Tag Archives: Madagascar

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)!

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Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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

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


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

Budget: $145 million

Gross: $746,921,274

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 81%

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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)!

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)!

Penguins Of Madagascar

Very funny, ludicrous amounts of fun, and with a surprising injection of just the right amount of heart, Penguins Of Madagascar does right by its title characters.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

penguins 2I’m telling you right now, I don’t ever want to hit an age or level of jadedness as a film critic where I don’t find films like Penguins Of Madagascar to be absolutely wonderful.  If you’ve been following along with this website over the past year, you will have witnessed my journey through the year’s animated releases and seen me find many of them… lacking, let’s put it that way.  I realise that I can come off as unnecessarily harsh, but – as mentioned in my review of The Nut Job – I judge harshly because I care.  I care deeply and I want animated films to try, to try and be more than a sinkhole for parents’ money.  They can reach farther, try harder, tell grand stories about the human condition…

…or they can be Penguins Of Madagascar.  Look, Penguins Of Madagascar does not reinvent any wheels, it does not push any boundaries, it does not attempt to dazzle the eyes with outstanding visuals, it does not try and make any bold statements or messages you won’t have heard from a million animated films beforehand.  It knows this and it’s consciously not trying to do those things.  What separates Penguins Of Madagascar from your Nut Jobs and your Planes and your House Of Magics is fun.  Real fun.  Penguins’ mission, above all else, is to be tonnes of palpable fun.  This is lightweight stuff, but it’s not soulless stuff.  There is effort and attention and love here; a desire to create real fun.

Or, to put it another way, it’s the difference between Crank 2: High Voltage and a crappy Steven Seagal vehicle, between The Avengers and Transformers, between The Hunger Games and Divergent.  One is farted out with the sole intention of box office dollars, the other knows exactly what it wants to be and goes about fulfilling that ambition and intention with style, energy, affection and sheer stick-to-it-iveness.

Based on the spin-off TV series of almost the same name but set in the timeline of the films – if this sounds confusing, fret not as the film’s attitude towards this mishmash is encapsulated perfectly by the kid-focussed prologue being dated as “Some Years Ago” – Penguins follows the scene-stealing Penguins from the Madagascar series.  There’s Skipper (Tom McGrath) – the leader who is committed to his team and doesn’t like his authority being questioned – Kowalski (Chris Miller) – the brains of the outfit and a propensity for bluntness – Rico (Conrad Vernon) – the near-silent and crazed demolitions expert – and Private (Christopher Knights) – a lone egg the rest of the team rescued and welcomed into the group as one of their own, and who wishes to be seen as a valued member of the team.

On the eve of the final performance from Madagascar 3, the Penguins choose to celebrate Private’s 10th birthday by breaking into Fort Knox and treating him to a packet of Cheese Dibbles.  The event turns out to be a trap, however, and the team are captured by the evil octopus Dave (John Malkovich) – who also moonlights as a human scientist named Dr. Octavious Brine, it’s nicely ridiculous and genuinely rather a bit creepy – who, fuelled by years of resentment of being overshadowed by cute and cuddly penguins that started when our lead quartet were first installed at Central Park Zoo, has built a penguin-focussed super-weapon with evil intentions.  The Penguins resolve to take Dave down, but end up having proceedings complicated by the arrival of interspecies task force The North Wind – led by the egotistical glory-hogging Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch).

The plot is really not any more complicated than that and all of the expected beats are hit at the appropriate times.  Certain scenes are more than a little forced, especially the attempts at book-ending the film, but it still all works because these beats are used as jumping off points for jokes, fun and heart.  The obvious scenes – the tension between the two teams, The All Is Lost Moment, the point where Private steps up – are executed with genuine sincerity, the feeling that these scenes have been used because they are what best helps and best fits the story rather than obligation or “this is what we need to do in order to print money”.

That is not to say that Penguins Of Madagascar is overly serious.  In fact, quite the opposite.  This is silly, light-hearted, fast-paced nonsense.  But the film is serious in its desire to entertain.  Hence why it goes all out in the action sequences.  A gondola chase in Venice takes a sudden detour on land, the opening rescue of Private’s egg moves with speed and high energy, whilst the final setpiece shrinks the scale and minimises the carnage but still feels noticeably climactic and high-stakes.  The standout, though, is an alternately hysterical and technically jaw-dropping one-take sequence in which the Penguins make a sudden exit from a cargo plane taking them to an assigned safe-house and attempt to find a different ride or a safe landing.  It’s crazed and fast and incredibly fun, which sums up the film’s overall feel, to be honest.  Pure, undiluted fun.

Incidentally, whilst I’m on the subject, that one-take free-fall sequence is the only time the animation truly stuck out to me.  The Madagascar art-style is very much set in stone by this point and there’s been no real majorly noticeable technical upgrade between films to make proceedings stand out.  Storyboarding and layout is decidedly unspectacular, so the film ends up sliding comfortably into the Madagascar canon without really amazing the eyeballs.  This is fine – as again, the film isn’t trying to astound the eyeballs, and visuals that are too good-looking would likely distract from the intended mood – but it does make the one-take sequence stand out even more, as the film doesn’t really try to match that kind of scale or ambition again.  It is insanely cool, mind, so try not to read that as an insult.

Anyways, as mentioned, Penguins is major amounts of fun.  The whole film carries with it this light, energetic kind-hearted feel.  The film is never mean-spirited, never overly-dark, never sacrifices its heart or nicer kinder characters for a quick laugh.  There’s clear love and affection going on here, a real desire to cut loose and have fun with the premise as much as possible.  And that fun is incredibly infectious.  From about minute number 2 – when the title cards disappear – to roughly minute 86 – after the mid-credits stinger has finished – I had this big goofy grin plastered on my face and it only wavered for the few moments where the film gets some semblance of serious.

That’s as good a segway as I can think of.  So, the heart.  Penguins has one.  It has a big one tattooed on its chest, powering proceedings.  The dynamic between the Penguins is what keeps the film going, keeps that spirit up.  The group are always true companions with one another and this fact is constantly underlined and reinforced.  The main conflict of the film – which is not Dave, although he is the catalyst for it, but is instead Private’s desire to be seen as more than The Cute One in the eyes of Skipper – comes from a place of genuine underestimation and obliviousness, rather than meanness, which is precisely why it works.  It’s in character, at all times, and that enables the film’s final third – where said heart bursts through front and centre without overcooking or schmaltz-ifying the film – to connect way harder than it seems like it would.

Of course, though, Penguins Of Madagascar is supposed to be a comedy and what good is a comedy without good jokes?  Well, good news on that front, there are good jokes here.  Lots of good jokes.  In fact, I’m not going to undersell it, Penguins is loaded front-to-back with damn good jokes and they come at a ferocious pace with an excellent hit/miss ratio.  Of particular note is the film’s lack of reliance on pop culture references – the frequent DreamWorks fall-back during their darker days.  Here, they are limited to one running gag where Dave names his subordinates in such a way that shouting combinations of names in quick succession equals names of actors.  Now, this is the same gag that Escape From Planet Earth did earlier in the year (much to my derision), but the film stretches this to its absolute limits until the joke becomes a joke itself – “Kevin!  Bake on!  We’re going to need that victory cake!”  I mean, they’re still major groaners, but at least there’s meaning behind them besides, “Reference!  Laugh!”

Other than that, the jokes are of the ridiculous silliness variety, albeit silliness rooted in character work.  There’s no random silliness for random silliness’ sake.  The “River dance!” gag is based on the Penguins believing Shanghai to be Dublin, for example, whilst Dave’s attempt at a video call works both on the base level – the increasing frustration of the team, the mundanity of the situation – and a character level – the guy may be competent with evil plans but he is utterly useless at pretty much everything else – and there are a pair of gags in the film’s final third involving The North Wind and a giant explosion that work extra-well because of Classified’s prior characterisation.  There is also a bunch of toilet humour, mostly in the form of pure groaners, but the film’s rapid-fire pace ensures that a gag that doesn’t work will be followed up by five or so that do soon after.

Also, the film openly calls out how irritating “I Like To Move It” and “Afro Circus” are during our first present-day scene, and I am perfectly fine with pandering when its aimed at me and completely deserved.

Since Penguins Of Madagascar is primarily a comedy, I’m resisting awarding it top five-star honours for now – because pure comedies, ones like this, I also judge on how a second viewing treats them – but I can still comfortably place this film in the highest echelons of the year’s animated films.  If The Lego Movie is at the top of the pile, and The Nut Job resides in Sub-Basement 5, then Penguins is currently sharing the number 2 slot with My Little Pony: Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks and that number 2 slot is just a whisker away from The Lego Movie.  This is an incredibly funny, incredibly fun, surprisingly heartfelt animated film, and living proof that not aiming for the stars does not automatically mean “cheap creatively-bankrupt piece of crap” and does not mean that trying is optional.

2014 has been a really miserable and disappointing year for animated features.  Penguins Of Madagascar proves that we can have it better and that we don’t need to re-invent the wheel in the process.

Callum Petch is heading into twilight, spreading out his wings tonight.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa

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.


madagascar 2 escape to africa17] Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (7th November 2008)

Budget: $150 million

Gross: $602,308,178

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 64%

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa wastes absolutely no time establishing itself as superior to the first movie.  Madagascar flung viewers headfirst into comedy, its opening scene with Marty dreaming of running free in the wild not really getting time to breathe or properly instil the heart and sincerity required to make the film much more than a rapid-fire joke machine.  Escape 2 Africa – which, before we go any further, is an incredibly awful name that just gets worse the more it ruminates in my brain – opens with a lengthy prologue detailing how Alex got to New York in the first place.

Once more, just to make the difference clear: Madagascar opens with a scene in which Marty the zebra dreams about wanting to run free in the wild, before Alex startles him out of it.  It lasts about 45 seconds and it is absolutely not meant to be taken seriously, as evidenced by the fact that it starts with Marty swinging through the air on a vine like George In The Jungle.  Madagascar 2 opens with a four-and-a-half minute (6 minutes and 45 seconds if you want to include the entirety of the prologue) sequence where Alex as a child is poached by some hunters but ends up accidentally drifting out to sea and is rescued by the Central Park Zoo.  The scene does have some jokes, but the general tone is being played for actual heart, real resonance instead of just gut-reflex laughs.  The gags don’t undercut the sequence, they stay away during its heavier moments.

Madagascar wasn’t a bad movie, far from it, but it was disposable.  Its lack of a real emotional centre meant that the film didn’t really register far beyond its jokes, so proceedings fell flat whenever the jokes didn’t land or when it tried to force genuine emotional resonance from a cast who spend much of those 80 minutes ripping into and insulting one another.  Again, this wasn’t a major problem – because a good majority of those jokes did land and there’s only really one prolonged stretch where the film tries to force an emotional centre it doesn’t really have – but it is something that kept it from being a great movie instead of a pretty darn good one.

Escape 2 Africa is all about that heart.  The film is still very funny and very silly – we will get to that – but this time there’s a real underpinning of heart to proceedings.  Alex, Marty, Melman and Gloria spend far more of their relatively brief interactions with one another being friends with each other instead of sniping with barely concealed hatred.  Each of their respective plots hones in on an insecurity of theirs and plays that for laughs and drama instead of all laughs all the time.  There’s a genuinely kind-hearted and good-natured vibe to proceedings, this time, instead of feeling like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia but with talking animals.

In fact, a lot of Escape 2 Africa revolves around retconning and adding actual fully-formed characters for our cast.  Again, although it wasn’t bad, Madagascar didn’t really have any characters.  Alex and Marty were defined purely by how accustomed to The Wild they both are, whilst Melman gets the one trait of being a hypochondriac and Gloria kinda just existed every now and again.  Therefore, much of their characterisation in this one can come out of nowhere with only Alex, just now with father issues, and Marty, whose insecurities about not feeling like a true individual come about organically, remaining consistent between films.

Melman turns out to have a crush on Gloria despite literally no such hints of that coming up in the first film, especially ‘out-of-nowhere’ as he becomes a stammering blithering tool around Gloria once this becomes knowledge to the viewer – otherwise known as Hugh Granting.  Gloria suddenly expresses a desire to procreate because she has “reached that time in her life” and, not coincidentally, around the time we learn about Melman’s feelings for her.  The dynamic between King Julian and his assistant Maurice, meanwhile, has completely changed – whereas in Madagascar Maurice was openly contemptuous of having to serve Julian, here he is a devoted follower who holds Julian in high esteem with nothing but respect.

One could get the feeling that everybody involved was hoping that the three year gap between the two films would cause the viewers of the original to forget the specifics of each character, and therefore find these new traits either totally in character or fitting with what came before.  Oftentimes, they aren’t.  However, I’m willing to let that all slide because I will always a little bit of character inconsistency if the trade-off is more heart.  That kid-focussed prologue demonstrates more genuine love and respect between the lead cast than the entirety of Madagascar did, Melman’s crush gives him and Gloria something to do, and the new-found bestest-buddies-for-life nature of King Julian and Maurice adds genuine heart and depth to a pair who felt absolutely superfluous to the first film.

Of course, one cannot talk about the heart in Madagascar 2 without bringing up the Disney-shaped elephant in the room: the fact that Alex’s plot – which is the main plot by virtue of it taking up the most screen-time – very frequently resembles that of The Lion KingMany film critics at the time derided the film for ripping off The Lion King and it’s not hard to see how they could have come to that conclusion.  Alex as a young lion cub was very much uninterested in leading the pack, there’s a scheming second lion who wishes to take over leadership for himself (Makunga, voiced by Alec Baldwin), there’s… err, there’s that one scene in the pilot of Father Of The Pride where the show dared to suggest that film is anything less than a masterpiece… … …um…

See why I held off for a good while on bringing that up?  Other than the absolute barest of strokes, The Lion King doesn’t really factor into Madagascar 2.  In fairness, that’s more down to the fact that Madagascar 2 instead cribs and rips the generic bones from pretty much Every Animated Film Evver instead.  Yes, original plotting is not the film’s strong suit.  Alex’s return to his pride goes pretty much exactly how you’re expecting it to, right down to Makunga tricking him into banishment, Gloria falls for a smooth-talking hippo who can only compliment her on her appearance instead of her personality, there’s a climactic setpiece revolving around a volcano which was a genuine trend in animated kids’ films in the mid/late-00s – I am not making this up.

This, basically, is why Madagascar 2’s heart connects but not in any particularly lasting way.  It’s not just that it cribs from tonnes of other films or standard stories, but it’s the fact that it doesn’t really execute them in any fancy or deep way.  The heart is genuine, but it’s like the film’s writers (Etan Cohen, and returning writer-directors Tom McGrath and Eric Darnell) were so scared of repeating the mistake of the first film – undercutting any attempt at drama with a big joke – that they decided to withhold their imagination and creativity for those sequences.  Again, they still hit, because the execution is great, but they don’t stick for long after viewing.

Instead, what does stick are the jokes, and more specifically the moments where the film indulges in crazy.  The first film was very much all crazy all the time.  There was no real baseline to proceedings, again because of that lack of heart, so everything was pitched at 11 with the sole intention of making the viewer laugh.  With heart now underpinning the main plots, and therefore bringing a lot of the material there back down to earth somewhat, it allows the cuts back to the penguins or King Julian or the stranded tourists to really hit hard.  Or, to put it otherwise, a gag like this…

…wouldn’t have slayed me in the same way if it had appeared in Madagascar.  After all, that was a film in which Marty made his arrival onto the island by riding a group of dolphins like jet-skis.  Everybody was crazy, everybody was broad, which meant that there was no real switch-up in terms of joke register.  Here, there’s a hierarchy.  Each of the cast operates on their own level of the joke chart – most of our main cast representing character comedy; The Penguins, Chimps, Nana and Mort (the few times the film actually deploys him) representing absurdist cartoon comedy; Julian and Alex slotting somewhere in between – which not only adds variety in terms of jokes, but allows the jokes themselves to gain an added twist or zest by dropping characters from one category into another.

For example, The Penguins.  On their own, they are incredibly funny creations whose dynamic could sustain a full film if the opportunity were given (as it has been, you can guarantee a review from me as soon as I see it).  Mixed in with the main cast, they provide a livewire spark of chaos where their dynamic – sort of a cross between a 60s spy thriller, a hardboiled noir tale, and The Three Stooges – comes off as insulated and insane through the eyes of our more sane characters.  Mixing in crazy with crazy, as is what happens when they team up with Phil and Mason the Chimps in order to fix the plane, and you get delightfully ridiculous mayhem.  Season that combination with the main cast and you get, well, this…

The Penguins are still my favourite part of this series so far, but Madagascar 2 makes it harder to clearly separate their hilarious individual scenes from the rest of the film as something to point to and go, “Yeah, I like that.  More of that, please!”  I think I count a single short scene where it is just them being them with nobody else involved in any way – the short bit involving the fuel warning light.  Everything else in this film with them involves another aspect of the cast.  Mason and Phil, Alex, Nana in the film’s most hysterical dark gag.  Whereas the first film very much sequestered the Penguins away from the rest of the action after having kick-started it, 2 integrates them into the overall ensemble which elevates proceedings as a result.

Yes, see, Madagascar 2 takes the “BIGGER, BIGGER, MORE OF EVERYTHING” approach to sequel making, much like Shrek 2 did earlier in this series and very much like Rio 2 did earlier this year.  Everyone is back from Madagascar, pretty much, and everybody gets something to do, yet nothing feels skimped out on.  Alex only gets the most screen-time because his is the story that needs the most amount of screen-time to tell – although a more cynical person than myself could argue that it’s because Ben Stiller is the one member of the cast whose box office star hadn’t totally faded by the time of the film’s release.  Everything is well-balanced, everything is told economically, everything is balanced so’s we know which plots we’re supposed to properly invest in and which we are supposed to take as merely joke fodder.

On that note, Nana.  Nana, as you may recall, is the (possibly Russian) old lady from the first film who manhandles Alex during the bit in Grand Central Station.  She returns in this one, seemingly just for a rematch that’s admittedly funny but strongly gives off the vibe that Madagascar 2 has no new ideas of its own – it also reminded me of the Peter/Chicken fights from Family Guy but, thankfully, knows to cut itself off early before it runs the risk of stopping being funny.  Except the film keeps going back to her, playing up her Terminator-style endurance, survival instincts and near-total hatred for nature as character traits instead of just jokes, before finally making her an outright villain.

This, to me, is the perfect encapsulation of what a sequel like Madagascar 2 should do – note: not all sequels should strive to be like Madagascar 2, but this is not a bad level to aim for if that’s the case – taking seemingly throwaway things from the first film and then developing them into fully fledged entities of their own that don’t just redo the gag from the first film.  Madagascar 2 is guilty of reusing gags, but its best moments, like Nana, evolve them into either a full-on part of the film or at least change the set-up and delivery enough to alter the gag in some way and keep it fresh.  And when it’s not doing that, it’s injecting a tonne of heart into proceedings, or coming up with fresh gags of its own.  It’s not lazy, something that’s farted out because the brand recognition alone guarantees a $60 mil+ opening weekend, it’s actively trying to improve.

If there is a major flaw in Madagascar 2 – the unoriginality of much of the plotting excepted – it’s that its main villain (Nana’s true villain status is withheld until the finale) is kinda really boring.  Makunga doesn’t really do anything or serve any real purpose other than being the catalyst for getting Alex thrown out of the watering hole; plot that could have been accomplished by far more interesting means.  He is voiced by Alec Baldwin, who tries to bring some Jack Donaghy-style scheming to the character, but he’s also modelled to look like him so his face is… distracting, and the ridiculous quiff that he sports really doesn’t fit into the art of the film’s world.  The rest of the film looks outstanding – colours are more vibrant, everything is more detailed, camerawork is more dynamic, storyboarding has had some more effort put into it – but Makunga never seems to belong with the rest of the film, both visually and narratively.

So, with Madagascar 2 being that rare example of a comedy sequel that’s funnier and better than the original, one would expect it to have been a 22 Jump Street sort of success, majorly improving on the box office receipts of the first film.  Well, kinda.  Domestically, it’s the lowest-grossing entry in the series so far (although Penguins Of Madagascar may end up taking that title shortly if this weekend’s box office results are any indicator).  There, of course, was the $60 million opening weekend, a combination of the first Madagascar, the strength of the DreamWorks brand and a weak set of opposing movies.  But then November 2008 got pretty crowded, and Madagascar 2 was booted from the chart after 6 weeks.  Compared to its predecessor’s 8 week run in the Top 10, and the very big success of Kung Fu Panda earlier in the year, this looks rather weak.

Yet the film closed with more money in box office receipts than its predecessor.  How?  Three words: foreign box office.  Overseas, Madagascar 2 grossed an outstanding $423 million, which is what ultimately pushed the thing over-the-top and way past the first film.  Going down that list of markets, a pattern begins to emerge as to where the most successful performances are.  United Kingdom, Spain, Russia, France, Italy, Germany…  Europe really couldn’t get enough of Madagascar 2.  Suddenly it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that Madagascar 3 is predominately set in Europe, does it?  I mean, I’ve yet to see the thing so I can’t comment on whether the thing really is as financially calculated as it now looks on paper, but I can pretty much guarantee that somebody at DreamWorks looked at those numbers and had a “Eureka!” moment.

I mentioned at the beginning of last week’s entry that I hold up 2008 as the peak year of DreamWorks Animation.  The year where everything came together and they put out high quality material to well-deserved critical praise and very well-deserved financial success.  Now, I made that observation before having seen Madagascar 2 – going purely by soft critical success instead of personal first-hand experience – but it’s one that has been cemented after watching the thing.  It’s not an outstanding film, but it is a damn good one that represents a giant leap forward in quality for the Madagascar series, and the financial success of that, along with Kung Fu Panda and the launch of their first successful TV series The Penguins Of Madagascar, put the company at a peak they’ve really yet to reach.

2008, you see, is the first year since 2004 where the company was clearly trying as a whole – instead of that effort being located in a few isolated pockets – and treating their films as art instead of disposable products (again, it may not be completely successful at it, but Madagascar 2 was clearly trying to be more than disposable).  The public responded in kind with a veritable money shower and very healthy-looking television ratings.  Nowadays, the second half of that equation is mostly gone, for whatever reason, and it’s never really going to come back.  DreamWorks Animation is too big now to get this kind of concentrated success any more: three films a year, multiple TV shows on the go at any one time, new online platforms that you didn’t even know existed until now (admit it).  There are too many variables, too many spinning plates, and some of them are going to fall at some point during the year; it’s inevitable.  Hell, as 2014 may be proving to you, those falling plates show no sign of stopping any time soon.

But, for 12 glorious months in the year dated 2008, DreamWorks Animation were pretty much untouchable.  They were the kings of the animation world, and they really rather deserved it.


Next week, we close out the decade known as the 2000s by looking at their sole feature film release for 2009: Monsters vs. Aliens.

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

Callum Petch can’t realise why he’s living alone.  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)!

Over The Hedge

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.


over the hedge12] Over The Hedge (19th May 2006)

Budget: $80 million

Gross: $336,002,996

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 75%

For a lot of movie folk, that is to say folk that work in movies, there is a saying that I imagine follows them around everywhere like a really annoying ghost that just won’t quite get the hint and leave already: “you’re only as good as your last film”.  It’s definitely applicable to prominent animation companies whose filmic output has a kind of studio auteurship attached to whatever they do put out.  Like, nobody looks at Shrek and goes, “Oh, that’s an Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson joint!” just like how nobody looks at Madagascar and goes “That is an Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath production!” (although they should, we’ll come back to them later in the series).

With animation, unless the director has already been established (Genndy Tartakovsky, Lauren Faust when Medusa eventually graces us with its presence) and even then they often have to switch to other medium to make their names very recognisable (Phil Lord and Chris Miller), we typically don’t care about who’s making it.  It’s the studio we focus on, and frequently just the studio.  This is why that standing of Pixar has taken a major hit in the past few years, because their last three films (Cars 2, Brave, Monsters University) ranged from “good” to “shockingly poor” and we expect better of the studio.  This is why Disney are advertising Big Hero 6 as “From The Creators of Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen”, because those were the studio’s last big hits and they indicate that Disney aren’t coasting on their reputation from several decades ago.  Hence the application of the phrase, “You’re only as good as your last film.”

DreamWorks Animation’s last film in April of 2006 was the universally lauded Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit.  Except that everyone, arguably quite rightly, attributed that film’s success to its main production company, Aardman Animations.  Therefore, DreamWorks Animation’s real last film in April of 2006 was Madagascar.  Critics didn’t really like Madagascar.  Oh, sure, the public liked Madagascar, but the public also liked Shark Tale.  I sort of like Madagascar, but hopefully you get what I mean.  It had been about 2 years since Shrek 2 and their one knock-out since then came from a different company that they were affiliated with rather than themselves.  DreamWorks films at that time seemed to be a lot like Adam Sandler comedies, devoid of quality and critical approval yet inexplicably popular with the public.

Therefore, the critical success of Over The Hedge probably came as a surprise to a lot of people, especially since their next few films would firmly restate that, no, DreamWorks had not gotten their mojo back yet.  The film ended up Certified Fresh, no less, and many critics awarded it praise for being cleverer, funnier, and just plain better than the other animal related animated movies coming out around that time (2006 was the point in which that particular sub-genre hit over-saturation as the destination of this link will demonstrate).  It even beat out Cars, overall, a feat that I’m pretty sure most caused most people to perform spit-takes the length of whatever room they were in when they got the news.

Financially, the film was a decent success, although, much like with last week’s Wallace & Gromit, not to the degree that DreamWorks would have liked.  Over The Hedge debuted in second place with a very respectable $38.4 million.  It’s just that, y’know, The Da Vinci Code opened to double that.  In any case, the film held strong over the following two weekends against X-Men: The Last Stand and The Break-Up.  Then Cars happenedOver The Hedge would close with $155 million domestic and $180 million from international markets, marking a $336 million gross against an $80 million budget, but it only lasted five weeks in the Top 10 domestically and not once did it sit atop the chart.  The film was a success, but it arguably wasn’t a big enough success, it wasn’t a Shark Tale level success, which is probably why the planned sequel never happened.

In fact, one could see this “mediocre” box office performance against a critical success as a precursor to the studio’s current problem, especially if one wants to take the Adam Sandler comparison further.  Both got their starts on the motion picture stage with pretty darn good films that attained critical respect of some degree and a healthy financial following from the public.  Both proceeded to coast once their big financial breakthrough occurred with critically-trashed films that kept making a tonne of money despite their often audience-insulting content.  Both occasionally break out of their rut to show off their skills in critically acclaimed films that either underwhelm or out-right bomb financially, sending them scurrying right back to what pays.  DreamWorks, obviously, have kicked their arses into gear these past few years, unlike Adam Sandler, and we’ll get to that, so the metaphor falls apart here but hopefully you see what I’m getting at.

It’s weird how the mass public at large keeps rejecting those DreamWorks films that are actually really good.  Remember, Mr. Peabody & Sherman from this year is a financial failure and it took multiple weeks for people to change their opinions on whether or not How To Train Your Dragon 2 was actually a financial success.  Unlike a lot of critics, I tend to give kids the benefit of the doubt when it comes to films aimed at them.  I don’t settle for “good enough” and I don’t let people get away with slinging unwatchable crap their way because kids deserve better and, frequently, do actually know better.  Yet, more recent non-franchise DreamWorks films keep underwhelming.  Do you think it could be burnout?  Poor advertising; after all, I thought Mr. Peabody & Sherman looked like garbage until I actually watched the finished film…

Sorry, I’m just spitballing ideas of various kinds in public.  Back to Over The Hedge.

Like a lot of other DreamWorks movies (see also: Sinbad, Shrek, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, How To Train Your Dragon), Over The Hedge is only very loosely related to its source material, a long-running newspaper comic of the same name.  In fact, it’s still going strong today, as evidenced by the fact that its website is still posting strips and that the guy who does the drawings – Michael Fry – keeps following, and promptly unfollowing me immediately after, on Twitter whenever I mention this film or sometimes just DreamWorks in general.  Now, if, for some reason, Mr. Fry is reading this article, perhaps with a Monday morning cup of coffee in hand and his feet on some kind of footrest, I would like to humbly admit that I am not familiar with the comic strip.  In my defence, I’m British.  The closest we get to proper newspaper comics in this country is Andy Capp, and nobody should ever have to read Andy Capp.

However, not knowing the source material can oftentimes set one at an advantage when looking at a film.  After all, then you’re not spending forever watching a film and mercilessly comparing it to its source material; looking for changes, big or small, good or bad, nitpicking at every little thing and such.  Instead, you get to look at it on its own merits, judge it on its own merits.  I, for example, recognise that both live-action/CG Garfield films are terrible in their own right, but I will never not be able to separate them from my childhood love of the Garfield & Friends TV series, trade paperbacks of the comics and the subsequent horror I experienced when I saw Garfield dancing to Black Eyed Peas.

Oh, look at me dancing around the issue!  Dance-y, dance, dance!  “Callum, just tell us if Over The Hedge is any good, already!  Stop time-wasting!”  Fine!  OK!  I’ll admit it!  I really liked Over The Hedge!  You happy now?

I’ll admit that the real reason why I spent so long dancing around the issue of whether Over The Hedge is good or not came down to the fact that I did not like Over The Hedge when I was 11.  I was one of those kids that I spent a few paragraphs back being bemused over.  I’m rather ashamed of this fact, to be frank, as two years earlier I had really enjoyed Shark Tale and I can’t get away with the “I was a stupid goddamn teenager” excuse because I was 11 and still watched Cartoon Network religiously; it wouldn’t be for another two years until my stupid goddamn teenager habits kicked in.  And the reason why I tried to avoid admitting that is because it undermines one of my key arguments as to why Over The Hedge holds up better than anything DreamWorks Animation solely produced between 2003 and 2006.

It really is just as good for adults as it is for kids.  See why I didn’t want to divulge disliking that movie when I was a kid?  Fact of the matter is, watching this back for the series, I don’t even get why I disliked it, but I did and that very fact undermines this very argument.  Nonetheless, despite 11 year-old me being a total nitwit, Over The Hedge really does work about equally for kids and adults.  The issue, the one that I imagine was the thing that made me dislike the film when I was its target market, is that it often doesn’t achieve this by double-coding.  For example, go back to the first Shrek and its “Do you think he’s compensating for something?” line regarding Farquard’s castle.  For kids, it’s a joke about his short height.  For adults, it’s a joke about his tiny penis.  Hell, Lord Farquad’s name in general!  For kids, it’s a silly name.  For adults, it sounds like one of your friends saying “f*ckwad” with a bad Mark Wahlberg impression.  There are some jokes just for kids and some just for adults, but mostly they cross over with one another.

By contrast, Over The Hedge tends to segregate its jokes with only the occasional cross-over in intended audience.  Kids get fart jokes, a wacky comic relief character burping his ABCs, and the sight of a nearly-bald woman being elbow-dropped by police officers.  Adults get casting in-jokes, Ben Folds songs, and a lot of not-particularly-subtle satire against white middle-class suburban life.  Can you see why kids – and it is kids that drive the success of lower-than-PG-13-animated films due to that continued mainstream stigma that this kind of animation is only enjoyable to children and nobody else, make no mistake – mostly rejected Over The Hedge, especially when the much broader and more-focussed-at-them Cars came along?  Unlike that film, which double-coded properly, Over The Hedge has long stretches where kids don’t really have anything to command their attention (besides some character designs and animation that… honestly kept looking rather off-putting to me).

Maybe that’s why I really like Over The Hedge now.  The purely kid-focussed gags are rather minimal; most of the laughs created for them that aren’t fart jokes etc. come from bits of physical humour which, assuming it’s good enough, crosses between both demographics.  Therefore, the really bum jokes don’t drag down the pace of the film for long stretches at a time, as it skips the easy jokes in favour of genuine satire and jokes coming from the characters.  And, yes, the satire may not be, say, Network or Great Dictator or In The Loop levels of razor-sharp, but watch RJ’s monologue about food and see how many aspects of human nature you can apply it to when you strip out the specific ties to food and overconsumption.

Throughout, the film takes swipes at that lifestyle, of the clueless people who inhabit it, of the inconsiderate way we tend to view wildlife that encroaches upon our picture-perfect surroundings, and the cost our desire for more puts upon nature and the environment… all things that more than likely flew right over the heads of kids.  After all, how are they going to relate to jokes about how suburbia and its white middle class inhabitants, as well as those who often engage in that selfish excess behaviour, are gigantic assholes?  Note that I’m not knocking the film for this.  After all, remember, I don’t rate animated films based on how much kids will like them, I’m just noting why it didn’t catch on the same way that, say, Madagascar did.  The humour is primarily just a little too intelligent, a little too subtle, for kids to completely appreciate, and there’s too much of a gap between the broader jokes for most kids to remain entranced by, especially when Cars would appeal to them more.  Again, I’m basing this off of personal experience, so I could be wrong, but at least you’ve got an idea where I’m coming from.

And on the note of “too subtle for kids to appreciate”, the fact that these Ben Folds songs didn’t become massive and nominated for several Academy Awards is one of the great crimes of this modern age.  OK, obviously not that bad, but you get the idea.  The thing about the Ben Folds songs, and the reason why I love them way more than any other song utilised in a DreamWorks film so far, besides the fact that it’s Ben Folds, is that they work even if you remove the context of the film.  A lot of the original songs in films like Spirit, The Road To El Dorado and Joseph are too on-the-nose, too desperate to link into the film they feature in, and their frantic attempts to tie in end up causing songs to lack hooks or memorable lyrics or something that sticks with you after the film has finished.

Compare that with “Heist”.  There’s the ultra-catchy horn riff, the vocal harmonies in the background, a super simple yet fun to sing chorus, and the lyrics relate to the film whilst still being open and non-specific enough to apply to similar situations that aren’t the film.  Also, despite the toe-tapping and upbeat nature of the song, there’s this tinge of melancholy throughout, as if the narrator knows that the train he’s talking about will eventually stop and maybe even sooner than anticipated, that makes the track stick with me.  The “da-da-da”s that initially sounded carefree and triumphant now sound slightly unsure, even mocking.  There’s a sense of regret, of fear of some kind of inevitability, and it is so f*cking clever that I have literally no clue as to why it didn’t become some kind of breakout cross-over hit.

(I’ve had it on constant loop on my iPod for the last week.)

But look, great goddamn Ben Folds songs (even the family friendly re-write of “Rockin’ The Suburbs”, although not as venomous and hysterical as the original version, is insightful and entertaining) and smart, funny satire are all well and good.  Without some kind of emotional base underpinning the film, though, Over The Hedge would just be a more intelligent Madagascar; entertaining, yes, but lacking in substance and memorability.  Fortunately, and more so than any other DreamWorks film covered in this series so far post-Sinbad, Over The Hedge feels like a film whose production was started because somebody wanted to tell a story with characters, rather than a business executive going “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny is Will Smith voiced a fish?” and greenlighting said film with nothing more to it than the dollar signs that lit up his eyes.

Though it is a bit over-stuffed when it comes to characters, to the degree that a lot of them can be boiled down to one specific trait without too much work, the majority do get character arcs of some kind and are not just here to act as designated comic relief.  They’re characters, characters of their own kind and any influence their voice actors may have on them is purely down to their having been cast and the voice they bring to the table.  Or, to put it another way: Ozzie is a possum and his technique for playing dead is to be as hammy and overly dramatic as is humanly possible.  William Shatner plays Ozzie so, obviously, he Shatner’s the scene in which Ozzie has to play dead as a distraction.  But rather than feel like a “Hey!  We got William Shatner to do that thing William Shatner does!” moment, one that pulls somebody out of the experience by feeling more like a casting gag than something that comes from the character, it still feels in character for Ozzie to over-act that much.  It’s his trait, his choice – Shatner just adds to the performance.

And besides, one can’t really remain that cynical about what may or may not have been done for snarky in-jokes and pop culture references.  Not when everything in Over The Hedge is brimming with heart.  In the characters who constantly re-enforce the bond they share with one another instead of just being needlessly cruel to each other for 80-odd minutes, in the script which has clearly been honed and refined as much as possible so that there’s a genuine reason for every joke (this is why the THX gag got a full-on laugh out of me instead of a sigh of derision), for the characters so that they don’t end up interchangeable or painfully one-dimensional, in the character development that ensures that the attempts at emotion actually mean something…  Dammit, somebody wanted to tell a story!  Somebody came to this project with the intention of telling a story and saying something!  That desire infects nearly every part of the film and bleeds out into the viewer, which helps elevate the parts that work and make the whole damn great.

It’s not perfect, though.  Besides the aforementioned younger end of the audience likely being lost – after all, they’re probably expecting something as broad as Shrek 2, it’s by the same people, so a more intelligent comedy based more around an emotional centre may end up turning them off – and skipping the animation and character designs (as my opinion on them keeps shifting every few minutes), the big issue for me that keeps Over The Hedge from that upper echelon is the two leads.  Not the characters of RJ and Verne, the voice actors that portray them, Bruce Willis and Gary Shandling.  Now, the rest of the cast are mostly great and give off the impression of being cast due to their being the best people for the job (the aforementioned Shatner, Steve Carell, who would later go on to prove his VA talent with the Despicable Me series, and Allison Janney being the standouts) rather than for stunt casting.  OK, maybe not so much Avril Lavigne but she’s also decent enough to make that not an issue.

Willis and Shandling… really aren’t.  Willis’ problem is that he’s inconsistent, both in terms of quality and in terms of tone.  Some of his lines and some of his entire scenes are near spot-on, especially when he plays the too-cool guide to the suburbs for the forest residents.  Other times, he’s, well, post-2000s Bruce Willis, lazy, bored, more than a little flat.  Then there are multiple times where it’s clear that scenes are being stitched together from individual line takes, like the previously-embedded rabid squirrel scene.  Shandling is more consistent, which is his problem.  Instead of being a warm, comforting leader/father-figure presence, his lines are almost universally flat and lacking in emotion.  It’s especially bad whenever Verne has to display emotion because Shandling, well, doesn’t and that robs many scenes, especially the ones where Verne is supposed to be scared, of a fair chunk of their power.  Much of the film hangs on these two leads, and Shandling is never good whilst Willis is really inconsistent; both of which end up distracting.

Hang on, I’m starting to sound like I’m down on Over The Hedge.  Let me change tack real quick…  Over The Hedge, then, is a damn great film and a definite bright spot in the non-Aardman mid-2000s DreamWorks’ catalogue.  It achieves this primarily by being a film, with characters and substance and heart, instead of a formula pitch that was rushed into production half-finished before it had the chance to lose any potential cash.  That sounds like damning with faint praise, but it really isn’t meant to be.  It’s a highly entertaining film with stuff to say, likeable characters whose arcs feel genuine instead of forced, legitimately funny jokes and, yes, great Ben Folds songs.  It may not break any ground, it may not crack anybody’s Favourite Animated Films Ever lists, and it most likely sails right over the heads of children, but it is a damn great film at what it does, balancing cynical satire with heart-on-sleeve character work better than I’ve seen a lot of vastly inferior animated films try this year.

So, hey!  Turns out that Younger Me was wrong again, only this time in a good way!  How’s about that?


As their first film distributed by Paramount Pictures, Over The Hedge was a qualifiable success, winning back some critics that their past few films had lost but coming up short financially compared to everything else they’d produced.  Understandably, many could have been wary about the film for their own reasons; DreamWorks with the possibility that their box office days may have begun a steady decline, and critics who may have been wary that one good film doesn’t mark a total turn around for the company as a whole.  Their next film would reset to the status quo, somewhat saddeningly.

However, before that, we have to take one last trip over to Aardman Animations for their second film in two years, the first that was made all in CGI, the last one they would make with DreamWorks, their first release to not receive universal acclaim, and a film sold as “From the creators of Shrek and Madagascar.”  Next week, we look at Flushed Away and see whether 2006 Me was right to be immensely disappointed by it.

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

Callum Petch will tell y’all what it’s like being male, middle-class and white.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Madagascar

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.


madagascar10] Madagascar (27th May 2005)

Budget: $75 million

Gross: $532,680,671

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 55%

2004 was a pivotal year in Western feature-length animation.  It’s basically the point where numerous little ideas and theories that people had with regards to successful films of the medium were validated near-totally, and where the stage was set for pretty much the rest of the decade.  Maybe even the century if you believe the medium still hasn’t moved past them yet (although it has, mostly).  Yet I gave pretty much no column space to this crucial year in the past two weeks.  The reasons are two-fold: the first is that Shrek 2 and Shark Tale had way too much to break down with regards to their constructions and failings to find spare time to focus on the medium’s history, the second is that 2005, the first year after the new order takes effect, is a great place to start looking at 2004.

In other words; strap in, folks, it’s time for a brief history lesson!

So, 2004 was the year in which traditional feature animation breathed its last gasp before finally expiring.  It was the year in which Disney released what was planned to be their final traditionally-animated film, the abysmal Home On The Range, and it bombed spectacularly (a worldwide total of $103 million against a budget of $110 million).  The failure of their other animated features during the decade (with the exception of Lilo & Stitch) had convinced them that that aspect of the medium was done; and when Disney says that something is beyond hope, you’d better believe that everyone else is going to sit up, listen, and follow their lead.  The year’s only other traditionally-animated feature made in the West was the rather successful The Spongebob Squarepants Movie, and you can pretty much guarantee that everyone chalked that up to the built-in fan base of the TV show more than anything else.  In 2005, there was one traditionally-animated feature film released in cinemas, Pooh’s Heffalump Movie.  That part of the medium was officially abandoned.

Instead, as you may have gathered, 2004 was the year of DreamWorks Animation.  Pixar may have released The Incredibles to glowing financial and critical success, but DreamWorks released Shrek 2, which was also critically acclaimed and became the highest grossing film of the year.  And though Shark Tale would slot very comfortably behind The Incredibles, and have faded from most people’s memories since its release, it still made a lot of money.  It made a heck of a lot of money, and it did it by following the Shrek formula (or, more accurately, the Shrek formula but stripped of the heart and sincerity that made Shrek resonate with viewers).  This was DreamWorks’ third big hit during the decade, two in the same year too, and it proved that you could apply the (mistaken) Shrek formula to non-Shrek films and make some serious money out of it.  Hence why 2007 would bring us Surf’s Up and 2006 inflicted Barnyard upon the world.

Meanwhile, 2005 was the year in which those who had seen the success of the first Shrek and hadn’t sat on their hands waiting to see if the formula for success was going to be universal or just a one-off, began to flood the market with their attempts at cashing in on that prospective money pile.  Although it wouldn’t hit the US until a year later, and with a localised redub that I hear made things even worse, the UK got themselves a gritty reboot of lovable cult French animated series The Magic Roundabout, with villains and Matrix parodies and terrible covers of Kinks songs and goddamn Robbie Williams (yes, the singer) as Dougal, that they didn’t ask for.  Hoodwinked! tried to combine Shrek style humour with a mystery genre and a Pulp Fiction approach to timeline hopping, and brought in modest returns.  And then, although this was just as much Disney trying to prove that they didn’t need Pixar should their contract renegotiations go south as it was them desperately trying to stay relevant, there was Chicken Little.  I will not waste any more words referring to Chicken Little.

2006 would be the year in which these effects would become pretty much permanent, and naturally we’ll come to that in two weeks, so that makes 2005 the year of transition, as everyone adapted to the new landscape that DreamWorks Animation had genuinely wrought.  Well, what of DreamWorks?  How did they take 2005, their first full year as a separate and publically traded entity?  Rather a lot like 2004, to be frank.  2004 began the release schedule plan of two films from the company a year, released at opposite ends of the year, most likely for maximum canvassing of prospective dollars and to avoid over-exposure of the brand, and 2005 continued that in earnest with Madagascar and Aardman’s first film since Chicken Run, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit (we’ll get to that next week).  Whilst neither ended up having Shrek 2’s level of success, both were number 1 films, both broke the top 50 films of the year worldwide (Madagascar at #6, Wallace & Gromit at #21), and both ended up as part of very successful franchises that are still going strong today.  They even mirrored 2004 critically, too, with one film falling flat and the other film receiving a tonne of acclaim.

Today, we’re focussing on the one that fell flat.

Although it scored much higher than Shark Tale, Madagascar didn’t really connect with critics; the damning phrase “fun for kids… not much appeal for parents” being applied frequently.  Many found issue with the gags, which were either too low-brow or too pop culture-oriented.  Several found the premise ludicrous, one outlet saying that it is “pathetically ignorant” and spent an entire paragraph tearing it to shreds for not sticking to some semblance of reality.  A repeated thought expressed involved the belief that the quality of the animation didn’t make up for the lack of story or emotional centre.  Mostly, though, critics just found it too average to recommend or dismiss.  The general consensus primarily being that everyone involved could do better, the looming spectre of the superior Shrek hanging over proceedings.

The general public, predictably, didn’t give a toss.  It may not have debuted at number 1, opening the week after Star Wars Episode III would do that to you, but Madagascar rode its Memorial Day Weekend release date to a very respectable third place, just below The Longest Yard (the public still loved Adam Sandler and Chris Rock in 2005, let’s not forget), before leap-frogging the pair of them to the number 1 spot next week.  That would be the only time that it would occupy the top spot (in comparison to Shark Tale’s three-week run at the top), due to Summer 2005 being pretty damn crowded, but it still hung around the Top 10 for 8 weeks and closed as the 9th Highest Grossing Film Domestic of 2005.  Overseas, it was somehow even more successful, accounting for over 60% of the total worldwide gross.

Audiences, then, couldn’t get enough of Madagascar.  So much so that a major franchise ended up spinning off of it, one that currently encompasses two sequels with a third on the way, two holiday-themed TV specials, a spin-off television series for the penguins and a film version of that spin-off hitting theatres before this year is out.  The franchise has currently grossed $1.8 billion, is only behind Shrek, Ice Age and Toy Story in terms of highest grossing animated franchises of all-time, and is DreamWorks Animation’s other big consistent cash-cow with no signs of slowing down or letting up now (the Penguins movie may even reverse the poor year the company’s been having financially).

Unlike with Shark Tale, I can see why Madagascar caught on to the extent that it did, and not just because Pixar didn’t release a film that year.  It’s a damn good film, there’s a lot to like.  It’s not a great film, mind, and I’ll get to why it’s not in a short while, but it’s the kind of good film where one may not notice that it’s not great if they’re not 100% engaged with the film or, you know, they just don’t care.  That’s why Madagascar connected so well with kids (the unabashed target market of this one) and their half-paying attention parents, because there really isn’t much wrong with it for those who just want a good time.  I do firmly believe that kids are way smarter than most movie critics give them credit for, but I will concede that, having been one myself once, sometimes they’ll just want something fun that they don’t have to think about.

That’s what Madagascar is in its best moments, a very fun joke machine.  At the time of its release, a lot of us more animation focussed film critics were tripping over Genndy Tartakovsky’s Hotel Transylvania for bringing classic Tex Avery-style fast-paced squash-and-stretch animation into the 3D realm, but Madagascar was at least trying to ape that style a good 7 years earlier.  Unlike Shark Tale’s occasional attempts at using fast-paced animation for sudden silly visual gags (the “lunch is coming up, so I’m only going to do the bare minimum amount of frames before knocking off” version), Madagascar sticks to the manic, fast-paced animation style throughout.  Characters movie primarily in a stiff pose-to-pose manner, only becoming more fluid when the pace of the movie slows down somewhat, allowing for sudden bouts of physical violence and what have you to carry an impact without feeling jarring and out-of-place.

The film’s colour scheme is bright and breezy, often rather primary, to reflect that attempt at old-school animation.  Facial animations are wildly exaggerated and very expressive, again reflecting the “whacked out” (the animators’ words, not mine) mood of the dialogue and the film.  Character designs, meanwhile, were inspired by a cross between the real animals and caricatures of said animals, with the results turning out way better than that sounds like it would on paper.  They’re all distinct from one another and recognisable as each species, but they never fall into any uncanny valleys or look anything less than huggable (possibly because nobody tried to make them look like the people voicing them, Shark Tale).  And then there’s the little touch of having them mostly move like humans (although this mainly applies to Alex and Gloria due to the nature of their anatomies).  Instead of feeling lazy, like the animators were too bored to learn how to animate quadrupeds, it adds to their characters, being city folk lost on a wild desert island they clearly won’t survive on.

In case you hadn’t gathered, the animation works.  It’s not stand-out, attention-commanding, tear-inducing-at-the-beauty amazing, but it works for the film, it works for the style that the film goes for which, arguably, is what a film’s animation should primarily attempt to do.  In this case, it works for the rapid-fire joke machine style of Madagascar.  This is a film that comes hard and fast with gags that, for the most part, land to varying degrees of success.  The best ones are the physical gags, which play off the animation very well.  For example, look at the frequently-referenced-nowadays gag where an old lady beats up Alex.

Now, yes, the joke is that an old (possibly Russian) lady is beating up and threatening a lion, which is easy humour, but it’s the animation that sells it (especially since Ben Stiller’s voice work here is… er… we’ll get to that).  It’s not just that she is beating up Alex, it’s that she is manhandling him to an absurd degree.  The squash-and-stretch nature of the animation enhances the joke because it conveys the degree to which she is dominating the fight, the pose-to-pose nature demonstrating the ridiculousness of the situation with easy to convey stances, and the speed of the animation – all frames that would have made it overly smooth clearly got deleted – allows the joke to last precisely as long as it needs to.  Yes, I know that explaining the joke is really boring, but picking apart this particular moment allows me to easily explain why the physical humour works so well, because the animation and pacing are calculated to perfection.

Which brings me to the penguins.  I remember these four being my favourite part of the film when I was a kid, and they’re my favourite part of the film now a near-decade later.  Why?  A few simple reasons.  1) Their characters are strong.  All four of them have individual designs without them ever feeling disjointed (read: you can tell them apart and they all remain looking like penguins), whilst their personalities are similarly distinct if a bit one-dimensional – although that’s not an issue in this case.  2) The animation.  The pose-to-pose squash-and-stretch animation really does wonders for this lot; apply what I said with regards to the old lady in the last paragraph here and multiply that phrase tenfold.  3) The voice work.  Oh, man!  Tom McGrath, Chris Miller (not that one), Christopher Knights and an uncredited Jeffrey Katzenberg are near-perfect in their roles, their various line deliveries make pretty much anything gold.  Co-director Tom McGrath, especially, runs circles around the rest of the voice cast as Skipper, to such an extent that his temp tracks became the official voice for the character (we will likely address this a bit more later in the series).  If I could find a compilation of their scenes in this film, I’d embed it for you, but I can’t so you’ll just have to trust me when I say that their every scene is friggin’ hilarious.  Unless you’ve seen the film, in which case you’re probably just nodding your head in agreement right now.

I’m starting to sound really positive on Madagascar, so let’s temper this enthusiasm with the reasons why I noted that the film is only good and not great.  The first is that the voice acting is… well, it’s poor.  Not for the penguins or Mason the chimp (definitely not Mason, his sophisticated British accent is never not a delight), but the main cast are pretty terrible.  Ben Stiller is frequently too flat – I remind you of the old lady segment and how his voice makes it seem like Alex is instead being lightly annoyed by a fly – to be convincing, Chris Rock’s voice is too distinct to slip away into Marty the Zebra and, unlike Eddie Murphy in Shrek, he doesn’t invest in the character enough to make up for that fact, David Schwimmer seems more poorly directed than just plain bad (he is trying, if nothing else), whilst Jada Pinkett Smith gets nothing to do as Gloria and uses that as an excuse to not even bother trying.  It means that, whilst the film is still very funny, a lot of the verbal jokes don’t hit as hard as they should.

Speaking of those jokes, they’re at their best when they focus on physical humour and come from character work, however minor.  Sometimes, though, we are dropped into various pop culture references and their every appearance may as well have been accompanied by an orchestra of crickets.  They primarily come from music cues, too, that laziest of laugh-inducers unless done really well.  Marty’s walk through New York is backed by “Stayin’ Alive” and shot like that one Saturday Night Fever bit, most likely because everyone wasn’t confident in their one gag (Marty doing a double-take at the zebra-style shirt a female pedestrian is wearing) being sufficiently appreciated.  Then there’s the ending of the scene where the Statue of Liberty SOS torch (very much in character for the cast, adding to the ridiculousness of the joke) ends up being revealed as a reeeeally strained set-up for a G-rated reference to Planet Of The Apes that everybody had done before.

See, in those worst moments, they end up undercutting the perfectly fine joke that they’d been a feature of.  In their better moments, they’re unnecessary distractions that lessen but don’t totally kill the impact of the joke itself.  For an example of the poorer side, I point you towards King Julian’s nickname for the gang, “The New York Giants”, a pun that is a giant groan-inducer the first time it is mentioned and which only gets more groan-worthy the more times it ends up getting trotted out (although I appreciate the filmmakers trying to make it a character beat).  An example of the latter involves the reunion of Marty and Alex on the beach – the clip is embedded below – where a perfectly funny joke that would work with almost literally any other music cue has its true power kneecapped because they just had to cue up the Chariots Of Fire theme.  It’s lazy and pointless, almost purposefully kneecapping great jokes thanks to blaringly loud pop culture references the film stops to point out.

Oh, and whilst I’m pointing out flaws on the comedy side, I really don’t like King Julian and the rest of the lemurs.  Sacha Baron Cohen’s voice is distractingly flat and irritating, their jokes aren’t funny and they serve pretty much no purpose to the plot.  Seriously, they barely factor into the thing, pretty much only turning up because it would be weird to have a wild jungle without some kind of wildlife.  The Fossa threat could have been featured without needing the lemurs, as the lemurs smack really hard of Token Kid-Focussed Comic Relief; hence the legendary and really-painful to sit through “I Like To Move It” sequence, even if that was actually just an improvisation by Sacha Baron Cohen – you know, in case you were looking for reasons to vehemently dislike him.

But the true reason why Madagascar is only “good, not great” is because the film is such a joke machine that its attempts at poignancy and drama and heart don’t resonate.  Every single time that the film tries to go for something genuinely heartfelt, it undercuts the scene with a joke or a music cue.  The scene where Alex first goes feral and bites Marty should be genuinely emotional, but it’s played for awkward laughs.  The requisite sad times montage is backed by Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World” which is just too on-the-nose to register as effective soundtrack dissonance, and said montage also further undercuts its attempts at sadness with some of the film’s funniest jokes.

Of course, more problematic is the fact that the cast are too one-dimensional for the attempts at drama to work.  Due to the film being a joke machine, this means that the cast take a lot of snipes and swipes at each other for the sake of laughs and very little time is spent showing them as genuine friends whose bonds are strong and worth investing in.  The start of the film attempts to do that, but then Marty gets out into New York and we descend into pure jokes, barring one scene, which is disappointing.  The jokes are often funny, don’t get me wrong, but it means that the film ends up as more disposable than it could have been and makes its few legitimate attempts at non-undercut drama ring hollow.

All this being said, I see why people really liked Madagascar, how this franchise ended up getting kick-started, and why the penguins are so popular that they’re getting a movie spin-off of their TV spin-off.  It’s a good film, the kind of good film where I would more than happily take a chance on a sequel due to the potential clearly on display in the first film; something I imagine a lot of parents used as a rationale behind purchasing tickets when the sequel came about (you know, along with “it will shut the kids up for 90 minutes”).  It doesn’t hit the heights of some of DreamWorks’ prior accomplishments, but it’s also a damn sight better than anything they released during the 12 months of 2004.  It’s fun, it’s breezy, it’s disposable, it’s good but not great and sometimes that’s all the public needs.  Plus, you know, easy-to-latch-onto catchphrases for the kids.  That always helps (drive everyone else insane so please stop doing them, filmmakers).


Madagascar continued DreamWorks’ box office streak into its second year, and although critical opinion of the company was still at an all-time low, they could at least comfort themselves from the mean words of the critics by bathing in the pool of cash, Scrooge McDuck-style, that the film ended up bringing in.  Meanwhile, Aardman Animations were putting the finishing touches to their theatrical follow-up to Chicken Run, the big-screen debut of the beloved duo that made them household names in the UK, and an animated film that many would argue is one of the finest of the decade.  Next week, we turn our attentions to Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit.

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

Callum Petch puts on lipstick, the price is: what?!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Shark Tale

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.


shark tale09] Shark Tale (1st October 2004)

Budget: $75 million

Gross: $367,275,019

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 36%

Oy vey.

Ever since I started this little project, I was dreading the moment when I would have to do Shark Tale.  Its presence on the “To Watch” list hung over the entire venture like a dead rotting albatross, never letting me forget its existence even whilst I was really enjoying myself with DreamWorks Animation’s other, really very enjoyable films.  Shark Tale, you see, has a reputation.  Despite taking $367 million worldwide and being the 9th Highest Grossing Film of 2004 Worldwide, you will find nobody who is willing to admit to liking Shark Tale.  It is widely seen as one of the worst animated films of the decade, a distillation of everything that is wrong with animated movies and DreamWorks Animation, and would have faded into total obscurity if it weren’t for obsessive asshats like my good self dredging it back up every so often to ensure that nobody forgets it, lest they end up making the same mistakes and subjected a new generation to unspeakable horrors.

Yet, though I approached my task with wary and weary resignation, I entered with a good sense of curiosity overriding everything else.  If you’ve noticed a common thread with regards to this series by now, it’ll be that this endeavour is just an excuse for me to take an in-depth look at animated movies and spend multiple A4 pages explaining why they do or do-not work, why they were or were-not successful at the time, and to go on for hours about the history of animation, a subject I know much less about than you think I do.  And let’s not short-sell it, Shark Tale was a giant success at the box office with the public.  It was even nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (2004 was not a good year for the medium, granted, but this over The Spongebob Squarepants Movie?!).  Obviously it must have done something right.  I even had the DVD and watched the film a few times as a kid.  Seeing as I remembered nothing about it, I decided to go in with the hopes that it couldn’t be as bad as it had been made out to be, and that I was going to try and figure out why this movie became so successful yet faded into memory.

Below, you will find my reaction to Shark Tale whilst it was running and for a good half hour after it finished.

double facepalm

Shark Tale is one of the worst films that I have ever seen.  This is not an exaggeration, one made for comic effect and to flanderize my true thoughts on the movie.  Shark Tale is one of the worst films that I have ever seen in my entire life.  At the 22 minute mark, I genuinely paused the film with the intent of shutting it off and never returning to it.  I have only ever (metaphorically) walked out of a film once due to it being absolutely dreadful (read: no outside circumstances, like power cuts or needing to be elsewhere), said film being Disaster Movie, and Shark Tale came this close to joining that club.  I don’t even know how I’m going to touch on everything wrong with this movie within my usual allotted space.  This is a total failure on every single level and there are no redeeming qualities anywhere.  That sentence should probably give you a strong indicator as to why I was all set to just quit at barely the 1/4 mark.

But, I persevered, for I set out to watch every single DreamWorks Animation film and over-analyse them like a nit-picky internet jerk.  Plus, it would look really bad if I missed a week and just moved onto Madagascar without saying anything about this.  So, with the remainder of our allotted time together (because you are busy people with places to be and better things to be doing than watching a 19 year-old man complain about Shark Tale for an eternity), I will attempt to explain what is wrong with Shark Tale.  The result will likely end up covering just a fraction of the problems with this film.  Be grateful this isn’t a video or audio-based series, as the end result would probably be about 90 minutes long and have at least 40% of the runtime consist of me sputtering futilely like an enraged-yet-despairing Looney Tunes character.

Let’s start with something easily tangible that we can all notice together: the animation and, most specifically, the character designs.  The animation itself is mediocre to poor: there’s a lack of detail pretty much everywhere, the water doesn’t look or feel like water, colours are muddied instead of decently shaded, and movements are pretty dreadful.  Whenever character movements aren’t being too jerky, less the artistic decision to make it “pose-to-pose” (like in the TV series Clone High) and more “this character needs to be in this position from that position, but lunchtime is coming up and I can’t be arsed, so I’m only going to do, like, half of the frames the job needs,” they’re instead being way too smooth and lacking in weight; it never feels like anyone’s actually in liquid of any viscosity, let alone the sea.  It’s bad and, yes, it does come off even worse considering the fact that Finding Nemo came out 18 months earlier.

But the animation is not the main issue with the look of Shark Tale.  That would be reserved for the character designs.  Now, there is a reason why one does not try and accurately make animated characters look like the people voicing them.  Actually, make that two reasons.  The first is that you’re going to look very silly if you design a character to look like Brad Pitt and then Brad Pitt doesn’t show up to play him.  The second is that a more cartoony and stylised art design for the rest of the film and a really accurate facial likeness of a celebrity don’t mix, meaning that your character is going to look hideous, terrifying, and completely ill-fitting with the rest of the world.  Apply the knowledge that you’ve just learnt, then, to answering this question: why do you not try and design a cast of fish to have faces that resemble the people playing them.

Answer: because you get Jellyfish Christina Aguilera.

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This is more terrifying than anything that Annabelle will cook up

That’s the most extreme example, but the rest of the cast are honestly not much better.  Oscar’s face is noticeably off-looking from a good majority of angles, due to his eyes being too wide and his facial features trying to resemble Will Smith.  Lola’s lips are stuck in this weird halfway house between fish and human, like they desperately tried to capture the effect of Angelina Jolie wearing lipstick and failed miserably, and just end up distracting as a result.  Sykes, meanwhile, is basically the result of copying a photo of Martin Scorsese’s face without glasses, circa 1978, and pasting it onto a puffer-fish, with the unholy result being what you spend 90 minutes viewing.  And the way that their fins move like human arms and hands is just unnervingly creepy.  These are bad, ugly character designs; the kind that makes even the film’s nicest character, Lenny, look like a knock-off tie-in toy for the real character rather than anything loveable or even bearable to look at for 90 minutes.

I’m probably not going to get any better of a segway than that last paragraph, so let’s transition over to the voice acting.  Now, stunt casting in animated films was absolutely nothing new in 2004.  Hell, Shrek 2 heavily indulged in it about six months prior to Shark Tale, and let’s not forget the all-star cast lists of other DreamWorks films.  And whilst I will sit here and grumble irritatingly about how professional VAs never get any chances in big budget cinema-focussed films nowadays, I will cease my complaining if the cast are really good or fit their parts well.  Basically, as long as they were cast for reasons that amount to more than “they’re big now, right?” then I don’t have a problem.  You’ll notice that this is why I didn’t moan about the overabundance of big-names populating Shrek 2, they may have been given garbage material but they were all at least trying to make it work.

As you may have guessed by that entire preceding paragraph, I am building up to the earth-shattering revelation that almost none of Shark Tale’s cast are any good or even trying at all.  There are those in paycheque-collecting mode (Robert De Niro who almost reaches the depths he plumbed in The Adventures Of Rocky And Bullwinkle just 4 years earlier), those who are flatter than Flat Stanley (Angelina Jolie who, goddammit, is supposed to be playing a sexpot, for crying out loud), those who are trying but being directed poorly (Jack Black is the only one of the main cast who actually tries putting on a voice, but he can’t stick with it the whole way through), and then there is Martin Scorsese.  Before watching Shark Tale, I firmly believed that I could listen to Martin Scorsese talk about anything for hours.  The man is just so excitable and passionate about pretty much anything that he could probably read the phone book and hold my interest.

Then, about 11 minutes into Shark Tale, this happens.

Look, maybe there’s a way to make that exchange funny.  Scorsese did not know how.  That was my first indicator that my long-held belief with regards to Scorsese was going to be put to the ultimate test.  The man, quite simply, is out of his depth (he he, sea puns) and I realised that he would not be able to elevate garbage material.  That, incidentally, is the only clip of Shark Tale that I can find on YouTube with Sykes prominently featured in it, which is a pain for me trying to illustrate my point, but a blessing for you, the reader.  See, that means that you don’t have to see or hear Martin Scorsese attempting fist-bumps, gangster lingo, dreadful mafia movie references, or “that one dance move where you lick your finger, place it on your butt and hiss like steam is going off” and you get to go through life without having those images permanently seared into your subconscious because DEAR GOD WHY!?

So it probably won’t surprise you to find out that Shark Tale was written by white people, yet keeps attempting to work in references to hip-hop, gangster, and lower-class New York life.  It also probably won’t surprise you to find out that their every attempt to tap into those sub-cultures is embarrassingly cringeworthy and gives off the strong impression that their only experience of primarily black culture was The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air.  Fitting seeing as Will Smith is playing the lead, but it leads to this continual feel of people trying to tap into sub-cultures that have become popular without actually understanding them.  Or, in fact, knowing anything about them at all beyond a ten-second Google search and an afternoon watching MTV Base.  It’s like if your Granddad tried to prove that he is “hip” and “down with the kids” by using those very phrases earnestly.

Plus, those references don’t gel with the gangster movie that Shark Tale also wants to be.  In fact, Shark Tale is a confused and aimless movie with no general point to it.  It keeps trying on all of these different hats, all these different plot threads, all these different thematic threads, but it never settles on one.  Not once does the film seem to know what it’s trying to be.  Is it a mafia story about a father who is passing on his empire to his sons?  Is it a rags-to-riches story about a lowly schmuck who has dreams bigger than his current standing in life?  Is it a cautionary tale about how lying will only make things worse for everyone or about not letting success go to your head?  Is it a film about grief?  Is it a film about social standing?  Is it a film that uses the thinnest of metaphors for homosexuality and coming out to your parents?

Truth is that Shark Tale is about every single one of these and none of them whatsoever, because it tries to do them all at once and schizophrenically hops between them from scene-to-scene doing absolutely none of them justice.  As a result of this indecisiveness, the film lacks a thematic core, a central reason as to why all of its events are happening.  Of course, I’m pretty sure the problem is not indecisiveness.  The entire vibe that Shark Tale gives off, more than any other, is a desire to earn a quick buck.  A light bulb moment from everyone involved higher-up at the company: the realisation that Shrek may be a winning formula and a desire to milk that “edgy kids’ animation” udder as hard and as fast as is humanly possible.  Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the film was greenlit after somebody walked up to a man in charge one day with a list of A-list actors and a note saying that rap culture was in right now, with everything else just being made up on the fly after the fact.  It would explain the total over-stuffed mess that we ended up getting.

It would also explain how we ended up with one of the most inadvertently unlikeable heroes I have ever met in an animated movie.  Seriously, Oscar is a giant jerk-ass.  He is selfish, manipulative, a compulsive liar, gambler and overall degenerate, lazy, uncaring of his friends, and only helpful when it serves his own personal interests.  Now, I get that this is supposed to be the point, he starts a jerk and then gets better when character development kicks in, but there are two stumbling blocks to this.  1) He begins too unlikeable.  There is a difference between “a jerk who is entertaining to watch” and “a jerk who I would like to see flambéed immediately” and he is most definitely in the latter category, despite Will Smith’s natural likeable charisma.  2) His big heroic act near the end, rescuing Angie and revealing his lie, is still being done out of selfish desires, a desire to pork Angie, so he’s actually learnt nothing.  His making amends with the sharks feels crowbarred in purely to try and make that complaint hold little weight, instead of anything natural.

That “pitch” that I mentioned two paragraphs back would probably also explain why the film’s “jokes” are so utterly non-existent or just-plain-terrible.  As a little mini-case study, let’s all watch the fake shark attack sequence together.

Notice how most of this sequence is not built on broad physical comedy, character work, or at least contrasting the fake performance with how it looks to the bystanders.  Notice instead how it primarily attempts to get its laughs from random pop culture references.  Yes, references.  Lenny singing a bastardisation of the Jaws theme to himself (which is not a call-back, despite the joke having already been used with a different character earlier in the movie, because it’s the same joke), the battle taking place in a very-thinly veiled version of New York, and then there’s that bit where Oscar just starts shouting phrases from classic movies.  None of them have any reason for being said in the context of the scene, and there’s no rhyme or reason as to their delivery or choice; the lone exception being “YOU HAD ME AT ‘HELLO’!” because, hey, Renée Zellweger starred in Jerry Maguire so ha.

The scene has no actual jokes.  Lenny eating Oscar could have been a funny sudden gag, but it’s dragged out too long, leads into an overly-tangential rant by Oscar, and the animation is too low-quality to truly sell it.  Otherwise, it’s just pop culture references and a performance that’s too absurd and too long to be funny.  When concocting a scene where two characters are putting on a fake display of some kind, you need it to be absurd enough that it’s funny for the viewer, but not dragged out too long as to make them start wondering why nobody in the film’s world has cottoned on.  There also need to be jokes.  Shark Tale’s is absurd, but it goes on for way too long and lacks in jokes, making one wonder how anyone could be buying this.  (For an example of how to do this kind of thing right, I point you towards this scene from Avatar: The Last Airbender.)  Instead of there being actual jokes, Lenny gets punched through a billboard for Jaws.  Ha.  Ha.  Ha.

And that kind of quote-unquote joke abounds everywhere throughout Shark Tale.  From its casting (hey, look, it’s Michael Imperioli who is here because he was in Goodfellas and The Sopranos), to its billboard parodies (more on those in a sec), to brick jokes that should be funny (a shrimp that Lenny spared earlier in the movie returns in the climax quite literally so that it can say “Say hello to my little friends!”), to pretty much any usage of music.  What do I mean by that?  When Oscar seems to have outsmarted the sharks, he immediately gets up on the table and sings Can’t Touch This by MC Hammer, complete with doing the dance (which was the moment I realised why Oscar’s character design was the way it was).  When Lola is introduced (and I could write something like 20 paragraphs on this film’s usage and treatment of women, so be glad we’re near wrapping-up time), the soundtrack plays Gold Digger by Ludacris, to just ram that point home as hard as is humanly possible.  And then, there’s this.

Oy vey indeed, Robert De Niro.  It’s all just so goddamn lazy, completely devoid of skill or effort, and done with a near-total contempt for the audience the result ends up in front of.  Then, much like in Shrek 2, there are the jokes aimed only at children, because attempting double-coding properly like in the first Shrek was just too much work for everyone involved at DreamWorks Animation in 2004.  You know: fart jokes, inherently funny words being repeated endlessly for no reason, wacky comic relief that pops up with a joke any time that a scene gets in danger of being too serious (funny that the first Shrek lampooned this Disney trope and yet DreamWorks couldn’t stay away from it, isn’t it), more fart jokes, wacky comic relief based around racial stereotypes that everyone involved hopes that children are too young to realise are racist, something gross occurring, even more fart jokes, poorly-done physical humour, and sudden music cues because WACKY!  Wanna take a guess how this all turns out?

One last thing and then I will let you leave.  I get that Shark Tale is supposed to be set in an underwater equivalent to New York City.  I get that that means that there will be a temptation for the animators to create parodies of famous brands and advertising billboards and the like, littering them around the set.  When the parodies are nearly indistinguishable from the real thing, to such a degree that I spent a good half of the movie thinking that there was genuine product placement going on for Coca-Cola until it got a close-up, though, you have failed at your job.  There are not-100%-intrusive places for product placement in movies.  An animated film aimed at kids’ about undersea life is not one of them.  This should have been cut down immediately in the concept stage of the film’s lifespan, especially since it’s one of the quickest ways to figure out exactly when the film came out and the culture it spawned from.

Well, we’re out of time.  I hope you enjoyed this systemic breakdown of just a small percentage, about 14% tops, of the ways that Shark Tale is a complete and total failure, a blight on DreamWorks Animation, the animation industry as a whole, and the world in general, and a completely creatively-bankrupt exercise in cynical cash-grab movie-making.  Fortunately for us all, despite being one of the year’s highest grossing films, we have been spared any further adventures in the world of Shark Tale as, apparently, it didn’t play well overseas.  Which is demonstrably false, but I guess is better for business than just admitting that everyone at DreamWorks done f*cked up and would prefer that we never speak of this again.  A sentiment that I will be happy to oblige…

…right after I subject you all to The Dance Party Ending.

See you next week, folks!


2004 was the year that DreamWorks Animation forcefully staked their claim to the feature-length animation landscape.  Two giant financial successes, one of which also being a critical smash, will do that to your standing.  The company would spend the next few years solidifying its position as one of the major players in that field, albeit mostly at the cost of the critical acclaim that stood them out from the pack of pretenders at the beginning of their career, keeping up a steady output of two films every year for almost the entire remainder of the decade.  Next week, we enter 2005 and look at the beginnings of their second mega-successful franchise, Madagascar.

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

Callum Petch might not ever get rich, but it’s better than digging a ditch.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!