Tag Archives: Kung Fu Panda 2

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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Puss In Boots

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

Budget: $130 million

Gross: $554,987,477

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 84%

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Kung Fu Panda 2

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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

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


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

Budget: $150 million

Gross: $665,692,281

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 81%

Jennifer Yuh Nelson is one hell of a director.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jennifer Yuh Nelson is one hell of a director.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, you know what to do now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tigress is now co-lead.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Megamind

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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


megamind 221] Megamind (5th November 2010)

Budget: $130 million

Gross: $321,885,765

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 72%

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

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

Oh, yeah, and Despicable Me happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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)!