Tag Archives: DreamWorks

Front Row with Owen and Paul: Eating Hats

Front Row Logo

Welcome to the series finale of Front Row with Owen and Paul. Even though there wasn’t a radio show this week, hosts Owen Hughes and Paul Rutland still got together to record a special podcast-only episode. As an extra special treat, they even dragged along another special guest in Helen Thain for a chat about BBC drama The Night Manager and binge-watching box-sets.

As ever, we still included both a movie review and sports round-up. Owen tried to find the positives in the latest DreamWorks Animation, Kung Fu Panda 3, whilst Paul has a bone to pick with Owen over a comment from last week.

The show will be back on Bucks101 Radio in some form or another within the next 3 weeks, but for now, thanks to everybody who listened to the radio show and downloaded any of our podcasts. If you’d like to leave us a review on iTunes, you can do so here.

There was no actual music played on this week’s podcast, but here’s a playlist of the stuff we would have played anyway:

Listen to the full playlist of every track we’ve had on Front Row via YouTube.

Right click and choose ‘save as’ to download the podcast as an MP3

Failed Critics Podcast: Zootopiatropolisplace

zootropolis

This week’s episode of the Failed Critics Podcast features Callum Petch, returning for the first time in 2016, to join both Steve Norman and Owen Hughes for four new-release reviews.

With the latest entry in the Divergent Series franchise, it seemed almost impossible to record a show without Callum’s input on Allegiant – particularly after his last appearance on the pod the week after the previous instalment, Insurgent, came out! Continuing to play to Callum’s strengths this week, there are two new animated movies out. As if it wasn’t already well set up for him with a new Dreamworks Animation out, Kung Fu Panda 3, there’s also a new Disney film (Zootopia / Zootropolis / whichever it is wherever you’re from) which has already set the standard by which to judge all other movies this year – or, at least, that’s what Callum says.

As well as this, Steve and Callum have a chat about 2008’s monster-movie Cloverfield ahead of the upcoming 10 Cloverfield Lane, whilst Owen reminisces about the 90’s and watching cult comedy Beavis & Butt-Head Do America. In the news this week, we also take a look at the Indiana Jones 5 announcement, Han Solo casting news and the furore over Spider-Man’s cameo in the Civil War trailer.

Join us again next week for our 202nd episode. Yep. We’ve recorded 201 of these things so far. It’s as astonishing to us as I’m sure it is to you too.

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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)!

Turbo

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.


turbo-sq1000_s8_f122_cc-2_rgb27] Turbo (17th July 2013)

Budget: $127 million

Gross: $282,570,682

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 67%

I really couldn’t have planned this better, folks.  Turbo really is the perfect note to send the Retrospective home on – film-wise, in any case, we still have two weeks left – because it not only perfectly demonstrates why DreamWorks Animation are currently struggling at the box office, but also excellently embodies the evolution of “The DreamWorks Movie”, the type of film that animation fans like to deride and flanderize DreamWorks as only making, which, as this series should have proven, is mostly patently untrue.  In a perfect world, I’d have the time to look at the film in-depth from both angles, but word counts are word counts, so we’ll speed through the box office stuff and then dive into the true meat of the matter: the film itself.

Turbo bombed.  Turbo bombed.  It didn’t cost DreamWorks Animation as much as Rise of the Guardians did, but it was still the second write-down that the company had to take in as many years – not to mention that Mr. Peabody & Sherman would force them to take yet another write-down not 9 months later.  Two straight bombs for an independent studio sure as hell rattles investor confidence, although confidence in Turbo’s TV spin-off – Turbo: FAST on Netflix, one of the shows that we’ll be looking at next week – may explain why Katzenberg broke the news by basically going, “Well, at least it was ONLY $13.5 million this time!”  (Plus another $2.1 million later once the film finished underperforming overseas.Turbo failed to break $100 million domestic, becoming the lowest-grossing CG DreamWorks film domestically ever – until Penguins of Madagascar managed to sail under even that low bar – and you don’t even need to adjust for inflation as it grossed even less than Antz!

Unfortunately, for those of you looking for a giant point-by-point breakdown as to precisely why a film like Turbo failed, much like I did for Rise of the Guardians a fortnight back, the reasons as to why Turbo failed are extremely simple and honestly rather justified.  The first is that release date: July 17th 2013.  It is like 20th Century Fox and DreamWorks were trying to kill the film before it had the chance to get started!  That is a release date that came a month after Monsters University, two weeks after juggernaut Despicable Me 2 – which actually beat Turbo in the latter’s opening weekend, which is sorta tragic – and two weeks before Planes dropped.  Not to mention the fact that Summer 2013 was, erm, CROWDED, to say the least.  Animation fatigue, coupled with the fact that all of those other films are connected to already-liked franchises and DreamWorks’ prior-discussed problems with oversaturation, undoubtedly lead to a belief in the general public that they could give Turbo a miss and have no protestations from their kids.

The other problem stems from Turbo looking incredibly, kinda insultingly generic, unoriginal, and rip-off-y.  I mean, look at this goddamn trailer.

Does anything about that trailer scream anything other than “Generic DreamWorks Film #278”?  It’s a talking animal movie (check) about impossible dreams (check) where the message is that you can totally achieve those unachievable dreams if you wish hard enough (check) with an all-star cast providing the voices (check), including some prime A-grade stunt casting (big check), all set to a licensed soundtrack (check) and a whole bunch of jokes that come from pop culture references, animals doing and saying non-animal things, and silly catchphrases for the kids (check, check, and WHITE SHADOW!).  Oh, and that DreamWorks smirk (checks the size of George Clooney’s starring fees).

By this point in time, “The DreamWorks Movie” had bled over into popular consciousness.  No longer just a derogatory thought process held by film critics and snarky animation buffs, it seems that the mainstream audience were now tired of the DreamWorks schtick.  What was once a fresh, original voice in a stale animated feature landscape is now itself the stale voice in a fresh, original animated feature landscape.  As previously mentioned, DreamWorks were still trying to party like it was 2007 and they were the only names on the block, so people would have to turn up to their films.  Unfortunately, nowadays, animation is very competitive and one needs to have a new, exciting voice to stand out.  Pulling the same trick out with seemingly no variation makes you seem disposable, and parents don’t have time for disposable films in today’s ultra-competitive animated landscape.

No, seriously, look at this upcoming slate of animated features of the next 22 months.  It is ridiculous in the best possible way!

And DreamWorks’ constant returning to that “The DreamWorks Movie” formula, even whilst they tried to re-invent their image with more dramatic, emotionally-engaging, and (for lack of a better word) prestige pieces – said returns coming from films like Megamind, Puss In Boots, and now Turbo – can lead to backlash, as people return to the Shrek series and Shark Tale and realise that they weren’t as good as they thought they were.  This is why Shrek Forever After did badly by Shrek standards, yet Madagascar 3 shattered box office records for its series.  The former refused to adapt sufficiently, making tentative steps towards a newer, less pop-culture focussed identity but pulling back to safety at every opportunity, and was punished for it, whilst Madagascar actively found its own voice, as a wild silly cartoon, committed to it, and was rewarded forty-fold because it was something different.

Hence why Turbo was probably doomed from the start, even if it wasn’t released immediately after two guaranteed monster hits.  It looks like the kind of film that DreamWorks should have stopped making by this point.  Christ, it even has Ryan Reynolds in the lead role, who had just come straight from DreamWorks’ own The Croods from back in March, using the exact same voice as the one he used in The Croods!  Now, I know what you’re expecting, by this point.  You’re expecting me to now turn around and refute this entire assumption, reveal the film to secretly be some kind of pro-feminist piece or secret satire of the kinds of knock-offs that the studio had spawned and indulged in since their success or something.  That’s pretty much been my thing with this series, after all, going far deeper than most people are willing to go to when looking at and analysing these films, finding new angles and such.

Well, not this time, because they were right.  Turbo is “The DreamWorks Movie”.  Those trailers and awful aggressive pun-based taglines – “He’s fast, they’re furious”?  Oh, God, just kill me already – were not setting up some kind of Bee Movie-style refuge in audacity bait-and-switch.  Turbo is the movie that you’re being sold.  It’s a film with pop culture references as the primary source of humour in a landscape where the most successful films get their jokes from physical comedy and character work.  It’s a film that casts Snoop Dogg and Samuel L. Jackson as snails whose roles are basically “Snoop Dogg” and “Samuel L. Jackson”, in a landscape that casts Idina Menzel in a big Broadway-style musical and gives her an actual character to play.  It’s a film with an unnecessarily large budget in a landscape where non-Disney-affiliated outlets aim to produce quality at a sustainable sub-$100 mil budget.

It’s a film that stops for a full minute to poke fun at annoying auto-tuned YouTube remixes of stupid stuff, long after those stopped being entertaining prospects in their own right, by doing its own annoying auto-tuned YouTube remix of stupid stuff, and it is exactly as awkward and unfunny as it reads on paper.

So why do I really like Turbo?

I mean, from everything that I’ve written about the film so far, I should hate the damn thing, and that YouTube remix really should have murdered the entire film by itself.  So why, despite setting off every single goddamn alarm bell that I have, do I really like Turbo?  Well, much like every other answer in this article, it’s quite simple: there’s heart here.  There’s heart in the film’s central dynamics – it’s a tale of two sets of brothers, Turbo & Chet, the snails, and Tito & Angelo, the humans who end up spiriting them away and looking after them, and the film does a good job at playing with the parallels – but that’s not what I mean when I say that there’s “heart”.

What’s the typical mode of attachment with “The DreamWorks Movie”?  Does it have genuine affection for its characters, set-up, mechanics, and general existence?  Or is it distant, snarky, and dismissive about all of that?  Well, if it was the latter, then I imagine that Shreks 2 and The Third, Shark Tale and, arguably due to its occasionally cruel tone, the first Madagascar wouldn’t be so reviled.  Formula is rarely noticed so readily and so dismissively by the general public if the film itself is happy to be here and happy to be doing what it sets out to do; once again: The Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Most of the lower-quality DreamWorks films – again, the first Madagascar is only included here because of those occasional moments where it forgoes its own voice in favour of sticking to formula – feel cynical from frame one, a conscious decision to just redo the Shrek formula for money instead of telling the stories they want to tell.

Turbo almost never gives off this feeling.  This doesn’t feel like a film by formula because Katzenberg wanted to guarantee a profit, this feels like a film by formula because the people making it genuinely seem to love working from it.  They recognise that it’s not perfect, hence the injection of genuine heart to ground proceedings, but they love it anyway, and that shot of love and energy is what proves to be the revitalising spark required to make the film work.  That’s why the pop culture references inspire some genuine laughs and chuckles instead of just sighs of derision, they’ve had full-on thought put into them: for example, Turbo’s radio problems received genuine laughs from me because the songs fit the situation, the animation has a field day, and each instance of the joke doesn’t outstay its welcome, in contrast to the Pied Piper from Shrek Forever After.

That’s why Samuel L. Jackson playing Snail Samuel L. Jackson works, because the love for that idea means that the film commits to it.  Robert de Niro playing Shark Robert de Niro in Shark Tale was lazy, never fully committing enough to the idea and instead just having him say vaguely Robert de Niro things in a kid-friendly manner, as if the film is constantly stopping to remind you of its joke.  Turbo, though, commits and so we get a snail who has the same kind of attitude, authority, and gravitas as Samuel L. Jackson, but who manages to still feel like a distinct entity because the film doesn’t bend over backwards to remind you that, “No, guys! It’s Samuel L. Jackson as a snail!”

That’s why the extremely generic nature of the entire film – it’s basically a pastiche of A Bug’s Life, Antz, Ratatouille, Toy Story, Cars, and at least a dozen other animated films that have slipped my mind right now – works, because it cribs and borrows from so many elements yet the Frankenstein’s Monster hybrid still feels uniquely Turbo thanks to a focus on a more Latino viewpoint with the human cast.  That’s why the constant licensed music cues work, because they’ve been carefully matched for optimal strength – OK, “Jump Around” is majorly on-the-nose for its scene but it’s still a great drop, and the mashup of “Eye of the Tiger” and “Holler If Ya Hear Me” is both frickin’ genius and the best usage of “Eye of the Tiger” in years.  That’s why that DreamWorks Smirk works, because its deployment in-film is legitimately awesome!

It’s a laundry list of DreamWorks tropes, yet almost every one of their usages works, even having Angelo’s character design heavily resemble that of his voice actor, Luis Guzmán.  Therefore, it might come as both a major and not-at-all surprise to discover that the Turbo’s director and co-writer (from an idea of his own), David Soren, has been a mainstay at DreamWorks for most of its history.  The “not-at-all” part coming from the fact that this is a film that could only have been made by somebody who has been a long-time member of DreamWorks and who is determined to remind the viewing public that formula and tropes are not necessarily bad things.  The “major” part coming from the fact that David Soren was the Head Of Story of Shark Tale and, as we already know, Shark Tale is one of the absolute worst films ever released.

Yet, here, he is energised, he is happy, he is heartfelt, a man with something to prove.  The idea was his own, the result of DreamWorks holding an internal one-time only competition for a one-page film pitch that he won by pitching exactly what you’re thinking Turbo would be pitched like, and it had been gestating for years before finally getting made.  Soren is clearly in love with his idea, he’s also in love with the formula – I don’t know why I don’t put quotation marks over every instance of that word, this series has hopefully shown you that DreamWorks didn’t really have a pre-ordained formula and it’s a common misconception – and he’s clearly excited to be making this film.  That’s why nearly everything works!

In fact, I’d argue that Turbo is actually a better Cars movie than the original Cars.  There are distinct Radiator Springs feels towards the Starlight Plaza strip mall that our human characters reside in, a corner of Los Angeles that nobody visits and who just want people to patronise their businesses.  Then, in flies this hotshot racer, by accident, who may just be what they need to save their forgotten part of town.  Where Turbo surpasses Cars in this department is in characterisation.  Cars clearly sketches its supporting cast in a way where they are solely defined by their one character trait – the hippie, the drill sergeant, the sassy black female – and where it’s hard to imagine them as anything else.

Turbo barely features and characterises those non-Tito good humans, which kinda begs the question as to why you’d hire Michelle Rodriguez but hey ho, but that makes them contradictorily much deeper.  By not defining them as anything specifically, besides the most minor of glimpses that we get, then they feel less stereotypical, less rigidly defined.  I find it easier to see them as full-on people instead of walking stereotypes, who have lives outside of the plot of the film, whereas I just find the secondary cast of Cars to be, well, the secondary cast of characters in an animated movie.  I can’t really explain why, but it just works and that makes me care more about them as a result.

Of course, this all being said, Turbo is not a particularly great movie.  By its design, the most it’s aiming to be is a fun way to spend 95 minutes whilst telling a story with heart and proving that formula is not necessarily bad.  It’s a fun time with a nice heart-lifting centre and climax, but nothing that connects on an especially deep level.  Penguins of Madagascar aims for a similar thing but its deviations from formula and the sheer surprising extent of its heart make it ascend past the level of fun, diverting entertainment.  Turbo doesn’t quite manage that, although it really tries, especially by having a lead character who is just the definition of “lovable determined underdog that you can’t help but root for”.

More problematic is the film’s gender issues.  This is resolutely a boy’s tale, which means that the three female characters with speaking lines are shunted to the side-lines; not inherently a bad thing.  The problems set in with the characterisations.  The lone female snail, played by Maya Rudolph, is an aggressively flirtatious being whose sole defining trait – hence why I praised the purposeful malleability of the human cast earlier – is that she is stalker-obsessed with Chet, recalling the purposeful marginalisation of female cast members in at least half of DreamWorks’ filmic output.  Michelle Rodriguez’s character mostly just exists, but the real problem is Kim-Ly, an elderly manicurist played by Ken Jeong.

Yes, really.  Her character is fine – again, malleability – but it’s the fact that Ken Jeong was hired to do the voice.  On its own, in the context of this film with the rest of DreamWorks’ history put to one side, it’s a bit of slightly racially insensitive stunt casting but mostly slips by fine on the strength of Jeong’s committed performance.  In context with the studio’s history, it’s those things and also a perfect encapsulation of their typical depiction of women in their films: love interests, or barely there non-entities whose existences will be undercut at every opportunity for gags; gags like, “Ha! That woman is being voiced by a man!”  Let’s not forget, this is a company that released two Shrek sequels where their interpretation of The Ugly Stepsister was that she looked like a transsexual and was voiced by Larry King and “Eeeeeewwwww!!!”

Again, this isn’t really a knock against Turbo, per se: the film is very good and I really like it.  But Turbo is also a walking embodiment of DreamWorks The Studio and its evolution from Shrek 12 years earlier to near-enough now.  DreamWorks The Studio has nearly always had a problem with the female gender and Turbo, by pure accident, demonstrates why.  DreamWorks The Studio is rarely the most original studio on the block, and Turbo ends up being a collage of nearly every animated film released in the previous decade.  DreamWorks The Studio, due to its multiple films a year production model, doesn’t aim for the stars with every film, and Turbo shows that that’s perfectly fine when the film is really good but also explains why many of the studio’s films are underperforming: it’s not essential, which doesn’t cut it so well in today’s landscape.

Turbo, essentially, is a film made like it’s still 2007, like its mere existence guarantees that it will be a success because DreamWorks are on a roll and why would anybody watch anything else over this?  Again, this is not to disparage the film which is a very good film that I really like, but it is as perfect an encapsulation as any as to why DreamWorks are not doing so hot right now.  For example, that budget means that the film looks damn great, but I think that the art style and colour scheme are strong enough on their own that the excess detail is unnecessary gloss that over-inflates the budget – I think you could get a film that looks close to as good as how this one looks for about $30 million less if the excess detail were stripped out.

But I feel there’s no better indicator as to where DreamWorks currently are in the animated feature landscape than this comparison.  Turbo is a film that teaches viewers that you can follow any dream and succeed with a whole lotta belief and little bit of luck.  In the same twelve month period that Turbo came out, however, Monsters University and Wreck-It Ralph taught viewers that there are, in fact, limits as to what you can achieve, but that that’s OK and that giving up on your dreams in favour of finding something else you’re good at that can bring you joy is not necessarily a bad thing.

Disney had begun re-inventing itself by offering more modern messages, stories and ways of communicating both, re-establishing themselves as must-see viewing.  DreamWorks were still doing what they were known for doing nearly a decade ago.  Their successes came from divergence from that, but their inability (and I mean they literally cannot afford to) to move away from an efficient factory-like release and production schedule means that those get hobbled as they are still not truly must-see viewing.  Feature-length animation is leaving DreamWorks behind; they need to adapt or die.


Next week, we take one last detour into the world of television to look at the studio’s various televised spin-offs of their successful (and not so successful) movies, as we try and figure out why the studio seems to be having more luck in television at the moment than they are film.

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

Callum Petch’s God in him saw the Devil in you.  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)!

Rise Of The Guardians

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.


Rise-of-the-Guardians-image25] Rise Of The Guardians (21st November 2012)

Budget: $145 million

Gross: $306,941,670

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 74%

Rise of the Guardians is a bomb.  It is a big bomb.  Oh, sure, it doesn’t seem like it is, its eventual worldwide gross is double that of its production budget – the typical measure by which you determine whether a film is successful at the box office or not – but it is.  Domestically, the film took 10 weeks to scrape and claw its way past the $100 million mark, and the longer a film stays in cinemas the less money the studio actually gets (you can get a full-on explanation of that here).  Overseas, the film performed somewhat better but still not great, especially in comparison to prior DreamWorks films, and once the breakdown of the foreign dollar came in (and you can find out how that works here) DreamWorks still didn’t make a profit.  In fact, they had to take an $87 million write-down on the film, the first time they’d lost money on a project since Sinbad nearly a decade ago.

So, why did it bomb?  It’s not the fault of the film being bad – which was critically praised and is a damn good if crippled film, but we will get onto that later – so why did it just face-plant right out of the gate?  That’s what most of this entry is going to focus on because that’s our through line for the last sixth of this series and it could provide us with explanations for the box office prospects of the remaining pair of films in this series.  So, apologies for those of you who were hoping for an in-depth look at the film.  We’ll look at it if there’s time, because it’s a damn good film with a killer final 20 minutes, but for this series we need to examine the box office performance of the film rather than the film itself, unfortunately.

Full disclosure, here: since Rise of the Guardians is a relatively recent film, and was the first notable major underperformer that DreamWorks had seen in a decade, much of the stuff that I’m about to say is being referenced and sort of lifted from websites who, at the time, were filing think-pieces on this very subject not even 48 hours after the first weekend totals came in.  Many of the things that I will say here were theories that I had prior to going off and doing research anyway, but other writers’ reasons and thought processes helped open my mind a bit as to specificity.  So, with that in mind, I’d like to give credit to HitFix’s Gregory Ellwood and Animation World Network’s Ed Hooks for helping, thanks to their respective articles, shape my thoughts and theories for this article.  With that said, let’s dive in.

Undoubtedly, one of the biggest reasons is that the budget for this thing is ridiculous.  Although it clearly makes usage of every last cent, $145 million for an animated movie in this decade is insane and unsustainable.  Yes, Pixar and Disney blow that amount on every film they make but, as we have previously touched on, they can get away with it.  Everybody else has realised that $150 million domestic isn’t guaranteed anymore, so they’ve purposefully started making films for less than/equal to $100 million to compensate.  That’s why Aardman’s The Pirates! In An Adventure! With Scientists! was able to recover from a dismal American showing, it only cost $55 million to make.

DreamWorks, however, continue to pump all of their movies with the same level of money, increasing the risk if one fails and regardless of whether said pumping is necessary.  If you’ve been following along, you’ll have been keeping track of the “Budget” segment of my article pre-amble and seen that no film post-Shrek 2 has come in at under $100 million.  Now, in certain cases, like with this film or the Kung Fu Panda and How To Train Your Dragon series, that’s fine, as extra detail and money helps with the world and tone and such.  But for animated comedies?  Did Megamind really need a $130 million budget?  Despicable Me came in at $69 million and it looks way more distinctive and, arguably, better than that film did.  Or, in blunt terms, is there any reasonable explanation as to why the budgets for How To Train Your Dragon 2 and Penguins of Madagascar are separated by only $13 million?

That’s as good a link as any to my next point.  The budget thing is also systemic of a larger problem: DreamWorks still trying to play like it’s 2005, like they’re the only non-Disney/Pixar players on the Western feature-length animation block.  However, thanks to them blowing up the Disney dominance back in the early 2000s, more and more animation studios – and, specifically, distribution studios like Universal who are now more willing to get in the game – have now sprung up, creating further competition.  They started poking their heads above the water tentatively in the mid-to-late 00s, when Laika would release Coraline and Blue Sky Studios – obligatory pleading to PLEASE NOT F*CK UP Peanuts – would quietly become a consistent and reliable studio, but 2010 onwards has seen them burst on through en mass.

2012, in particular, saw new efforts from recent upstarts Illumination Entertainment (The Lorax), Laika (ParaNorman), and Sony Pictures Animation (Hotel Transylvania), as well as long-timers Aardman (The Pirates!), Studio Ghibli (The Secret World of Arrietty actually opened on nearly 2,000 screens in a rare display of genuine confidence in that brand from at-the-time distributors Buena Vista), and Blue Sky (Ice Age: Continental Drift), in addition to Pixar (Brave) and a resurgent Disney (Wreck-It Ralph).  When you also throw in DreamWorks’ other 2012 release (Madagascar 3), that is a crowded as hell schedule – one, relatedly, that has only gotten more crowded the further into the decade we get, which pleases me to no end – and one just cannot coast anymore.  The days of DreamWorks being able to guarantee butts in seats, regardless of the quality of their films, purely because there is nothing else available have long since departed.

Not to mention that each of these films carried with them their own unique, distinct, and marketable identity that didn’t just rely on brand recognition.  The primary trailers for The Lorax hit the “From the studio that brought you Despicable Me” and “Based on the story by Dr. Seuss” buttons, but also clearly outlined the premise and the film’s bright, candy-land colour scheme and art style.  Boom.  Sellable.  ParaNorman had that gothic horror meshed with broad comedy feel and identity front and centre, albeit with its darkest edges sanded down to make it more palatable to, for some reason, snobby stop-motion-averse mainstream audiences.  Boom.  Sellable.  Ice Age is Ice Age and came out when literally nothing else was in cinemas, Wreck-It Ralph slapped the videogame conceit over everything, Hotel Transylvania emphasised its loudness and physical comedy.

DreamWorks, however, still sell their films the same way they always have – some attitude, pop culture references, and licensed soundtrack for comedies; lots of flying, out-of-context gags, and emphasis of the 3D elements for more dramatic fare.  They don’t sell individual films so much as they sell the DreamWorks brand – Home is even suffering from this, even though I actually rather like its trailers.  This is fine for, say, a Madagascar sequel, because audiences already know what they’re getting and like what they’re getting and the trailer just needs to promise them more of the same, but becomes a problem when you’re trying to sell a new film, especially when you pump them out with the factory-like efficiency that DreamWorks do.

Here, for example, is the first trailer for Rise of the Guardians.

Now, that trailer does a lot of things right: it establishes a clear tone, introduces us to our main characters, has some mystery in there instead of simply showing everything off all at once, and it sets itself apart from most of the other animated features on the market.  Yet, simultaneously, it’s a major failure.  It relies too heavily on kids’ prior affection for seeing characters like Santa and the Easter Bunny teaming up to fight evil (more on that in a moment), it fails to properly establish Pitch Black and his motivations, our true lead character, Jack Frost, is nowhere in sight, and it doesn’t explain much at all.  It’s a tough line to walk when it comes to trailers, show too much and you negate the audience’s desire to see it but show too little and you do just as much damage, and Guardians’ first one, although it does a lot for me, shows too little to engage general audience interest who like to have more than the sketchiest sketch of an idea of what they’re getting into.

In fact, to link into the film itself, that belief that audiences would be enamoured enough by the idea of Santa, the Easter Bunny, Sandman, Jack Frost, and the Tooth Fairy teaming up to fight evil feels sadly outdated.  In the 21st Century, this worthless irritating and pathetic century, heart-on-sleeve sincerity and wonder is something that society very much seems to frown upon.  That desire to be a little cheesy, to have fun, to be sweet and nice is something that we, as a culture for some utterly confounding reason, have decided is beneath us and that we must laugh out of the room at every opportunity.

Instead, the only way we can accept enjoying these things now is with a sort of ironic detachment – hence why 80% of movie musicals spend their entire runtimes apologising for being musicals, why romance films are so po-facedly serious about everything, and why sci-fi almost never kicks back and has any fun anymore.  When something like that does come along, like this past weekend’s Jupiter Ascending because never let it be said that I don’t try and keep this column topical, everybody laughs it out of the room because we apparently can’t accept that sincerity anymore.  Maker, animation has quite literally only just gotten over this image problem, and we can blame that tangible attitude of Shrek for sending us down that path whilst thanking this Second Disney Renaissance for finally pulling the public back out of it.

Therefore, you present the general public with a film like Rise of the Guardians – a film whose marketing relies on kids’ prior attachment and desire to believe, and whose finale literally involves the villain being defeated by a scrappy group of kids believing in wonder with all of their heart with no cynicism or sass from the film (and it’s f*cking amazing, for the record) – then of course it’s going to open poorly at the box office and never truly recover!  Our society doesn’t foster that kind of genuinely sincere wonder and heart anymore, so most will just dismiss it out of hand and move on with their lives.

And then there’s also the tangible thing.  A common complaint that keeps cropping up in people’s excuses as to why the film did poorly or just in general conversation about the film: Santa’s Russian accent.  This is very much a creative choice that has baffled people, with some even thinking that that’s why the film failed.  Because kids are familiar with Santa, err, not being Russian and that would therefore turn them off the film totally.  I sort of get where they’re coming from, it’s the tangible element of a larger problem that not many people can totally figure out – in that the beefy, warrior-ised, badass designs of the Guardians fit their personalities and the more action-heavy moments but clashes with the sincere childlike hope of the rest of the film – but I highly doubt that it’s a reason all by itself for turning people away.

Finally, there was the release date: Thanksgiving weekend.  I get the idea, it’s the holidays and a big family movie is just the kind of thing that audiences are in demand for.  But, as we have previously talked about, thanks to the way they do business, DreamWorks movies aren’t Events like a Disney film or a Pixar film are.  They’re films that come out on a semi-regular basis and you either watch them or you don’t.  Even when the films are Must See viewing – and we’ve covered several of those in this series – their releases don’t carry that air, despite the millions of dollars that the company throws into marketing these things.  So whilst Disney can get away with releasing Tangled or Frozen over that weekend, DreamWorks can’t because, unlike Disney, Rise of the Guardians is not an Event Movie.

Hence why the thing basically died in fourth place opening weekend behind Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Part 2 (second week), Skyfall (third week), and Lincoln (third week), and just barely fending off Life of Pi by virtue of that opening on less screens.  All of those prior factors, with really sub-par marketing likely being the inarguable main reason and let us not forget general DreamWorks over-saturation, conspired to send Rise of the Guardians to an early grave.  Many of these are actually rather recurrent in the reasons behind DreamWorks’ other recent failures, which means that we might get more time each week to actually talk about those goddamn films properly, but that’s also a really worrying sign that the company doesn’t seem to be learning from its mistakes.  Rise of the Guardians is rather much Patient Zero for this recent commercial trajectory that DreamWorks have gone down and, for some reason, it’s been allowed to fester instead of being quarantined and dealt with.

So… with all of that said and sorted… how is the film?  I realise that I have pushed it to the background here, much like I did with Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron way back when, but I needed to since, as we all know, this is the start of the spiral that DreamWorks are currently stuck in and to not talk about it is to do a disservice to this series I’ve been working on.  It is, however, a shame because Rise of the Guardians is very much worth talking about.  If I were writing for a website where 8 straight A4 pages of text could be presented in a way that wouldn’t cause one’s eyeballs to rip themselves out of one’s skulls and hightail it to the heavens to get away from the torture, I’d happily spend the next 4 pages talking about it.  Unfortunately, I’m about 1 full A4 page away from my word limit, so I’m going to have to be very brief.

Rise is a very good film that could have been an outstanding film had it not been forced to bow to the unspoken decree that ALL ANIMATED FILMS MUST BE LESS THAN 100 MINUTES, OR SO HELP ME!  The problem with it, and why it doesn’t work as well as it should for the first 70 minutes, is that it needs to be at least 2 hours and 10 minutes long instead of 89 (97 with credits).  Rise of the Guardians is a film that is stuffed to the brim with content and plot and story.  Not backstory, it’s smart enough to realise that you don’t need to waste time explaining the backstories of these characters, but story.  This is a film that needs to chronicle Jack Frost’s life, his emotional insecurities, to parallel that with Pitch Black’s insecurities, provide arcs for the pair of them, fill in the cast enough that the disruption of their daily schedules carries actual emotional weight, build a world, kill someone to raise stakes, cause the viewer to actually care about the kids who will factor into the finale, provide several suitably exciting action beats, and provide enough scenes of the guardians just hanging out together so that one gets the sense of how they are outside of the film, among many other things.

Surprisingly, it pulls off more of this than I was expecting – the Jack Frost stuff is brilliant, the parallels between him and Pitch are called out in dialogue more than action but it still works gangbusters and is far better done than it is in How To Train Your Dragon 2, and it nails the kid stuff spectacularly which is why the ending works so insanely well (more on that in a paragraph or two).  Unsurprisingly, though, it’s not totally successful, mainly because it never ever slows down.  How can it?  It’s got way too much content to have to get through, but it’s all necessary, so it has to pace itself like a drag race, never once letting up on the gas.  This does mean, though, that much of the first two-thirds of the film don’t click as they should – in particular, Sandman’s initial death should be a majorly heartbreaking “we are not f*cking around here” moment, but we barely ruminate on it enough for it to have any real impact.

There are chunks of film missing, basically.  The slower moments, the connective moments, where we ease up and relax with our characters.  They do exist, but they’re brief and hint at the film it could have been if there was more of that breathing time.  The best sequence not related to the ending involves the rest of the guardians helping Tooth Fairy with her job of collecting children’s teeth, because it allows the characters to just relax and be themselves.  Admittedly by turning this exercise into a silly competitive mini-setpiece, but it still feels genuine.  It deepens the cast, establishes their bonds, helps the viewer invest more, and the film needed more of that.  There just quite literally isn’t the time to.

Fortunately, though, the film f*cking nails its ending.  Seriously, the entire final 20 minute stretch, from Jack trying to help Jamie re-ignite his belief in Santa and the other Guardians, to the duo’s final goodbye, is damn near perfect.  It accurately captures that sincere, heartfelt spirit of being young and wanting to believe.  To believe that there are mysterious unknowable forces of absolute good in the world, that fear and nightmares really are just concepts that can’t actually hurt you, that you can effect real genuine change on the world through innocence and kindness.  It’s one of the best examples that I can find in recent memory of a film just getting that feeling of being a child, since most films instead either overly patronise or barely mask the fact that these are just adults attempting to remember how kids are and act.

Its emotional beats pay off excellently, even with the truncated runtime that the film has had to set them all off, the animation reaches extra special levels of gorgeous, seeing the guardians finally let loose is thrilling, the return of Sandman is one of those “oh, HELL YES!” moments that great fiction can pull from even the stoniest of human beings, and it’s all so sincerely joyous and heartfelt.  Again, the main narrative crux of the finale is whether a kid will believe hard enough that some kind of possibly unreal force of absolute good will rescue him from a nebulous force of absolute bad, and he and his friends are instrumental in saving the day purely because they believe hard enough.  And this is all played dead-straight for pure, heart-warming emotion, because this sequence, and consequently the film itself, absolutely would not work if it did so any other way.

And that is almost literally all of the time that I have this week.  There is so much more to talk about with regards to Rise of the Guardians – its sublime animation, the true extent of its pacing issues, its tone, how Chris Pine’s voice fits Jack Frost and unnecessarily distracts in equal measure, the marginalisation of Tooth Fairy, its themes of loneliness and how one can be shaped by that – but, much like with the film itself, I’ve tried to do too much in too little available time.  If I ever stupidly decide to retrofit this ridiculous series into a book format, then you’d better believe that I will be expanding this section majorly.  For now, though, Rise of the Guardians was a bomb, but it didn’t deserve to be, and it’s getting worrying that I can apply the first two parts of this sentence to more and more DreamWorks films as time goes on.


Rise of the Guardians was a major, notable financial dud for DreamWorks Animation, their first in nearly a decade.  It cost the company substantial money and likely put the studio on edge as to its future – not unfounded considering how 2013 would wrap up.  Rise also marked the end of the studio’s 8 year relationship with distributor Paramount Pictures as the success of Rango inspired the latter to make more home-grown animation, and DreamWorks’ desire for a deal with better terms for themselves.  In August of 2012, they signed a five-year deal with 20th Century Fox, owners of Blue Sky, and began this new relationship the following year.

Next week, we’ll take a look at the first film to come from this new partnership, The Croods, speculate on why this one was a success, and try to explore the further ramifications of this move.  Also, we’ll actually talk about the film this time.

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

Callum Petch has got gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta.  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)!

Puss In Boots

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.


Before we get started this week, and I have to get all mildly irritated at wasted potential, let’s briefly address this week’s news.  As I have touched on multiple times throughout this series, most specifically in the Joseph: King Of Dreams and Bee Movie pieces, DreamWorks Animation today is not in a good spot, like, at all.  Their films have been significantly underperforming, the studio has been losing money, and certain films – most specifically B.O.O.: Bureau of Otherworldly Operations – have been in development hell for years.  Their attempts to find a buyer have failed, primarily because Jeffrey Katzenberg is trying to play what everyone knows is a crap hand like it’s a royal flush, and things look really grim.

Compounding that misery was this week’s onslaught of news.  Following on from a recent string of major misfires, and in an attempt to stop haemorrhaging money, the company is cutting approximately 500 jobs, top execs have left the company, the number of feature films being released each year will now count two maximum with one always being a sequel of some kind, and they are closing PDI – the animation studio that has been with them since Day 1, that they acquired totally in 2000, and which just released major bomb Penguins of Madagascartotally with most of its staff being laid off instead of reassigned.  That loss of 500 jobs equates to almost 20% of the company’s current workforce.

Look, Katzenberg, if for some utterly ridiculous reason you are reading this, you need to change tactics and you need to step back.  As we have seen (sort of) throughout this series, the Western feature-length animation landscape is not what it was back in 2005.  It has new faces, new voices, resurgent faces, and a whole bunch of filmmakers who can deliver top-quality animation for well below $100 million – Despicable Me 2 cost $78 million, whilst The Lego Movie only cost $60 million – and who don’t ram multiple films down the audience’s throat every single year – even when they’re good, like they were for 2014, they still just burn out the general public.

You’re trying to run the company like it’s still 2005 when it really isn’t, and your studio and films are suffering for that.  Katzenberg, you need to find a buyer, first of all.  You need to get off of Wall Street, so that DreamWorks have that safety net of a major company again if everything does go wrong.  Illumination are owned by Universal, Blue Sky by 20th Century Fox, Pixar by Disney; you need to join that group.  Secondly… you need to step down.  I’m sorry, but you do or, at least, step back.  Don’t try and make a power play whilst selling the company, don’t stick around and continue to micromanage, just stop.  You are the company’s own worst enemy at this moment in time, and it needs a new voice leading proceedings.

I know that it’s hard to let go of something you’ve helped build, but there is a point where you just have to admit that you are not the right man for the job anymore.  This is one of those times.  So sell the company, step back, and let somebody else take the reins for once.  Otherwise I am terrified that we won’t be seeing DreamWorks Animation, at least in this recognisable sort of form, for much longer.  OK, on with this week’s entry.


puss in boots23] Puss In Boots (28th October 2011)

Budget: $130 million

Gross: $554,987,477

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 84%

So, let’s talk about that incest subtext, shall we!

Question: are Jack and Jill brother and sister, or just two non-blood related people of opposing genders?  Not in Puss In Boots, we’ll get to that, I mean in the nursery rhyme.  The rhyme itself has changed over the centuries, but at no point in any of its incarnations does it specify exactly whether the pair are siblings, married or just two people.  A third verse makes reference to Jill having a mother, who whips her for laughing at Jack’s misfortune, but that’s as far as the specificity goes.  As a child, I always saw them as brother and sister.  I mean, the rhyme is so innocent and the nature of their relationship, to me, always seemed like that of siblings rather than friends or lovers or what have you.

Therefore, I grew up holding that belief, as I imagine a good majority of other people did.  Hence why seventeen year-old me ended up sat in the cinema in abject horror as the Jack of Puss In Boots started talking in earnest to the film’s version of Jill about impregnating her with a baby.  Because “our biological clocks are ticking.”  Now, again, the nursery rhyme doesn’t specify, so you get that wiggle room, but neither does the film.  They are mentioned as husband and wife, but they are never openly denied as brother and sister, and this is a problem.

See, the Shrek series up to this point has been pretty darn faithful when it comes to presenting fairy tale and nursery rhyme characters in their universe.  They may gain sassy personalities or have that thing they’re known for doing twisted around for comedy – The Wolf, for example, is a crossdresser who just wishes to lay in other people’s beds and it’s funny because it’s a man dressed as a woman – but they are portrayed with the backstory (or unspoken backstory) that viewers know and accept, unless specifically stated otherwise.  That’s why, even though it is never specifically stated so in the nursery rhyme so they do have that leeway, a good subset of the film’s older audience may be grossed out by the implication.  Especially since DreamWorks still have that poor double-coding stigma attached to them; if they did intentionally start making incest references, would anybody here be surprised?

This also ends up being emblematic of the problems that face Puss In Boots.  The first is how the baby desires are brought up, made a huge deal out of, and then promptly tossed off-screen and out of the film after its interest is lost – which is what ends up happening to Jack and Jill and, to somewhat of an extent, Kitty Softpaws.  The second is because it’s a film that wants to find its own voice and do its own thing, hinting at true greatness constantly, but keeps being dragged down by the worst impulses and traits of the series that it’s spun-off from – having villains who are happily married and have humanising conversations about their domestic life is a great idea.  Marrying it to nursery rhyme characters for no reason, ones with misconceptions surrounding them: not so much.

But let’s hold up for a minute.  You may notice that I mentioned offhandedly a few paragraphs back about how I saw Puss In Boots in the cinema.  That is information that runs contradictory to my constant notes that Kung Fu Panda was the moment that I decided to stop seeing DreamWorks films in the cinema.  Well, Puss In Boots very much turned out to be the exception, brought on by a friend of mine at Sixth Form at the time having gotten free movie tickets she needed to burn and there being nothing else on that week.  I ended up finding it incredibly boring, a nice distillation of all of the things I disliked about DreamWorks in one forgettable, only occasionally enraging package reminder to stop subjecting myself to their output already.

Of course, I was a different critic back then, one who wouldn’t fall headfirst back down the rabbit hole of animation until a good year later and one who, quite honestly, was probably wanting to dislike it.  A second watch has made the stuff that doesn’t work stick out even sharper, but has also revealed the nugget of a genuinely great film fighting against everything that stands in its way to burst out and reveal itself – the film that the critics saw and showered with praisePuss In Boots is a potentially brilliant film that just can’t stop lapsing into bad habits, like an addict on the road to recovery and with that same kind of “dammit, no!  You can be better than this!” feeling attached to it.  Fitting, really, since those are actually the arc words of the film itself.

For example, and as I’ve previously discussed in their respective articles, the Shrek sequels run on pop culture references and a sprinkling of mean-spiritedness.  The characters go through the motions, but their bonds never feel sincere, instead being obviously controlled by the almighty screenwriter from upon high.  In short, there’s no heart.  Puss In Boots, by contrast, is very character-driven.  In addition to those little exchanges between Jack and Jill, the film’s central emotional core pivots on Puss and Humpty Alexander Dumpty.  There’s even an 11 minute stretch of the film dedicated to the flashback that sets up and explains the duo’s dynamic, recognising that hard work like that will pay off down the line.

And, for a good half an hour, it does.  Puss and Humpty swap banter, re-affirm their bond, de-frost in the former’s case, and generally just strike up a good rapport with one another, which is good since most of the movie consists of those two and Kitty Softpaws.  Speaking of, although she really doesn’t get much to do – no surprise for a DreamWorks Animation joint by this point, I know – she still brings a fun dynamic to the cast.  She brings out the really entertaining Casanova side of Puss, and I really like the fact that she’s actually rather soft personality-wise naturally, with her harder and more anger-filled moments coming from genuine reasons to be so rather than just being pissed all the time until the film decides it’s time for her to fall head over heels for Puss.

So the central trio are extremely well-drawn and likeable with good chemistry and a nice sense of heart.  Shame it’s all pissed away when Humpty is revealed to be the villain who had been the mastermind behind everything from the start in an overly-elaborate revenge scheme on both Puss and the town of San Ricardo.  It’s one of those special kind of twists where it’s blindingly obvious and yet incredibly stupid and nonsensical at the same time.  The film telegraphs the twist way too early and obviously – really exaggerated shifty eyes, silent mouthing, clearly fake smiles – in a way that contradicts Zach Galifianakis’ sincere vocal performance, it screws up the character arc majorly – especially since it promptly forgets about it barely 10 minutes later in order to do the redemption finale – and it reduces the reveal flashbacks themselves to a lame gag, undercutting whatever power the twist should have.

It was apparently executive producer Guillermo del Toro – in his first major work on a DreamWorks film since coming aboard as a Creative Consultant for the company in 2010 – who decided that Humpty should redeem himself at the end with the self-sacrifice, which is a smart move, the film has put way too much time and effort into the relationship between Humpty and Puss to just throw it away for third act explosions.  But it also throws into sharp relief just how pointless the betrayal itself is, especially since the film could still have this exact same finale without it!

Look, I’ll fix it for you right now.  Instead of the betrayal, have the trio arrive at San Ricardo looking to give back to the town, only to have them reject and shun Humpty due to the whole “once a bad egg, always a bad egg” type of stigma.  Let that throw Humpty into a fit of jealous rage and cause a falling out between Puss and himself, with Humpty planning on skipping town with the Golden Goose when no-one’s looking.  When its mother shows up, then have Humpty decide to leave San Ricardo to burn, only to experience a moral panic just as he’s about to flee.  Puss then turns up, they talk, he convinces Humpty to help save the town as just because he was bad before, and the town still thinks he is, doesn’t mean he needs to still be, and then the finale progresses as before.  You then get to hit the same beats and tackle the same themes without having that stupid pace-ruining, near-character-derailing betrayal!  It was so easy to avoid!

As, in fact, are a lot of the film’s problems.  As mentioned earlier, this is a film that very much is striving to find its own voice, to set itself apart from its parent series as something different and new.  So the tone is that of a swashbuckling adventure movie with a distinctly Spanish feel and location.  Again, there are times when it works very well, the trip and heist from the giant’s castle is a particular highlight, and the emphasis on drama, and often melodrama, works to the film’s advantage, preventing itself from undercutting everything like Shrek ended up doing – although it still chooses to do so enough times to get annoying; the exit from Puss’ flashback finds Kitty having been sent to sleep by it.

The problem is that it doesn’t manage to commit to that voice for the entire film.  Just when it settles into its groove, engages the more sceptical viewer and threatens to push through into greatness, it falls back on old, bad DreamWorks and Shrek habits.  There’s the aforementioned accidental incest stuff, but then the gross and utterly inexcusable prison rape gag rears its head to piss away any and all good will the film had accumulated thus far.  Later on, in the space of two minutes of one another, we get jokes about Puss being a drug addict – because no action-comedy tells the audience that we’re supposed to believe the character’s protestations that film’s equivalent of marijuana is for “medicinal purposes” – and masturbation.  There’s a Fight Club reference that’s only a decade late to the “That Joke Is No Longer Funny” party.

Puss In Boots is a film that wants to be its own thing, but either can’t break free of or keeps retreating into, for safety, the Shrek formula and the Shrek voice, like it’s worried that the audience won’t turn up unless it hits all of those necessary beats when required – hence why Humpty Dumpty and Jack & Jill are, well, Humpty Dumpty and Jack & Jill.  It’s a film with a Shrek cast member, if nursery rhyme or fairy tale characters don’t show up, people might not turn up!  Despite the fact that the film is set in Spain, and so the world of the film gets all muddied with the world of Shrek.  Yes, the film isn’t supposed to overlap with Shrek, but that leads to the question of why this needs to be Puss In Boots.  Why not just come up with some totally original characters and worlds?  Job’s already half-done.

In fact, flow-breaking side-bar real quick: this is definitely the ugliest-looking of the Shrek-related films that I have seen, almost by design.  It’s a film that has the majority of its side cast as humans and, as we have already discovered in three prior Shrek sequels, humans do not look good or appealing when put through the Shrek art-style, which is what Puss In Boots subscribes to albeit with more dirt and grime.  Therefore, the film attempts to steer into the skid, purposefully adding excess facial hair with large amounts of detail, extending proportions, bending things out of shape and such.  I get what it’s going for, but I really don’t think it works, frequently and accidentally crossing the line from “creepily off-putting” to “just plain ugly to look at”, especially with Jack and Jill.  Animation itself is fine, although boarding is a major step down from prior DreamWorks films, but the design is what lets it down.

Anyways, I get the feeling that the reason why DreamWorks didn’t go the whole hog and come up with original casts and worlds and such is because everybody at the company was still worried and hurting over the failure of The Road To El Dorado from 2000.  Puss In Boots actually, in its best moments, strongly recalls that much better movie.  See for all its faults, The Road To El Dorado never doubted what it wanted to be.  Never tried to awkwardly take turns appeasing kids and adults separately with easy cat jokes for the kids and one night stand gags for the adults.  Never panicked and zigged instead of zagging because it felt its plot was being too predictable.

Puss In Boots, however, is a film caught between two worlds and not confident enough in its own abilities to just leap off into the good one.  And since The Road To El Dorado exists, it ends up coming off as a poorer attempt to turn that into box office gold, this time.  El Dorado just does everything better: the central dynamic is more convincing, the dialogue is better, it doesn’t sacrifice its emotional heft at the altar of “argh, the kids might be bored by this seriousness”, it looks nicer, it’s more fun, and its ultimately tertiary female lead is better – both Kitty and Chel serve the purpose of “headstrong love interests who wander in and out of the film as required” but Chel ends up having the bigger impact on the film’s plot and makes a bigger mark for me.

But, hey, the film continued DreamWorks’ hot streak with the critics and won back a significant portion of the disillusioned Shrek fan-base.  Not so much at the domestic box office, mind.  Continuing a downward spiral that, quite honestly, throws the current box office woes into sharper relief, Puss In Boots’ no. 1 debut was the lowest for a DreamWorks Animation film since Flushed Away$34 million dead.  It would repeat at the top the next week, holding extremely strongly in all fairness, before falling off in the weeks following as Happy Feet Too, The Muppets, and Twilight 4 Part 1 leeched away its screens.  Puss would close at just under $150 million domestic.  That’s not half bad, honestly, but it’s also the lowest for any Shrek-related film yet released, and you just know that DreamWorks, Katzenberg, and shareholders will have wanted and expected more.  Least it still earned a good $400 mil overseas, putting the thing nicely over the profit line, unlike two films that we will come to in due time.

A sequel to this film is supposed to be still coming at some point.  They’ve been promising it for years, but it’s never really gotten further than those promises that it’s coming eventually.  With that creative re-shuffling and the scaling back of their feature film output going on at DreamWorks, it seems less and less likely that it’s ever going to happen, and I honestly find that a shame.  We already know that the Shrek series and I don’t get along and Puss In Boots’ worst moments are when it relapses into that voice.  It’s a film that is always seemingly on the verge of becoming its own thing and being hugely entertaining whilst doing so, but keeps falling back into those old habits.  A sequel could be the confidence boost it needs to push forward on that original voice, but I guess, at this rate, we’ll never find out.

Still, least it’s a better final note for the Shrek series than Shrek Forever After or, god forbid, Shrek The Third!  That’s always a plus!


After putting out their masterpiece in the shape of Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss In Boots marked a return to the kind of fun, lightweight animated movies that, nonetheless, attempt to have their own voice that DreamWorks were known for.  The box office repaid them in kind and the critics seemed to be more accepting of this kind of film than before.  Things were looking a little shaky at the box office, but everything was mostly continuing to be smooth sailing.  Not to mention how having a growing collection of beloved live-action auteurs in their pocket – Roger Deakins and now del Toro – was doing wonders for their storytelling.

Next week, we look at a film that is unexpectedly co-scripted by one such auteur.  The result finally pushed its once-maligned series into critical acceptance and was rewarded with major box office returns.  The auteur is Noah Baumbach, and the film is Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted.  Da-da-dada-da-da-AFRO CIRCUS.

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

Callum Petch owns the money, he controls the witness.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Kung Fu Panda 2

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Firstly, sorry for the sudden two week break.  I had a mountain of university essay work to do and, like a pillock, I don’t pre-write these.  So, anyway…

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.


kung fu panda 222] Kung Fu Panda 2 (26th May 2011)

Budget: $150 million

Gross: $665,692,281

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 81%

Jennifer Yuh Nelson is one hell of a director.

If I have one major regret about my work throughout this series so far, it’s that I haven’t talked anywhere near enough about direction.  Part of that is due to my own personal biases with regards to DreamWorks Animation before embarking on this project, with myself having spent much of my life subscribing to the belief that DreamWorks, way more so than Disney or what have you, was a factory that pumped out films collectively rather than individually.  Jeffrey Katzenberg seemingly having his fingers in damn near everything we’ve talked about so far didn’t really help in my attempt to dissuade myself from that notion as we’ve journeyed forth.

The rest is because I am very much learning as I go.  Yeah, to tear down that Wizard Of Oz curtain here, I am not an expert on animation.  In fact, quite frankly, I know very little about the medium, the process, and the history of it all.  If I were to show my work to somebody who has dedicated their life to studying animation, like, say, one of my university lecturers, she would probably make it to about paragraph 4 of the first entry before attempting to gut me like a pig, such is the butchery I have likely committed with regards to talking about animation.

But all of that is OK because a) I have never attempted to claim that I am a super-expert on animation (except when I was a bit younger and much more stupid) and b) I am actively trying to learn and better myself.  For example, I spent a lot of last year referring to different layers of animation, specifically where characters would be animated obviously separately to the background, as “Chroma-Keying” which, as it turns out, is incorrect.  The process, as detailed to me by the Hullaballoo production blog, is actually known as “Compositing”.  See, I’ve learned something – and now so have you, more than likely, yay! – so I don’t feel bad about having gotten it badly wrong beforehand.

Hence why I haven’t referred to directing too much during this series.  Animation is an extremely collaborative medium, where tens to hundreds of people all work on the same project and any of them can make decisions that can alter how something ends up in the finished product.  I was reticent, therefore, to praise specific directors for parts of these films that I liked.  After all, how could I be sure that it was their choices and their quirks and not Visual Effects Artist #5?  But somewhat recently I got to thinking: isn’t that the same thing with live-action films?  And why do I subscribe to this thinking with regards to DreamWorks, yet I will get giddy at the prospect of a Lauren Faust animated film?

Besides, although auteur theory is very much passé and disproven in film and television nowadays, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.  To shift from DreamWorks for a minute, I have recently been making full-on observations as to how I can tell that some of my favourite animated shows are made with certain people at the helm.  In that, yeah, it’s a team effort, but theirs is the creative voice that stands out the most.  For example, Genndy Tartakovsky – who incidentally just turned 45!  Happy Birthday! – is the creator of Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack, and both shows carry the same deliberate pacing that works long beats, pauses, and repetitions into their DNA for both dramatic and humorous effect.  It also shows up in The Powerpuff Girls, even though that’s a show by Craig McCracken, because the two were friends and Genndy had a significant hand in shaping that show.  Future shows have shown McCracken to have a faster and slightly tighter voice than Tartakovsky – Wander Over Yonder, for example, wastes not one moment of any of its episodes.

In the end, it was a combination of those and Oliver Sawa’s excellent reviews of The Legend Of Korra over at The AV Club that managed to make me realise that I really should have referred to direction more in this series.  So, with that in mind, we circle back around to our opening statement.

Jennifer Yuh Nelson is one hell of a director.

If you’ve been following along with this series, the name “Jennifer Yuh Nelson” should be relatively familiar to you.  Yuh has been with DreamWorks Animation since 1998, starting as a story artist on Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and the first Madagascar before progressing to Head of Story on Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas.  Her true breakthrough came when, as a fan of martial arts movies growing up, she asked to work on the first Kung Fu Panda and was subsequently made Head of Story there, as well as getting to direct the opening hand-drawn dream sequence.  She won an Annie Award for her work on it – which, as we saw back when we talked about it, was more than deserved – and Katzenberg personally approached her to direct Kung Fu Panda 2 as a result of her work.

Hence why Kung Fu Panda 2 looks so damn incredible.  Yuh’s love for martial arts films is on full prominent display, both in terms of individual shots and scene construction – which is what most of this week’s article is going to be, just a heads up on that department – and overall pacing and tone.  Now, I must admit that I am not too familiar with Wuxia and other sorts of Martial Arts films, but I do have enough of a grasp on the style and tones of them to realise that Kung Fu Panda 2 bleeds martial arts films.  It’s one of those (worryingly rare) action animation films that has each frequent action scene actually mean something instead of just marking time.  It’s a film that deals with its character work through equal parts dialogue and action, with both working equally well.

As an example, look at the fight sequence between Po and Master Croc & Master Ox.  No, seriously, look at this thing, I’ll wait.

(You’ll have to follow this link, I’m afraid, as it turns out that embeds for the clip have been disabled.)

It’s not just a fight scene for the sake of a fight scene.  It’s a fun way of livening up what would otherwise be rather dry and boring sequence of Po pleading for help.  The dialogue is written in a way that perfectly complements the action, the music takes on this 70s funk tinge to counterbalance the cheese with some coolness, and the choreography pitches itself as this purposefully silly and slightly cheesy releasing of each character’s various emotions in order to make that sad, defeatist walk into the cell next door an act that has a genuine sadness attached to it rather than just being understatedly humorous.  It’s its own thing whilst still clearly indebted to the classic Hong Kong martial arts films Yuh loves so dearly.

Which, in fact, is very much a running theme throughout the film.  Kung Fu Panda 2 is one of those heavily-indebted animated films that actually takes full advantage of the fact that animation increases the visual and storytelling capabilities to stage things that couldn’t be done (or done this smoothly and naturally) in live-action beyond the whole “talking animals” thing.  For example, look at the rickshaw chase scene that comes immediately after the prison cell fight.  No, seriously, look at it right now.  Do it.

There’s a certain wilful excessive escalation going on in this scene – I’m specifically thinking of everything to do with the basket of baby bunnies – that I could see also occurring in Kung Fu Panda 2’s live-action equivalent, but not with the same sense of flow and believable madcap energy that animation can achieve.  For example, the moment where Po’s rickshaw flies off into the air and he has to spin it around in order to catch the flying children could be pulled off in live-action, but would require multiple frenetic cuts (compared to the controlled, calculated, and varied three shots that it takes up here) and likely a whole lot of distracting green screen work to pull off.  Again: indebted yet its own thing.

Or how about the dragon costume disguise?  Once again, something that wouldn’t feel out-of-place in live-action yet takes full advantage of the medium by utilising the smoother flow and faster possible speed of animation to turn it into an excellent gag.  Not to mention the way in which the film finds every possible spin on the gag that it can and blazes through them in quick succession.  The first time utilising the squash-and-stretch capabilities of animation to create a genuinely inspired piece of toilet humour, the second time playing the image against the kid’s confused horror, the third time using the launched goons for projectiles, and the fourth and final time using clever boarding to create an image reminiscent of top-down arcade maze games, with Pac-Man being the intended but not sole reference.

But, I have wasted too much time on the direction of the comedy.  Instead, the sequences that really impressed me, as in they got me to genuinely say the opening sentence to this entry out loud as the film was still ongoing multiple times, were the more dramatic character revelations and breakthrough sequences – the dramatic stuff, in other words.  For example, much of the dramatic thrust of the film revolves around Po discovering that he is adopted, a revelation played for laughs and legitimate drama without either undercutting the other, and his desire to learn what happened to him.  His slightly overbearing father, Ping, and Po’s eating habits have mostly been a source of comic relief up to this point, but then one exceptional sequence is able to recontextualize the pair of them into genuinely emotional character traits, again without losing the comedy.

Yes, you know what to do now.

It’s the subtle direction choices that make this scene.  How every shot is saturated in this bright, warm golden glow to signify nostalgia which firmly sets us in Ping’s mind without overdoing it to send the technique into parody, the frequent usage of slow dollies into the faces of Po and Ping to connect them both so totally even within a few moments of their first meeting, James Hong’s soft-spoken and deliberately underplayed delivery in sharp contrast to his usual ham-and-cheese, Jack Black’s similarly underplayed reaction to Po’s disappointment at having no concrete answers, the music melting into the very background to let the words and pictures tell the story.

It’s a scene of enormous confidence.  Most animated films are very much content to overcook everything, or just have the characters loudly state the themes or what have you without it fitting their characters, but this scene ends up being typical of Kung Fu Panda 2.  It has the nerve and the confidence to realise that not every joke needs to be a giant laugh-out-loud gutbuster, that a score doesn’t have to force its way to the forefront of the mix to render emotion, and that the viewing audience will get exactly how sad or upset a character feels without having to force their voice actor to strain for emotion or to have the animation flail around wildly.

The best example of this confidence in the viewership, undoubtedly, comes from when Po, under the guide and care of The Soothsayer, finally confronts and accepts his traumatic past.  I mean, just…

First of all, and because you just knew I was going to go straight for this, just look at the transitions between the CG world and the cel-animated memories.  Like, look at them!  The vivid exaggerations of the cel animation, coupled with their bright primary colours that give way to progressively darker shading as we get further and further in, brilliantly convey the dream-like lost childhood memory nature of the revelation that Po initially saw it as.  Note how the wolves themselves seem more demonic, rabid, and dangerous than the snivelling, mangy versions that we’ve been used to seeing in the movie up until that point.  And then how we switch from cel animation for the flashbacks to CG once Po has fully accepted what happened; that these are no longer horrible nightmares, but genuine fragments of his past.  How he has grown to accept the reality of the situation and how they are a part of him.

The score ends up being the most powerful piece of the entire film, striking exactly the right balance between nakedly emotional and spiritually uplifting, the dialogue cuts out literally any line that is not 100% necessary to proceedings because too many words would simply undercut the drama, and the mood remains serious the entire time as Yuh and her team trust the audience won’t grow restless as we deal with this major character breakthrough.  Then there are the actual transitions, the way that the match cuts and smooth pans and camera moves between animation mediums never jar because they utilise more subtle gestures – like the rain drop in CG that substitutes into the hair bun of Po’s mother in cel.  And finally there’s the mini-clip-show which is lingered on precisely long enough to achieve maximum impact without once invoking wonders of unnecessary repetition.

Seriously, Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s direction of this whole film is exceptional, but that sequence is frickin’ virtuoso.  It’s a sequence that heavily reminds me of Avatar: The Last Airbender – in fact, the whole film reminds me a tonne of that and The Legend Of Korra, especially with how Lord Shen is portrayed as a dark mirror version of Po who turned to rage and violence when confronted with parental abandonment – yet feels of its own, its own uniqueness, its own style.  It’s powerful, it’s inspirational, and it couldn’t have been handled better.  Undoubtedly a team effort, but clearly guided and controlled with such skill and passion by one woman.

I could sit here for the next 10 or so A4 pages gushing over Kung Fu Panda 2 and its every last facet – I am pretty much adamant in my belief, by this point, that this is DreamWorks Animation’s masterpiece – but my deadline and word count limit aren’t too far away, so I’m going to wrap up by talking about, what else, the female lead of a DreamWorks Animation film.  Now, in the first Kung Fu Panda, The Furious Five are very much minor characters who exist in service of Po’s story and little more.  We get a tiny insight into their various personalities but not much more than that.  The same is mostly true of the sequel, just with the switching of Go-To Comic Relief from David Cross’ Crane to Seth Rogen’s Mantis, barring one crucial difference.

Tigress is now co-lead.

Now, one could be cynical and claim that this is only due to somebody at DreamWorks remembering that they got Angelina Jolie to voice one of their characters, and that if you’ve gone to that much trouble, you should probably make actual usage of her.  However, I feel that that is severely underselling the character of Tigress in Kung Fu Panda 2.  One of the frequently recurring themes we’ve seen throughout this series – of articles, not the Kung Fu Panda films specifically – has been DreamWorks’ constant voluntary torching and diminishing of any female co-lead they come up with.  Fiona in Shrek, Gloria in Madagascar (although that one hasn’t bothered me so much yet), Marina in Sinbad, and of course Astrid in How To Train Your Dragon; these are (bar Gloria) all females who have their own agency and character and plot arcs, only to have said agency and arcs ripped from them as they suddenly fall for the gravitational pull of the lead male’s genitalia (METAPHORICALLY) and need saving from there on out.

Tigress is a step-up from those, a vast step-up, if not a clean break.  She gets her own plot line and arc, as she learns to slowly defrost that icy demeanour and let people into her life, although it does relate around Po and her relationship to him.  Crucially, however, “relationship” in this case very much points towards “platonic” rather than “romantic.”  It would have been very easy to twist her and Po’s various interactions with one another into romance in order to close out the film with yet another Marina-type scenario, but it instead resists.  Po is an affectionate guy, constantly hugging and professing his love for his friends, and Tigress’ slow releasing of emotion ends up coming as a result of his influence: hence the hug.  It’s not romantic, it’s platonic, a sign that she cares as a friend, further enhanced by her hysterical statue-reaction to being on the receiving end of a proper Po hug at the end, the unfamiliarity for her of that hug robbing the sequence of almost all intended romantic subtext.

Yes, she also gets captured, but only because she thought her one true friend had been killed and she had lost the will to fight, just like the rest of The Furious Five.  Yes, her plot and arc are tied to Po, but she still has her own agency and nobody questions her or her abilities.  Yes, she’s a terse emotionless, mostly humourless girl, but that part of her arc was dealt with in the first film and this one expands her character, softens her edges so that her arc feels more gradual instead of monumental.  There are even times where she gets to display genuine agency, like during the final battle where she takes Lord Shen’s shot meant for Po with no guarantee that she would get out alive.  I’m reminded a lot of Mako Mori from Pacific Rim in terms of how her character is handled, albeit not that revelatory.  It’s not perfect, but it is a major step-up for a company that, as we have touched on multiple times this series, has had a recurring problem with the female gender.

Two months ago, I covered the first Kung Fu Panda and noted how I would never truly be able to love it, despite recognising that it’s a great film and desperately wanting to love it, because I had too much prior life baggage attached to it, although I noted my high hopes for Kung Fu Panda 2.  As you may have gathered, those hopes ended up being more than fulfilled.  I actually finished the film mildly angry, because it turned out that I had spent nearly 4 years voluntarily depriving myself of a modern masterpiece.  Kung Fu Panda 2 is insanely good, the kind of sequel that recognises and improves upon what worked in the first film and jettisons what didn’t, that gets more ambitious, more confident in being able to go darker and have the audience follow along no matter what, and the kind of film where a strong directorial voice is able to elevate an already great film into something even more through their vision and drive.

So I’ll say it again, loud and clear, Jennifer Yuh Nelson is one hell of a director!  Thank the Maker she’s coming back for Kung Fu Panda 3!


A hit with the critics and a runaway smash overseas, albeit a major underperformer at home – a fact that we will touch on again in a few weeks – Kung Fu Panda 2 solidified DreamWorks’ third potential franchise as one that would stick around for the long haul.  Their other film for 2011 would attempt to re-invigorate the Shrek brand by spinning-off the series’ non-Donkey breakout character into his own franchise.  Surprisingly, the move worked with critics and even did decent business at the box office.  But was this all justified?  Next week, we pay one last visit to the Shrek universe and look at Puss In Boots.

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

Callum Petch is doing all that he can to be a warm-hearted man.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Megamind

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary.  To mark the occasion, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment.  Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.


megamind 221] Megamind (5th November 2010)

Budget: $130 million

Gross: $321,885,765

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 72%

2010 was a very successful year for feature-length animation.  Now, when one looks at the year in animated film and tries to determine how good of a year it was, they cannot just cast their eye in the direction of the Disney-DreamWorks-Pixar circle trust and judge it solely from there.  I mean, they can and it should factor in to a large percentage of that – they are the biggest animation companies in the Western world at the moment, after all – but the true indicator of just how successful a year it has been for animation comes from the efforts of other studios and how their works hold up qualitatively and financially which, for 2010, was rather well indeed.

In terms of the big three, DreamWorks put out three solid hits – How To Train Your Dragon, Shrek Forever After, Megamind (sort of, we’ll get to that) – two of which were creative and critical successes, whilst Disney properly kick-started their second renaissance with the financial smash of critical hit Tangled, and Pixar put out Toy Story 3 so I really don’t need to go into detail with that.  They carried the year very well, but there was activity outside of those.  My Dog Tulip was an indie darling that did decent box office numbers, Zack Snyder tried to make an ambitious and dark fantasy epic with Legend Of The Guardians: The Owls Of Ga’Hoole that did very well overseas, Alpha & Omega is a dog turd in a bucket made out of Xenomorph piss but made enough money to justify a direct-to-DVD series that’s still inexplicably going to this day.

Oh, yeah, and Despicable Me happened.

In fact, I’m gonna go ahead right now and state this for the record: as a fan of the Despicable Me series overall, I still don’t quite get why Despicable Me was the one that broke through into the mainstream public consciousness.  Every year, of the tens of animated films that get released into the wild by studios that aren’t part of that circle trust I previously mentioned, one breaks through into mainstream acceptance and becomes the next big franchise.  It’s a recent thing, and some years end up having that big film come from DreamWorks anyway, but it is a thing nonetheless – Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs in 2009, Despicable Me in 2010, Rango and Rio in 2011, Hotel Transylvania in 2012, The Croods in 2013 (because pretty much everything else was a sequel), and The Lego Movie in 2014.

Now, in fairness, Despicable Me is a good film – although I never found it to be great and vastly prefer the better paced, better structured, wackier, funnier, more surprisingly heartfelt and just plain better Despicable Me 2 – and I much prefer it being the breakout in a rather quiet year than f*cking Alpha & Omega, but I’ve never fully gotten why.  The first film is flawed – a lot of the non-physical gags don’t land, the heart isn’t quite earned, and many of the voice performances are just awful – and forgettable, yet it became the film that everybody went back to again and again and again.  My best guess is the same as my guess for why Madagascar became a hit: the funny comic relief side characters (Penguins in Madagascar, Minions in Despicable Me) and the collective belief that a sequel will fully realise the potential that is frequently hinted at but never quite reached.

Despicable Me, for those not in the know, follows an ineffectual supervillain who wishes to become the most evilest supervillain of them all, but has a change of heart and becomes a hero of sorts after he lets women into his personal life and discovers that, deep down, he actually has real feelings and cares about other people that are not his minions or his steadfastly loyal sidekick.  Megamind, for those not in the know, follows an ineffectual supervillain who wishes to become the most evilest supervillain of them all, but has a change of heart and becomes a hero of sorts after he lets a woman into his personal life and discovers that, deep down, he actually has real feelings and cares about other people that are not his minions or his steadfastly loyal sidekick.

Can you see why Megamind was doomed from the get-go?

Now, I am not saying that Megamind and Despicable Me ripped one another off.  Of course I’m not, animation lead times are hellish and whichever one of these films came out first would have had the advantage of not being seen as a rip-off of the other.  What I am saying, is that an uninformed public may end up seeing it that way and they’re unlikely to turn up for a second go-around if they look too similar to one another.  DreamWorks had gotten away with it before with Antz and Shark Tale, but both of those looked very distinct from the films they were going up against, Antz came first and Shark Tale was a year removed from Finding Nemo.  In a darkly funny way, being late to the punch and suffering for it, this is basically karma finally coming for DreamWorks Animation.

Like it or not, Despicable Me will have been at least partially responsible for the lower-than-average gross for Megamind.  It may not have been such a problem if Despicable Me wasn’t A Thing, but it was A Thing and it ended up being a breath of fresh air in the animated medium – I’m assuming, my guess being that it was an animated comedy with real heart and few pop culture references – and so Megamind ended up suffering in comparison in the public eye.  After all, here was a DreamWorks film.  The third in a year, no less!  It had been 9 years since the first Shrek and, since most of the animation medium had decided to poorly copy that film’s way of doing things, people were tired of the DreamWorks formula by this point.

The film opened OK, first place and $46 million is nothing to sniff at, but was still somewhat below par for a DreamWorks film with 3D bells and whistles – especially since 66% of its opening weekend came from 3D showings at the height of the 3D craze.  It held well in weekend no. 2, only slipping 37% and beating off Unstoppable which was a real movie that existed and not some kind of amazingly stupid fever dream we collectively had, but any hopes of a long run on the chart were collectively dashed by four words that sent the entire box office sprinting for cover: Deathly Hallows, Part 1.  The combination of that opening in Week 3 and Disney’s Tangled opening in Week 4 signalled a very swift end to Megamind’s domestic box office fortunes; it dropped out after Week 6.

Considering that one-two punch, one would wonder why DreamWorks didn’t simply push the release date forward a bit, perhaps into October.  Problem is, DreamWorks were very much in a “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” situation with Megamind.  Too early and Despicable Me would be too fresh in the audience’s minds and that would harm Megamind’s box office even more.  Too late and they’d have to push it into January/February of 2011, the cinematic dead zone and creating the problem of having three films coming out in relatively close proximity to one another in 2011; essentially postponing the burnout problem another 12 months.  Plus, in October, a very large number of 3D screens were taken by Jackass 3D and Katzenberg’s very public uproar over the competition foisted upon How To Train Your Dragon back in March probably convinced him to keep schtum this time.

So it didn’t do particularly great in the US.  Problem is that overseas grosses weren’t particularly great, either.  DreamWorks films that don’t do great financially domestically typically, not always but typically, make up for that with very strong overseas sales – Penguins Of Madagascar has crashed and burned domestically (it won’t even cross $80 million by the time it finally closes) but is at least trying to force its way into profitability with a slow but strong overseas performance.  Megamind, for whatever reason, never managed to do that.  Therefore, the film, although not a bomb, is one of the lower grossing entries into the more recent DreamWorks canon – although that bar keeps getting lowered/raised with each passing entry, to be frank.

Despicable Me is certainly one reason, three DreamWorks films in one year is definitely another (I have talked before about the DreamWorks release plan so I won’t repeat myself), and the fact that it looked very much like The DreamWorks Movie certainly didn’t help matters.  In fact, after having viewed the film and tweeted out how I prefer it to Despicable Me 1 – like you’re surprised, if you’ve followed this series or any of my writings on this site, you saw this coming – a friend of mine replied with surprise at my position as they found it to be “the most DreamWorks-ass movie they’ve ever made.”  And I am inclined to agree with that statement, name a DreamWorks Animation trope – pop culture references, expensive sounding licensed soundtrack, characters that resemble their voice actors more than a little too much, a Dance Party Ending – and it probably shows up here at some point.

But, crucially, Megamind also perfectly encapsulates just how far DreamWorks Animation had come since their commonly accepted dark age.  See, Megamind has a fair bit going on in it.  The DreamWorks of old would have taken its superhero parody premise, filled in the blank spaces with the bare minimum of character work and pop culture references, and then called it a day.  Megamind instead fills its blanks with the bare minimum of pop culture references – the bigger ones being relevant to the genre the film is occasionally parodying and therefore making sense – a very good amount of character work, a surprising amount of heart, and a vicious and relevant deconstruction of the Dogged Yet Determined Nice Guy trope.  It’s not original, Christ no, but it is highly entertaining and, as I have said before, films don’t have to be original to be great.

Now, I am going to be frank, a part of me did sigh dejectedly when Roxie ended up not being the one who gets forcibly injected with the hero serum – after all, DreamWorks have a (previously discussed) female problem and, if this was pulled off well (because it could also have gone so horribly wrong), giving Roxie powers and making her Megamind’s self-created nemesis would have provided so many potentially brilliant plotlines.  However, the serum going to Hal allows Megamind to touch on its best theme: loudly telling young boys that they are entitled to jack sh*t when it comes to women.

What do the movies typically teach us?  The hero gets the girl.  The good guy gets the girl.  The dogged nice guy is rewarded for his patience and persistence by getting the girl.  If your soulmate is currently with the wrong guy, a lunky meathead who is cool and awesome whilst you’re a sad lonely nerd, she will eventually realise that it should have been you all along and will come around if you just don’t stop trying to convince her.  This is why “friendzoning” is a thing.  We are very much a culture of entitlement, men are entitled to their dream girl and the guy that gets in the way of that is a horrible jock asshole and any girl who rejects you just doesn’t realise how special you are, despite just how f*cking abhorrent that entire philosophy is, and it’s why tragic events like the Isla Vita massacre end up happening.

So Megamind gets across just how non-OK that is by making Hal the villain.  Without powers, his constant hitting on Roxie even long after she has made it quite clear that she is not interested is an annoyance and creepy, but not especially threatening since he can’t do anything about it.  With powers, his entitlement overtakes his being and he now has the means with which to actually lash out at the world when everything he has been promised isn’t dropped into his lap.  Roxie is in love with Bernard – or, at least, who she thinks is Bernard, we’ll get back to that in a minute – and Hal suddenly sprouting powers and pecs does not cause her libido to suddenly gain feelings for him.  She wasn’t interested in him before because he was rather creepy and overly forward and unable to let the crush go, and she’s not interested in him now since all the powers have done is give him the strength to act on those creepy and overly forward impulses.  Her rejection is what spurs him to turn evil, but it’s clear that he would have gone this way at some point regardless of how things turned out with Roxie.

To put it another way: a big message of a big expensive animated kids’ movie aimed at young boys is “No means no.  Always.  No exceptions.  You aren’t entitled to sh*t.”  Ain’t that something rather amazing?

This all being said, Megamind does very much risk undercutting this message in three ways.  1] There are quite a few times, pre-powers, where Hal’s creepy hitting on Roxie is played more for laughs than “this is not OK”-ness.  I’m not 100% certain about this, because I’m not sure how much I’m projecting my own beliefs onto this movie and how much is the film mashing that “not OK” button (all of its prior attempts at getting jokes from that fall flat for me, you see, so I’m not certain how much of the film is properly playing it for laughs), but it’s there nonetheless.  2] The finale still ends with Megamind himself having won Roxie after proving himself to be a nice guy hero deep down, although that problem is somewhat nipped by a large chunk of the movie being devoted to showing the two of them mutually falling in love with each other.  Mind, that also brings us to…

…3] much of that romance occurs with Megamind tricking Roxie into believing that he is somebody else, with him taking the form of Bernard.  No matter how real and genuinely touching the rest of their relationship is built on, there’s still the issue of the fact that Megamind built much of his relationship with Roxie on a lie.  A lie that he is rewarded for, even after the jig is revealed and Roxie reacts understandably betrayed and angry, by getting the girl after rescuing her from Hal/Titan.  Now, this whole plotline and development isn’t exactly something made up specifically for Megamind, the film is a parody of comic books and superheroes and this kind of thing crops up there too (I’m assuming) so it carries problematic undertones anywhere (see also: any plotline that involves love potions of any kind), but those uncomfortable undertones still sit there regardless.

Yet, I honestly don’t find them a film-killer, like they should be, and I put that all down to the film’s incredibly strong character work.  The relationship between Megamind and Roxie feels very real, very honest, very spontaneous.  Although the film makes it somewhat clear from the outset that the two are going to end up together – this is a film, after all, apparently only Hayao Miyazaki understands that the lead man and the lead woman don’t need to get together by the rolling of the end credits – this isn’t apparent to the characters.  Megamind doesn’t kidnap Roxie at the outset because he has secret deep-down feelings for her, the film repeatedly makes it very clear that he’s only doing that because that’s what villains are supposed to do and he views her as somewhat of an annoyance – crucially, the film itself doesn’t, which is why she’s a very entertaining and interesting character despite being shunted into the two roles that women are apparently supposed to play in blockbuster action films.

The first time Megamind properly hangs out with Roxie, as in not keeping himself from being discovered by her, it’s not even in a romantic context.  Or, at least, an openly romantic one.  It starts very much as a position of his enjoying her company and wishing to spend more time with her, and his not realising that the true extent of his affections for her being love until later.  Vice versa for Roxie, it’s very much two friends slowly realising that they have a deeper bond than just being friends and it’s that naturalness and realness that’s able to transcend the somewhat… iffy details surrounding it.  For me, at least.  No, it doesn’t much help the film’s case that a good chunk of this is dealt with in one Electric Light Orchestra backed montage, but the relationship between the two is very much the centre and backbone of the movie and the execution of everything surrounding that is why it all still works.

See, Megamind’s arc feels natural.  It feels sincere.  He may seem like he’s deciding to become a hero because of the love of a woman, but the reality is that that’s only one part of it.  For one, he never really wanted to become a villain in the first place, society bullied him into it because school kids are the f*cking worst.  For two, there’s a good 10 to 15 minute stretch where the film loudly announces the fact that Megamind only got the fun out of the chase and actually finds the non-chase parts of villainy rather boring.  And for three, his first instinct when he sees Titan running off the rails is to try and shut down his creation before it gets further out of control, proving that he’s always had good inside of him somewhere.  The love of Roxie is a catalyst for that realisation of his change, but it’s not the sole reason and that’s why his arc feels genuine.  There’s more to it, it’s built up over time, and where he ends up personally when the film closes makes sense based on what the film has shown us about him earlier.  By contrast, Despicable Me’s shift in Gru’s character feels forced and ham-handed, arriving suddenly because the plot demands it and only really coming from the three girls – the only real foreshadowing coming from Gru not treating his Minions like garbage.

That’s why Megamind’s heart hits for me whilst Despicable Me’s does not, and why I prefer the former to the latter.  Megamind has issues – the ratio of good jokes to “ugh” jokes is slightly less one-sided than I’d like it to be, animation quality is alright but not outstanding, art style and character designs are honestly really generic, there are no real “Wow!” stand-out moments – but its heart is in the right place and its heart works gangbusters.  A joke machine is fine, but that means that a prolonged stretch of time where the jokes aren’t firing on all cylinders exposes the weaknesses in the rest of your film.  Megamind, however, has stuff going on under the surface – mostly stuff that has been done before, with the exception of that whole entitlement angle, but it’s all very well executed in any case – and its emotional centre always feels genuine which means it tugs my heartstrings more than Despicable Me 1 did.

Also, that moment just before the title card where the studio version of George Thorogood & The Destroyers’ “Bad To The Bone” seamlessly transitions into a glorious orchestral version of said tune is brilliant and makes up for every mediocre-to-bad usage of that song for at least the last decade.  What can I say?  I’m a simple man of simple pleasures.


Megamind was a somewhat successful film critically and financially, although not the runaway that How To Train Your Dragon (critically) and Shrek Forever After (financially) had been.  Of 2010’s DreamWorks Animation releases, it’s likely that the company regard it as the black sheep of the group, although the film does have its fans.  Their next film, the first of two for 2011, would cement the standing of their third big film franchise, wow the critics, kill the foreign box office, and baffle everybody when, much like with How To Train Your Dragon and its first instalment, it was passed over for the Best Animated Feature Oscar.  Next week, it’s Kung Fu Panda 2.

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

Callum Petch can taste the bright lights but he won’t get them for free.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Shrek Forever After

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary.  To mark the occasion, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment.  Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.


shrek forever after family20] Shrek Forever After (21st May 2010)

Budget: $135 – 165 million

Gross: $752,600,867

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 58%

2010 DreamWorks Animation was a very different beast to 2007 DreamWorks Animation.  In 2007, DreamWorks Animation were at rock bottom, their films were critically reviled, box office prospects for non-Shrek films weren’t looking so hot (and Shrek itself suffered a financial stability wobble with The Third), they’d driven away Aardman Animations, and they were basically a walking punchline for anybody with an interest in Western Animation.  Plus, y’know, that long line of imitators they ended up spawning needs a lot of apologising for.

By 2010, however, the company was getting its groove back, in such a way that everybody was immensely surprised.  Kung Fu Panda was a fantastic out-of-left-field “Holy hell, when on EARTH did they learn to be able to do THAT?!” treat, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa was a huge step-up from the original, Monsters vs. Aliens was a tonne of fun and a staunchly feminist breath of fresh air, and I think enough words have been written about How To Train Your Dragon by this point.  Each of these were met with different levels of box office success, but they were all successes and all spawned franchises – or helped propagate, in the case of Madagascar – of their own.

DreamWorks Animation, by 2010, looked damn strong, basically.  They had also grown considerably as filmmakers and storytellers.  They had near-totally outgrown the kinds of films they used to make in the equivalent of their slacker-teenager phase.  They had mostly ditched the pop culture references, stopped seemingly greenlighting films purely off of the back of stars and concepts that could print money, and were now making movies with real heart based on concepts and stories that everybody was fully invested in and with likeable characters instead of stars masquerading as characters.

What I am saying is that, by May of 2010, DreamWorks Animation had outgrown ShrekShrek was their breakthrough onto the big stage, the giant grand rebellious statement that only a young, brash scrappy up-and-comer could make and make so sincerely.  It had attitude, sincerity, and a burning desire to impress those that came before it – and that it was indebted to – whilst simultaneously flipping them off in order to court a new generation of moviegoers.  It’s the kind of film that an animation studio can really only make once, as the more times you trot it out when you’re successful, the less authentic it comes off as and the more its continued existence becomes a blatant business decision rather than an artistic one.

I guess what I am trying to say is that Shrek is the pop punk of animated movies.  If you keep trying to make new films like it a decade on, when you’re the old big successful overlord that you spent that first statement railing against and the films keep using that exact same formula, you’re going to come off as completely un-self-aware and it’s going to look a bit sad, to be honest.  From a creative stand point, therefore, there is no reason for Shrek Forever After to exist.  From a business standpoint, I get why.  At the time of Shrek The Third’s release, DreamWorks weren’t doing so well at launching other money making franchises, there was no guarantee that Madagascar was actually going to work a second time around, and Shrek was a guaranteed money-spinner.  I don’t think anybody predicted the overall performance of DreamWorks between Shrek The Third and How To Train Your Dragon, so it makes business sense to make one more Shrek movie.

Yet, 2008 to 2010 happened, so a film that has no creative reason to exist also ends up having no real financial reason to exist, either.  After all, although Megamind would underwhelm somewhat at the box office – not entirely its own fault, however, as we shall see next week – the company was still in a very healthy shape financially.  And the company had just patched up its critical reputation, another Shrek film – and the backlash against any Shrek that wasn’t the first had set in by this point, so it was more than likely set to get mauled regardless of quality – was the last thing a company that could finally say “We make great films!” and not be greeted with derision needed.  Plus, DreamWorks already had two films out in 2010, a third in one year risks oversaturation, especially with Dragon having dropped barely two months earlier.

But, of course, you can’t cancel a film that you’ve sunk $100 million+ and several years into just because you no longer need it, and so the world was handed Shrek Forever After.  Now, as I think we’ve already discovered, the Shrek series and I do not get along.  I greeted this week’s entry with a resigned sigh, and I found the original Shrek, a good four months back (holy cow, I’ve been doing this for over five months, that is strangely terrifying), to be merely decent at best.  But I do see why the first film changed everything and I get why people really liked Shrek 2, even though it does not hold up at all.

My problem with the sequels is that they both lose sight of why the first film worked and do nothing but rehash it over and over again.  Shrek worked not because of its “edge”, not because of its pop-culture references, not because of its Disney pot-shots, but because of its giant beating heart and strong character work.  Yet all three sequels jettison that last part in favour of doubling down on everything else in that sentence, so the enterprise feels hollow.  And as for the re-hashing, Forever After is yet another tale of Shrek being miserable in his current predicament, setting off on and just go re-read my piece on Shrek The Third, I’m not going to pointlessly kill time by repeating what I said there.  Mind, the Obligatory Forest Battle sequence this time is actually a synchronised dance number.  That’s progress, I guess?

Shrek was a bold new idea that wished to inject life into a medium that had honestly gotten rather stale and risk-averse, Shrek 2 was an extended victory lap and cementing of the new status quo, Shrek The Third was a film that at least had a couple of good ideas in it – which it proceeded to actively go and squander.  All three of those films have reasons for existing that don’t just amount to “Scrooge McDuck money”.  Forever After… really doesn’t.  Its narrative conceit is a liberal borrowing of It’s A Wonderful Life in order to construct a version of Far, Far Away where Shrek never existed.  Except that it really doesn’t do enough with the alternate universe concept, instead shoving it all into the background in order to once again tell a story about Shrek trying to end up with Fiona.  Her, Donkey and Puss In Boots all very quickly revert to the dynamic they have in standard Far, Far Away anyway, so what exactly is the point?

It’s just going through the motions.  There’s no real heart there anymore, ironic since this instalment aims to be a big grand goodbye to the cast and the world of Shrek.  That lack of love ends up suffocating the film because nothing ends up connecting, nothing resonates.  The film focusses harder than any of the other sequels on the Shrek/Fiona relationship, seeing as the whole concept of the film is that the pair must fall in love again otherwise the world is DOOOOOOOMED – which is up there with Love Potion plots in terms of set-ups that make me more than a little uncomfortably queasy – but it doesn’t connect because nobody cares.  Mike Myers, who even tried to make Shrek The Third somewhat salvageable, most certainly no longer cares, failing to invest many of his lines with any real emotion and permanently ready to just be done with this whole franchise.

Shrek spends a lot of the first part of the movie wishing to go back to the old days, when he was a real ogre, when he had drive and fire and ambition, and it is very hard to not read it as meta-text as well – the cries of filmmakers and a studio that wants to go back to making films with invention and something to say rather than spending their days doing the same old song and dance.  Yet that’s all this film ends up doing.  It phones in what should be a rebellious clarion call, everything feels forced, there’s no imagination and nobody seems particularly interested in telling a story anymore.  There was actually a point in the film where I sat and wondered aloud to myself, “What is the point of any of this?  Like, why does this film exist, since nothing that happens in it is going to affect anything and it’s not doing anything with its premise to make up for that fact?”

Shrek learns his lesson – appreciate how great your life is instead of whinging all the time, you f*ckbag – within the first half an hour.  His character arc is all wrapped up and done, yet the film still has an hour left to kill and fills that time by having Shrek fall back in love with Fiona again – unnecessary, he already realises what he’s lost and wants to set things right – having Fiona fall in love with Shrek – irrelevant, nothing that happens in this reality particularly matters and the romance still feels WAAAAAAY too forced to remove the icky factor of the whole set-up – and padding out the film with action sequences focussed around an Ogre revolution against Rumpelstiltskin’s dictatorial control – confusing, since it begs the question of where all of these Ogres are in the correct reality.

In fact, let me briefly talk about Rumpelstiltskin.  UUUUUUUUUGGGGGHHHHHH.  First of all, considering the fact that one of the backbones of the Shrek franchise is upending established fairy-tale rules and conventions like who the heroes and villains are – Robin Hood in Shrek, Fairy Godmother and Prince Charming in Shrek 2 – having them go to Rumpelstiltskin and just making him a straight villain who does that thing he’s famous for smacks of wasted opportunities and lazy disinterested work.  Second, whilst I appreciate the DreamWorks tradition of having in-house production staff voicing secondary roles making a return, Walt Dohrn is honestly really poor as the villain, his chosen voice is just plain grating, very inconsistent, and frequently messing up what little actually decent material Rumpel gets.  (Incidentally, there are rumours that Tom Cruise was being courted to voice the guy instead, but they were squashed almost as soon as they were brought up.)

And third, he’s one of those villains who is irritatingly inconsistent in their intelligence level.  The entire dramatic tension of Forever After comes from Shrek needing to share True Love’s Kiss before the day is up, or else he and his old world will cease exist.  For Rumpelstiltskin to win, all he has to do is absolutely nothing.  I mean, it’s not like Shrek will figure this out on his own.  Yet, Rumpel still orders his witch army to capture Shrek for him so he can gloat and basically give Shrek all the instructions he needs to fix everything, which is incredibly dumb behaviour.  But he’s also a villain who hires a near-unstoppable bounty hunter, hides his escape clauses in complex origami, and can outwit the Ogre army with relative ease.  He’s not a character who is outwitted by the heroes – otherwise known as the right way to make a smart villain not appear a dumbass – he is somebody who openly orchestrates his own downfall because the script has written him that poorly.  He’s an utterly wasted character, is what I’m getting at.

The film’s focus on giant setpiece action scenes doesn’t help matters, either.  Not only are they there to artificially prolong the movie and attempt to hide the fact that there is incredibly little real character work going on here, they’re just really dull and uninspired.  Sometimes they’re framed and boarded in a way that caught my attention for a few seconds – it helps that chroma-keying isn’t particularly noticeable this go around – but then I remember that this is the first instalment made IN THREEEEEEEE-DEEEEEEEE and that a film as lifeless and uninterested in its own existence as Shrek Forever After probably only did that to justify the extra cash ticket.  It’s all loud noise and pretty colours, but nothing of substance.

In a positive development, at least, the amount of pop culture references are toned down significantly for this instalment, due to the shift away from standard Far, Far Away.  The downside is that Forever After flails even harder when it comes to telling jokes.  It blows all of its best material during the segment at the first birthday party of Shrek and Fiona’s kids – where a perfectly paced scene constructs, arranges, boards and then milks its jokes in a way and manner that genuinely works for the entire runtime – and then struggles to get actual jokes from there.  It’s like removing the pop culture references crutch, likely meant as a way to challenge themselves and stave off complaints, only revealed to the writers how little of a handle they have on any of the cast anymore.

So the attempts at character gags mostly fall flat, inexcusable given the alternate reality set-up.  The one constant hit involves Puss In Boots and that’s more from Antonio Banderas’ ability to commit to any line he is fed than anything else.  So, instead, we get these occasional jarring bursts of major black comedy that come off as really mean-spirited instead of actually funny – did we really have to have Fat Puss In Boots eat the still alive alternate universe version of the Gingerbread Man, especially when Shrek played his torment for drama instead of mean-spirited laughs?  And who honestly thought having Donkey devolve further into a borderline racist caricature – “What you talkin’ about, cracker?” – was a good idea?  Plus, the film can’t even commit to its “No Pop Culture Gags” edict.  We open with a Deliverance reference, of all sodding things, and the Pied Piper’s character turns out to just be an elaborate set-up to play “Sure Shot” by Beastie Boys.

Forever After is a film that is creatively bankrupt whilst simultaneously being the best of the Shrek sequels.  2’s overreliance on pop culture references to drive proceedings has aged it incredibly poorly, The Third’s total ineptitude and active wasting of its two decent ideas makes it an abominable mess, but Forever After is more just dull than anything else.  It’s competently made, but rather heartless and really dull, yet that’s still a step-up from the last two, which should be a good indication as to just how far the Shrek series ended up falling.  It doesn’t justify its existence as anything other than a belated cash stimulus for DreamWorks Animation, and it doesn’t really try to dissuade that notion at any point.  There’s no real send-off vibe to proceedings, even though it tries to; it just feels like a pointless epilogue to a series that wrapped with The Third.

But, hey, if it was supposed to just be a cash stimulus for DreamWorks, at least Forever After didn’t fail in that respect.  The very high scoring number 1 debut, the three-peat at the top of the chart, the very decent home media sales; all par for the course.  Hell, even though it only lasted 7 weeks in the Top 10 and is the lowest grossing main entry in the Shrek franchise domestically, I doubt DreamWorks were too upset, since the film is the company’s second best-overseas-performer ever behind Madagascar 3.  I mean, it looks bad for a series like Shrek to erode so thoroughly between instalments, but investors can easily be calmed by waving $752 million in their faces.  In fact, thanks to that stellar overseas performance, the film managed to hold off Despicable Me to become the second highest grossing animated film worldwide of a very competitive 2010.

So, from a business standpoint, Shrek Forever After had a reason to exist, even if that was just to mitigate the eventual underperformance of Megamind and to flush DreamWorks execs with even more cashola.  But from a creative standpoint, did Forever After really need to exist?  It’s clear that nobody here had any sustainable or substantial ideas for a film and that this is being made out of some corporate mandated necessity than any actual love.  The whole production is clearly tired and fed up and uninterested in crafting new worlds or characters or jokes that are worth a damn – best exemplified by the complete lack of effort in making the new Ogres not look like the single most terrifying things I’ve seen all week.  Yes, it sends off the Shrek series on a higher note than the excretable The Third did, but it also does so with an open contempt and disinterest for having to do so in the first place.  Say what you like about The Third, lord knows I have, but at least there was a spark of life in there for the majority of its runtime.  Forever After is practically comatose.

It’s not even a true send-off for the Shrek series!  In 18 months, DreamWorks would attempt to spin-off Puss In Boots into his own prequel series, one that’s apparently still getting a sequel at some point.  Katzenberg, meanwhile, keeps dropping hints about finally making that fifth instalment which, considering the state of DreamWorks Animation at the moment, could be an attempt to placate investors who would rather he keeps pumping that series dry until the money stops coming, and also a mighty tempting proposition right now.  If he is smart, he’ll just leave the series to rest for good.  It was was suffering from diminishing financial returns, blatantly running on creative fumes by the time of Forever After, and the original’s legacy has already been tainted by its sequels that it doesn’t need any further knocks against it.

I realise that the temptation is great, but Shrek is not a movie that the DreamWorks Animation of today can make.  Not in the landscape they helped build, not when they are the ones at the head of the medium.  They already tried making it again three more times and each successive one just came off as more and more desperate and forced.  I would love to see them somehow pull the series out of the endless tailspin that it’s been stuck in for a decade and properly say goodbye at the top of their game, but forcing it is the wrong way to go.  They need a story, they need to remember the real reason why the first Shrek worked, and everybody needs to be 100% invested in returning back for one last ride.  Otherwise, the series should just be allowed to rest in peace.  Forever After basically spent 90 minutes sleepwalking, anyway, it’s not much further of a stretch.


Although it was a financial success, Shrek Forever After still suffered from diminishing financial returns for the series, and was a creative black mark for a studio that had managed to near totally turn around its reputation in the public eye.  Their final 2010 film would be heavily regarded as middle-of-the-road fare and failed to blow any doors off any box offices.  How much of that was due to the film itself and how much of that was due to incredibly unlucky timing will more than likely be our main topic of discussion next week when we look at Megamind.

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

Callum Petch is saying sorry through a bottle.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

How To Train Your Dragon

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary.  To mark the occasion, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment.  Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.


how to train your dragon19] How To Train Your Dragon (26th March 2010)

Budget: $165 million

Gross: $494,878,759

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%

Let’s talk about Astrid.

Astrid, at the outset of How To Train Your Dragon, is a tough, no-nonsense dragon warrior in training.  She takes extreme pride in her chosen life path, wanting to become a great dragon slayer more than anything else.  She has no time for f*ck-ups, no time for the boys that are constantly hitting on her even though she keeps repeatedly making it clear that she is not interested, and to not take training seriously is to deeply insult her – the mere insinuation that her path in life is anything less than noble and desirable sending her into an understandable rage.

Therefore, Hiccup infuriates Astrid, openly so.  She has been training her entire life to kill dragons and takes every little bit of it seriously.  And in comes Hiccup, bumbling his way through training half-heartedly, making a joke out of her profession.  Then Hiccup inexplicably starts getting good; he starts getting really good.  Astrid’s pride can’t take it, there is simply no way that Hiccup, a clumsy fool who has openly stated that he cannot and does not want to kill a dragon, can suddenly become a master of dragons overnight.  Not when she has dedicated her whole life to being the best at this stuff, not now that she is suddenly number two to what appears to be a halfwit.

When she is passed over for the opportunity to kill a dragon, she decides to tail Hiccup and find out his secret.  There she discovers Toothless, the incredibly dangerous Nightfury dragon that Hiccup has seemingly tamed and has been getting his dragon info from.  Terrified, she runs off to warn the village, but Hiccup and Toothless kidnap her before she can in order to get assurances that she won’t spill the beans.  To help convince her, Hiccup has her fly with him on Toothless to discover just how peaceful dragons can be and how amazing riding them is.  It does the trick, Astrid is very much convinced.

In fact, she’s so convinced that she kisses Hiccup practically the second they get back down to the ground and becomes his girlfriend for the rest of the movie, despite having held him in pure contempt for the previous hour.

Does this sound familiar?  It should; this kind of character trajectory – from a strong young woman trying to earn respect in a man’s world and with absolutely no time for the awkward flirting of the lead protagonist, to someone who is suddenly stuck in the gravitational pull of the lead male’s penis (metaphorically) and is reduced to simply being The Girlfriend who needs rescuing in the finale – has been utilised by DreamWorks Animation before.  Remember Marina from Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas?  And just like in that film, How To Train Your Dragon ends up taking a torch to its incredibly interesting female co-lead, with a whole bunch of potential distinctly female-focussed themes and narrative threads attached to her existence and character (although it’s annoyingly just left as subtext), for quite literally no good reason.

In an article posted on The Dissolve this past Summer, Tasha Robinson termed this kind of character trajectory as “Trinity Syndrome”, after the closest thing to a ur text in the shape of Trinity from The Matrix, and few things in movies annoy me more than it.  It gives off the impression that women are not important enough to have their own stories and narrative arcs unless they are inextricably tied to the whims of a man.  That ends up becoming even more infuriating when their plotlines are deep and detailed, yet are dropped like week old garbage the second the film decides that its time for them to suddenly be irresistibly attracted to the man’s genitalia (metaphorically).

Astrid is a character who has an incredibly interesting character and thematic arc, as previously detailed, and it very much seems to be building up to her swallowing her pride, recognising Hiccup’s way of doing things and growing to respect him as a fellow Viking.  Then, at the hour mark and quite literally out of nowhere, she falls hopelessly in love with Hiccup and, around that time, loses her competency in combat – her main character trait by that point – so that Hiccup can rescue her in the finale.  Much like with Sinbad, the film gains nothing from making Astrid The Girlfriend of Hiccup.  The film could have taken the romance part of the relationship out of it and lost nothing except a whole surplus load of problems.  It’s character derailment of the highest order and the only thing that even slightly redeems it is the early scene between the two in the sequel where proceedings are suitably adorable and cute.  That’s the sequel, however, so it’s still a problem in this film.

Specifically, in addition to ruining the character of Astrid, her sudden and inexplicable falling for Hiccup contributes to the film’s broken attempt at its message.  From the start of the film, How To Train Your Dragon loudly sets up a message of alternate masculinity.  Hiccup wants to be accepted in a very manly culture of walking badasses who practically reek of testosterone – including the women – but is physically incapable of being so because he’s physically weak and an altogether more peaceful guy stuck in a society that prides strength and violence above everything else.  From the very start of the film, the pieces are put in place for Hiccup to earn the respect and admiration of his father and the community in other ways, through inner strength and the ability to make peace with the dragons.  He will never be the guy who walks away from the explosion in slow motion, girlfriend in one arm, without looking back, but he can be masculine in other ways.

Yet his arc pays off by having him achieve acceptance in the way that the film’s society deems is the only way to be a true man: fighting and killing a dragon.  He even loses a leg in the process; truest sign of a man and a badass is when you have a war wound – direct quote from Astrid prior to training, “It’s only fun if you get a scar out of it.”  Sure, he’s riding a dragon and is only doing this in order to set the other dragons free and keep his dad from being killed, but it’s still very much a traditional way to wrap up his arc and makes the messages of the film – being true to one’s-self, what society deems to be masculine is not the only way to be a man, and that pacifism does not make you a coward or wuss – contradict events on screen.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 has this same problem, but works it into its overall narrative – the message of that film blatantly being that some people cannot be reasoned with and that, in those extreme situations, drastic steps have to be taken to keep things from spiralling further out of control.  The problem with How To Train Your Dragon is that the Alpha Dragon – the unreasonable thing that requires drastic steps to combat – is not worked into the message, so his existence and eventual combat feels like a sacrifice to big-budget filmmaking rather than a natural part of the film.  Yet, frustratingly, his existence is still inextricably linked to the film’s DNA – even though he contradicts the messages and feels superfluous, the film is still building up to a final showdown with Hiccup and Toothless against something big and nasty, so he can’t be ejected from the film.

So, Hiccup fits and slays a dragon; the biggest and baddest alive that also happens to be the reason why dragons keep raiding Berk and attacking and killing people.  He also demonstrates natural leadership, gets the girl of his dreams, rescues the girl of his dreams as The Strong Female Character cannot be allowed to be self-reliant in the finale, becomes accepted by the Viking society for actually totally being one of them deep down inside when the chips are down, and wins the respect of his father for basically doing what needed to be done.  There’s nothing particularly alternative or Hiccup about it, despite having Stoick state otherwise.  It’s like the film is at war with itself, between what it wants to be and what it needs to be – kinda fitting, in all honesty.

Yes, as you may have gathered, I don’t love How To Train Your Dragon.  I also don’t hate it, but I have many problems with it and I feel that, although it has many outstanding individual scenes, the whole doesn’t quite work.  Let it be said, however, that, despite how I may sometimes come off when talking about films, I was really trying to like it.  As a dog owner, the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless is the kind of pure, beautiful relationship between owner and pet that sends my heart all a-swelling; the film’s opening reel, where it sets up the intent of subverting typically accepted masculinity, had me all set to feel super “yay!” at the finale due to my personal relationships with masculinity; and, on the filmmaking side, the directors and co-writers are Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, previous of one of my favourite animated films of all-time in the shape of Lilo & Stitch.

Yet, both times that I’ve seen the film now – once prior to How To Train Your Dragon 2 because I learnt my lesson from February thank you kindly, once again for this series – it has left me cold overall, and I’m honestly not sure why.  I mean, those two issues I just spent extensive time going into are not exactly deal-breakers – broken Aesops are not major problems for me, and I’m a hardcore Disney fan so, although I am a feminist, I’m not going to write a film off totally for messing up its female characters (unless things switch over into an openly sexist, hateful misogynistic vibe, anyway) – and, as I think we’ve discovered throughout this series, I don’t have a bias against DreamWorks Animation and have loved and really like a good majority of their films.

But, try as I might, I can’t figure out why I feel no particular affinity to the whole of How To Train Your Dragon.  There’s just this thing, I don’t know what it is and I can’t describe it but I know it’s not in HTTYD, for me at least.  I mean, I’m rather alone on this.  It has the highest score on Rotten Tomatoes of any DreamWorks Animation film to date and that includes Aardman co-productions, it swept the 2010 Annie Awardsalbeit not without controversy – many people feel the film was snubbed when Toy Story 3 took the Best Animated Feature Oscar over it at that year’s Academy Awards, and, without fail, every single time I mention to somebody that this series and this film does pretty much nothing for me, they gasp in shock, assume I outright hate the film and demand an immediate explanation.  But I can’t.  I can tell them about Astrid and I can tell them about the walking contradiction known as the alpha dragon, but those are still not the reason why the overall film does nothing for me.  So, therefore, I can’t tell people why I’m rather indifferent on a lot of this film except for just knowing that I am.

It’s a real shame, too, because How To Train Your Dragon does a lot of things right.  Visually, the film is a delight, even if its ability to blow minds thanks to raw quality has been lessened somewhat by the sequel outdoing it in every regard.  DreamWorks, especially the Shrek series, have so far had a problem when it comes to animating and representing humans on screen – with them pretty much always falling into the Uncanny Valley and clashing badly with the rest of the film’s world.  HTTYD is the first to really break through that with strong distinctive character designs that are clearly more focussed on resembling ideas in artists’ heads than the famous celebrity voicing them.  Boarding and layout, meanwhile, take the arty heavily thought-out nature of Kung Fu Panda and runs with it, constructing gorgeous shots that make great usage of space and size.  (It likely doesn’t surprise you, incidentally, to find out that Roger Deakins was a visual consultant on the film.)

how to train your dragon

You could hang this shot in an art gallery and only arseholes would object to its conclusion.

Writing is mostly strong, excluding the prior mentioned issues and most things out of Snoutlout’s obnoxiously awful mouth.  It’s a film that maintains a serious tone for a large percentage of its runtime without being joyless.  It doesn’t force its humour, the dragon training kids are teenagers so it makes sense that they’d be obnoxious and silly, and many of the jokes work on a dramatic level too.  Stoick telling Hiccup that to become a true Viking he needs to stop being him, represented by gesturing to all of Hiccup, is funny because of how blunt he is and how incredulous Hiccup is about the whole thing, but it also works dramatically as Hiccup’s own father all but openly announces his contempt for his son to his face.

(Side Bar, whilst we’re on the subject: holy hell, do I find Stoick to be an incredibly irritating and unlikeable little sh*tbag in this film.  Despite the film’s best efforts, I don’t find him sympathetic at all in this film and it’s because the film pushes down so hard on the “contempt for his son” button.  His sympathetic side, including why he is especially vindictive towards dragons, is saved for the sequel so all we get here is miserable, angry, really unlikeable Stoick, with only very occasional hints of genuine love bursting through, so that part of the heart side of the film falls flat for me.  I also realise I’ve just undermined my “writing is mostly strong” point with this little digression, but I thought I’d talk about it briefly whilst it was still relevant.)

And then there is the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless.  When the film is firing on all cylinders, and it fires on all cylinders a fair bit despite the constant negativity I’ve been indulging in in this here article, it’s because of those two.  There’s a huge, giant beating heart powering all of their interactions and an incredibly sweet and natural development to their relationship.  The design of Toothless especially helps matters, balancing cute and cuddly and adorable with dangerous and wild for the appropriate situations; making him consistent whether he’s this dangerous mythical beast who is three seconds away from biting Hiccup’s face off, or this adorable cutie curling up next to his master after a successful test flight.

Their bond feels real and genuine as the film perfectly paces their relationship from predator and prey, to cautious friends, to life partners.  How To Train Your Dragon’s standout scene, the one that genuinely moved me to tears on first viewing because of its beauty, is the bit where Hiccup manages to tame Toothless and Toothless genuinely warms to Hiccup.  A sequence told almost entirely without words yet saying more than 75% of vastly inferior animated movies manage to say in their entire runtime.  It’s here where everything comes together – the strong writing, the brilliant character designs, the outstanding character animation, John Powell’s utterly sensational score, that giant beating heart – to create art.  It’s just so impeccably done and… you know what?  Just watch.

A close second is the test flight sequence, for pretty much all of the reasons listed about the prior scene and with the added pro of it being one of the best non-Miyazaki flight scenes I have ever seen in an animated movie.  Closely behind that there’s the sequence where Hiccup wakes up after the battle with the alpha dragon (officially known as Red Death, although I never once heard the film call it that), is re-united with Toothless and discovers his new prosthetic leg – Second Side Bar, real quick: although the path taken to get there and its overall thematic ramifications in this film is shoddy and rather unearned, I cannot deny that everything else this series has done, and hasn’t done, with the prosthetic leg is brilliant.

Yes, there is a point behind my devolving into referring to scenes without any real critical analysis to accompany them.  Again, I find How To Train Your Dragon to be a whole bunch of excellent scenes in a whole that never quite works, and those scenes are most emblematic of that fact.  They have that intangible something that, for me at least, the rest of the film doesn’t.  After all, pretty much every single one of those elements that I mentioned a second ago are working at that level for the whole film, and How To Train Your Dragon is never really bad – those negative marks I’ve mentioned are more things I find disagreeable than outright negative deal-breakers.  It just doesn’t work as a whole, for some reason, and that intangible thing that powers those three particular scenes to transcendental excellency doesn’t really show up outside of those scenes.

The problem of course being that, no matter how hard I try, I can’t figure out what that thing is.  And that fact is killing me!

So, as you may have gathered by now, it’s very easy to see why How To Train Your Dragon blew off many doors at the box office.  It had a really rather modest opening, $43 million which is way below par for DreamWorks films especially since it now had the bonus of 3D tickets, but it held.  It held extremely well over the following 10 weeks, even as DreamWorks’ own Shrek Forever After came along two months in to cannibalise long-term play.  Considering the fact that action-focussed animated films supposedly don’t hold well – a view more than likely enforced due to that turn-of-the-century animation problem we talked about many weeks back – the fact that it finished as the 9th highest grossing film domestically of 2010 is a damn near miracle.

Overseas gross ended up about equal with domestic gross, which is what kept the film from being a runaway hit and is decidedly underwhelming considering how DreamWorks normally do overseas, but I’m pretty sure that DreamWorks executives weren’t exactly crying over failures or what have you when the home media sales numbers started coming in.  Besides, the company made a tonne of money from the domestic dollar, which is mostly better for the studios than foreign dollars (once again, this article will explain everything).  How To Train Your Dragon today consists of two critically acclaimed and financially successful (sorta for the second one, depends how much you subscribe to Hollywood Accounting) feature films with a third on the way, a very successful TV series, four short films, multiple videogames, and an arena show adaptation that lasted about 10 minutes in America and Canada before it was uprooted to China instead.

And I get why this series is incredibly popular.  I really do, they are damn good films.  How To Train Your Dragon is a really damn good film!  I want to love it unconditionally like I do so many other animated films, like I do Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois’ Lilo & Stitch, like I do with so many of DreamWorks’ other films that we’ve covered in this series.  But the film as a whole does nothing for me.  I don’t know why, but it just doesn’t, much like how I cannot get into Adventure Time to save my life.  And if you find that fact bewildering and maddening, know that I am right there with you.  I’m really glad that so many people love and get something out of the How To Train Your Dragon series, but they just do nothing for me and I just don’t know why.


Even though the company had been on a significant upswing in terms of quality in the two years prior to its release, pretty much nobody saw the sheer quality of How To Train Your Dragon coming.  DreamWorks would be rewarded for that pleasant surprise with an unparalleled amount of critical praise and a very healthy return at the box office.  The hot streak that the company was on, however, had to come to an end sooner or later and, two months later, the company unleashed the final Shrek film to date upon the world to (relatively, considering how much a juggernaut Shrek was supposed to be) middling box office success and critical shrugs of indifference.  Next week, we’ll tackle Shrek Forever After and see whether it was unfairly dismissed by critics based on the brand name or is yet another low-quality squirt for cash.

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

Callum Petch is caught up in love and he’s in ecstasy.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Monsters vs. Aliens

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary.  To mark the occasion, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment.  Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.


monsters vs aliens18] Monsters vs. Aliens (7th November 2008)

Budget: $175 million

Gross: $381,509,870

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 72%

In 2012, Pixar made major waves by releasing Brave, their first animated feature in the 26 years that they had existed (17 since they started releasing feature films) to feature a lead female protagonist.  Conversation about the film primarily revolved around this aspect and the company was roundly praised and criticised for the execution of said creative choice.  In late 2013, Disney released Frozen and one couldn’t move in 2014 without being drowned in think-pieces about whether the film was feminist or not.  2014 has also been the year in which the lack of female characters in films, long since held onto by movie executives who believe that female leads can’t carry non-romance movies – despite these past several years offering a laundry list to the contrary, and women now making up the majority of cinemagoers – has been roundly called out and questioned at large.

You can extend those questions of representation to the animated realm, too.  For example, Pop Quiz: name me five non-sequel Western animated films released in cinemas in the past 10 years that feature a lead female protagonist… who is not, or does not become, a princess.  Not a secondary lead character – so throw away Wreck-It Ralph – not a love interest, the lead character.  Off the top of my head, I can name Persepolis (which is cheating, seeing as it is based on a true story), Coraline, The Croods, this week’s film Monsters vs. Aliens…  No, that’s about all I can name.

The official list, which I have discovered through Wikipedia so apologies if some of these are wrong, consists of those films, Hoodwinked! (barely qualifies, it’s an ensemble piece by nature), Battle For Terra, Happily N’Ever After (again, barely), The Snow Queen, Anina, Epic and Legends Of Oz: Dorothy’s Return.  That’s 11.  11 in 10 years.  You can also throw the Tinkerbell series in that pile too – alongside the instalments of series like Barbie, Winx Club etc. that actually get a cinema release and fit the criteria – but it doesn’t change the fact that animation has a major female representation problem.  Pixar’s Brave provoked some heated conversation for not adding to that pile – something they will attempt to rectify possibly with next year’s Inside Out – and, although I enjoyed Brave, it’s an understandable thing to rake them over the coals for.

Especially since DreamWorks Animation will have already fulfilled this criteria six years before Inside Out attempts to.

Despite appearances, Monsters vs. Aliens is very resolutely Susan’s story.  There are stretches of the film where we hand proceedings over to the monsters or The President Of The United States, but those are basically just borrowing the film from Susan for a short while.  At its core, at its centre, Monsters vs. Aliens is a film about a woman who learns to take control of her life and stop taking men’s sh*t.  Susan is absolutely the main character, Susan is the character whose arc is the most fleshed out, Susan is the character who gets the lion’s share of the film’s awesome moments (as well as the best of them), and Susan is the emotional centre of the film.

Susan is Monsters vs. Aliens and her tale of female empowerment is why I spent so, so, so much of this film eating out of the palm of its hand.  Many stories of female empowerment that I have come across recently – best epitomised by the latest Tomb Raider, which is a videogame but is too relevant to this topic to not address – mistake actual lead female growth for “Let’s constantly put her down and beat her up until she finally turns around and fights back.”  They don’t let them grow emotionally, they don’t really let them choose to become powerful.  They’re forced into violence, forced into fighting back and they don’t really grow as a person besides a proclivity for violence.  There are ways to do this right, don’t get me wrong, but too many times I’ve seen media essentially put their lead female character through a Trauma Conga Line and have them come out of the other side broken but not stronger.

For an example of how to do this right, Monsters vs. Aliens spends much of its first half having bad things happen to Susan.  Her fiancée relocates their honeymoon to Fresno instead of Paris in order to try and further his career, she gets hit by a meteor and grows nearly 50 feet tall, she is captured by the military and forcibly locked away in prison, denied the chance to see any of the people she loves ever again, and is renamed “Ginormica” by the government.  She takes all of this how pretty much anybody would and retreats into despair, albeit trying to make the best of her situation by making friends with her fellow monsters.  When told that she would gain her freedom if she helps take down a giant alien robot, she runs away, not wanting to be put into that situation.

But, and this is the crucial bit, she then stops mid-escape on the Golden Gate bridge to help those people who she has inadvertently put in danger.  She risks her own life to help others, even though she has no reason to believe that she would make it out of the encounter alive.  Her growth is not motivated by her own survival instinct, it’s motivated by her naturally-being-a-good-person-ness being enhanced by her powers.  Susan is not a tormented dog turning around and biting back after being provoked enough because she has no other choice, she is somebody who actively chooses.  She chooses her destiny, she chooses her strength, she chooses to embrace her new role.

After the robot battle, Susan is on Cloud Nine.  She’s discovered a strength and a near-independence she didn’t know came with her personality, and she is proud of that fact!  And that pride ends up becoming a defining feature of her character.  Derek dumps her because Derek is a selfish dick, but he doesn’t take her pride with him.  If anything, he re-enforces her independence.  Naturally, she’s heartbroken for a short while, but the experience reminds her of how much more she’s accomplished by herself without holding the hand of Derek and that re-asserts her confidence.  When she’s captured by Gallaxhar, she doesn’t even pretend to play the scared damsel, she’s immediately breaking out and trying to kick ass.  When she’s de-powered, her first instinct is still to try and beat the crap out of Gallaxhar.  When she’s home free but her friends are trapped, she goes back and sacrifices her prior life to save them.

And she makes all of these choices herself.  Her agency becomes the drive for the film.  Whenever somebody else tries to snatch her agency away from her, she takes it, or tries to take it, right back.  Derek dumps her and breaks her heart; she seizes the wake-up call and announces that she will go on without him, no problem.  Gallaxhar kidnaps her; she immediately breaks free and rampages across the ship in an attempt to beat him down in response.  Gallaxhar takes her powers; her first instinct is still to try and take him down.  About to be swarmed by clones?  Susan immediately grabs a blaster and starts fending for herself.  Her friends are set to die?  Not whilst there’s still breath in Susan’s body!

She’s strong of mind, strong of personality.  Her ability to kick copious amounts of ass is just another side to her – it’s not the only side to her and it’s not the only way she asserts her independence as a woman.  She is – and I know that people absolutely detest this phrase but I can’t think of a better time to deploy it than now – a Strong Female Character.  Way stronger than anything that DreamWorks had concocted up to this point – way more so than the supposedly progressive Shrek series and waaaaaaaaay more so than the supposedly-openly-feminist Shrek The Third.  In fact, she reminds me at points – not always, their characterisations are rather different after all – of Korra from The Legend Of Korra, especially during her rampage through Gallaxhar’s spaceship which gave me flashbacks to the Korra Book 3 finale – where her kicking ass is not the empowering moment, because she doesn’t, but the fact that she is standing up and actively metaphorically yelling ‘no more!’ at her male oppressor.

This all being said, one could read the scene in which Susan fully rejects her original name and embraces Ginormica instead as yet another example of strong women being equated to masculinity – having to sacrifice their femininity to be happy or strong.  However, I think it’s hard to read it fully like that.  For one, Susan is rejecting the negative aspects of her old self – her passivity, her dependence on her man, the side of her that smiles and accepts bad things happening to her instead of fighting back – not her entire self.  She’s embracing the side she didn’t realise she had until she become Ginormica, so she’s associating that new identity, which combines the best aspects of her old self – compassion, strong loyal bonds – with her newly discovered independence and personal strength; with her new outlook on life.

For two, Ginormica still has a distinctly feminine edge to it, primarily coming from the “a” affixed to the end of the name.  It may have been assigned to her by somebody else – formally by General W. R. Monger, more than likely decided by a room full of men – but she has claimed the name back for herself.  What started as an unwanted designation turns into a name that she is proud to sport, one that denotes her strength and her femininity.  And for three, Susan doesn’t do anything, in this scene or in the remainder of the film’s runtime, that she hasn’t already proven herself capable of doing.  She’s not suddenly becoming more masculine, she’s just owning up to the identity that she has now created.

Plus, this scene is just absolutely f*cking amazing and I will hear absolutely no ill will spoken against it.

Yet, I saw pretty much zilch comments about this aspect of the film during my research for this entry.  Variety’s review – and I sh*t you not, here, go and follow the link to see for yourself – spends its paragraph on her talking about her in purely visual terms, as a thing to be attracted to and whose looks are the sole thing worth talking about.  Empire managed to get a brief segment in about it, Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek notes that the film’s very-unsubtle delivery of that message undermines and grates, but that’s about it.  Professional reviewers instead judged it by the usual things they judge animated films by – pretty colours, pop culture jokes, level of heart, nowhere near as good as Pixar – and I count 2 think-pieces at the time on its feminism.

The point I’m trying to make is that there was no conversation.  Brave sparked a conversation.  Monsters vs. Aliens did not.  Pixar sparked a conversation.  Disney are deemed worthy of a conversation.  DreamWorks were deemed unworthy of that conversation.  Now, why do you think that is?  After all, as I’ve pointed out time and again throughout this series, DreamWorks are a company with a complicated and storied history with characters of the female gender – next week I’m going to have to talk about Astrid, for example, and I am bracing myself accordingly – shouldn’t we be scrutinising their works the same way we scrutinise Disney or Pixar?

Now, of course, one can explain these away by either noting that a lot has changed in the last five years – hence why I noted the uptick in demands for representation this past year – and that Disney has a longer history than DreamWorks so there’s more to cull from.  That first one is sort of understandable, I guess, but the second is what I call shenanigans on.  After all, Pixar have only been releasing animated features for 3 years longer than DreamWorks have, and they’ve released less films overall than DreamWorks have.  So why do Pixar get preferential treatment?

It probably comes down to that rep that DreamWorks have accumulated.  I am not going to go over this in full again, as I have covered it multiple times in this series – hell, that rep is what basically helped kick-start this series in the first place – and it helps none of us if I spend forever repeating myself, but DreamWorks are seen as a commercial outhouse.  A factory, if you will, one that pumps out an endless stream of films – at least half of which are sequels – with no semblance of quality control in the hopes that something strikes financial, and maybe also critical if that’s possible, gold.  And whilst 2014 has shown that to be completely untrue – three home runs creatively, even if the How To Train Your Dragon series does nothing for me – that’s the rep they’ve acquired and it’s not one that they’re shaking any time soon.

Pixar releases, though, and official Disney releases are seen as events.  Because they limit themselves to one film a year, even taking a year off in some cases, each release and each entry into their canon is seen as something special, something to take notice of.  It’s why when they release a Cars 2 or a Home On The Range/Chicken Little, everybody is harder on them – those are seen as sullying marks on a track record that has shown it can do better.  Yet if DreamWorks releases a sub-par Shrek, everybody shrugs their shoulders and collectively goes, “Well what did you expect?” before proceeding on with their lives.  It’s why negative Cars 2 reviews compare it to Pixar’s prior classics, whilst negative Penguins Of Madagascar reviews also compare it to Pixar’s prior classics despite DreamWorks having a rapidly-growing list of quality films of their own to compare themselves to.

Look, I get it, Pixar are The Gold Standard for animation – hopefully still are, I pray to various deities that 2015 is the year in which everybody pulls their fingers out of their arses and gets back to a level somewhere close to where they were operating on up to and including Toy Story 3 – but they should not be the be all end all of conversation in the medium.  DreamWorks Animation are one of the biggest and most successful animation companies in the Western world for a reason, and their creative decisions should be getting as much scrutiny as their competitors.  You know how many think-pieces I’ve seen on How To Train Your Dragon 2’s gender roles in the past six months?  Three.  That Tasha Robinson piece from earlier that used the film as a jumping-off point to look at the industry at large, a short blog entry by Margot Magowan, and a list piece by Gina Luttrell.

Next year, both Pixar and DreamWorks are releasing films with female protagonists.  Pixar are releasing Inside Out, a film about the various emotions inside a 10 year-old girl’s mind, DreamWorks are releasing Home, a film about a black teenage girl who teams up with a not-particularly smart alien to thwart a double invasion of Earth.  I guarantee you that Inside Out will be talked about and scrutinised more for its depiction of the female gender than Home ever will be.  I mean, I’m also pretty sure that Inside Out will be a better film than Home as well, but that’s not the point.

The point is that we can’t and shouldn’t pick and choose which animated films and which animation studios are worth hard analysis.  This is a medium that deserves to be taken seriously – as I have repeatedly made clear in articles on this site – and that’s not going to happen until we look at everything with the same staunchly critical and analytical eye that we do for Pixar and Disney.  Do you think I wrote 3,108 words on Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas because I had nothing better to do with my time?  I mean, I don’t, but the point is that Sinbad had that much going on in it that I didn’t need to work especially hard to hit my self-assigned word count.  Ditto films like The Nut Job, or Escape From Planet Earth, or the Tinker Bell series.  They’re not high art, but they are still worthy and capable of supporting in-depth discussion.

And so does Monsters vs. Aliens, which I believe is a very feminist film.  It’s not a perfect feminist film – Susan is still the only girl, girl-ish screams are the focal point for a very long gag, “You got beat by a girl” is deployed as an insult form but at least in a dramatic way that affects character work this time – but I believe that it is still a loud, proud and powerfully feminist film about female self-empowerment.   I may be wrong.  Hell, I want to be wrong; I want a hundred feminist critics – preferably women, who have far more of a say in this discussion than I do – to come charging down the hill and take up both sides of the argument, either agreeing with my assessment or disagreeing and showing me ten to fifteen reasons why.

I want to see lengthy conversations about the film’s messy structure, about its uninteresting villain, about why the humour does or does not work, about whether the art style works or just ends up freaking the writer out for the length of the film, about how badly the unspoken “All Animated Movies Must Be 90 Minutes Under Pain Of Death” rule hobbles the film from excellency.  All things I would have talked about at length had I the time – although, for the record: awkwardly paced first half but the film soars from San Francisco onwards, script doesn’t give him anything to do, too low-brow for the most part and the film’s very dramatic undercurrent means that the attempts at parody undercut proceedings, takes a while to get used to but at least makes Susan and the monsters look great, and this needed to be 2 hours or even a full season of TV – and all things I could have easily based at least half an article of this length on individually.

Point is, I want a conversation to start.  Animation needs a conversation if it’s going to better itself and be fully respected, and that conversation needs to cover everyone – not just critical golden boy Pixar and good old Disney.  DreamWorks Animation should be allowed in on that conversation, regardless of its past or its very commercial and prolific nature.  I am one of about three people talking about feminism and non-Shrek DreamWorks films.  This should not be the case.  So, start conversing.


Monsters vs. Aliens continued DreamWorks Animation’s re-ascension to quality filmmaking in the eyes of critics, although the film’s major underperformance overseas prevented it from being the financial smash that the studio would have liked.  It wasn’t a failure, though, and so the company would close out the decade – Monsters vs. Aliens being their only release for 2009 – on a decent note with the company still looking strong.  Their first film of the new decade, though, would take everybody by surprise and be seen as the company’s new Magnum Opus, as well as the start of a very successful new franchise.

Next week, we look at the first How To Train Your Dragon.

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

Callum Petch should have cut his losses long before he knew.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!