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.
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 Home – as 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 Dragon. Puss 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)!