Tag Archives: How To Train Your Dragon

Best Films on TV: Christmas to New Year 2015

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Every 23rd December, for the past three years, we have released our pick of the films being shown on freeview TV over the Christmas schedule. Last year’s choices were made by Paul Field, but returning to this Failed Critics Christmas tradition is site editor Owen Hughes. It practically guarantees less Carry On movies and probably more big budget blockbusters…

A couple of years ago, we were regularly posting lists of films that we would recommend for the week ahead. Oh, how times have changed. It seems these days that with the rise of Netflix and other streaming services, we’re less bothered about waiting for films to be shown on TV and instead watching whatever we want, whenever we want. Which is great! Except that it’s reduced these articles to annual posts.

Nevertheless, I’ve had a look through the TV schedule to see what tat is being pushed on us this year and tried to sift out some of the dross (although Steve will be pleased to know that The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause is being shown on Christmas day at 11am) and chosen five decent-to-good movies each day in the run up to 2016.

Christmas Eve –

Finishing work early tomorrow? Want something to just stick on when you walk through the door to get you in a Christmassy mood? Well, stick Channel 4 on at 2.15pm and get straight into the classic It’s A Wonderful Life. Alternatively, if you’re sick of that bloody film already, try out the Robert Zemeckis animated A Christmas Carol over on BBC One at 2.20pm (it’s the version that I talked about on our Winterval Podcast this week). If you prefer your Scrooge’s to be real rather than cartoony, then stay up wrapping last minute presents until half past midnight for the 1951 version on Channel 5 starring Alastair Sim as the miserly grump. For those of us who relate a bit too much to Ebenezer, and can’t be arsed with this Christmas nonsense – bah humbug – then watch Karl Urban as the Mega-City One Judge, jury and executioner in Dredd on Film4 at 11.25pm or switch over to BBC Two five minutes later for one of Hitchcock’s best with Dial M For Murder.

Christmas Day –

We’ve had two of the most well known adaptations of Dickens’ novel, so why not start the afternoon with Channel 4 and give the other two a watch on Christmas day itself? Starting at 1.45pm with The Muppet Christmas Carol, they swiftly follow it up at 3.45pm with Bill Murray doing his thing in Scrooged. Later that evening, BBC Three have a double bill of animated movies that are safe to watch with granny, the kids, your other half or on your todd with Toy Story at 7.30pm and How To Train Your Dragon straight after it at 8.45pm. For something not at all schmalzy, sentimental or saccharine, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until much, much later in the evening as the Coen Brothers change the mood entirely at 00.05am on ITV4 with the hilarious 90’s comedy The Big Lebowski. Or, like, that’s just my opinion that it’s hilarious, man…

JURASSIC PARK, 1993. ©Universal/courtesy Everett Collection

Boxing Day –

It may be somewhat twee, and I’m aware Wes Anderson isn’t for everyone, but if there’s a better film on TV for you to crawl out of your hangover with after getting up extremely late than Fantastic Mr Fox on Channel 4 at 11.25am, then I couldn’t find it. You can time it right to fit in a quick turkey sarnie and a fresh cuppa between it finishing and Jurassic Park starting over on ITV at 1.20pm, reminding you just how good the original was after Jurassic World swept the box office clean earlier this year. Really though, you should be watching the football. I believe that’s what Boxing Day was invented for. Once Final Score has finished, switch over to the horror channel at 6.40pm for the intense Spielberg thriller, Duel. Film4 can round off a very late evening with two modern British classics in crime thriller Sexy Beast (11.25pm) and Scottish sci-fi – and one of our favourite movies of 2014 – Under The Skin (1.10am).

Sunday 27th –

That’s the Christmas movies well and truly out of the way now and it’s Studio Ghibli to the rescue as we kick off the day with one of their most celebrated works, the charming My Neighbour Totoro. Flick over to Channel 5 at 2.25pm to see one of the greatest movies ever made, John Ford’s most revered western, The Searchers, starring the Duke himself, John Wayne. Starting at 4.05pm on BBC One is a fantasy movie returning to where it all began with Oz: The Great and the Powerful, which is actually quite a nice, funny little family movie. You can choose how you’d like to round off the day with one of the following two. Personally, I’d go for one of my favourite discoveries of the year, Cronenberg’s body-horror Videodrome (the horror channel, 10.50pm) over Channel 4’s showing of The Inbetweeners 2 at 11.10pm, that both Steve and Callum tore to pieces.

Monday 28th –

You maniacs! You haven’t yet set your reminder! Ah, damn you! Goddamn you all to Hell! Well, at least until Monday morning at 10.15am when you switch on More4 and watch the original Planet of the Apes – AND THEN later that day you’ll be fully prepared for Film4’s 6.55pm screening of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. At 8.30pm on BBC Three is Kung Fu Panda 2 (read why that’s a good thing in Callum’s brilliant piece from his DreamWorks retrospective). For something a little more… grown up… Steven Soderbergh’s movie Behind The Candelabra (BBC Two, 9pm) features one of Michael Douglas’s best ever performances. Finally, if the forgettable Terminator Genisys hasn’t already disappeared entirely from your memory, then James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day will wipe the last remnants from your mind on Film4 at 1.15am.

Tuesday 29th –

Channel 4, 2.30pm, Coraline. Film4, 6.10pm, Master & Commander. ITV2, 9pm, The Shawshank Redemption. ITV, 10.25pm, American Pie. My pick of the lot: Channel 5, 10.45pm, Erin Brockovich. That’s your lot. We’re running out of quality films on TV as the year comes to a close and I’m running out of patience trying to make these films sound interesting. However, if you think Tuesday’s films read a lot like a list of movies you’re glad that you’ve seen once but probably have no intention of ever watching again, just wait until you see what’s lined up for Wednesday…

Wednesday 30th –hobbit

We’ve got a run that starts with ITV2 at 5.45pm and Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth (that I actually thought was quite enjoyable) with The Hobbit: An Unexpected JourneyFilm4 will help change the tone to something surprisingly fun with Denzel and Wahlberg teaming up for crime-comedy Two Guns at 9pm. Tune into the horror channel at 10.45pm for some Robert Rodriguez Grindhouse horror at Planet Terror. Furious 7 may have already been voted for in quite a number of people’s submissions to the Failed Critics Awards, but Channel 4 go back a couple of sequels to Fast Five at 11.05pm. Afterwards, prepare for Joy with Film4’s showing of The Fighter at 1.10am.

Thursday 31st –

And here we are! New Year’s Eve and what better way to see off 2015 than with, er, well, The Adventures of TinTin on BBC One at 10.55am. (That was a rhetorical question. Don’t answer that.) More adventures are afoot with a rare screening of The Rocketeer on Channel 4 at 1.10pm and – a Pixar film guaranteed to make you cry – Up, over on BBC One at 2.50pm. I will be at a New Years party by this time (oooh get me) but if you fancy a night in watching movies to bring in 2016, then BBC4 honour Bob Hoskins, who sadly passed away this year, with Made In Dagenham at 10.55pm. Film4 are going slightly more modern and again doing the whole David O. Russell / Jennifer Lawrence / Bradley Cooper / Robert De Niro thing and are showing Silver Linings Playbook at 11.10pm.

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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)!

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)!

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)!

Big Hero 6

Fun, funny, and quietly heartbreaking, Big Hero 6 overcomes what minor flaws it has through some of the strongest character work I have seen in an animated movie in years.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

big hero 6As a kid who grew up during the Disney Renaissance, was too young to understand the significance of it, but was plied with their Golden Age output on various VHS tapes, few things make me happier than seeing Walt Disney Animation Studios once again return to a position where everything they put out is Must-See-Viewing.  What groundwork Bolt managed to lay has proved more than stable as the studio have just been knocking it out of the park consistently for the last five films – The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Winnie The Pooh, Wreck-It Ralph, and Frozen – with commercial success following them (almost) every step of the way.

Big Hero 6 continues that trend, completely cementing for those that don’t already know that Disney is very much back, which I imagine comes as a surprise for many people.  After all, it appears to be a superhero film – many snobbier members of the critical spectrum being sick to death of them, by this point – based on a Marvel Comics series – themselves at risk of oversaturation due to that aforementioned comics boom.  Expecting something transcendental from a superhero film, and especially what appears to be a B-grade Disney film, plays like wishful thinking at this point – I enjoy the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I’m not going to kid myself into believing that they’re not formula-driven popcorn flicks.

The real masterstroke of Big Hero 6, though, is that the superhero stuff actually makes up comparatively little of the film yet is still a vital part of it.  See, the film follows Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), a brilliant but directionless 14 year-old who finally seems to have found a purpose in his life – joining his similarly brilliant older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) at San Fransokyo’s finest robotics university – when tragedy strikes and Hiro once again has to deal with loss.  Wallowing in his depression, Hiro accidentally activates Tadashi’s latest invention, Baymax (Scott Adsit), a soft, gentle “personal health care companion” who takes it upon itself to help Hiro deal with his depression – in this case throwing themselves into solving the mystery of the tragedy in question, which may not have been as random as it first seemed.

Therefore, the core of Big Hero 6 is not whizz bang superheroics.  It is instead this central relationship between Hiro and Baymax as the latter tries to help the former overcome depression and grief without ever completely understanding the concepts it’s having to grapple with.  That manifests itself via superheroics, but the film makes it clear that this is Hiro’s way of dealing with that loss, choosing to fixate on something to get his mind off the giant hole that has appeared in his life.  Crucially, this is not the solution to his problems, it’s just the method, and the film never purports to claim that Hiro has or ever truly will overcome that loss.  It offers no concrete answers, although Hiro does end the film happily, and its refusal to do so is what makes that thematic centre work – there’s a level of trusting maturity there that more animated films should have.

Helping that thematic centre is the fact that Hiro and Baymax are wonderful, incredibly lovable characters.  Baymax, obviously, is the standout of the whole film, an absolutely adorable AI whose pacifist and childlike nature resonated totally with me.  It is a creation of pure kind-hearted good and its little pre-programmed procedures and affectations manage to bring it close enough to humanity to make its more robotic moments that much more surprising and, occasionally, heartbreaking.  Hiro is also likeable from the word “go”, his archetype forming the base of his character but not forming his entire character which enables him to feel unique and three-dimensional even from the opening few minutes.

Those qualities are enhanced too by their respective voice actors.  Ryan Potter, previous of live-action Nickelodeon series Supah Ninjas, proves himself surprisingly adept at voice acting.  A lot of the film is carried on Hiro’s shoulders, as well as that aforementioned weighty central theme, but he is more than up to the task, never over or under-playing any of his lines and excellently communicating the heartbreak, occasional anger and eventual somewhat recovery in a natural and convincing way.  As for Scott Adsit…  I really don’t know what to say, he is Baymax.  From the second that Baymax communicates, Scott Adsit is it.  His voice is that kind of genius immediate “no, this is perfect” casting that Disney have just been on a roll with recently – John C. Reilly as Ralph, Kristen Bell as Anna, Kristen Schaal as Mabel – and it fits Baymax so perfectly that he makes anything the character says a million times better than it already sounded on paper.

You may have noticed that I have yet to talk about the rest of the members of the Big Hero 6.  Well, there’s a reason for that.  See, this is Hiro’s movie.  It’s about his grief and his fight with depression.  Opening up to his friends – who for the record are GoGo Tamada (Jamie Chung), Honey Lemon (Génesis Rodríguez), Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.), and Freddie (T. J. Miller) – at all, let alone asking them for help, is a major step for him and so, naturally, it takes about an hour for that to happen.  As such, these guys and gals don’t get much of a focus in this movie and end up, like most of the superhero stuff which is the way that Hiro seeks closure in an attempt to move on, only coming into play in the final 40 minutes.

Not that this is a problem, mind you, as they all, even with their limited screen time – and the relegation of their backstories to promotional material, again not a problem – feel… well, real.  They really do.  Even with a comparatively tiny glimpse into their lives and personalities, they already feel like fully-formed, fully-defined, characters who exist and I can see existing outside of the confines of this film.  GoGo, in particular, is given little material in this film yet I already adore her, thanks to what little we do find out – “Woman up!” is a phrase that fills me with indescribable joy, you have no idea – her character animations, and her voice actresses’ performance.

I get the impression that Disney wants this to be the start of some new franchise and that this will be something addressed in future media, but I don’t want a franchise in the traditional sense.  I don’t want the big budget action-packed sequel, I don’t want a traditional television series, and I don’t want any of the superhero stuff.  I just want more of Hiro, GoGo, Honey Lemon, Wasabi, and Freddie – with the occasional intrusion by Hiro’s wonderful Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph, having a ball) – hanging out together being them.  The downtime, the non-action, non-dramatic stuff that conventional wisdom says is too boring to depict – with conflict and drama being the essence of narrative – because the little glimpses I got were so wonderful and tantalising that I just want more of that.  I want more time with these characters…

…and also San Fransokyo.  Seriously, the city of San Fransokyo is absolutely beautiful, a bustling metropolis with little details in architecture, signage, transport and just general design to make it feel like a genuine place that I would like to move to immediately.  The camerawork also helps by borrowing that How To Train Your Dragon technique of bobbing, weaving and zooming like a live-action camera, adding a heft and dynamism to proceedings.  Ditto the character animations which, whilst the designs are very much that Tangled-style of 3D Disney, are smoother and weightier than those in Frozen.  In fact, that’s a perfect comparison: if the world of Frozen feels very much like a constructed movie set, with an artificial and loosely connected world and doll-like character designs and animations, then the world of Big Hero 6 feels like a real world that I can go to and live in.

There are flaws with Big Hero 6 – I wish that they didn’t play the Fall Out Boy song during the Montage montage, I wish the film had enough faith in its loss theme to not reverse the traditional Disney Death near the ending, that very last (non-post-credits) scene does not need to be there at all, and it telegraphs said tragedy way too obviously – but they really are just minor nitpicks for me.  Big Hero 6 gets its core, both thematically and emotionally, spot-on, crafts a group of outstanding characters I just want to spend more time with, and a world I am genuinely sad about not really existing.  From there, everything else slides into place – the humour, the fun, the excitement, what few action sequences there actually are – and what little it does wrong is rendered inconsequential in my mind.

As soon as I left the screen for Big Hero 6, I was left with two burning desires: to see it again, and to get down on my knees to Walt Disney Animation Studios and beg for them to make more shorts of just the core group of friends hanging out together.  I adored it.  Do not miss this one.

Big Hero 6 is due out in UK cinemas on January 30th.

Callum Petch can’t seem to do what you do.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

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)!

Kung Fu Panda

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.


kung fu panda again16] Kung Fu Panda (6th June 2008)

Budget: $130 million

Gross: $631,744,560

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 87%

If one were to look at the history of DreamWorks Animation and try to figure when exactly their peak year was, the year in which everything seemed to come together for the company and made them appear near-untouchable, I personally would argue that year to be 2008.  I know that many people would go for 2004 – in which Shrek 2 finished as the year’s highest grossing film, and the major success of Shark Tale proved that the company could shove any old crud into the cinema and still make a profit – or for 2010 – in which they found their next major franchise in the shape of How To Train Your Dragon, sent the Shrek franchise off with a rather large sum of money, and made the critically well received Megamind – but I’m going to put my foot firmly down for 2008.

See, 2004 had the major public failure of their first CG television series Father Of The Pride and the fact that Shark Tale was an absolute abomination (plus, y’know, Shrek 2 is really bad, but I’m not going to bang that drum for another few weeks).  2010, meanwhile, had another subpar Shrek film, Megamind severely underwhelmed financially – although, as I will touch on when we get there, there are a multitude of other factors responsible for that – and Neighbors From Hell, a TV series that a subdivision of DreamWorks had a hand in… well, this is likely the first time you’re hearing of it, which basically demonstrates my point.

2008, though, was pretty much a non-stop success for the studio.  For one, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, abysmal title aside, was a financial smash and critically seen as a big step up from the first film (we’ll look at whether this success is deserved next week, just in time for Penguins Of Madagascar).  For two, the year also saw the launch of their first successful television series, Nickelodeon’s The Penguins Of Madagascar, a show that is still going strong today and is about to see the release of its own movie – which is actually based on the continuity of the films instead of the TV show, I think…?  I don’t know, I’m just willing to go with it cos the film looks funny – six years on.

And then, for three, there is this week’s film: Kung Fu Panda.  This is the film that a good percentage of animation fans like to cite as the moment where DreamWorks Animation finally started finding their own creative voice and stopped alternating between ripping off Pixar and recycling the Shrek formula.  Kung Fu Panda was the first DreamWorks film not primarily made by Aardman to break into the 80% range of the Tomatometer since Shrek 2 four years prior.  It even, in a huge surprise that pretty much nobody saw coming, completely swept the 36th Annie Awards.  If it was eligible for a category, much like with Wallace & Gromit two years back, it took home the award and in some cases was nominated multiple times in the same category.  It beat Wall-EWall-E!  (The film, however, would come up short to Wall-E at the Oscars.)

That critical praise was matched at the box office, too.  There was the first place opening, of course – $60 million, crushing the horrid You Don’t Mess With The Zohan – and the slow descent down the chart that followed afterwards, but it also managed to hold pretty decently against Pixar’s Wall-E, released a month later.  And though it lost domestically to Wall-E barely, I might add – it turned out to be a HUGE hit overseas, especially in the United Kingdom and China – incidentally, China were so flabbergasted at how accurate and faithful these Western filmmakers were to Chinese culture, that they held official government meetings to try and figure out why their own films weren’t that accurate.

See why I’m willing to go to bat for 2008 being DreamWorks’ peak year?  This must have been a giant relief for Katzenberg and co., too.  It had been 3 whole years since they had an original film that was successful enough to consider spinning a franchise out of which, in a company that aims to franchise everything, is absolutely killer and probably didn’t help investor confidence much – Shrek could only come along once every 3 years, after all.  Having another giant hit to franchise must have taken a huge weight off of everyone’s feet; one that was so critically well-received, no less!  Plus, with Madagascar 2 proving that Madagascar wasn’t a fluke, and The Penguins Of Madagascar finally breaking them into TV, 2008 really did make DreamWorks look dominant and untouchable.

So, naturally, this was the point in which Contemporary Me got off the DreamWorks train.

I was 13 at the time of the release of Kung Fu Panda and, like pretty much everybody who hits their teens, I was a Stupid Goddamn Teenager.  I was outright rejecting many of the things that brought me joy as a happy child, and animation was one of them – although I must note that I wasn’t doing so consciously.  This wasn’t one of those situations where I looked at all animation, even the stuff I loved as a kid, and went, “That’s a dumb baby thing for poo-poo heads!”  I still loved Pixar films, I still loved classic Disney, I still loved Tom & Jerry and Looney Tunes, and I was still bitter about Codename: Kids Next Door coming to an end (more on that in the near-future, I promise).  Nothing else, however, was clicking.

Turns out this is less because stuff wasn’t any good – only a Stupid Goddamn Teenager would believe The Marvellous Misadventures Of Flapjack and The Princess And The Frog and such to be without merit – and more because I was unconsciously rejecting what I once loved in an attempt to appear more mature than I actually was.  Christ, for Christmas 2009, I asked for the first season of The Wire on DVD because the one episode I had caught on TV sufficiently resembled grown-up intellectual television and, being a Stupid Goddamn Teenager, I was determined to prove how superior I was to the uncultured folk that peppered my Secondary School by getting into The Greatest Television Series Ever Made™.  I really have no idea how I managed to finish Secondary School on relatively friendly terms with everyone in my year.

By the way, brief sidebar: it will have been 5 years this Christmas since I got it, and I still will not have successfully made it through the first season of The Wire.  Just thought you’d like to know that.

Now, in fairness, DreamWorks Animation really hadn’t been putting its best foot forward for a long time by the release of Kung Fu Panda and, as briefly alluded to, Shrek The Third had made 12 year-old Me a very angry boy indeed.  My patience was worn thin – their films were interchangeable, the quality was often ghastly, and they’d even dragged my beloved Aardman down with them (again, these were all contemporary thoughts, this series has hopefully shown that each film actually does have its own distinct identities and traits) – and I was looking for any excuse to drop them.

My reasoning for this finally being the straw to break the camel’s back was threefold.  1) I basically went in wanting to hate the thing because I was a Stupid Goddamn Teenager.  2) I had a friend at Secondary School – a good friend, an alright friend; you know who you are, Matthew, you lovable dick – who seemed to realise how much the film irrationally wound me up and took to quoting “skadoosh!” at me as many opportunities as possible – because he was a friend and that’s what friends do.  3) I believed that it wasted the considerable talents of Jack Black.  Yes.  Stop laughing.  I was a Stupid Goddamn Teenager, we have been over this.

In any case, that was it.  I was done with DreamWorks Animation.  I’m pretty sure I even made a dramatic statement about that fact, because I was a Stupid Godyou get the idea.  Of course, unlike many of the other things I rejected as a teenager, this one actually stuck.  Barring the one lapse for Puss In Boots in 2011 – because a friend and I had free cinema tickets and there was literally nothing else on at the cinema that weekend – it would take until Mr. Peabody & Sherman in February of 2014 for me to sit and watch a DreamWorks Animation film again – my watching of the first How To Train Your Dragon came about 48 hours before I went to see the sequel because you kinda need to have prior experience with a franchise before reviewing its later instalments – nearly six years later.

Watching Kung Fu Panda back today, for the first time since that fateful day, has only confirmed to me just how much of a Stupid Goddamn Teenager I was.  Quite simply, I have no clue why I didn’t love this movie at the time of its release.  This film has pretty much everything that should have caused that me to love it: physical comedy and slapstick, emotional heft, gorgeous visuals, a very Genndy Tartakovsky-indebted opening sequence, tightly choreographed martial arts battles, uplifting messages…  Yet, I didn’t.  Because I was a Complete F*cking Tit.

So, where do we start with regards to actually looking at the film that has all of this stuff attached to it that has nothing to do with the actual quality of the film – because we are now two and a half A4 pages in and your patience is likely worn thin?  How about with the humour.  Question: what is the typical DreamWorks Animation source for humour?  You get three guesses, the first two don’t count.  Answer: pop culture references.  The ones that relied heavily on it have aged really poorly, whilst the ones that don’t still have enough shoved in there for it to not exactly dissuade the stigma that DreamWorks had received by that point.  They’re forced into the film, instead of coming naturally from the characters.

Kung Fu Panda doesn’t do that.  I mean, it couldn’t, seeing as the film is set in Ancient China and so crowbarring in pop culture references would kill the thing stone dead, but that’s also in terms of the jokes overall.  At least 90% of the jokes in here are here because they fit naturally in the course of the film; they’re not just crowbarred in because “it’s a kids’ film and kids need fart jokes and poop jokes every few minutes on the dot or else they’ll get bored!”  The constant fat jokes, especially, feel natural and, most importantly, affectionate.  I mean, much like with Mulan’s jokes about her being a woman in man’s world, they occasionally risk crossing the line into agreeing with those whose intolerant viewpoints keep providing the jokes, but Po’s constant self-esteem issues and the eventual embracing of his fatness as a part of his fighting style reveal the film’s sympathetic and loving attitudes towards body type, much like with Mulan and femininity.

In fact, I once again see seeds for the How To Train Your Dragon series being planted in an earlier DreamWorks film.  I mean, there’s the obvious stuff – the high quality storyboarding, the emotional depth, the trust that an audience of children will follow a film no matter how dark it gets and no matter how long it is between jokes – but I also mean in terms of physical diversity.  Question: what sorts of protagonists do you typically see in animated films?  Yes, “animals”, but what about them?  Notice their builds – thin, athletic, muscular – and notice their physical capabilities – strong, capable – and notice how, typically, they are ‘normal’.

Now, what sets apart Hiccup from HTTYD and Po from Kung Fu Panda from the rest of that pack?  They’re not ‘normal’.  They genuinely have something that prevents them from that ‘normal’-ness; Po is overweight, whilst Hiccup at the end of his first film loses his left leg and has to get a prosthetic one instead.  You simply don’t get these representations in kids’ films, most instead focussing on personality traits for their “be true to yourself” messages instead of physical aspects, so imagine how inspiring it must be for kids who struggle with this stuff.  Kids who struggle with obesity looking at Po, who exhibits the same insecurities and eating habits that they do but instead learns to embrace them as not being a bad thing to be ashamed of, and maybe not feeling so bad.  Or kids who have lost limbs like Hiccup does, seeing him not losing a step because of that and maybe being inspired because of that.

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but we live in a world that very much prides and fetishizes beauty.  We hold up beauty and normality – Generic White Guy, Generic White Girl – as this thing that everybody should strive towards, and we mark out and shame those who don’t conform to it or who can’t conform to it or who don’t want to conform to it as weird or pitiable.  Those documentaries you watch about people who were born disfigured or with developmental conditions?  A good eight times out of ten, I guarantee you they are not being portrayed as people, or as people who are happy with how they are.  To see less-represented body types and such represented in animated films primarily aimed at children, be it directly (Kung Fu Panda) or rather indirectly (How To Train Your Dragon), is admirable and undoubtedly will have positively helped some children who relate to them based on those things.

Going back to the humour thing, real quick; again, rarely does Kung Fu Panda force in a joke where it is not needed.  This is a funny movie – although not rolling-in-the-aisles funny, it’s not trying to be that kind of movie, more lower-key with only a few moments of big setpiece laughs – but it knows when to scale back, when to let a scene run without gags, which really helps the tone of the film and keeps it from whiplashing too hard.  It reminded me a lot – and it ran for pretty much all of the four years that this film was in production for, so it had to have influenced the film in some way – of Avatar: The Last Airbender.  That show knew how to balance drama and comedy in a way that felt natural and flowing, and also has a general tone and feel that is incredibly reminiscent of Kung Fu Panda.

Incidentally, I didn’t start getting into Avatar until about 19 months ago, which means that I irrationally disliked it as Contemporary Me, so… you know.

Seeing as my time is fast running out, this week – both metaphorically in terms of word count and literally in terms of deadlines – let me finish off by talking in-depth about Kung Fu Panda’s layout and storyboarding.  Now, one of the things that sticks out to me from the non-hand-drawn-non-Aardman features that we’ve looked at so far is how not-sticking-out the imagery is.  Seriously, the only images from, say, Shrek or Madagascar that I can recall, or that made me sit up and take notice of their construction, are the ones that are either directly calling out to something (pop culture references) or were seared into my brain prior to starting this series due to a wonderful well-spent childhood.  The rest of the films kinda just… blend into one another.  The imagery doesn’t pop, it doesn’t grab, it doesn’t truly take advantage of the visual splendour that animation can provide.

It takes literally zero seconds for Kung Fu Panda to buck that trend.  The film opens in this gorgeous, visually-striking 2D animation – directed by the film’s Head Of Story, and the director of the sequel so we will be coming back to her, Jennifer Yuh Nelson – that is distinctly influenced by Chinese paintings and art but still has its own unique style.  Every little shot is packed with detail, every little shot has an outstanding usage of colour and shading, every little shot is magnificently composed.  It’s so good, and also so personally refreshing to see some 2D animation in feature-length films with my personal preferences and all, that the resultant return to 3D CG for the rest of the film is honestly rather disappointing, especially since I wasn’t expecting that level of visual care to follow through to the rest of the film.

It took a little longer to be proven wrong on that account, but I was still proven wrong nonetheless.  This is a film that, more than any other CG DreamWorks film covered so far, has clearly had a massive amount of thought put into each and every single shot.  There are the more obvious examples, such as the scene where Oogway ascends to a higher plane (backed with one of Hans Zimmer and John Powell’s most beautiful pieces of music, it must be noted) or many shots from the film’s training montage, but it’s the way that so many other scenes stick out in my head because of their layout and storyboarding.  Po despondently stood in the middle of the street with the food cart, the various angles throughout the tour of Tai Lung’s prison even after the initial reveal that continue to re-emphasise its imposing nature whilst still giving off the idea that escape isn’t truly impossible, Po reaching for Monkey’s cookies whilst Shifu looks on…

I could keep listing, too.  These are all images that aren’t supposed to be Money Shots, as it were, yet they are constantly boarded like they are.  Nowhere, though, is this approach more emblematic than in the film’s fight sequences.  I will admit to being worried initially – the first one, where The Furious Five ambush Master Shifu as part of practice, is too sloppy and a bit too incoherent in camera placement and movement to work – but the film eventually nails them.  That same care and effort that goes into boarding the non-action sequences goes double for the action sequences, which brings a level of care and coherence to proceedings.  Scene geography is always coherent, the camera is dynamic but still clear and does wonders for the size difference that typically ensues between participants.

The best illustration I have of this point, though, is simply to play the dumpling scene for you.  Like, just genuinely pay attention to the staging, here.  The camera placements, the positioning of the characters, the times that it chooses to go into slow-motion, the editing of when exactly it switches shots, the varying levels of detail, the speed of the scene… it truly is an absolute master class in animation construction and direction, with the result being a two minute sequence that just left me with a giant grin on my face for its entire length, like a truly great martial arts sequence usually leaves me with.

Kung Fu Panda, then, is a great film – the fact that I could happily spend way longer talking about it if deadline weren’t fast approaching should give that away.  However, I don’t think I’ll ever see it as a GREAT film, even though it kinda is.  Why?  Well, why’d you think I spent a very good length of time in this article letting you know about who I was at age 13?  There’s too much baggage associated with Kung Fu Panda, for me.  Too much extraneous stuff attached to it that can’t help but come along with me when I watch the thing.  I can blot a lot of it out, but I can’t blot all of it out.  In the same way that I’ll never be able to let go of stuff from my younger years, Kung Fu Panda will always carry around the “This Film Made Me Quit DreamWorks” banner and there’s a part of me that will always be bitter about that – albeit now because it reminds me of how absolutely f*cking dumb my teenaged self was instead of the film itself.

Still, Kung Fu Panda 2 doesn’t have any baggage associated with it, so I look forward to seeing how fantastic that supposedly ends up!


A total critical and financial triumph, Kung Fu Panda represented a major bouncing back from a very disappointing 2007 for DreamWorks Animation.  Next week, we’ll look at the film that helped cement the turning of the tides, and gave the company the knowledge that Shrek wouldn’t be the only franchise they could fall back on should things go rough.  Next week, it’s Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa.

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

Callum Petch could’ve been a princess, you’d be a king.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron

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.


spirit06] Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron (24th May 2002)

Budget: $80 million

Gross: $122,563,539

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 69%

So… I won’t actually be talking about Spirit much, this week.  See, this is less down to the quality of the film and more because everything that surrounds it is vastly more important.  Spirit, you must understand, had the misfortune to be released just as traditional animated Western films where entering the last stages of their lifespan.  And, well, that whole business is just way too interesting and important to not talk about, especially if you want to know why everyone, even the House Of Mouse, decided to switch to CG.  So, a lot of this week will be devoted to looking at that whole business, especially seeing as it fits into next week with the last traditionally animated film that DreamWorks Animation has released so far.  I’ll get Spirit specifically at some point but it’s more than likely going to have to fall by the wayside, this week.  I’ll mop up the points about it that I want to/need to touch on next week if I run out of time here.  Sound good?  If not… well, sorry, I guess; you can’t really change an article that I’ve already written.  Sorry.

Right, with that being said, let’s flash back to 1999.  Again.

You’ll recall back in the entry regarding The Road To El Dorado that 1999 was a pretty terrible year for non-Disney-affiliated animated features.  You may also recall in last week’s entry on Shrek that 2001 was a much better year than both 99 and 2000.  Again, financially, not with regards to quality (1999 is pretty much untouchable and I will fight anyone who tries to claim otherwise).  However, one would be wise to pay attention to which films were the actual big successes during the period from 1999 to 2003.  Tarzan, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Dinosaur, Chicken Run, Shrek, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, Ice Age, Lilo & Stitch, Finding Nemo.  Notice that the CG successes vastly outnumber the traditionally animated ones, that said traditionally animated ones are by Disney and that those are only 2 of the 6 films they released during that time frame.

Now, initially, this doesn’t seem too significant.  A whole bunch of animated films are released every year (hell, fifteen have been released in America this year, at time of writing) and few of them are actual bona-fide hits, some will fall by the wayside (again to use this year for an example, remember how Legends Of Oz: Dorothy’s Return happened?).  The problem comes from how lopsided that equation looks.  Again, CG movies are becoming the runaway successes and audiences are primarily skipping traditionally animated features.  Imagine you’re an executive at one of these animation companies and you see these figures, the bottom lines, the only parts that matter to you.  What do you deduce?  You deduce that nobody is going to see traditionally animated films anymore and that what the public wants instead are these fancy computermabobs.

That, in case you were in any doubt, is how CG managed to push traditional animation out of the feature-length game.  Raw figures.  If there was any doubt left that traditional animation was officially a poison at the box office, 2002 killed it off mercilessly.  Hey Arnold! The Movie, The Powerpuff Girls Movie, The Wild Thornberrys Movie, Pokémon 4Ever!, Adam Sandler’s Eight Crazy Nights, and the complete and total catastrophic bomb known as Treasure Planet all dropped in those 12 months and all sank without a trace.  The year’s highest earner was Ice Age, which even outgrossed Lilo & Stitch, Disney’s only unqualified hit during the first half of the decade.  The public weren’t biting and they especially weren’t biting big screen versions of cartoons that were supposedly major hits on TV, so why not pack up shop and move where the money is?

Here’s the thing, though, and this should surprise absolutely nobody: it didn’t have to be this way.  Yes, audiences did flock to the newest and shiniest thing available to a point (I would like to remind you that Disney’s Dinosaur would not have made $137 million domestic and $349 million worldwide if didn’t have that new tech smell), but they didn’t just give up totally on traditional animation.  Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron, which we will get into if you hang on a bit longer, ended up taking a pretty good $73 million at the domestic box office, and people didn’t just suddenly decide to show up for Lilo & Stitch and then collectively make a pact to stop watching Disney films until the end of decade.  The reasons why people stopped turning up to these films are because the marketing was atrocious, the release dates were really poor and… most of them just weren’t very good.

Look, I will defend Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet to the death, but neither of them are going to be troubling anybody’s personal Top 10 Disney Films list.  Whilst one could also say the same for… for… OK, this list of films from the Disney Renaissance is ridiculously good… err… ooh!  Pocahontas!  Whilst one could also say the same for Pocahontas, that film made bucket-loads whereas Atlantis and Treasure Planet really didn’t (in fact, Treasure Planet only made $38 million in the US and failed to recoup its budget once worldwide grosses were factored in).  The difference being that Pocahontas had a strong marketing campaign and a good clear release date (a week before Apollo 13, which it held strong against) going for it, whilst Treasure Planet and Atlantis had neither of those things (the former was released the week after the one-two punch of Harry Potter & The Chamber Of Secrets and Die Another Day, whilst the latter had to battle Shrek and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) and also had to deal with the fact that the very public crashing and burning of Titan A.E. had tainted animated films with sci-fi elements for everyone else.  This could have been averted with a strong marketing campaign but… well…

(Incidentally, yes, it is rather telling that 60% of this film’s overall gross came from foreign markets.)

The complete and total failure of The Powerpuff Girls Movie, meanwhile, can be laid solely at the feet of distributor Warner Bros. (and no, I am not just saying that because I am a huge mark for that show and for Craig McCracken in general).  I mean, they put it up against Men In Black II, Like Mike and a still-going-strong Lilo & Stitch and gave people who weren’t already interested in the show absolutely no reason to care (that trailer above is literally the only one they made), what the f*ck did they think was going to happen?  The Box Office Mojo report for the weekend even noted the bizarre decision to not have any evening showings for the thing!  The Wild Thornberrys Movie opened the same weekend as Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, Hey Arnold! The Movie opened seven days after Lilo & Stitch, Pokémon 4Ever! inexplicably opened in limited release and stayed there for the duration of its run, Eight Crazy Nights had an abominable trailer (and sucked, so I don’t think anyone’s complaining in this respect), whilst we all know by now that Titan A.E. failed because nobody at Fox’s marketing department knew who they were supposed to be aiming the damn thing at (and, whisper it, it wasn’t actually a particularly good movie to begin with).

To put it bluntly, the good movies primarily failed because the studios screwed them over royally, either on purpose or just down to plain old-fashioned incompetence, whilst the bad movies primarily failed because they sucked.  By the time Home On The Range hit cinemas in 2004 and Disney openly announced that they were done with traditional animation, it was fair to say that even the House Of Mouse wasn’t hitting it out of the park like they used to.  Every year, there are a handful of great films and a nice heaping slop of complete stinking garbage and, most of the time, the good ones make all of the money whilst the bad ones sink without a trace.  The problem is that the good ones weren’t getting the attention and marketing power that they deserved as, post-Titan A.E. especially, studios had already decided that the new frontier was going to be computer animation and that traditional animation was going to drop dead sooner or later.  So they helped speed it along by not pushing the golden eggs like they should have; instead of having a few high-quality successes towering over the failing mountain of slop, everything ended up taking a financial dive together, quality be damned, because nobody was trying to sell the damn films!

You know why Lilo & Stitch was Disney’s only home run, financially and critically, for nearly 8 years?  Because everyone knew it was damn fantastic and everyone knew it was damn fantastic because this was the genius marketing campaign that got people into the cinemas in the first f*cking place to enable them to tell everyone that Lilo & Stitch was A GREAT F*CKING MOVIE WORTH SEEING!!

I’m sorry for the harsh tone of the last few paragraphs, but this whole thing really upsets me.  People did not stop going to see traditionally animated films purely on the basis of computer animated ones being shinier keys that were dangled in front of their eyes.  People stopped going because they all looked dreadful, even when they weren’t.  Computer films looked different, they looked like a break from the usual crap that was being created and sold in the traditional medium.  They were marketed better, in a way designed to capitalise on that newness (Dinosaur got butts in theatres because its main trailer was the outstanding opening five minute sequence to the film, falsely promising a much different film than the generic one we got), whilst traditionally animated films got the same marketing voice they always had and people were tired of it.  They wanted something new, and these films were often doing something new, or at least something of high quality, and these films were often of a very high quality, but they didn’t look new and they didn’t look high quality so people stayed away, and that’s when they knew the film was coming out in the first frakkin’ place.  The form was as good as ever, but the only people who knew that were the ones turning up, the devoted.

So, if you’re wondering why traditionally animated feature films made in the West all but disappeared after 2004 and why Disney’s big return to the field collapsed in a heap after only two tries (2009’s great The Princess & The Frog, which opened one week before Avatar and had a poor marketing campaign, and 2011’s exceptional Winnie-The-Pooh, which opened the exact same day as the last Harry Potter and similarly received a really poor marketing campaign), now you know why.  It’s primarily down to executives who had already pre-emptively decided that that the form was dead and decided to speed along the burial.  And it’s also partly your fault for not giving them the bird and hunting them down anyway.  Yes, I am still bitter that the failure of The Powerpuff Girls Movie has pretty much guaranteed that my Samurai Jack movie will never get made (yes, my Samurai Jack movie; I am so desperate for it that I have basically decided that Genndy Tartakovsky needs to make it to preserve what little sanity I have remaining).

Right, then, with all of that addressed, and saving me a tonne of additional words next week, let’s get on with today’s film: Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron.


Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron is both an experiment and a clear foreshadowing of the company’s far-more successful How To Train Your Dragon series.  The experiment?  Can we do what Dinosaur eventually chose not to and make a serious drama film about animals that the audience can relate to and love without them ever uttering a single word of dialogue out loud, and can we blend traditional animation and computer-aided CG and cel-shading without breaking the audience’s investment in the film’s reality?  These are bold experiments, the first more so than the second as everyone was attempting to do the second in the onset of the 21st century in an attempt to stave off the pre-determined inevitable, and I do want to sit here and tell you that they are pulled off with aplomb by the film.  See, technically, the film pulls off both splendidly and holds up majorly over a decade on from its first release; at its best moments, it is a work of pure art.  Except there are a couple of fundamental things that drag the whole enterprise down from “incredible” to “frustratingly good” and those things are so fundamental yet easy to have avoided that I am actually upset at the film almost willingly crippling itself by featuring them.

If you’ve read my thoughts on both How To Train Your Dragon movies, you can probably see why I made that comparison.  The way that Spirit handles some scenes reminded me very much of that later success; they especially came to mind in the relationship between Little Creek and Spirit, with the scene where the former first tries to gain the trust of the latter enough to be able to ride him in particular.  That dynamic is very similar to the one that plays out in the first How To Train Your Dragon only much more compressed for time (Spirit is about 72 minutes with an additional 8 for credits, but in no way does it feel like it has skimped out in any department).  The difference is that whilst I feel that the HTTYD films are a whole bunch of individually excellent scenes failing to come together as a whole (and before anyone jumps in, yes, I am perfectly aware that I am in the minority on the series, a la my thoughts on Adventure Time), Spirit is a collection of individually excellent scenes that absolutely do come together to form an amazing, heartfelt and emotional whole…  It’s just that that whole is almost irreparably ruined for me by two very definable factors.

The first of these factors…  Tell you what, I’ll give you a chance to figure it out before I tell you, because that enables me to just show you some of the film’s best scenes (which is the easiest way to get across to you just how fantastic the film is when it fires on all cylinders) and it’s also really, really obvious as to what the first of the film’s two problems is.  The following scene is the second half of a sequence in which the film’s villain, The Colonel, has tried breaking in Spirit, who had spent his prior time being held in the camp against his will desperately trying to escape and resisting attempts to domesticate him.  Just before this bit starts, it seems like The Colonel managed to successfully break Spirit.  See if you can figure out the one thing that nearly ruined this exciting, fist-pumping and heart-soaring segment for me; it’s not hard.

If you said “Err, hang on, why is Matt Damon needlessly monologuing Spirit’s thoughts?  And why does he sound bored-as-hell?” you have discovered the first of the two arrows that Spirit takes to the metaphorical knees.  Spirit technically sticks to its conceit of only having its animals, primarily horses, communicate solely through facial expressions and whinnying instead of through talking, but I’m guessing that some higher-ups at DreamWorks were dubious as to the likelihood that children would sit through long stretches of film in which there are no dialogue or nobody literally telling the audience what our characters are thinking and feeling.  Enter Matt Damon as the narrating voice of Spirit and, as you may have already gathered, he is HORRIBLE in this.  His every line is utterly dreadful anyway, the kind that explains everything that’s going on on-screen to make absolutely sure that the youngest and stupidest get it, but his delivery practically permanently screams “Can I have my paycheque now?  Can I have my paycheque now?  I am Matt Damon and I have an infinite number of better things to be doing with my time, so can I please have my paycheque now?”

There’s a scene late on in the film where Little Creek, the Native American that Spirit escapes the U.S. Military camp with, has his village raided by the U.S. Army and Spirit’s love interest, Rain, rushes in to save Little Creek only to be shot by the Colonel and get washed down river.  The scene’s existence is telegraphed from practically the first frame of Rain’s appearance, but goddamn is it still an absolute knife to the heart when it finally does arrive.  Spirit’s confused dash through the chaos to find her, the moment when the penny drops for every viewer as Little Creek sits atop Rain with the Colonel directly across from them, her collapse into the river, Spirit’s mad and desperate attempts to keep her alive, the fall from the waterfall, everything that happens on that riverbank…  Give me a sec, I am genuinely welling up just thinking about it; I was an absolute mess watching it.  Then Matt Damon’s voice pops up to tell us what we already know and could deduce from the excellent animation (seriously, you could cut the narration from the film and lose absolutely NOTHING) in such an uninterested and emotionless way that I am constantly pulled back from 100% investment and a total emotional breakdown because his presence.  Is.  Just.  Plain.  WRONG.  That scene would be a piece of goddamn art if his narration was cut, although it at least does distract from the question of why Rain doesn’t seem to actually be visually injured despite taking a bullet at near point-blank range.

As for the second thing?  Well, I’ll let you figure that out again.  It follows right on from the clip embedded above and, quite frankly, you should figure this one out in about 10 to 15 seconds.  Why do you think I have a problem with this scene, a scene that otherwise should have worked totally?

That is correct, folks.  Spirit has multiple songs by Bryan Adams and they are all absolutely godawful.  The issue isn’t so much to do with the fact that they’re lacking in hooks or anything like that, it’s because they are 100% pointless.  Much like the narration, its sole purpose is to engage any kids that may have grown restless watching a film about animals in which none of them speak human words, and to have lyrics that spell out exactly what is happening and what you should be feeling in the clumsiest and most distractingly on-the-nose way possible.  They also don’t fit the rest of the soundtrack; whilst the score goes for a sweeping historical epic with a little Western tinge, the songs are late 80s/early 90s power ballads being delivered by a Bryan Adams that I spent the entire runtime mistaking for Don Henley.  They don’t gel, especially when the songs start obviously straining for awards consideration.  Every time one started up, and there are a hell of a lot of them so this is a frequent issue, I got pulled out of the movie due to Adams’ strained wailing, or a thuddingly obvious lyric, or the deployment of instruments that do not fit the mood the film is going for.

The Internet is a place where people take seemingly innocuous things absolutely seriously, so I know that somewhere someone has edited together a version of Spirit that strips out the narration and the songs and replaces the still-not-great score with a much better one.  Someone has to have and if there is one, or even just a copy of the film with all of those things stripped out (the animation was actually completed first and the narration, score and music were added on afterwards; like everyone involved saw the Mona Lisa in front of them and decided what it needed for improvement was a hacksaw randomly applied to various parts), I want it in my inbox ASAP.  No joke, if the narration and songs were nowhere in sight, this would be one of my favourite animated movies of all-time.  It just works, folks.  It just totally works for me.  The animation is smooth, natural and stunning, the character designs are strong, the shot composition is fantastic, the characters are remarkably well-crafted and ones that I formed strong connections to despite the lack of usual aids, like dialogue, and the fact that they’re not particularly deep, the integration of CGI is often near-seamless (check out the opening a bit further down and just try and spot when the shots switch from hand-drawn to computer-aided cel-shading), the tone, mood and atmosphere are perfect, and the film’s emotional gut-punches hit like a ten-tonne truck with rocket boosters deployed.

But those two utterly boneheaded design choices sit there, sticking out like sore thumbs infected with rabies that won’t go away no matter how much you wish they would.  I’d like to think that those are the reasons why the film didn’t really catch on with the public at large.  The kids probably feel insulted by just how dumb the narration and songs think they are, and it simply wouldn’t get taken seriously as a film for older viewers because every damn time it gets locked into a groove the pre-school level narration and dreadful rejected 80s power ballads rear their heads and remind older fans like me (yes, 19 is granddad age when analysing animated films in this scenario, shut up) that the film isn’t aimed at us either.  It makes the film appear confused, even though it really isn’t.  Unsurprisingly, I am not the only person to call out the film for these creative choices, so I wouldn’t be shocked if that’s why Spirit never became a rousing box office success.  Well, that and its marketing.  Seriously, “a motion picture experience for everyone” is something your marketing department comes up with as a first-draft placeholder or when they’ve truly just stopped giving a sh*t.

I want to love Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron.  I really, really do.  That film hit me hard, worked so well and genuinely surprised me with its quality and ambition.  I just absolutely wish that everyone involved hadn’t decided to shove their dicks into the cake at the last possible moment.  Present me with a narration and soundtrack-free version, and I shall rescind everything negative I have said about the film in this article and spend the next half hour lecturing you on the many, many things it does right.  It really is a film that is within spitting distance of the gold medal, but then brains itself on the concrete metres before the line and literally leaves its brain matter spread along the track.  Goddammit, I’m disappointed now.


Next week, part 2 in our look at the fall of traditionally-animated Western features as we take a better look at the box office for Spirit and then shine a spotlight on the film that sent DreamWorks scurrying away from the hand-drawn arm of the industry for good: Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas.  Yes, in the early 2000s, the company did have a strange obsession with titles that were simply Character Name: Job Description, just go with it.

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

Callum Petch finds romance when he starts to dance.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Joseph: King Of Dreams

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

joseph 2This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary.  In celebration, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full on retrospective treatment.  Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.


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

Direct-To-Video

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Nut Job

No.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

the nut job 2I have been given crap for my review of Tinker Bell & The Pirate Fairy because I dared to compare it to other, far superior animated movies on the market; your Lego Movies, your Mr. Peabody & Shermans, your Frozens, even your How To Train Your Dragons.  I got stick for commenting in detail on the animation quality.  I got stick for attempting to evaluate the film despite not being part of the target audience.  (I also got stick for not having familiarised myself with the series beforehand which is a fair complaint that I will admit is unprofessional of me.)  I have even been accused of being the kind of guy who nitpicks at supposedly perfectly good films for no other reason than I like to and that I am the kind of guy who has forgotten why I go to the cinema: to have fun.

I don’t feel shamed by any of this.  Really, I don’t.  I don’t feel any remorse whatsoever for that review and I don’t feel any remorse for my continuing love and harsh criticism of animated films.  Do you want to know why?  It is not because I am a fun-hating killjoy with a giant stick shoved right up where the sun don’t shine.  No, it is because I love animation.  I adore animation.  I always have and, goddammit, I always will.  The medium is one filled with boundless, near-limitless storytelling potential.  A chance to create and display images of astounding beauty that would be impossible or near-impossible to replicate in live-action.  The possibility to take the viewer on a trip to brand-new worlds, the likes of which one has never seen before.  A chance to make the kind of films and tell the kind of stories that would never get funded in live-action, wouldn’t have the same experience as in live-action, and to create a timelessness that telling the story in live-action might lack.  Pixar (circa 1995 – 2010, minus 2006) were kings at crafting lived-in worlds, Disney can pump out strong, memorable characters in their sleep, DreamWorks at their best know perfectly how to balance comedy and strong character work, Persepolis (although not a kids’ film) is one of the most beautiful and emotionally affecting films that I have ever seen and could only be told in the way that it was via animation.

So, no.  I will not apologise for the way I review animated films.  I will not be forced to apologise for holding animated features a higher standard.  Because I know that this medium can do better.  I know for a fact that it is better and deserves better than the crap that is constantly pumped out cynically for a quick buck.  I know that shovelware is going to crop up for all mediums and that live-action cinema, in all of its forms, has just as much, if not more, crap than the animated landscape ever will have.  And guess what?  I’ll call those out for being terrible, too.  But animation means a whole lot to me and to be accused of being a fun-killer for not giving a pass to every cheap mediocre-or-worse slop that is plopped down in cinemas for the sole purpose of sucking parents’ wallets clean because, “Hey, the cinema’s cheaper than a babysitter,” infuriates me.  I hate because I love, I hold animation to a higher standard because it can do better and I don’t just give slop aimed at the youngest and stupidest of children a pass because, guess what, they deserve better.  And they can get better; turn on the TV to quite literally any cartoon channel nowadays and they will get better for free!  There is no excuse and I will never apologise for the way I go about reviewing these films.

I bring this up because The Nut Job is literally a walking example of everything that is wrong with animated kids’ films.  This is a film designed by a committee for the sole purpose of making money.  There is no heart, there are no characters, there are fart noises and Gangam Style music cues in lieu of jokes, the animation is mediocre at best and terrible at worst, the voice acting is boring and uncommitted, the art design and layout and storyboarding is all lifeless and uninteresting.  No effort has been put in, not in conception, not in execution.  The one interesting thing it has is the fact that it kind of wants to be a heist movie, but it bungles proceedings so thoroughly, and seems so uninterested in actually being a heist movie, that all it does is leave me wishing that somebody would make an actually good animated heist movie.

Think of something that happens in a bad kids’ movie and it turns up here.  A cast of characters who have one single trait, go through pretty much no arcs, and who exist almost solely for jokes yet the film still wants you to care about anyway?  Lame puns based on a word that is supposedly inherently funny but really isn’t yet the film stops to call attention to it before moving on?  Sequences set to chart-ready pop songs, including one where the film stops dead for a good minute because it was popular when the film went into production?  Disconnected story threads where the human villains get nearly as much screen-time as the animals that we’re supposed to care about, and who keep getting shoved back into the main plot despite their overall irrelevance to it?  A section near the end where it looks like our hero has died, and the film acts like he has, but then it turns out he’s actually OK and you were crying for no reason (which is a trope/beat I am officially banning all movies of all kinds from using in the future)?  A lead female protagonist who is supposedly tough and capable on her own yet whose only function is to be constantly rescued by our lead male protagonist?  An “Obligatory Dance Party Ending Over The Credits”?  Yes, they are all present and correct and done with so little effort or interest it’s insulting.

The jokes, meanwhile… oh, lord, the jokes.  The Nut Job has all kinds of bad jokes.  We got fart jokes, jokes based on characters very noticeably and clumsily dropping the word “nut” into a sentence, jokes based around characters dancing to Gangam Style, obvious blind jokes, jokes that just involve characters shouting lines of dialogue at one another, jokes that just involve characters screaming lines of dialogue at one another, jokes designed around the fact that one of the characters has a bird who looks exactly like one of the Angry Birds birds, and jokes based around how irritatingly stupid the whole cast is (a stupid cast is fine in a comedy, obviously, but you need actual jokes because otherwise you’ve just got annoyingly stupid characters).  Each joke is pulled off with a total lack of skill, effort, construction and timing (said fart jokes genuinely just involves fart sound effects playing on a near-constant loop on the soundtrack at one point as everyone takes turns to say how disgusting farting is).  There is one, precisely one, that got a positive reaction out of me and that involved two speeding vans passing a donut shop, upon which point every cop inside collectively have their heads rise up like an old broken-down animatronic on a fairground ride.  Everything else landed with a thud at best, or a sigh of derision at worst.

Animation is all over the shop.  At the best of times, it’s half as good as Monsters Inc. from 2001.  Character models lack detail but they are passable enough, scampering is clearly hiding a limited budget but at least fits considering the fact that we’re talking about squirrels and rats and the like, and there’s a bit in the finale involving water that doesn’t look horrible.  Otherwise, this is hideous.  Lighting is dreadful, sequences set at night barely look any different from sequences set in the day except that the sky is now purple.  Everything lacks detail, something that’s especially prominent whenever the famed and desired nuts get a close-up and just end up looking plastic.  Character movements that don’t involve scampering are too restrained and unconvincing, especially whenever cartoon physics take over (there are multiple jokes that should end with one or more characters dead which, incidentally, saps any tension the later sequences should have).  Facial expressions frequently border on completely lifeless and mostly just settle for plain boredom, the lone female human genuinely looks like a Barbie doll and it is creepy as all hell.  And character designs are uninspired with some characters (namely that bird and any and all humans) looking like they don’t even belong in the same film as the rest.

Also, during the aforementioned end credits dance party, an animated version of Psy comes out to dance to Gangam Style and I am not kidding or exaggerating or anything of the sort when I tell you that it is genuinely the cheapest and lowest resolution animation that I have seen in a feature-length animated film released in cinemas in…  in…  You know, I honestly can’t recall ever seeing an uglier and lower-quality piece of a theatrically-released animated feature-film.  It is quite literally unbelievable just how horrible the end credits look.

Also of note is just how despicably unlikable the lead character is.  Surly (voiced by a Will Arnett who clearly does not care enough to keep up the Russian accent I think his character is supposed to have) is a thoroughly unpleasant lead who is mean to everybody, selfish, and isn’t even witty or entertaining to make up for that fact.  He’s just a jerk, a complete and total jerk.  And he remains that way for a good 80% of the film’s runtime despite needing to become a more selfless and heroic guy at the end.  So, at the 80% mark, around about the time the film’s big lifeless final chase scene starts, he suddenly becomes a paragon of virtue.  As expected, it didn’t take to me, and it especially didn’t take seeing as every other character in the film is a complete tool that nobody in their right mind would step up and defend or a really annoying one-joke blank slate (step right up, the groundhogs) that is impossible to care about.

Look, folks, I am tired.  I am tired of animated films that are not trying harder.  Before The Nut Job, a trailer for Jorge R Guitérrez’s upcoming debut feature-length animated film The Book Of Life was shown.  In that one two minute trailer, I saw more imagination, invention, heart, character, love, visual splendour and overall effort than the entirety of The Nut Job.  There was also a trailer for Laika’s third animated feature The Boxtrolls and that too displayed more imagination, invention, heart, character, love, visual splendour and overall effort in two minutes than all 86 of The Nut Job.  I am tired of people not aiming for those levels, I am tired of people not trying.  They don’t even have to be that good, just as long as everyone involved is clearly trying.  So I am done giving crappy animated films a pass.  In a year that has seen The Lego Movie, in a year that has seen Mr. Peabody & Sherman and in a year that has seen How To Train Your Dragon 2, there is no excuse for Escape From Planet Earth, there is no excuse for Tarzan, there is no excuse for The House Of Magic and there is no excuse for the cynical, soulless pile of complete tripe known as The Nut Job.

You want to distract your kids with cartoons for two hours?  Turn on Cartoon Network, turn on Nicktoons, turn on Disney; turn on any TV channel that shows cartoons because there are brand new kids’ shows on the air right now who are of far higher quality than this crap and which will cost you pretty much nothing.  Just do not take them to this because not only is there better, and not only do your kids deserve better, animation as a whole deserves better.  Do not reward them for churning sh*t like this out.

Callum Petch wants to run til we meet in the night.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

How To Train Your Dragon 2

HTTYD2How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a bunch of excellent individual scenes in a pretty good whole.  Exactly like the first film.  Exactly like the first film.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

I get why everybody is head over heels in love with How To Train Your Dragon.  I do.  It’s a good movie, and the fact that it came from the studio that only half a decade earlier believed that Shark Tale was quality work that they were willing to stand behind and release to the general public is friggin’ miraculous.  It had a good amount of heart, some great visuals and some beautiful or just plain excellent individual scenes.  I would stop short of declaring it “great,” though.  Despite those individual scenes (Hiccup’s first encounter with Toothless, the montage of the pair slowly warming to each other, and the realisation that Hiccup has lost one of his legs are the ones that currently spring to mind), the film never quite came together as a whole, for me.  It felt a bit too unfocussed, expected me to care about a motley crew of secondary characters who weren’t particularly likable or relevant until the plot said they were, the animation wasn’t quite up to the ambitions it clearly had, and the Astrid stuff infuriated me to no end.  As a film on its own, divorced from contexts surrounding it, it’s very good at what it is but disappointingly falls short of greatness. As a gold star “Yes, DreamWorks!  You’re on your way; more like this, please!” piece of encouragement, I can get behind it.

2010 was four years ago and, in that timeframe, DreamWorks Animation have clearly taken that gold star encouragement as incentive to get better.  One need only look at the Rotten Tomatoes scores for their last three films in 12 months (70% for The Croods, 67% for Turbo and 79% for Mr. Peabody & Sherman) compared to those in the same time period from 2006 to 2007 (72% for Aardman’s Flushed Away, which is being generous, 40% for Shrek The Third and 51% for Bee Movie), whilst the Kung Fu Panda movies (the second of which I haven’t seen and the first of which is due a re-watch) have gathered a substantial fan-base and the first DreamWorks film I had watched in five years (with the exception of Puss In Boots), Mr. Peabody & Sherman, was a genuinely great film that I was completely surprised by the quality of.

You may be wondering why I used a full paragraph and one terrible, comma-filled sentence to tell you this stuff.  Simple; I wanted to properly set the scene and let you know that it is no longer 2010.  It is 2014.  We live in a world where Walt Disney Feature Animation has been on a hot-streak not seen since the early 90s, where Pixar have taken a huge battering after a string of sub-par for them and just plain sub-par films, where Laika proved Coraline was not just a fluke, and where The Lego Movie was legitimately fantastic.  It’s a changed world and the animation landscape has changed with it.  How To Train Your Dragon 2, however, is still stuck in 2010.  I have pretty much the exact same qualms and praises with it as I did the original, and the film still fails to live up to the potential its best individual scenes clearly demonstrate it to have.  There are legitimately great films in here, but they keep getting lost by the wider picture which is just “good”.  Naturally, if you loved the original and had next-to-no problems with it, I guarantee you’ll love this one too cos it’s the exact same.  I keep hearing that bit in 22 Jump Street where Nick Offerman snidely remarks that the case they’re tackling was exactly the same as the last one.  The exact same.  It fits here far more snugly than I’m comfortable to let it get away with.

We rejoin the inhabitants of the island of Berk five years after the climax of the first film.  The island has become a practical paradise with dragons and humans co-existing peacefully and happily together.  Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is being groomed by his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) for the island’s chief, but he’d much rather head off and explore the world with his dragon best-buddy, Toothless.  It’s on one of these explorations that they come across a destroyed fortress home to a group dragon trappers, led by Erit (Kit Harrington), who work for ruthless warlord Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou).  Drago is building an army of dragons for mysterious reasons that you can probably guess due to him being a villain and the mere mention of his name causes Stoick to lock down Berk.  Hiccup believes that Drago can be reasoned with, though, and sets off to convince the man that dragons and humans can live together peacefully.  And that’s when he runs into his long-lost mother (Cate Blanchett) who has been rescuing and living among dragons for the past 20 years.

Right, I’m going to stick to the stuff I liked first, because the stuff I liked, I really liked.  Exhibit A?  This is without a doubt one of the most gorgeous CG animated films I have ever seen.  The original HTTYD occasionally touched the level of quality present in here, but that was held back by the technology of the time; some noticeable chroma-keying, an inconsistency in fluidity of animation with regards to humans, weird drops in quality and detail when things get busy.  Fortunately, four years have passed since then and HHTYD2 finally delivers consistently at the level it wants to.  There are times here where I could have sworn that this was just CG overlay on real-life actors performing the material but there’s still a stylistic tinge to the art-design that keeps it from just being creepy.

The key word here is detail.  There is a breath-taking amount of it going about in nearly every single scene, no matter whether it’s just Hiccup and his family sat in a cave or a giant battle sequence with hundreds, if not thousands, of constantly-moving variables on-screen at once.  It brings the world to life and makes the little things stick out that much more.  Early on, Hiccup has a little tuft of his hair knotted/braided (I don’t know hair terms, sue me) by his girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) and it stays that way for the entire length of the movie; it’s rather tiny and the film never draws attention to it, but it’s there in every shot that I could see its existence in.  Every dragon has individual little marks and bumps that set them apart from others in their species, instead of just being palette swaps.  Tiny little crusts of frost appear on Stoick’s beard and moustache when he goes flying through Arctic-like conditions, enough that you can tell it’s not too cold by the fact that they don’t cover up his entire beard, you can still see its colour peeking through.  There’s a section in the finale that communicates the majority of events happening purely through little changes in the shape and movement of a pair of eyeballs.  Details, the kind you may not immediately notice but only add to the life of the world.

Human animation is extremely fluid and naturalistic, again to such an extent that I would not be surprised to find out that they were primarily done by actors in mo-cap suits.  At times they’re a bit too distractingly realistic, the animators putting in too many unnecessary shrugs and bounces and movements as if they’re showing off technologically, but those moments are rare.  90% of the time, the animators know just how much is too much.  In these cases, faces move like real people, they gesture like real people and they just plain move like real people.  Even when they don’t need to, when they could just be in the background or out-of-focus and let up on the detail, they still keep up that level of detail and fluidity and that’s what keeps it from being distractingly fake-looking.  Praise too should go to the dragons whose excellent design work means they can be imposing and dangerous one moment and cute and lovable the next without it ever seeming jarring.

Lighting is utterly gorgeous.  Although there aren’t as many scenes set at night or in darkness as there were in the original film, ones that are still make excellent usage of shadows and shading.  There’s a scene where Hiccup is surrounded by dragons in a dark cave that’s a particular showcase for the technology powering the film.  It even works during the day, too; shadows cast by dragons flying overheads affect everything in its area accurately.  Cinematography, meanwhile, overseen by Roger Deakins, no less, is exceptional, frequently conjuring up images of sheer beauty (the end credits run over concept art of the film and practically the only difference between them and their equivalent shots in film is that they’re hand-drawn) and swooping and diving and shaking during the action scenes like the action is happening on a real film set.  Visible chroma-keying is practically non-existent even during some of busiest scenes, I think I noticed it once during a mid-battle conversation between Astrid and Hiccup that was shot in close-ups but that’s about it.

Point is, if you’re looking for an animated film to absolutely blow you away visually, stop looking.  This is it.  I was astounded at this film’s visuals and you may notice that I am not easily impressed with these things.

Meanwhile, there are several excellent individual scenes worthy of note.  Obviously, thanks to the animation, there’s pretty much any time any character mounts a dragon and the pair go tearing through the sky, but there are more specific instances.  The aforementioned scene where Hiccup is surrounded by dragons leads into the reveal of his mother and even though the reveal bit itself has been seared into my brain permanently thanks to trailer overexposure these past six months, the scene still had genuine emotional impact.  Although their relationship is barely touched on, there’s a very naturalistic and cute scene with Astrid and Hiccup early on.  The reunion between Stoick and Valka (the name of Hiccup’s mother) is sweetly tender, as is a duet between the two later on.  The first of the film’s two giant battle sequences is a technical marvel and, though its emotional climax didn’t really work for me personally, it’s executed strongly enough that it will lead to wet eyes for the majority of the audience.  And there’s one short little sequence in the film’s finale that goes back to the Hiccup/Toothless relationship (which is put on the backburner for most of the film, more on that in a second) that legitimately affected me, though that may be due to my being a dog owner.  These are the film’s high points, when everything is in perfect sync and operating at full power, and they tease towards an excellent film.

And I know that sounds like an excellent segway into a “but…” but I need to single out Jay Baruchel’s voice work, real quick.  He wasn’t bad in the original film, far from it, but hearing his voice come out of the body of a 14 year-old was… jarring.  I get the idea it was going for, but it didn’t really work.  Now, though, Hiccup is 20 and Baruchel’s voice is practically perfect for the man.  Of course, if that were all it were good for, I wouldn’t be singling it out.  He is fantastic in this.  Genuinely fantastic.  He nails practically every single line, getting the right cadence for the situation and conveying Hiccup’s feelings expertly; there’s a scene during the film’s emotional high point where, again whilst it didn’t quite work for me, I realised exactly how powerful it’s supposed to be thanks to his subtly distraught line delivery.  He’s so good that it’s even more jarring when he over-eggs the film’s final narration just a little bit too much cos he’s fantastic, otherwise.

OK, now it’s time for the “but…”  See, despite the beautiful animation, Jay Baruchel’s phenomenal voice work and those excellent individual scenes, the film still doesn’t work as a whole.  Some of those reasons are easy for me to explain, some aren’t at all.  Although it doesn’t have the pacing issues the first film did (which, for me anyway, dragged in spots even though it only lasted 98 minutes), How To Train Your Dragon 2 still has a large amount of dead weight and a lack of true narrative focus.  For example, remember the other dragon academy kids from the first film?  They’re back and they still do pretty much nothing except provide occasional bursts of comic relief and be another recognisable face in the battle scenes.  The film teases having a subplot for them, involving two of the guys competing for a very uninterested girl’s affections, but it never amounts to anything more than tossed-off comic relief.  So the kids show up to get kidnapped at one point and that’s about it.

More problematic is the lack of a true emotional core to the film.  HHTYD2 has the mother plot and the Drago plot and it wants to do both.  It really wants to do both.  The problem is that both plots, theoretically, have enough ideas and themes in them to sustain an entire film by themselves.  The mother one has parental abandonment, couple reunion, re-integrations into society, mother-son bonds and the question of whether people really can change; the Drago plot has dragon hierarchies, militarisation of dragons, noble intentions corrupted by power, tragedy, indiscriminate mass-murder by the heroes (are you seriously going to try and argue that all of those random human mooks in the battle scenes teleported away before death or something) and the opportunity for a morally murky villain.  Unfortunately, the film wants to do both and neither side has themes that cross over enough to allow either side to be developed fully.  So, consequently, neither side gets explored enough to have their full impact and both sides end up relatively wasted in some way.

Drago, for example, doesn’t appear on screen for the entire first half of the movie and is barely on screen even after his appearance.  He’s first mentioned at the 20 minute mark but despite constant invocations of dread by the characters of the film, he doesn’t actually do anything until a good hour in, like he’s just waiting for the mother stuff to finish so his plot can start.  His backstory gets a dramatic reveal and teases motivations that could lead to a morally tricky conflict, but it’s almost immediately discredited as Hiccup all but shouts, “You’re a bad guy,” and Drago basically smirks and admits, “Yeah, you’re right, I’m a dick and didn’t mean a word of what I said.”  He’s not even an imposing or menacing villain, he’s just boring and one-dimensional instead of mysterious or threatening.  It’s a waste of a villain.  Also, yes, the fact that the villain is the sole character of colour shown in this world in-film is a very unfortunate implication that I can’t believe an entire company, in a post-The Last Airbender world, allowed to pass through unflagged by somebody.

Valka, meanwhile, does get a lot of time fostered on her but she affects practically zero percent of the plot.  Because the plot ends up revolving around Drago and, despite being a master dragon wrangler/tamer/rider, when it’s time for battle to start, she is knocked on her arse and shoved off to the side-lines for Hiccup to resolve everything.  Snippiness aside, despite taking up pretty much the entire middle act, Valka contributes nothing of real value to the film besides a pep talk to Hiccup and to exist for something that just clicked in my head but I can’t talk about because spoilers.  It’s like the Astrid stuff from the first How To Train Your Dragon, which similarly showcased tonnes of narrative potential only to be totally squandered by the film’s decision to just turn that character into a satellite that orbits around Hiccup accomplishing nothing by themselves (incidentally, Astrid’s role in this film consists of: couple talk, pep talk, getting kidnapped, being rescued by someone else, face to follow during battles, Big Damn Kiss).  It’s extra-infuriating here because the film spends so long on Valka and her character arc, even attempting to make her the emotional centre, until it just flings it all away for the last half hour…

…wherein we return to the Hiccup/Toothless relationship to raise stakes for the finale.  It should be a huge emotional gut-punch, but it doesn’t work because the film kind of forgets how important the two of them are together once Valka hits the scene.  It relies on prior attachment for all of its emotional impact, so HHTYD2’s near-total dismissal of just how important the pair’s bond is until it’s relevant to the plot kills most of the possible impact.  It feels cheap, especially since the whole situation gets wrapped up about 10 to 15 minutes after it’s brought up, so there’s no real chance to let it sting or for the themes it wants to touch on to resonate.

But more than that, something has plagued both How To Train Your Dragons for me.  Like, both films have clearly definable issues but there’s also something… more.  Something else that I can’t quite explain.  They’re missing… “something,” a certain feeling, a certain magic, the kind of magic that can overcome issues like poor story structure and a lack of focus.  I don’t know, I can’t explain it, but it’s there in Wreck-It Ralph, it’s there in The Lego Movie, it’s there in Mulan, it’s most definitely there in ParaNorman, but it’s missing from here.  It’s especially baffling because Dean DeBlois (who directed both installments) and Chris Sanders (who only did the first one) are previous of Lilo & Stitch, which had the unexplainable yet tangible quality in spades.  It’s not heart, because both films do have it and both films are clearly made with a lot of love, it’s something else and it’s the lack of that “something” that keeps the whole enterprise from soaring as high as it should do and as it keeps teasing it can.  Better film critics or film scholars than I will likely come up with actual theories or explanations that may hit the nail on the head for me, be they explaining that missing “something” or finding an actual problem that I couldn’t explain, but all I can do is tell you what I know and what I know is that something I don’t know is missing from or spoiling this movie and that keeps it from being excellent despite my not knowing exactly what it is… if you get what on earth I mean.

How To Train Your Dragon 2, then, really is its parent film’s sequel.  It has most of the exact same strengths, most of the exact same highpoints, most of the exact same flaws and that exact same “something” that dragged down the first film.  If I had seen this in 2010, from the animation company that just two months later was going to deploy yet another Shrek sequel on this undeserving planet, I would have given it a gold star sticker of improvement and given it a total pass in the hopes that DreamWorks can do better.  Unfortunately, this is 2014 and DreamWorks have shown that it can do better, but it’s made a movie with the exact same strengths and weaknesses as that film from 2010, so I have to evaluate it as I see it.  And I see HTTYD2 as a good movie that I very much enjoyed held back poor plotting, inconsistent focus in both the narrative and the emotional core, and suffering from a certain “something”.  Gorgeous visuals, though.

Of course, if you had no problems with the first How To Train Your Dragon, you may want to ignore all of this and go and see it anyway.  In fact, no, if you had no problems with the first How To Train Your Dragon, you should ignore all of this and see the film immediately.  It really is exactly like the first one, so I see absolutely no reason why you wouldn’t love this.  I can only tell you how I felt and I didn’t love the first one, so… yeah.

Callum Petch is oh so healthy in his body and his mind.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!