not point to the Dragons TV series as a reason why HTTYD2 underperformed at the domestic box office since that show tries so hard to be a TV version of the movie it’s based on.

Meanwhile, their marketing is stuck in a rut and really not helping the perception that they’re just making the same films that they’ve been making for years.  I was actually rather worried for Home because its trailers leaned too much on broad comedy that eventually grew tiring, and the usage of licensed music and general tone indicated a film that wasn’t trying in the bad way (purely for profit).  The actual film is far, far sweeter than it first appeared, but sweetness isn’t a commonly accepted overriding factor of the DreamWorks brand so in come The Hives and expensive looking set-pieces!  Compare that trailer, which was embedded a little earlier in the article, with this just released teaser for Hotel Transylvania 2.

Now, much like with the equally superior Minions trailer – which is now the gold standard for utilising licensed music in your animation trailers, studios, take notes – this has the benefit of advertising for a previously established franchise, so it’s not quite an apples-to-apples comparison, but look at how quickly it establishes that unique voice – silly comedy with characters grounding proceedings and the promise of legitimate heart mixed in with the mayhem.  It feels different, vital even though the finished film may not be, and that’s what gets viewers into the cinema, the promise of something new.  Brand recognition for Joe and Jane Average is not enough anymore, you need to make those films appear worth their while, and DreamWorks, well, don’t really.  Not whilst their marketing is hitting the same buttons.

Whilst the closures and layoffs are a shame, scaling back film production to two a year with one always being a sequel is certainly a step in the direction of righting the DreamWorks ship.  They can’t make a real Event movie like Pixar can – when Home inevitably fails and I get all sad, expect DreamWorks stock to go into freefall as it is their only film for all of 2015 – but this means that they can focus time and effort into that year’s original film, making it seem like (or actually being) a new vital voice that the public should watch immediately, with the sequels being what they should be for a company like this – near-guaranteed revenue streams that are great films in their own right, that can either push boundaries or stick with what works.  This set-up should, in theory and if they play this right, help sustain DreamWorks and keep them running, if they find a buyer (which we touched on before), if they learn to control their budgets, and if they make it through Home with little damage.

As for what we’ve learned over the past 30-or-so weeks?  Well, despite their reputation, it turns out that DreamWorks Animation very rarely stuck rigidly to the lowest-common-denominator Shrek formula that the company are and were frequently accused of doing.  Even during their commonly-accepted “Dork Age” of 2004 to 2008, they only really played that perception straight with the Shrek movies and Shark Tale, with Bee Movie going for big self-conscious parody, Madagascar predominately aiming to be a silly cartoon, and Over The Hedge only sliding into it to further its consumerist suburban satire.

That being said, they certainly do have a voice and relative formula of their own.  For example, there’s a certain self-conscious way in which the studio does its pop culture references, where the fact that the joke is the reference is called attention to and lingered on more than is necessary.  Like, there’s a difference between Shrek 2’s COPS segment – where the film forces itself into a position where it can have the gag for seemingly no other reason than everyone really wanted to – and the Silence of the Lambs reference in Shaun The Sheep – which is a quick-fire gag and treated as such – or the moment where Toy Story 2 just ludicrously becomes The Empire Strikes Back for about 30 brilliant seconds – which is the film using its satire of merchandising and pop culture obsession to have a little fun.

In recent years, they have toned down the pop culture references and tangible “attitude” of Shrek – seemingly in an effort to shed that association once and for all – in favour of making relatively simple movies that balance funny and often broad laughs with a likeable level of heart, although that possibly runs the risk of actually making their films more interchangeable and formulaic than they were accused of being throughout the middle of the previous decade.  Again, I really like Home but I still can’t shake the feeling that I basically watched a better version of Mr. Peabody & Sherman.

Their most successful films, financially and artistically, are the ones that break from formula and establish their own individual voices; they’re still recognisably DreamWorks but have numerous little individual quirks and touches that make them stand out from the rest of the pack.  Kung Fu Panda 2, their masterpiece, clearly could not have been made like that by anybody other than DreamWorks – and Jennifer Yuh Nelson, cough cough – but still feels distinctly different from the studio’s other successful action-dramedy series How To Train Your DragonPuss In Boots is clearly cut from a similar cloth as The Road To El Dorado, and is indebted to its parent series Shrek much to its detriment, but all three of those films are different in tone and feel to one another, yet still recognisably DreamWorks.  It’s hard to pull off and some of them take time, it took Madagascar three tries to settle into its crazed skin, but, in their best moments, the studio pulls them off with aplomb.

As for that other through-line, the studio’s awkward relationship with the female gender?  Well… I hesitate to offer up any kind of definitive summary, as I am a guy and, in all honesty, should not have been as fixated on this area as I ended up being – due to the fact that men really should not be the primary voice talking about representation of women in the media, and the fact that I am not as educated on feminist film theory as I ought to be – but I can observe that a lot of the instances of problematic depictions of the female gender come more from a lack of courage in blazing new storytelling trails than anything actively malicious and such.

Things like Fiona being relegated to a damsel and prize at the end of Shrek, Marina and Astrid suddenly and inexplicably falling for the heroic male character at the drop of a dime, Roxie not really getting any actual agency despite being a well-defined and entertaining character…  These are mainly the result of filmmakers and writers leaning on “tradition” and obvious story beats, presumably out of the belief that this is how stories are supposed to go.  After all, as we have also seen throughout this series, the studio can make strong interesting female characters when it tries to – DuBois from Madagascar 3 and Clover from All Hail King Julian get to be completely insane which is still sadly rare in comedy nowadays, Tigress from Kung Fu Panda 2 and Tip from Home are co-leads and their films treat them with the respect such a role demands, and I’ve already talked at length about how I believe Monsters vs. Aliens to be a staunchly feminist film.

More “traditional” representations, when the works even have female characters to begin with, seem to stem from everyone just believing that that’s the way things are done or because they have focussed the film on the male protagonist and everything else just revolves around them.  That’s why Tooth Fairy gets the least amount of screen time in Rise of the Guardians, why Eep is merely the point of view we experience The Croods from instead of the main protagonist, why Gloria is one of the four main cast members of the Madagascar series yet does pretty much nothing notable in all three films.  Of course, though, this doesn’t need to be the way that things are done, which is why I got so frustrated at every slide back into “traditional” representation, because animation has a major representation problem and accidental sticking to the status quo is doing more harm than it is good.

Of the studio’s upcoming slate of films, two of the specifically scheduled six point to featuring female protagonists.  There’s Trolls in November of 2016, and The Croods 2 in December of 2017, which co-writer/co-director Kirk DeMicco has stated will focus more on motherhood, although I’m still burnt by the first film’s protagonist bait-and-switch, so we’ll wait and see.  Combined with Home making Tip the co-lead in the vein of Tigress from Kung Fu Panda 2, and time will tell if Kung Fu Panda 3 continues treating her character so brilliantly, that marks three straight years in which DreamWorks will be telling stories that feature women in a leading capacity.  We’ll soon discover if they stick to this diversifying sentiment, and more importantly whether they’ll actually pull it off well, but it is a good and welcome step in the right direction for the studio.  If they get some success from this then maybe, combined with Disney’s resurgence in telling female-focussed stories, they’ll help convince the rest of the industry to follow suit.

Maybe they’ll also finally balance out that bra-burning gag from Shrek The Third, too.  I still have not forgiven them for that one.

This is the point of the article where I’m supposed to come up with some grand profound summary that encompasses my overall thoughts on this series, the films we’ve discussed, and the studio in question, but I’m honestly drawing a blank.  For one, despite how I may sometimes come off, I’m not really one for big definitive summary point makings anyway.  But, mainly, it’s because DreamWorks Animation is way more complex and multi-faceted than I once thought they were.  I thought that they only really made one kind of film, but this series has constantly picked apart the almost non-existent concept of “The DreamWorks Film”.  I thought that their post-Shrek 2 output would be unbearable, but it turns out that most of them were legitimately trying to be their own good thing.  I thought they only made sequels because they were desperate for franchises and money, yet most of their best films are sequels.

At almost every turn I’ve been wrong-footed about my preconceptions, and even when I was proven right I found a tonne of interesting things to comment on and reasons as to why those films failed.  It’s been an eye-opening experience, one that I have been happy to lose 30 good Sunday nights worth of sleep to.  I guess my big end summary is that I don’t want to lose DreamWorks Animation.  The studio is in a tough spot right now – partially of its own making, partially because Jeffrey Katzenberg is a stubborn tit, partially due to factors outside of its control – its future is really uncertain, and I want them to be OK.  The initial impact they had on Western feature-length animation, the opening up of the market, should give them a free pass to keep on keeping on anyway, but their films are still an entertaining and welcome voice in the animation landscape and to lose them now, in the middle of this mostly underappreciated streak of quietly great films that they are on, would be a majorly saddening shame.

I get the feeling that they’ll be OK in the end – Disney was in dire straits for much of the early-to-mid-2000s, let’s not forget – but if they were to go, I would now be legitimately upset.  This series has created not just a deep and renewed appreciation in me for their work, but also a sort of bond; the kind that’s forged when you undertake a laborious yet rewarding task with a friend you didn’t realise meant as much to you as they ended up doing when you both emerged from the other side.  So, thank you, DreamWorks.  Here’s hoping we see you around for another 20 years!


Next week, we begin an in-depth 87 part series where I revisit and explore every facet there is to explore about the films and history of Walt Disney Ani-I’m just kidding, we’re not gonna do that.

Callum Petch is making up for it.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Home

Home is not original, but I dug the hell out of it.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

home 1Home begins with an alien race called the Boov forcibly invading and colonising Earth for themselves.  They do this by arriving unannounced, forcibly relocating the natives – whom they deem as uncivilised, lower, unintelligent, and in need of saving and educating by the Boov – against their will, systematically going through everything that the Earth has to offer and keeping what they deem is useful (often by mis-utilising the items in question) and jettisoning totally what they don’t, and re-naming and re-shaping the planet in their own image.  The real life subtext that comes from this set-up I doubt is lost on you.

Home, however, is very much uninterested in following that subtext, likely because describing it in that way sounds very much counter to the good laughs and fun times that are typically required in animated family films.  We get the occasional glimpse at it here and there with what little we see of the new human city – located on Australia – but it is otherwise left untouched.  Is this a little disappointing?  Well, yeah, in the sense that it is always disappointing when a film decides to leave its original potential untapped in favour of the safe and familiar, but Home does still have subtext going on underneath its tale of unlikely fellows becoming strong friends.

Specifically, our protagonist is Oh (Jim Parsons, who is not just sticking to his Big Bang Theory safe zone, trust me) and Oh does not fit in with the rest of the Boov.  The Boov, you see, are a tightly regimented and dull alien race.  They are an arrogant, perfection-obsessed, and self-involved race whose extreme self-preservation instinct has kept them perpetually distant from one another.  They don’t particularly have time for one another and they, at least from what the film shows us, don’t bother to make friends, they’re that cynically detached.  Oh, however, is a heart-on-sleeve kinda guy.  He has that self-preservation instinct, growing up in a culture of fear will do that to you, but he’s also open about his emotions all of the time and he makes no secret about them.  He wants friends, he wants to fit in, but that kind of open joyous honesty is frowned upon in Boov culture and leaves him feeling isolated from his own race.  Again, with minor adjustments, hopefully the similarities between Boov culture and post-millennium culture aren’t lost on you.

Again, though, Home mostly pushes it to the side – mostly, it’s still easy to see it flowing through as the film progresses – in favour of telling a relatively simple story of two lonely people struggling to fit in finding each other by happenstance and becoming friends for life through wacky mishaps.  Oh doesn’t fit in with the Boov because of his eternally sincere nature and general clumsiness, Tip (a surprisingly brilliant Rihanna) didn’t fit in with humans because she and her mother are originally from Barbados – which is touched on briefly in dialogue as she explains why she never felt at home, but otherwise her race is not made a big deal out of – and she’s a bit of a whiz at math.  The two are thrown together after Oh accidentally texts the location of Earth to the Boov’s ever pursuant enemy, the Gorg, and he agrees to help Tip reunite with her mom (Jennifer Lopez) whilst attempting to lay low from the Boov’s commander, Captain Smek (Steve Martin).

If you’ve seen an animated film or five, you’ll know Home beat-by-beat without ever stepping foot in the cinema.  Again, this is a film that is brimming with potentially boundary-pushing subtext that it actively steers itself away from in order to tell the story that it ends up telling.  And yet, I don’t consider this much of a flaw because the film itself is that good and appeals that much to my sensibilities.  What can I say?  Give me two lovable characters who find it hard to fit in, and you might as well just start the countdown clock to the happy tears due to myself relating to their situation.

That being said, Home does do plenty of quietly great things that are worthy of note.  For one, there’s Tip herself.  She’s a black girl – the first lead black girl in any Western CG feature-length animated film, to my knowledge, which is going to be huge for a subset of children, I can already tell – and, again, her race and gender are not made a big deal out of, which is a major boon for the notoriously non-diverse feature animation landscape.  And though she is not the main lead of the film, Oh’s is the perspective that we are primarily given, the film still treats her with absolute respect and importance.  Tip’s quest to re-unite with her mom is decidedly more low-stakes than Oh and the Boov’s quest to keep the Gorg from finding Earth, but the film treats it as something equally as important, even with minimal flashbacks to how their dynamic was before she was taken.

The film never gives Tip the short-shrift.  She’s just as resourceful as Oh, she’s just as entertaining as Oh, and the one time that somebody in the film explicitly takes a swipe at her gender they are immediately proven wrong by Tip herself (and also by the fact that the Boov making that crack is pretty much an antagonist anyway).  There’s even a bit in the finale where it seems like she’s being carted off to the sidelines for Oh to resolve the main plot, but she then forces her way back in with vital action that Oh couldn’t have done.  She reminds me a lot of Vanellope from Wreck-It Ralph or Tigress from Kung Fu Panda 2, lead female characters who aren’t the main protagonists but whom the film treats as well as one anyway.  If Home didn’t do that, then I wouldn’t have been in floods of joyous tears at the incredibly sweet payoff to Tip’s story.

(Also, for a personal little plug, it’s very much a major step forward for DreamWorks Animation, who have had major troubles when it comes to the female gender in their films, as those who have been reading The DreamWorks Animation Retrospective will know.)

For two, I find the animation, and more specifically the art style, to be excellent.  Human character animations have the same weight, heft, and naturalness of How To Train Your Dragon, whilst the Boov are more susceptible to the occasional squash-and-stretch of various intensities, and the two gel very smoothly with one another.  But it’s the art style that really grabs my attention.  There is a lot of detail going on, all of it very pretty but most of it arguably unnecessary, but the world itself has this very smooth feel.  Places, people, and animals all have this soft, often curved design that creates this warm, huggable, inviting feel that, combined with the bright primary colours colour scheme, I found it very easy to lose myself in.

It’s all best demonstrated in the design of the Boov.  They have this very simple cylindrical body shape that extends to their multiple feet and fingers (which both lack any noticeable tips), and that curves instead of points idea extends to their noses which, in their resting state, curl in on themselves, their teeth which gently curve with noticeable gaps, and their eyes which are wide and expressive.  They are very eminently huggable, which is a characteristic I like in this kind of genre.  Boov also change colour based on their expression – red denotes anger, orange denotes happiness, green denotes lying, etc. – which provides a fun extra layer of information about Oh at any given moment and helps make the designs and world pop that much more.

And for three, despite walking a lot in the same sweet DNA as Mr. Peabody & Sherman – lots of heart, funny but not overly so, not re-inventing any wheels – Home manages to avoid that film’s structural mistake: forcing an action-packed finale.  Home seems to be heading towards a superfluous big stakes action finale, but pulls back at the last minute to resolve its central conflict in ways more befitting what came before.  The threat of global destruction is there, because of course it is, but the stakes are primarily focussed on our two leads and the set-piece itself only really qualifies as a set-piece because of its placement and general expensive look; no giant chase sequence.  Since many animated films lose their nerve and force a last minute action climax, seeing Home pull back is a nice pleasant surprise and display of self-confidence in its storytelling.

(Also, the film takes the DreamWorks licensed soundtrack thing to its logical endpoint and, at multiple points, backs proceedings with songs written specifically for the film.  When it actually commits to this idea, it’s a rather neat and non-distracting choice, even with most of them being by Rihanna and Jennifer Lopez.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t commit enough to the idea for me, with the really good score handling the vast majority of the film and the songs popping up very sporadically.  The songs are good, I rather like them, so the lack of time devoted to them makes it all feel like a bit of a wasted opportunity for me.  Ah, well, the soundtrack album will probably be pretty great, though!)

As I said earlier, Home does not re-invent any wheels and it’s not a majorly necessary and vital entry into the Western feature-animation landscape.  It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, although the kids at my screening never tired of the Boov’s constant inability to use correct syntax and proper grammar, and it’s not a market leader when it comes to heart or anything.  But I really, really dug Home.  It’s adorably sweet and sincere in the way that great animated features often are, its two leads are a joy to spend time with, its animation is great, and its vocal performances are surprisingly really strong.

In my review of Penguins of Madagascar, I noted that not all animated films have to reach for the stars.  They can aim to be more modest, lightweight entertainment so long as that is all executed with heart and joy by the filmmakers.  Home has enough heart and love visibly poured into its creation that I didn’t mind in the slightest when the Dance Party Ending reared its head to send us all home on.  That, my friends, is true praise.  I dug the hell out of this one.

Callum Petch got his friends by his side and that’s all that matters to him.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

DreamWorks Animation Television, Part 2

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.


kfpBonus Entry #3] DreamWorks Animation Television, Part 2

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 Timewhy 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!

Callum Petch is underground, never commercial.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Peppa Pig: The Golden Boots & Favourite Stories

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

golden bootsYou and I are going to die.  If our barely hospitable world doesn’t get us, if our fellow man or woman doesn’t do us in, if a freak accident doesn’t whisk us away, and if a disease of some kind doesn’t turn our own fragile bodies against us, then time will come for us and it will claim us.  It is there as a constant reminder, that we tick ever so slowly towards our inevitable demise, that we will one day just… go.  We will never return to what we once were – young, naive, innocent children – no matter how hard we try, and any exposure to anything not aimed at our age group is a reminder that we will never be that age again, and that the only thing awaiting us is the horrifying, relentless march of time and its accompanying cousin, Death.

These are the thoughts that I had as I sat through Peppa Pig: The Golden Boots & Favourite Stories.  Those of you coming here expecting an honest-to-God review would be better served closing the tab and moving on with your life.  Peppa Pig is critic-proof.  Even by my standards – where I once stated that “I expect a lot because this medium can do so much, and I will not let low-quality or mediocre wastes of space pass by unscathed” – Peppa Pig is critic-proof.  It is not for me, it never was for me – I was 10 when the series first debuted and had migrated over to Cartoon Network a good year or so earlier – and it never will be for me.  I cannot sit here and tell you what Young Me would have thought because I cannot remember that far back, and I am not about to even hint at pretending that I know how your kids will feel about Peppa Pig.

All I can tell you is what I thought, hence the dalliance with my own mortality.  I sat there, near the front of a relatively full screening, watching and dealing with many thoughts and crises of self-confidence.  They had started before I’d even walked into the cinema.  I mean, to begin with, I’d have to walk up to a cashier, as a grown 20 year-old man by myself and not exactly the most clean-cut acceptable-looking human being in the world, and say, “One for Peppa Pig, please.”  They’d have to put on a friendly smile and a demeanour that gives off the impression that they don’t care and there’s no judgement, but we all know that they’re thinking, “The f*ck is up with this weirdo?” because they’re a human being and we human beings judge everybody over everything.  Hell, my job depends on that!

Then there are the parents who populate such screenings.  Our current culture is one built on fear and panic, that there are dangers everywhere that could bring harm to a parent’s precious child, and I know that at least one parent will see me sit down in a screen populated mostly with children and assume that I’m not here for the film.  Christ, I was one of two people in the first screening of Shaun The Sheep: The Movie last week, and the mother of the daughter that she had brought to the film turned around and looked at me multiple times as I was laughing with judgemental eyes that carried a shaming mixture of bewilderment, suspicion, and even more judgement.  As the lone man at a screening of Peppa goddamn Pig?  I might as well walk around with a flashing neon sign that advertises the ankle bracelet I don’t have.

The programme – I hesitate to call it a “film” because the titular episode is 15 minutes at best and the overall thing doesn’t even last 50 minutes – itself did not help matters.  It’s aimed at the lowest of ages and carries a soft, safe, carefree feel and humour that is typical in pre-school entertainment.  It has a crude yet colourful art-style that very much resembles the kind of world that a child would be able to draw.  The dialogue is to-the-point, loud, and restates everything all of the time to make absolutely sure that pre-schoolers can understand what is going on.  It has catchphrases and loud inherently funny noises and is suited very much to the kind of viewer I was a good decade and a half ago.

And that’s what stuck with me.  Bitter, jaded, lonely 20 year-old Me was getting pretty much nothing positive from this experience; young, wide-eyed, easily-impressed and optimistic 5 year-old Me may possibly have loved it.  He may have been enraptured, he might have sang and danced and oinked without a care in the world.  He might have irritated the crap out of his reluctant parents, and then looked back on these memories with equal parts disdain and fondness.  Some of the kids got really into Peppa Pig, laughing and clapping and cheering which such wide-eyed youthful sincerity as to remind me that I can never be that cheerily pure again.

I can’t be that accepting.  I can’t look at the deliberately amateurish art-style without thinking of how Young Me would have been over the moon that there was a cartoon made that looked exactly as good as I could draw back then – and I’ve somehow gotten even worse in the intervening years – but a Me of that age might not have.  I can’t see the graph-paper “teeth” that the characters have without instantly being horrified by how f*cking terrifying it makes the characters look, but a Me of that age might not have.  I can’t witness the Milkshake! presenter links without questioning whether a) they’re all on drugs, b) they realise just how patronising they come off as, and c) just how miserable their job must make them feel, but a Me of Peppa Pig’s target age may possibly have found them delightfully fun, innocent and sincere.

Then again, maybe I wouldn’t have.  There were no children over the age of about 6 – I estimate as a wild guess, please don’t call the police – and the majority of them completely refused to play along with the Milkshake! gang’s antics.  Cries to sing along to songs that everyone apparently already knew fell on deaf ears, calls to dance around went studiously ignored, and almost every attempt at getting a response from the audience was accompanied by extremely uncomfortable stone-cold silence.  I was in a nearly full theatre with tonnes of parents and kids on a Saturday morning, and it was like I was in an empty theatre on a Wednesday afternoon.  Are kids today really that cynical?  Do they really not have time for doing what children’s TV presenters, whose job is to connect with kids, tell them to do, or was I never actually into that in the first place?  Or are the parents just miserable f*cks who won’t let their kids do anything?

And then there were the kids who couldn’t sit still for fifty minutes, who got bored and started running about instead trying to amuse themselves.  How they’d been brought to the cinema as a treat to watch one of their very favourite pieces of entertainment on the big screen, but their excitable and easily-distracted minds rendered them incapable of actually paying attention the whole way through.  One child actually took a fascination to me, not kidding.  She would repeatedly get out of her front-row seat, run about the screen and then start approaching me, possibly in curious wonderment as to why I, a grown-ass 20 year-old man, was sat in a cinema with her watching Peppa Pig.  She tried to interact with me, even offering up a straw wrapper, but I tried my best to ignore her because her father looked like the kind of man who would immediately punch me in the f*cking teeth if I so much as thought about exchanging pleasantries.

I was a man out of place.  I was watching a programme not intended for me, in an audience mostly comprised of human beings a quarter my age, face-to-face with how much I’ve aged and how creeping my own mortality can be.  I spent the entire run-time of Peppa Pig confronting various philosophical questions about my life and frequently settled back on these two terrifying thoughts: at Age 20 I feel so horrifyingly old, and that one day I am going to die.  Despite my attempts to cocoon myself in the things I liked as a child, to reacquire them and love them and never lose sight of my inner child, I can never truly return.  I can never recapture the base level of wonder and enjoyment required to enjoy Peppa goddamn Pig, not to mention how the embarrassed silence that greeted the Milkshake! crew lead me to re-think everything about my formative years.

Peppa Pig: The Golden Boots & Favourite Stories put me through an existential crisis.  Peppa PigPeppa goddamn Pig did this.  I gotta admit that that’s pretty funny, in all honesty.

Also, because I know for a fact that somebody will complain about this not being a review unless I properly review it: it is quite literally just a DVD that they’re charging cinema prices to watch.  Just wait for the actual DVD, then you’ll only need to pay the once.  Take your kids to Shaun The Sheep, instead.

Callum Petch is older than he’s ever been and now he’s even older.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

The Croods

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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.


croods26] The Croods (22nd March 2013)

Budget: $135 million

Gross: $587,204,668

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 70%

Lilo & Stitch takes its time before revealing its heart.  Oh, sure, its appearance is obvious from pretty much the start of the film, but the true extent of its heart isn’t revealed until later into the movie, firstly disarming and softening up the audience with extremely funny comedy and then, when their guards are down, putting them through the emotional ringer.  It swings for the fences – of course it does, it’s a Disney movie, that’s what they do – but waits until such a time that the act is earned.  It’s also a flawlessly constructed film that never puts a foot wrong, contradicts itself or bends the world to the will of its protagonists, but the tone and heart reveal is still mighty important.

By contrast, How To Train Your Dragon, after its purposefully slightly chaotic opening scene, wastes no time revealing its heart.  If Lilo & Stitch hides the extent of its heart and then gradually rolls up its sleeve, How To Train Your Dragon rips off its sleeve at the outset and spends its runtime shoving it in your face screaming, “LOOK AT IT! LOOK AT MY HEART AND EMOTIONS!”  It swings for the fences from the outset over everything which makes certain scenes and gestures feel unearned because its prior swinging for the fences ends up accidentally robbing certain scenes of their impact – or, in other words, the Stoick and Hiccup stuff doesn’t work because Stoick is mostly just a one-dimensional disapproving jackass until he isn’t, which makes him insufferable until the switch and makes the switch itself ring hollow.  It’s also a problematic film that doesn’t quite work, due to it contradicting itself, bending the world to the will of its protagonist, and that certain other thing that I still can’t explain, but I know I’m in the minority on all of this.

Of these two approaches, The Croods opts for the first, which itself is a smart idea – and before I go on, I must stress that I say this because I prefer films with pacing, not because I think that all animation should be like Disney; I don’t think that.  But it also tries something different than the prior two, it rarely swings for the fences with its heart.  Oh, it still swings for the fences with its comedy, which is broad and loud and very physical in nature, but when it does reveal its giant beating heart, it’s decidedly more reserved, more understated.  There are still grand emotional gestures and BIG scenes, but in a way that doesn’t feel as pervasive as in those other two movies.

Now, of course, this might also be down to my own personal baggage.  Lilo & Stitch’s heart trades on the bond between a “pet” and their owner, and the general bond of a family regardless of how non-traditional they may be – which both worked, and still do work, gangbusters for me – whilst How To Train Your Dragon’s heart trades on the bond between a “pet” and their owner, and the approval of and bonding between a father and son – the second of which, as previously discussed in detail and thanks to personal stuff, does not work for me.  The Croods’ heart, by contrast, focusses solely on dad Grug’s attempts to protect and earn love from his family.  It doesn’t have a secondary outlet for its heart, like those other films do, especially since Eep is way less important to the film than she first appears – more on that shortly – and my general disinterest with tales about fathers and father figures in media may explain why I found the heart of this film less in-my-face than in Lilo & Stitch.

Not to say that it doesn’t work, mind.  The Croods pulls it off spectacularly well, which is why I rate the film so highly – more on that in a moment – but that’s probably why I find it more quietly moving instead of openly moving.  Looking at family through the perspective of women, and especially sisters and mother figures, touches and interests me based on my own experiences, so Lilo & Stitch’s heart piledrives me into the middle of next week.  I am a dog owner back home, so that part of How To Train Your Dragon’s heart shivs me in the gut.  But father figures have never held as much of an impact for me as I was primarily raised by my mother, so The Croods’ heart makes me warm and fuzzy but not as majorly as in those prior films.

Those of you who do not obsessively follow along to director’s credits in animated movies may be wondering why I have spent so long comparing The Croods to How To Train Your Dragon and Lilo & Stitch.  Well, each of those films share a co-writer/co-director in the shape of one Chris Sanders.  Sanders began his career as a character designer for criminally forgotten 1980s kids TV series Muppet Babies, before making the transition to Walt Disney Feature Animation during their Renaissance in the 90s, working predominately on story for The Rescuers Down Under, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast, along with helping script Mulan.  In the late-90s, Sanders was approached by then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner to direct his own film, under the provision that its budget would be lower than typical Disney fare ($80 mil for Stitch vs. $130 mil for Tarzan, for example).  Dean DeBlois would eventually be brought on to co-write and co-direct, and the results would come forth in 2002’s very successful Lilo & Stitch.

Then, however, something happened.  Sanders had started significant work on American Dog, a film about a Hollywood star dog who gets lost in the desert.  By the time that it came to screen the film to higher-up executives, control of Disney’s feature animation division had switched from Michael Eisner to Bob Iger, and ex-Pixar head John Lasseter – who, according to rumours that I can’t substantiate, was allegedly not a fan of Lilo & Stitch – was brought on as Chief Creative Officer of the studio.  These test screenings did not go well and Sanders was inundated with notes and suggestions.  According to Lasseter, Lee Unkrich, and several other animators, but not Sanders himself – he has stayed quiet on the issue – Sanders actively resisted these changes and was removed from the film.  Soon after, Sanders negotiated his release from Disney and signed onto DreamWorks.

(Because I know you’re curious: American Dog was handed over to Chris Williams of The Emperor’s New Groove and Byron Howard of Tangled, re-tooled significantly in the space of just 18 months, and released as the mild 2008 hit Bolt.)

Upon joining DreamWorks, Sanders got to work on Crood Awakenings, which itself has had a tumultuous road to being a finished product.  First announced in 2005, the film was to be another entry into DreamWorks’ five-picture deal with Aardman Animations, with a script by Racing Stripes and Quest For Camelot writer Kirk DeMicco and John Cleese.  Yes, that John Cleese.  The pair had been trying to get a film version of Roald Dhal’s The Twits made, which lead to DreamWorks getting a hold of their script and inviting the pair to work on an idea of the company’s, them both settling on the germ of an idea that would grow into The Croods.  Of course, the Aardman angle didn’t pan out – more on that in the Flushed Away entry – and the rights reverted back to DreamWorks.

Enter Chris Sanders in March of 2007.  DreamWorks’ newest signee was barely in the door and already chomping at the bit to get to work on a new film, even planning on significantly re-writing the film in question.  This was to be Sanders’ big new pet project… and then How To Train Your Dragon happened.  Prior to Sanders and DeBlois coming aboard, the project was allegedly a mess and needed a total overhaul, with Co-President for Production Bill Damaschke believing Sanders to be the best man for the job.  Sanders called in DeBlois, the duo remade and re-tooled How To Train Your Dragon in the space of a year, it received critical acclaim and financial success, and then, with DeBlois staying on Dragon duty, Sanders moved back to The Croods, with DeMicco returning to the project in a co-writer/co-director capacity.

The resulting film… is nowhere near as monumental or interesting as its journey into existence, hence the last page of content.  Isn’t it interesting to see how chaotic the world of animation can get, though?  Look, I like The Croods – I think that it’s a very funny, very well-animated, and surprisingly moving film – but there’s not really much to say about it because it doesn’t swing for the fences.  It tries to be lower-key in nearly every facet, a film that works as entertaining entertainment and not much more.  It succeeds, and I must respect a film that knows its limits and doesn’t try to be something that it’s not, but that automatically makes it the least interesting of Chris Sanders’ projects to talk about – Lilo & Stitch is an amazing movie that I could talk for hours about, How To Train Your Dragon has its conflicted push-pull nature and problematic issues that keep it from greatness which makes it interesting to talk about, The Croods… has clever character animation? Where the titular family only occasionally walk like recognisable humans, instead remaining in their less-developed Neanderthal states.

The one really interesting thing about the film that I can go into detail about is with regards to the film’s main character.  Now, going into this film, I had been led to believe that Eep, the daughter of the clan voiced by Emma Stone, was the lead character of the film.  The marketing had said so, the entire premise of the film hinged on her, and Sanders had worked with female protagonists before with Lilo & Stitch – Lilo’s arc in that film being just as vital and central to the film as Stitch’s.  I even noted The Croods down in my Monsters vs. Aliens piece as one of 11 animated films in the last decade to feature lead female protagonists that aren’t princesses (because this medium does have a gender problem).

Turns out that a severe hoodwinking has been ongoing as Eep is not the protagonist of The Croods.  Instead, she’s the perspective of The Croods, she’s how we see the family and how we’re supposed to feel about them changes as her thoughts on them change.  She provides the bookending narration speeches that animated films are overly fond of nowadays, but her arc is relatively minor – learning to not resent her father so much – and she’s shuffled back into the deck once the real narrative momentum kicks in.  She is not our protagonist.  Our protagonist is actually Grug, the Nicholas Cage voiced patriarch of the family, and his arc – where he learns that change and new are not necessarily bad things and that being overly protective is going to drive his family away from him – is the one that gets the lion’s share of the screen time.

Now, yes, I was and still am disappointed by this reveal.  Animation has a major gender problem – there’s nothing wrong with princesses as a concept, but there is something wrong when they are the only option available – and there should be more female-led and female-focussed and female-created animation out there.  Going to all of the effort of making out an animated film to be about the lead female character only to have the actual film side-line her in favour of focussing near-exclusively on the father – and the boy that she’s fascinated by and sweet on, Guy – feels like, for lack of a better phrase, a real dick move.

That being said, the stuff with Grug is really well-done, enlivened by the fact that we are encouraged to look at him primarily through Eep’s eyes.  Grug starts the film as a real irritant, a drag whose desire to protect his family crosses the line from nobly intentioned to selfishly suffocating, but he’s not solely that.  He’s capable of being funny, his tight-knit plans do help the family to survive in certain cases, and he does truly care.  But because we see him through Eep’s eyes, we also see how his intentions can be perceived by people who aren’t as fanatically devoted to him.  It keeps the viewer at that distance since, otherwise, the film runs the risk of becoming a “Father Knows Best, You Silly Women” story instead of a tale about a father learning to loosen his control on the world, accept change and tell his family every once in a while that he does truly love them.

The film commits to this too.  Grug comes further and further to the forefront as the film progresses, first becoming petty, out-of-his-element, and spiteful over the world telling him that his daughter and the new man taking charge of his family’s life are both right, before eventually softening, working through his issues, and becoming a more noble and tolerant member of the family.  Each stage corresponds to Eep’s relationship with Grug, with the tonal handling of the whole affair – first wacky comedy, then pathetic bitter alienator, awkward cringe comedy, and finally genuine heartfelt sincerity – providing a strong marker for how far along his road he is.

It all leads up to the sequence in which Grug selflessly throws the clan and Guy across the chasm, recognising that he can’t adapt and that the best thing that could happen for the family that he cares for is to sacrifice himself to save them.  That’s the moment in which The Croods reveals that it’s been buttering up the audience for a genuine emotional payoff, and it’s a legitimately moving sequence.  I was even genuinely fooled into thinking that this was the film’s endgame.  The film is building, from pretty much the outset, to some kind of grand gesture that puts Grug back into the genuine best interests of the family without suffocating them, and this seemed to be it.  I genuinely thought that we would end with Grug dead and the family making a new life for themselves in the new world, especially since there is no full-on antagonist for the film; wise move.

I mean, it obviously wasn’t going to, this is a family film after all and family animation rarely seems to want to push itself to as dark places as the medium and genre used to, but I believed it might, which is a credit to the film’s writing, pacing, and individual scene direction.  Therefore, as legitimately sweet as the final 15 minutes are, they still feel a little extraneous; the film rewarding Grug’s redemption and selfless act of kindness by reuniting him with those he values most.  Not helped, mind you, by the fact that his story offers three separate endings of varying quality for Grug before it settles on the Second Chance ending.  Again, it’s my fault for thinking that this light-hearted family comedy would end in a way that could even be remotely construed as bittersweet, but it still feels like punch-pulling.

Then again, if it had, audiences probably wouldn’t have kept coming back.  Yes, at the time when DreamWorks needed it most – mainly because of what’s to come, which we mostly won’t be covering here – The Croods was an out-of-the-box hit.  It opened to a great $43 million, comfortably beating the rest of the chart, and the typical strong DreamWorks hold – even major underperformers like Mr. Peabody & Sherman (32%), Rise of the Guardians (43.7%), and next week’s Turbo (35.5%) rarely drop more than 50% between opening and second weekends – was bolstered by a near-total lack of competition and strong audience reception, helping it to a very strong 10-week run on the Top 10.  It would close a hair’s breadth away from $190 million domestic.  Overseas, the film also did excellently, securing another $400 million, and making The Croods the ninth highest-grossing DreamWorks film worldwide.

So, why?  Why The Croods?  This is the through-line for the final leg of this series, after all; why The Croods was majorly successful and yet Turbo and Rise of the Guardians were not?  Well, much like with the film itself, the answers are pretty obvious and unspectacular, but you can’t exactly dispute what you’re seeing because, hey, they work, don’t they?  First off, the release date: end of March.  Same release date as the first How To Train Your Dragon, which worked gangbusters before and why not stake out a little patch of Chris Sanders’ own?  Plus, it was also the first proper animated film of 2013, Escape From Planet Earth came and went with almost literally no fuss a month earlier, and the next film for release, Epic by Blue Sky Pictures, wasn’t due for two full months which, in box office land, is practically an automatic monopoly for whatever did take its slot.

(Side Bar Notice, real quick: after Rise of the Guardians, DreamWorks Animation had fulfilled their contract with Paramount and, thanks to Paramount offering them a poor deal and wishing to make their own in-house animation studio, the company switched distributors to 20th Century Fox, where The Croods was distributed.  20th Century Fox also own Blue Sky, makers of Epic, so this release date will have been strategically determined and deliberated on majorly for a long, long time.  In fact, with the exception of next week’s Turbo, one can’t really foot the blame on DreamWorks’ underperformance with release dates, Fox have been really good to them with that.  Anyways…)

Second off, marketing.  If you haven’t yet, scroll back up and watch the first trailer for this film.  Yes, it recalls the tone of How To Train Your Dragon, but the tone of How To Train Your Dragon is also markedly different to anything DreamWorks have cooked up, especially in regards to the marketing.  The comedy isn’t excessively broad, that wondrous sense of discovery that the film has is on display, it doesn’t give away every beat and every gag but the audience knows what they’re in for, which is what Rise of the Guardians didn’t do and consequently paid a heavy price for it.  It’s a good trailer, it’s a strong trailer, and other types of marketing were bloody everywhere come release time, you couldn’t move for advertising material of some kind for The Croods.  Fox put their all into the marketing for this one and did so in a way that differentiated the film from the accepted tired DreamWorks formula without confusing or leaving the audience in the dark.

And third off, it’s a funny heart-warming film about family by a really talented storyteller.  Of course it was going to do well!  Good films about families will always, always bond with the movie-going public.  They’re sweet and sincere in a way that resonates harder with audiences because the typical audience for animated features nowadays are families.  It allows the heart to cross age levels, tap into insecurities in all generations, go broad but not gross with the humour because most audience members need to get every joke, and just generally be true family viewing.  Why do you think Paddington is still raking in all of the money ever?

The Croods is small and intimate and character-focussed, which is something that family filmmaking has mostly forgotten nowadays in search of spectacle, but the ones that do remember are the ones that end up making the most cash.  There is spectacle in The Croods, that $135 million budget is not just from it being 8 bloody years in the making, but it never drowns out that character-focussed centre, and those are the films that stick with people and the families that the film is aimed at.  I don’t think The Croods is brilliant, not by any stretch of the term, but it is very good for thuddingly obvious reasons that become clear when watched, and the reason why The Croods was a major success is not because of any fancy formula.  It’s just a very good film, marketed brilliantly with a clear target audience that it speaks directly to, released at a perfect time.


Next week, we close out the film side of this series by looking at a film with poor marketing, a target audience that no longer exists, that was released at the single worst possible time.  Did Turbo deserve the death march that it was forced down, and could anything have been done to stop it?  Those are the questions that we shall be addressing next time.

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

Callum Petch lost someone he could have saved.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Shaun The Sheep: The Movie

Quietly daring, raucously funny, and surprisingly heartwarming, Shaun The Sheep: The Movie is yet another home-run for Aardman Animations.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

shaun sheepOn the surface, Shaun The Sheep: The Movie doesn’t seem particularly groundbreaking.  After all, it looks like yet another kid-focussed animated movie about animals, whilst the film itself doesn’t openly re-invent any wheels, doesn’t stretch itself when it comes to gags, and doesn’t go overboard with giant action setpieces and such.  On the surface, Shaun The Sheep is just another animated kids’ flick, a genre which we are almost literally drowning in at the moment.  However, in its own modest way, Shaun The Sheep is actually really daring and, along with the rather similar in a lot of ways Paddington, a major pushback against the misguidedly dark, bloated excess that ‘family’ filmmaking has recently devolved into.

Specifically, Shaun The Sheep is a joyous, lean, no-nonsense movie.  Much like Paddington, it knows what it wants to be, executes what it wants to be with aplomb, and gets out.  Not a second is wasted, there are no sudden left-turns into unnecessary darkness, and it proudly wears its heart on its sleeve.  It’s the kind of light, cynicism-free, genuine family film which, much like with Paddington, they just don’t make anymore.  The kind where the gag stock in trade is physical humour, where the central dynamic is all about family, where the scale is small and intimate, where stakes are personal, and where character is king above all else.

In other words, it’s the antithesis of modern day ‘family’ filmmaking and something that only Aardman could have made.  There’s care and love in every frame, every shot, every scene, every character, action, sound cue, as well as a stunning level of confidence.  Other filmmakers might have tried to expand the scale, introduce too many ancillary characters that we’re supposed to care about, plough every single character full of backstory and unique personality, and heighten the stakes outside of the main cast to create a finale that’s supposed to be weightier than if it were just the main cast, but Aardman have trust in their work.  Trust that their film is fine as is and doesn’t need unnecessary bells and whistles.

Shaun has a laser-tight focus on its main characters – Shaun, The Farmer, Farmer’s dog Bitzer, and deranged animal controller A. Trumper who relentlessly pursues the sheep through The Big City – and any stakes in the film directly relate to those characters and their wellbeing, nothing further.  There are secondary characters – most specifically the flock that follows Shaun to The Big City, and a scruffy female stray dog who Shaun bumps into – but the film never makes the mistake of handing over the film to them unnecessarily for extended durations.  They’re there to compliment the main cast, not overpower them.  Meanwhile, the backstories, personalities, and relationships of the main cast are simple and upfront, told through actions and an excellent pair of montages at the start of the film – they make the cast feel more rounded and genuine in five minutes than The House of Magic managed in 80.

On that note, the film’s writer-directors Richard Starzak and Mark Burton have cut out everything that they have deemed to be unnecessary to telling the story of Shaun The Sheep: The Movie and that includes the dialogue.  Yes, not once in Shaun The Sheep is a line of intelligible dialogue spoken.  There are animal sounds, grunts, and gibberish, but no actual dialogue.  Now, obviously, this is how it is in the TV series the film is based off of, but a less confident company would have thrown dialogue in there regardless and had the cast speak intelligibly – I know that Tom & Jerry: The Movie was over 20 years ago, but wounds like that never heal – and Aardman resisted that urge.  They had that confidence.

And the film is SO MUCH BETTER FOR IT.  It gives the film a unique voice of its own, a creative restriction that ends up influencing everything else in the film.  For example, the lack of dialogue means that gags have to be more universal, more slapstick, more built into the animation without coming off as lazy and repetitive.  It’s a tough line to walk, but Shaun makes it look ridiculously easy.  Gags come at a rapid-fire pace and aimed at all age levels with very few being expressly for a certain part of the audience, whilst recurring gags – like Trumper somehow falling (in two senses of the word) for one of the sheep’s elaborate disguises, or one of the Animal Containment inmates being unnervingly creepy – are sparingly returned to and build up to genuine payoffs instead of simply filling up time.  Boarding and layout are also excellent, building many gags around sight and blocking in a way that feels like the design of every last frame has been agonised over.

Speaking of, animation is typically fantastic.  Laika have really nailed expanding the possible technical scope and smoothness of stop-motion, as well as its integration of CGI, but there’s just something about the way that Aardman do business that will win me over each time.  There’s a weight, I feel; a physical, tangible weight to their characters.  Laika’s feel softer, lighter, less like human hands have been in touch with proceedings – sort of true, with their usage of CG and 3D printers – whilst Aardman’s feel heavier, denser, where their every move takes considerable effort.  As always, it works.  There’s nothing as complex as in The Pirates! but there is a warmth and lived-in feel, helped by the fact that, despite this effectively being a silent movie, character animations rarely go for wild and exaggerated to get across feelings.

I haven’t yet touched on Ilan Eshkeri’s score, which is a crime because it’s bloody brilliant and one of the key ways in which the film works.  Since there’s no typical dialogue, the score backs and accentuates the action, making it even clearer as to exactly how characters are thinking, feeling, etc.  It does a fantastic job at that whilst still conveying its own unique, slightly country, but always bouncy personality – and you all know how much I love me a score with some personality – not to mention the little leitmotifs that announce the arrival of a character; Trumper, for example, is always introduced with a crunchy, noodle-y and always self-consciously silly hard rock riff.  It, like the rest of the film, is charming and unlike anything else on the market at the moment.

And that’s what makes Shaun The Sheep: The Movie so special despite it honestly not being much more than a sweet funny comedy aimed at families.  Actually, scratch the “despite” part of that last sentence.  That’s exactly why it is so special!  It’s low-key, character-focussed, intimate, and inclusive in a way that most family movies nowadays just aren’t.  Family moviemaking nowadays is very much in a rut.  The animated films – and I’m singling out the bad ones, here, tropes and such aren’t bad as long as they’re done well – are mostly loud and big and spectacle lacking in heart, whilst the live-action ones have mostly migrated to 12a serialised action fests, most of which shut out the youngest by being too dark and intense for them.

But Aardman remember.  Aardman remember that family entertainment should be enjoyable for all members and ages of the family.  They remember the alternative to loud heartless spectacle, they remember that a light, character-driven animated film isn’t somehow lesser, and they embrace that fact.  Shaun The Sheep: The Movie is nothing particularly groundbreaking, but it is unlike anything else currently in the cinema and the only people who won’t laugh, have fun, or be moved are either relentless killjoys or legally declared dead.  Do not miss this one!

Callum Petch is too hot, call the police and the fireman!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Apologies for the delay, this week, folks.  I needed extra time to be able to crack this one, and I’d rather be late than turn in a sub-par entry.  Anyways…

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.


madagascar 3 224] Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted (8th June 2012)

Budget: $145 million

Gross: $746,921,274

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 81%

Why is it that the third instalment in a trilogy is typically the weakest?  It’s a commonly held belief that the finale to a trilogy is always the weakest part, but why exactly is that often the case?  Typically, when a third instalment of something falls, it’s because the formula powering the series has become ever more apparent and the film itself lacks the ideas, energy, and originality to mask that fact.  Franchises are often scared to come up with new avenues to take their cast and world down, most likely out of fear that audiences will reject them out of hand, so they simply recycle and do-over, only increasing the scale in the hopes that the scale distracts people from the realisation that everybody involved is out of ideas and/or phoning it in.

There are two separate ways out of that issue, however.  The first is to use your characters and world to explore new themes, even if the surface dressing is still the same – the Toy Story series, for example, has the same basic plot outline each movie, the toys get separated from Andy and have to find their way back to him, but uses that to explore a different theme each time, with consumerism trends in the first film, the nature of collectables in the second, and growing up and maturing out of toys in the third.  Note how I specify “themes” there.  There needs to be a reason as to why the script is being changed, otherwise you just end up with a film that’s equally as pointless and aimless as one that just blatantly rehashes the first film – this is why The Hangover Part II sucked, because it soullessly redid the first film with no effort, and why The Hangover Part III is equally as bad, because the switch to a pitch black action comedy felt like an idea that somebody had but never bothered to properly flesh out.

The other way is to simply build on what works.  People typically don’t mind, or don’t mind as greatly, that they’re getting the same thing in a new coat of paint if the problems with the prior films are fixed, the new film has enough new ideas and spins and variations to justify its existence, and that the new instalment radiates joy – that it’s happy to be here and that everyone involved is happy to be here for reasons that don’t relate to their massive paycheques.  This is why nobody – except stuffy, or admittedly more discerning, film critics/snobs – cares that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is formulaic and predictable, because each film has enough new spins and differences, as well as a cast and crew who mostly look like they are having the time of their lives, that it gets away with it.

Into this picture enters the Madagascar series, one that by its very nature is going to end up feeling formulaic.  The entire premise of the series hinges on the cast never actually making it back to New York City as, once they do, you have to address that however you think is best before the series ends.  As fun as the cast is, they need that drive to get back to New York, along with the inevitable realisation that they actually rather like being free animals thank you kindly, because once you work through that there is nowhere else to go.  Hell, stretching it out over three full-length films is already inviting sighs of derision from more sceptical viewers.

Not to mention that, thematically, these films very much tread the exact same ground over and over and over again.  Each film’s central theme is about family, and specifically Alex’s family.  In Madagascar, he loses his anonymous public family but becomes closer to his surrogate family of friends.  Escape 2 Africa has him drift apart from his surrogate family as he reconnects with his real and long-lost family, before closing the film by becoming equally close with both of them.  Whilst Europe’s Most Wanted sees Alex discover how much his first surrogate family means to him, and replacing his anonymous public family with a second surrogate family of circus animals.  (OK, admittedly it’s a bit of a stretch, but you get what I mean, hopefully.)  Plus the fact that each film’s climax comes from him stepping up and assuming the leadership role that he is destined to have.

So, why is this not a problem, then?  I mean, the Shrek films trod the same ground over and over, and critics, animation lovers and, eventually to a degree, viewers revolted over it.  The Madagascar series becoming more and more popular, and becoming more and more critically accepted, despite doing the same thing seems to go against common sense.  Why?  Because it chooses Option 2 from before.  Each Madagascar film is working from the same basic template but tries different things and different tacks in the hopes that something fits and to keep things fresh.  The first film is a joke machine but also keeps falling back into bad DreamWorks habits so doesn’t work as well as it should, the second film went in on the ensemble nature and added the heart that was missing from the first, creating a superior if still not excellent film as a result.

The third film… well, saying that it’s a mess doesn’t even begin to properly describe it.

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted is the moment in which this series threw off any pretence of making sense, flipped off the DreamWorks formula that it had fallen back on as a safety net in the past, and embraced its zany, madcap, cartoon (for lack of a better term) nature.  The opening 20 minutes feature the penguins and the chimps trashing a Monaco hotel room, an elaborate Prince of Versailles disguise that’s also packed to the gills with technology, an interesting idea as to how close to Africa Monaco is, a ridiculous car chase, and an animal control hunter who is like a cross between a Terminator, Carmelita Fox, and a German Shepard (more on her later).  It’s bonkers, it’s silly, and it’s a huge stupid amount of fun.  The series seems to have finally truly found its voice!

But then our four leads stow away with an animal circus, in the hopes that their impressing of an American promoter – represented as the single most stereotypical American image possible, he even has a pet eagle – gets them a ticket back to New York.  From here, the zaniness is significantly dialled back down, the heart is pushed back up and we settle into a groove that’s like a more unique version of Madagascar 2 – a film that cribbed from almost literally every animated film ever.  The madcap zaniness, save for a few running gags, only resurfaces whenever the prior mentioned animal control hunter forcibly inserts herself back into a film that has no real usage for her – fitting, since she ends up operating well outside of her jurisdiction by this point and so is quite literally forcing herself into a place she no longer belongs in.

In fact, let’s not put this off any longer and just talk about Captain Chantel DuBois, already.  She is, undoubtedly, the highlight of the film because Europe’s Most Wanted just lets go of the leash and lets her run about with pretty much zero ties to reality.  She can break through walls simply by running at them, has back-up plans within back-up plans, breaks no sweats when escaping from prison, punches out snakes, can revive her heavily injured comrades purely through the power of overblown musical numbers, and has the kind of nutso determination that would even give Cruella de Vil pause – a comparison that almost literally every single film reviewer ever has made.  She is very much like the Penguins, except that the film is able to increase the laughs it can mine from her because, unlike the Penguins, the script doesn’t call for her to be anything other than this force of nature and that mystique makes her traits all the funnier.

She’s also barely connected to the film at large.  After the Monaco chase – the uproarious, delirious, ridiculous Monaco chase – she doesn’t come across the main cast again for literally another 40 minutes, and even then it’s purely to set up the pointless Third Act Misunderstanding so that we can have The All Is Lost Moment.  Her presence feels unnecessary, like the writers came up with this stellar idea for a character and refused to drop her when she became pointless to the story.  Yet, the film also ends up addressing this.  Everybody else in the film has moved onto to other, more important and pressing issues, but DuBois is crazed and obsessive and won’t let things lie, so she wrestles control of the film back to herself even though she’s completely pointless to everyone’s current story arc.

In that sense, she could be read as a stealth parody of villains in kids’ animated films, and especially villains in prior Madagascar films – the completely superfluous presence who feels here more out of supposed necessity than anything else, only with their competency amped up to extreme proportions and their not-being-needed actually being vital to the character itself.  In less capable hands, this would still make DuBois a pointless presence who ends up making the film feel unfocussed – the kind of satire that isn’t really satirical, just a self-aware example of what it’s supposedly making fun of.  However, DuBois is such a ridiculous presence that she ends up feeling vital to the film as a frequent shot of barely restrained insanity to keep the pace and tone up, much like the Penguins in the first two films.

Anyways, back to my prior statement of “Madagascar 3 is a complete mess.”  The reason that I say that is because under any level of thinking, the film falls apart completely.  Not in terms of plot, the jumpy “we’re making it up as we go” nature of the scenarios fits the “we’re making it up as we go” travel plans of the main cast.  But everything about the film itself is like a laundry list of faults.  Its tone is all-over-the-place, lurching from something close to Madagascar 2’s heart-on-sleeve sincerity to deranged anything-goes joke machine – King Julian’s plot this time is that he falls in love with a tricycle riding circus bear and everything to do with it is exactly as ridiculous as it sounds.  Its pacing never slows, sometimes to its detriment with it never truly letting certain events sink in.  The non-Alex parts of the main cast are, once again, shuffled to the back of the deck for more time with the new characters.

It’s a conflicted film, is what I’m getting at; one that, even when it seems to have found its groove – balancing madcap mayhem with an acknowledged but not totally prevalent undercurrent of sadness – still doesn’t know what exactly it’s trying to be.  One that simultaneously improves on its predecessors’ prior faults and also does nothing but repeat them over and over again.  One that makes absolutely no sense and, at the same time, makes perfect sense.  That’s the masterstroke, essentially; Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted is a stretched-out classic animation short.  Nothing makes conventional sense, expected rules are constantly flaunted, and thinking is actively discouraged as doing so destroys the magic.

It’s hard for me to truly explain why Madagascar 3 is a better film than its prior two entries because, as I’ve just said, trying to talk about the film properly reveals it to be full of holes that you could drive a truck through, but my guess is energy.  There’s genuine propulsive energy to proceedings, where every scene leads straight into the next, and what it loses in emotional heft by refusing to step off the accelerator post-title card it gains through fun and the fun kind of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks.  Hell, that madcap pace is the reason why the critics who did enjoy it tripped over themselves to praise it.

I guess this is the point where I should mention Noah Baumbach, huh?  Now, so far in this recent series of famous live-action talent stopping by DreamWorks to help out with their films, the implementations haven’t been huge DNA shifting inclusions.  By that I mean, they’ve not been as hands on as Baumbach was here – del Toro came on late to Megamind and was more involved with story in Puss In Boots than anything else, whilst Roger Deakins was specifically brought on to help with lighting for How To Train Your Dragon – although they were still very important, animation being a very collaborative medium and all.  By contrast, Baumbach got his hands on the script and proceeded to re-write 60 pages of it, which – since one page of a script often equates to one minute of film – is roughly two-thirds of the film, back in Summer 2010, two years prior to its release.

You may notice that I haven’t spent ages talking about how Baumbach influences the finished film, whether his voice is drowned out by that of DreamWorks, and if the film is better or worse for having him.  Well, that’s because I don’t know as, probably surprising no-one considering the gaps in my film library, I have never seen a Noah Baumbach film – with the exception of his co-writing credit for Fantastic Mr. Fox – so I can’t say anything for certain at this time.  What I can say is that there is certainly more quirk here, a more specific kind of quirk that feels very individualistic and auteur-ish in comparison to the typical group-written scripts of animated films.  Once again, there is a sequence where DuBois heals her badly injured comrades by singing “Non Je Ne Regrette Rien” – incidentally, I never knew how much I wanted to hear Frances McDormand sing that song until it happened – and that’s a different kind of quirk than King Julian’s continued habit of singing pop songs badly.

So, as you may have gathered – both by the unfocussed nature of the piece and the fact that I gave myself three extra days to try cracking this thing – I can’t really explain why Madagascar 3 works for me since, again, it is objectively a giant undecided mess, the kind of film that wants to have its cake and eat it too and it does manage to do both but you’re really not sure how and my head now hurts.  Its flaws are major but fade into the background whilst it’s running because the film is just so much damn fun and so fast as to eventually overwhelm the viewer and protect them from those flaws, some of which are deliberate – there are several instances of blatant product placement but the film does so in a way where it calls attention to how stupidly out of place it is, making it a joke in and of itself.

The public very much seemed to feel the same way, as Madagascar 3 would go on to be DreamWorks Animation’s most successful non-Shrek film ever.  Domestically, it opened in first place, trouncing expected chart-topper Prometheus by nearly $10 million.  It even held surprisingly strong against Brave, only tumbling down majorly once Ice Age: Continental Drift came along to poach its 6 week-old screens.  It closed barely $1 million less than what How To Train Your Dragon made domestically, making it the second-best non-Shrek domestic performance for DreamWorks ever and the tenth highest grossing film domestically of 2012.  “Afro Circus” may have gotten on the nerves of everyone who wasn’t 6, but you gotta admit that it served its purpose.

Overseas, the film was a frickin’ monster, more than doubling the amount it made domestically.  Now, the Madagascar series has always performed well overseas, especially in Europe, and adding 3D premiums onto that just pushes things into overdrive.  Number 1 debuts in Italy, Spain, Brazil, France, Russia, Germany, and The UK (those last two being especially surprising since, in typical inexplicable animation fashion, it didn’t debut there until October), strong performance in burgeoning market China, even Japan took to it and DreamWorks films usually sink like a stone there!  Just like with Escape 2 Africa before it, Europe’s Most Wanted closed with a foreign total over $100 million more than its predecessor, making it the eighth highest grossing film worldwide of the year, only beaten animation-wise by the quite-literally-inexplicably-popular-overseas Ice Age series.

So, why Madagascar 3?  Why this as the big foreign homerun over pretty much anything else DreamWorks have ever done?  Well, first of all, you have the Madagascar brand, and people like the Madagascar brand – as well they should, they’re good movies.  Mainly, however, I think that it is that unique surrealism that did it.  Although there are still some specific pop culture references in here, mainly stemming from King Julian’s singing habit, they’re not the main source of humour.  They never have been for the Madagascar series, not in the same way that the Shrek series is.  The jokes instead come more from character interactions, slapstick and physical comedy, and just plain weirdness, which translates better overseas.

Madagascar 3 doubles down on the weirdness and the slapstick and such, which makes the humour more universal, more global, and more appreciable to non-American audiences without sliding into generic non-descript jokes that lack identity – the sequence where the guards systematically go through every prison cell escape tactic in the book is a bit that’s hilarious to quite literally everybody and feels unique and specific to Madagascar 3.  That embracing of the weirdness elevates the film beyond Yet Another Talking Animal Movie and films with distinct, easily-marketable identities are near-guaranteed to do well.  Throw in the emergence of 3D, the goodwill banked by the franchise, it being a trilogy-ender, and the fact that it is a genuinely great film – although good luck getting me to explain why it is – and the combination is pretty much bullet-proof.

(Side Bar, real quick: This, incidentally, is why Penguins Of Madagascar switched places with Home on DreamWorks’ release schedule.  Madagascar was thought to be an impenetrable brand at home and abroad, and DreamWorks could have used a hit after the box office and financial woes that I have referred to and will continue to refer to throughout this series.  It’s also why the film’s total collapse at the domestic box office and mild performance overseas was genuinely surprising and alarming for pretty much everybody everywhere.)

So, with numbers and factors like those, is it any wonder that, despite having burnt through and dealt with the franchise’s end game, Katzenberg was still prepping us all for a fourth instalment in 2018, until recent events forced his hand otherwise?  If How To Train Your Dragon 2 had collapsed totally – which, in a way, it sorta did, but we will get to that – that would have left him with only one film series that he could rely on, and why not keep milking your cash cow until its udders turn black and drop off?  In any case, though, that leaves Madagascar as that rare series that started out mediocre but actively improved the further on it went, which is especially surprising for an animated film.  What began as a conflicted formulaic DreamWorks film would grow to embrace its weirdness and craziness, gifting it a unique voice in a landscape of films that simply poorly imitate the better competition, and the eventual somewhat begrudging respect of snobby critics.

I almost ended this by saying that Madagascar is DreamWorks’ equivalent of the Fast & Furious series, but then I realised how utterly deranged I would have sounded if I did.  After all, at no point does Madagascar 1 sink to the lows of 2 Fast 2 Furious and at no point does any entry in this series, even my favourite Penguins of Madagascar, reach the heights of Fast Five.  The spirit of the comparison is there, though.


We are nearing the end of the Retrospective, my friends – we only have four official weeks left and one of them is devoted to TV – which means that we are going to have to deal with the troublesome state that DreamWorks Animation is currently in.  In the 24 months separating next week’s film and near-enough-the-present-day, they have only had two mostly unqualifiable successes, which is a problem, since most of the films have been originals and we know how franchise-dependent DreamWorks is.  This will be our through-line for the remaining few weeks, as we use our remaining films to try and answer this one simple question: what the hell happened?  Next week, we begin with the one that started it all, Rise of the Guardians.

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

Callum Petch is a long way from home.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!