Tag Archives: Penguins Of Madagascar

Minions

Minions is a precision-tuned, finely-honed, 91 minute joke machine.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

minionsThe best parts of the otherwise middling Despicable Me, which I’ve never quite gotten as a whole in the same way everybody else seems to have, were the Minions.  I mean, what’s not to love about the Minions?  Their design is simple yet distinctive and adorable, their collectively simplistic and mischievous personalities are endearing, Pierre Coffin’s voice work – that combines words of various languages and straight up babbling into nonsense sentences – of each Minion is stellar, and they’re home to the film’s best examples of ridiculous physical comedy.  They’re great comic inventions, so it makes sense that the second Despicable Me would double down on their screen time and that they would eventually, much like their Madagascar counterparts in the form of The Penguins, get their own solo spin-off movie.

It also stands to reason that their appeal would run out quickly when turned from minor comic show-stealers to vital part of the plot to main stars of their own movie.  However, much like The Penguins, that’s yet to happen.  Despicable Me 2 was far better than the first movie, although the increased Minions screen-time is not the sole or even main reason for that, and Minions manages to keep up that comic momentum for pretty much all of its 91 minutes.  Unlike the Penguins of Madagascar movie, Minions is not a film that wants to add legitimate emotional depth to its comic creations, barring one small little scene cribbed straight from The Land Before Time.  Instead, it just wants to turn them loose for 91 straight minutes of loud, ridiculous slapstick silliness.

And that’s OK, because it works!  Or, at least, it worked for me.  There are some lame gags, namely whenever the Minions break out into choreographed song-and-dance routines, but most come thick, fast, and with a resounding cleverness and intelligence to the way it performs its slapstick.  The rhythm and pacing of the film’s comedy is such that film almost never lingers on any punchline for an excessive amount of time, perhaps best epitomised by a short gag where the Minions escape from a polar bear by swimming away on a sheet of ice only to immediately try turning around when they spot a grizzly bear on the other side of the lake, with the film cutting to a different scene almost as soon as the second bear is revealed instead of holding it for diminishing laughs.

That kind of blistering pace is kept up throughout the film.  Don’t like this one joke?  Don’t worry, another 7 will be along in a few seconds, maybe one of those will take your fancy instead!  The story – which, for what it’s worth, involves Minions Kevin, Stuart, and Bob (all Pierre Coffin) trekking off to find a boss for their kind to serve, stumbling into the life of female supervillain Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock) in the process – zips by as a result, being the launching pad for the gags instead of anything worthy of proper scrutiny, and any and all attempts at creating legitimate emotional depth will be undercut at every last opportunity by one gag or another.  Again, this would be a problem if the film wasn’t riotously funny, but I found it to be, I was in hysterics pretty much the entire time.

Strangely though, for me, the Minions almost end up being upstaged in their own movie by the supporting cast.  By its prequel nature, Minions gets the chance to explore the world of villainy more than both of the Despicable Me movies have been able to, which allows for a whole bunch of utterly ridiculous gag characters to make brief appearances – a time-travelling villain who keeps bringing his future self back for menial tasks, a prideful sumo wrestler, a unicycle-riding clown who juggles and spills bombs, one beautifully brilliant bait-and-switch that I don’t plan on spoiling here.  Their appearances are short but memorable and, although the film still doesn’t dig as deep into its world as I would like for it to do, they help shade in the world, make it feel like there is a world outside of our otherwise limited cast.

Which brings me onto Scarlet Overkill.  I love Scarlet Overkill.  I love everything about Scarlet Overkill.  I love her initial owning of her sexuality.  I love her amazing fashion sense.  I love her driven personality that starts off as affable and slowly goes more crazed and straight up evil as the Minions keep inadvertently screwing up her plans.  I love her wonderfully exaggerated facial expressions and body language.  I love Sandra Bullock’s slowly-unhinging voice work.  I love her relationship with her husband Herb (Jon Hamm), a relationship that is shown to be rock solid and filled with genuine devotion, in a sharp contrast to how most marriages are shown in movies, yet doesn’t fully define her life.  I love how much the film is willing to make her the butt of the joke and how funny she gets to be.  I love how she doesn’t command the film despite being, arguably, the best thing about it.  …I just think that she’s an amazing character, basically.

Animation-wise, Minions sticks to the Illumination standard, with simple yet endearing character designs in very good yet not amazing environments.  That said, Minions does show Illumination making strides in terms of technical strength, even if they still haven’t quite carved out an identity of their own yet.  Specifically, I really like the film’s commitment to shading.  Rather than working entirely from primary versions of the film’s various yellows and oranges, Illumination instead utilises different strengths of each colour to create this warm, comfortable glow that’s most noticeable when Kevin and Stuart are searching for Bob in a New York shopping mall.  It almost feels like a warm nostalgic filter that works very well for the 1968 setting, but also keeps the visual style from being a garish technicolour overload.

As much as I found myself laughing at Minions, though, I did also find myself missing that emotional undercurrent that could have pushed the film into being fantastic instead of just great.  Again, the film proceeds to undercut any attempt at legitimate emotional depth with a gag at any time; even the collective depression of the Minion tribe is played for ridiculous laughs instead of anything we’re supposed to take seriously, whilst the bond between Kevin and Stuart and Bob mostly just comes down to ‘these three share screen-time together’.  That is all fine because, again, the film is funny enough to make this a non-major issue, but I recalled how Penguins of Madagascar was able to foster a legitimate emotional depth and connection between its main protagonists and how pulling that off managed to push that film into being one of last year’s best animated features.  So I ended up a little disappointed in that not being the case here, especially since one of the reasons why Despicable Me 2 was such an improvement from the first one was because that emotional grounding was there.

Nevertheless, and despite it still not painting enough of a distinct or unique identity for Illumination to capitalise on in future films (more on that later this week), I really enjoyed Minions.  I’d been having a really miserable past few weeks prior to walking into the film, and so all I wanted it to do was make me laugh and cheer me up.  I just wanted something to laugh at for 91 minutes, I wanted what the film was selling me.  And I did.  A lot.  I laughed from the opening credits, that trace the origin and evolution of the Minion species, right up until the close, where it ties the whole story back into the standard Despicable Me series far quicker than I thought it would.  That is all I wanted, and that is exactly what I got, so I am more than satisfied with Minions.

Callum Petch made the scene, week to week, day to day, hour to hour.  Listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio (site link) and follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

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DreamWorks Animation Television, Part 2

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Apologies for the week’s break.  Swamped schedule and I needed way more time to prep myself for this entry.

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


kfpBonus Entry #3] DreamWorks Animation Television, Part 2

Author’s Note: With only 2 weeks, which have been filled with stuff to do in addition to getting these shows watched, to research these 6 shows sufficiently, I have not had time to watch every single episode of every show.  With the exceptions of All Hail King Julian and The Adventures of Puss In Boots (as those have so far only seen 5 episodes released from them), my thoughts on each of these shows are based on a 4 or 5 half-hour episode sampling from each show, with the episodes chosen at random, across each of their seasons.

The last time that we looked at DreamWorks Animation’s television arm, things weren’t doing so well.  The studio had tried three times to launch an original series of its own and all three instances ended in unambiguous failure.  Toonsylvania was a sub-par Saturday Morning Spielberg riff that was screwed by the network and forgotten about soon after, Invasion America was a confused and dull X-Files wannabe that didn’t even get a proper first run, whilst Father of the Pride was such a doomed public crashing and burning that DreamWorks have elected to forget that it ever existed.

As we deduced the last time we paid a visit there, one of the main reasons why those shows failed was because they just weren’t very good.  They had no original voice, nothing to make them stand out, and if they did have something different then the bodged execution hindered it completely.  Despite being original shows, they were too pre-occupied with cribbing from other shows.  They’re also, with the exception of co-production Neighbors From Hell (which will not be covered here), the beginning and end of DreamWorks’ original television output.  Presumably terrified of pumping significant money into non-safe bets, and also because DreamWorks are all about franchising everything (as we already know), the studio stopped making non-movie-connected programming.

Instead, their television output from 2008 onwards has consisted solely of spin-offs, both of a stand-alone and between-film nature.  It makes good financial sense – again, DreamWorks are all about franchising what successful films they have, although they have (to their detriment) really been reticent to fully jump on the merchandising bandwagon, and you’ve got a near-guaranteed audience built-in if the film’s a hit – and can even make good creative sense, too, since you’ve already got the world, characters and tone set up, and can deepen those really well-liked characters who get short-changed in the constraints of a feature-length film.

In this decade, there have been 7 different DreamWorks Animation Television shows, with an eighth on the immediate horizon, but the flood took a while to arrive.  Despite launching in March of 2009, after a November 2008 preview, The Penguins of Madagascar (Nickelodeon, 2008 – Present, 3 seasons, 145 episodes and 4 still unaired) was the sole series on screen until Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness (Nickelodeon, 2011 – Present, 3 seasons, 70 episodes and 10 still unaired) launched in September of 2011.  I get why, DreamWorks still didn’t really have any franchises prior to Kung Fu Panda’s Summer 2008 success, Shrek is not a series that would adapt well to a weekly TV format because there isn’t much you can do with the concept (as each subsequent film would demonstrate), and there’s no point sinking the amount of money required to get an all-CG TV series going if nobody’s going to turn up to watch it.

Premiere ratings of 6.8 million viewers, the biggest premiere for any new show in Nickelodeon history at the time, curbed fears that audience demand wouldn’t exist and once those ratings remained stable over the show’s opening weeks, making it an out of the box hit, the floodgates would truly open.  Kung Fu Panda was next up, although it would miss its planned 2010 air date, with Dragons (Cartoon Network, 2012 – 2014, 2 seasons, 40 episodes; Netflix, 2015 onwards) and Monsters vs. Aliens (Nickelodeon, 2013 – 2014, 1 season, 26 episodes) following each year after that, whilst their recent Netflix deal has seen a surge in DreamWorks-related programming, first with Turbo FAST (Netflix, 2013 – Present, 1 season, 26 episodes), All Hail King Julian (Netflix, 2014 – Present, 1 season, 5 episodes so far), The Adventures of Puss In Boots (Netflix, 2015 – Present, 1 season, 5 episodes so far), and VeggieTales in the House (Netflix, 2014 – Present, 1 season, 10 episodes so far, will not be covered here)… but we’ll come back to that.

In theory, most of these shows should be slam-dunks, too.  They’re based on franchises that did great business as movies and are relatively beloved by kids and animation fans alike, and each of them very much seems tailor-made for TV, requiring minimal tweaking to make work.  The Penguins of Madagascar takes on a silly classic 11 minute cartoon set-up (amplifying the slapstick cartoon nature of the films to their logical endpoint), Legends of Awesomeness and Dragons (which semi-reboots itself each season with a different subtitle each time) aim to be TV versions of the films that they’re based off of (mixing comedy with drama, action, and heart), whilst Monsters vs. Aliens pulls away from Susan to focus more on the overall ensemble and be a cross between the wacky 11 minute shorts of The Penguins of Madagascar and a sitcom of sorts.  All Hail King Julian is a straight sitcom set pre-Madagascar, The Adventures of Puss In Boots is a swashbuckling action-comedy with elements of drama, and Turbo FAST is a formulaic cartoon.

Of these, the cartoons and comedies, with the exception of Monsters vs. Aliens – and we will touch on why that one doesn’t work in due course – work best for a variety of reasons.  For one, the writers for each of the various shows just seem to get comedy better than they do comedy-drama hybrids.  Shows like Kung Fu Panda, Puss In Boots, and Dragons have a tendency to come up with plots that are either too complex and busy to adequately deal with in just one 22-minute episode (the Dragons pilot, especially, is really bad about that) or don’t have enough going on in them to justify 22-minutes (the “Duchess” episode of Puss In Boots all but advertises its endless filler with giant neon signs), with the dramatic beats often either sped through or overly laboured on.

For another, they suffer most from flanderisation.  In having to do a weekly, often multiple season television series, it can be hard to keep on writing characters in a multi-faceted complex manner like they exist as in the movies.  Therefore, at some point, that depth will be accidentally or purposefully sanded down into more singular characteristics to fit the story the writers are trying to tell.  Occasional character beats will turn into full-blown tics and catchphrases – I only watched 4 episodes of Dragons and I’m still worried that “Bud” is now permanently seared into my eardrums – certain elements get blown out of proportion – Po’s naivety and over-earnestness more often than not ends up manifesting as full-blown childishness and selfishness, a complete betrayal of his character – and they’re rarely for the better.

But, more simply, the comedies are just better written than the action comedy-dramas.  In part due to the flanderisation, in part due to the story scope issues, in part due to pacing issues, the latter just never really hit me like they should have.  The comedy is often too broad, the drama never quite emotional enough, the action technically impressive but never really exciting or tense.  There’s a lot of plates to juggle, basically, and, for me, the shows never really manage to shake off the feeling that they’re just lower-quality versions of the superior films.  They have the voice of the parent franchise, alright, but they still never truly connect, they always feel… off.

Take, for example, “A Tigress Tale” (from Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness, Season 2, Episode 18).  On paper, this is an episode tailor-made for myself: a Tigress-focussed story about her finding what seems to be her perfect paradise – a Kung Fu training centre with a tough, firm mentor who pushes her further and an environment that takes Kung Fu very seriously – only to discover that she does crave companionship and fun.  The execution, however, never quite sticks.  To sell the change, she starts the episode as moodily serious, even outright hating Po despite the first film showing her beginning to enjoy his company, which feels forced and clunky.  The pacing is too fast to give off a decent enough impression that Tigress misses her old life, and the ending, where Po helps her escape, ends up making her personality evolution in Kung Fu Panda 2 (this series is set between the films) seem like it hinged on this one moment instead of something that naturally happened over time.  The episode just didn’t work, basically.

The comedy series don’t have to worry about overreaching story-wise or staying overly consistent to the way the films do their characters and such, however, because their only end goal is to be funny.  They can exaggerate certain character aspects – like Skipper’s crazed leader antics, or Mort’s stalker obsession with King Julian, or Chet’s safety-conscious ways – and get away with it as long as they don’t go too far (they rarely do) and if the resulting jokes are funny (they often are).  And since, unlike with Dragons and Kung Fu Panda, none of them purport to be tied to their respective franchises and their eventual future – The Penguins exists in some kind of alternate universe where the Penguins and the Lemurs got back to the zoo somehow, Turbo FAST changes and alters the premise to suit its own needs, and All Hail King Julian is only technically a prequel to Madagascar – they get to go nuts world-building and gag building without fear of contradiction down the line.

For example, I found a marked difference between an episode of The Penguins of Madagascar from Season 3 and one from the beginning of Season 1.  Not only has it cleaned up the pacing flaws and finessed the art style to keep the lower-quality animation from being distracting, but there’s a wider range of characters that recur from episode to episode outside of the main cast – the villainous Mr. X kept popping up in the episodes I chose – and minor callbacks to prior events.  It feels like its own universe instead of just an off-shoot of a movie.  Dragons does have continuous plot arcs – although I somehow picked primarily standalone episodes – but it feels restrained, as if the writers know that they have to save the big stuff for the movies, whilst Kung Fu Panda doesn’t have any continuity outside of two-parters (as far as I’m aware) which explains its pacing and characterisation issues.

As for the one comedy series that doesn’t work, Monsters vs. Aliens, that’s a case of the show trying to force its source material into a suit that it’s not comfortable for.  Pretty much every other show is operating within or near-enough to its general wheelhouse to not feel like there’s been a major disconnect between the film and the series.  Monsters vs. Aliens, however, is a singular-character-focussed feminist sci-fi action movie with (mostly failing) moments of comedy spliced in.  It doesn’t fit well with the loud ensemble sitcom-ish comedy series that the show forces it into.  Susan gets shuffled to the back by necessity, which buries that feminist heart, again by necessity, the episodes strain to adhere to their set formula, and the show is loud.  Like, headache-inducingly so.  The show doesn’t work, basically, despite it being the best looking of the CG shows.

Which is as good a link as any to talk about the animation.  Now, obviously, these shows can’t look as good as the films that they’re based on because they don’t have the budget.  No show has that budget.  Therefore, each show has to adapt its art style in order to remain visually appealing.  Most simply reduce their level of detail, because their parent franchises have gifted them an art style that works well regardless (Kung Fu Panda, in particular, comes off excellently).  Others turn into the skid and embrace the lower-budget by emphasising the squash and stretch capabilities and changing the character designs to make them look like playable dolls (The Penguins of Madagascar).  Others are able to deliver images and sequences that are almost film-quality, but fall down due to inconsistent character animation and subtle little details (Dragons whose character animations, in particular, switch between semi-naturalistic and semi-robotic depending on the episode or scene).

What most of them suffer from, however, is a general feeling of lifelessness.  Thanks to the lower budget, there’s simply not enough money available to create bustling streets and worlds filled with extras which means that there’s lots of empty space and lots of re-used character models.  That’s understandable, but the problem is that some of the shows keep drawing attention to it.  The Adventures of Puss In Boots is set in a once hidden city, which seems like a built-in defence mechanism against this sort of criticism, but even with that the town still feels empty and hollow.  There are seemingly only 10 residents of this city and all of them are cast members, which doesn’t help, whilst the bandits are all literally copy-pasted from the same guy all of the time, which really doesn’t help.  Coupled with the lower-than-usual CG quality and sub-par boarding – a problem for the majority of the shows mentioned here, just plain uninteresting layout and storyboarding – it begs the question of why the show was done like this in the first place.

Especially since Turbo FAST ditches the CG style and is instead a Flash-animated cartoon.  That is a decision that pays off.  Yes, the art style occasionally veers a little too “early-to-mid-2000s EXTREEEEEEME” and it has this habit of artificially lowering the brightness at more complex points (presumably to get Flash and such to actually make the damn scenes), but otherwise the show looks fantastic.  The art style is distinctive, the colour scheme is aesthetically pleasing, the boarding and layout are often striking, there’s a legitimate sense of life thanks to being able to afford extras, and the animation itself is consistent and so smooth that there were many times that I had to forcibly remind myself that this was Flash instead of traditional animation.  None of this should be surprising, the show’s animation company is Titmouse, Inc. – who did the animation for the criminally short-lived Motorcity and who DreamWorks approached to work on this from the outset – but it’s still the best-looking of these shows by a country mile.

Oh, I almost moved away from close analysis without mentioning Clover from All Hail King Julian!  Now, throughout this long and ridiculous series, I have frequently brought up DreamWorks’ troubled relationship with the female gender, because animation does have a gender problem, and their TV shows (from what I have seen, I must qualify that) continue that mainly through exclusion.  All of their shows, barring The Penguins of Madagascar, have at least one female member of the main cast – The Penguins does feature Marlene the Otter, but she’s in the secondary cast and factored into none of the episodes I managed to see – and pretty much all of them (again, from what I have seen) get nothing to do.  Astrid, Susan, and Viper barely factored into their shows, whilst Burn simply sticks to the same overly attached girlfriend role she had in her film, Tigress retains the overly serious and joyless side of her first film personality, and Dulcinea of Puss In Boots has the barest sketch of a personality at the moment besides “excessively kind and polite”.  They’re barely featured and, when they are, they don’t get to be more than a one-line-one-trait summary.  Exclusion.

Which is why I bring up Clover.  Clover, in stark contrast to her fellow female characters, is a full-on character.  She is the paranoid, self-confident, power-abusing bodyguard to King Julian who is always alert, nervous and/or intimidated by the previous King Julian, and devoted to her job.  And she is hilarious!  No, seriously, she is a comical force of nature as the show takes her no-nonsense archetype and plays it for genuine comedy.  She’s not the straight man, she’s allowed to look the fool and be as stupid as everybody else in the show in her own way, something that many comedies seem worried to try doing for some reason.  Couple that with India de Beaufort’s magnificent vocal performance, who takes already funny lines and turns them hysterical through her delivery, and you get one of the strongest female characters in DreamWorks’ entire history because she’s a proper character!

Admittedly, that’s not saying much, but just let me have this, OK?

So, at a time when DreamWorks have been struggling majorly with their cinema releases and could really use the eyeballs and network money that commercial television can bring them – the Dragons series has even been pulling in numbers close to those of non-event episodes of Adventure Timewhy move to Netflix?  Why seemingly limit the potential audience outreach?  Well, for one, Netflix is actually reaching a tonne more homes now – 57.4 million worldwide at last count – so the built-in potential audience is already massive.  For two, Netflix, it turns out, is apparently very hands-off when it comes to exerting control over the shows created, which undoubtedly must please those working on them to no end.

And for three…  Well, Nickelodeon really hasn’t been doing so well recently.  They’ve taken a major step back with their animated programming – shows like The Legend of Korra were unceremoniously booted online, The Fairly Odd Parents still exists although you wouldn’t believe it considering how irregularly new episodes of their once flagship show are being aired, and they are still actively giving Breadwinners money and airtime – and, in the last few years, they’ve begun unnecessarily screwing about with their cash cows.  The reason why The Penguins of Madagascar is still listed as “2008 – Present” instead of “2008 – 2012” is because Nickelodeon straight up refuses to just air the last 4 episodes, already, two and a half years on.  Kung Fu Panda’s third, and seemingly final, season has managed to air 18 episodes in about as many months because, again inexplicably as the series still draws good ratings, it keeps going on endless months-long hiatuses without warning and with no return date.

So with Nickelodeon not exactly being the most reliable of networks right now – not to mention the fact that Monsters vs. Aliens was cancelled in part due to the network wishing to make “more ‘Nickish’ shows”, the network’s ratings generally being in the toilet, and the possibility that this may all be being done out of spite for the Netflix move – and Cartoon Network treating Dragons well but its potential growth being rather stunted for now, it makes sense for DreamWorks to move to Netflix.  After all, Netflix is offering hands-off stability with room for viewer and programming expansion.  For a company that’s currently in financial turmoil on its home turf, the cinema, why wouldn’t it look for a nice bit of stability in a field that it’s doing well in?

But now we close with the question that has under-pinned this entire push to the finish line: why?  Why is TV successful?  Why was The Croods a success but Turbo wasn’t?  Why have DreamWorks been succeeding in television but not at the cinema?  Why is this their stable platform?  It’s a big important question, one that I can’t speak with full authority on, but I do have a theory.  DreamWorks have been creating TV shows that, for the most part, represent the spirits and tone and style of their successful films.  They are extensions of these films, the Dragons and Kung Fu Panda series especially, but delivered on a weekly basis.  It’s more of what worked (kind of, but I’m a jaded 20 year-old so what do I know).

And kids are more than likely going to eat that up.  What kid hasn’t come away from a film that they’ve loved mentally wishing for more of it?  More time with their favourite characters, more time in that universe, new twists, new surprises, new characters.  These shows offer that on a weekly basis, which undoubtedly satisfies and interests kids like those, and also explains why certain box office prognosticators worried that the Dragons TV series may have cut into potential box office demand for How To Train Your Dragon 2.  They may continue to fulfil the perception that DreamWorks only think of stories, films, and television as so much interchangeable product that you simply scale for size, but can you really blame a company for offering supplies to a prominent demand?

Point is, their shows are fulfilling a need and that need seems to be becoming the company’s main income source right about now.  As their film business crumbles around them, the stability afforded by their television arm justifies its continued existence even if the shows weren’t any good.  I mean, honestly, most of them kinda aren’t, but they’re connecting with the target audience, and in a way that the studio was seemingly incapable of doing pre-2008, so what do I know and what do I care?  At least they’re trying.  There’s clear effort put into each of these shows, which again is more than I can say for most of the pre-2008 output, and it’s paying dividends.  Time will tell if those dividends are strong enough to keep them propped up in case their film output continues to underwhelm.


Next week: we finally bring this whole thing to a close, as we look back at what we’ve covered, fill in the gaps of 2014, and then look ahead to the future to see if we can fashion some sort of optimistic ending out of all of this for DreamWorks Animation.

The DreamWorks Animation Retrospective will conclude next Monday at 1PM BST!

Callum Petch is underground, never commercial.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

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)!

US Box Office Report: 19/12/14 – 21/12/14

The Hobbit sorta loses its battle against its five prior armies, the sun sorta came out today for Annie, sorta not many people wanted to spend one last Night At The Museum… it’s a weekend of qualifiers is what I’m getting at, and Other Box Office News.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

…  …  …  …  …hm?  Yes?  …  …oh, shit, Box Office Report!  Totally almost forgot!  Sorry about that, truly.  Just been super, super busy!  Films to watch, radio shows to do, essays to write, articles to write.  Just the most full plate!  And I have absolutely spent all of my free time committing totally to that full plate!  Absolutely!  Totally didn’t end up spending most of the time that I should have spent working re-watching certain segments of The Legend Of Korra finale and browsing the internet for fan drawings and such to help placate both the new empty hole in my heart and the little skips of joy it performed over the ending.  Nope.  Not at all.  (*furiously closes browser tabs hoping you don’t notice*)

Anyways, this was the last weekend before Christmas and that meant a whole bunch of new releases tripping over themselves to appear as The Family Film Of The Holiday Season or something like that.  It also, however, meant counter-programming against The Hobbit for the first time.  After Desolation Of Smaug dropped $10 million opening weekend compared to An Unexpected Journey – and closed with $50 million less overall – other studios smelt blood in the water and felt that they could successfully programme against Peter Jackson’s immaculate advert for New Zealand’s finest green screens.  Battle Of The Five Armies, though, was having none of that sh*t.  Not only did it take $56 million over the weekend, its Wednesday opening added another $34 million to the total, bringing us an opening of $90 million.  Now, technically, that’s the lowest weekend opening for any Peter Jackson Lord Of The Rings-related movie ever – with the exception of Fellowship all those years ago – but…

…that’s still more than the rest of the Top 6 put together.  So, yeah, I think it’s safe to say that The Hobbit steamrolled the other new releases.  Those ended up being Night At The Museum: Secret Of The Tomb, an incredibly meh sequel that quite literally nobody was ever asking for, and Annie, an incredibly horrendous remake that nobody was asking for and failed to do anything with its updated conceit.  Technically, Night At The Meh-seum was the winner of the two, as it came in second place and made slightly more money than Annie.  But, let’s face it, Annie was only $1 million behind, opened on less screens, had a higher per-screen average than NATM, and is probably going to confiscate a fair amount of Into The Woods’ money next week.  The real losers, though, are the film-going audiences, because neither of these films are any good.

In limited release news, Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner – which everybody else adores but did absolutely nothing for me because I am an uncultured cretin who ships cartoon characters and freaks out when everything becomes glorious canon – finally made its way to American shores to sneak in under the deadline for awards consideration (that it won’t get because Mike Leigh never gets noticed in America).  From 5 screens, it managed a very respectable $109,000 for a per-screen average of $21,800.  Meanwhile, Song Of The Sea, a traditionally animated fantasy OH MY GOD I WANT TO SEE THIS IMMEDIATELY, was dropped onto 2 screens with pretty much zero fanfare and made a very respectable considering the circumstances $21,920.  The Nut Job, for comparison, was dumped onto 3,427 screens and opened to $19,423,000 because this world f*cking sucks.


THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF FIVE ARMIES

Let’s go there and back again with the Full List.

Box Office Results: Friday 19th December 2014 – Sunday 21st December 2014

1] The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

$56,220,000 / $90,627,000 / NEW

I was on the latest edition of the Failed Critics Podcast where we, eventually, talked about this film!  You can get most of my thoughts over there!  I’m not hard to miss but, if you’re having trouble, I’m the one that sounds like a drunken fratboy at a conference panel.  Yeah, I don’t feel like I did good on that episode.

2] Night At The Museum: Secret Of The Tomb

$17,300,000 / NEW

So this one is weird.  It tries to be this big send off for the series as a whole – implying that Night At The Museum is THE series that captured and defined a generation, but sure whatever – but nobody except Dan Stevens as Lancelot seems particularly happy to be here, and the film itself is just going through the motions for large swathes of its runtime.  So the final 15 minutes, which aim to be this big backslapping sentimental goodbye, ring hollow and only achieve poignancy when we share our last scenes with a very obviously tired Robin Williams because… well, you know.  It just doesn’t give any decent reason to exist, except to further the giant man crush I have on Dan Stevens – his eyes just pierce straight into my heart!

3] Annie

$16,300,000 / NEW

OK, can we officially call a ban on musicals that are embarrassed to be musicals?  Annie is a film that spends pretty much every frame of its existence openly apologising to its audience for being a musical.  It even has characters in the film call out how lame singing and dancing is after a big musical number.  What is this 21st Century cynical bullsh*t?  It doesn’t make the film cooler or more appealing, it just insults your audience and exposes your cast and crew as completely disinterested which, last I checked, is a death knell for a musical.  Either embrace the fact that you’re a musical or don’t f*cking bother.  Musicals are fun!  More films should be like musicals!

Yeah, I really didn’t like this one.

4] Exodus: Gods And Kings

$8,065,000 / $38,902,000

Guess everybody found their DVDs of The Prince Of Egypt laying around their house after all and watched them instead.  Yay!  Good choice, people!

5] The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

$7,750,000 / $289,227,000

The Mockingjay, Part 1 soundtrack is really bloody good, just so you all know.  It’s been backing most of my writing sessions this past week and it makes a very good accompaniment to having to metaphorically vomit 3,000 words onto virtual paper about film topics or essay concepts you don’t fully understand before deadline approaches.  Pick it up if you get the chance.

6] Wild

$4,150,000 / $7,211,000

I hear this is really good, so I am going to refrain from commenting until I see it in the middle of January.  Glad to see that Reese Witherspoon has managed to escape that black hole of suck she got stuck in for most of the late 00s, though!  Four Christmases came on TV the other night and, my word, it was dreadful.  Just awful.

7] Top Five

$3,570,000 / $12,456,000

Oh.  Well.  Shit.  Dammit, America, you couldn’t have tried turning this into a hit?!

8] P.K.

$3,565,258 / NEW

That’s from 272 theatres, by the by.  Bollywood may finally be coming a thing in America.  Good for Bollywood!  Good for it!  I should really try more.  I saw Bang Bang! for a Cineworld Unlimited screening back in October and I was alternately entertained, amused, baffled, and assaulted with a thumping headache.  I’d like to try other Bollywood films and see if that’s an anomaly or the general reaction I’ll end up having.

9] Big Hero 6

$3,563,000 / $190,441,000

Well, it’s been a good run, Big Hero 6.  You didn’t make Frozen money, but to expect anything to make Frozen money is to have unreasonably high standards.  You did really well, the public loved you, and you may even be fondly remembered.  Now, if you could just HURRY THE FUCK UP AND RELEASE OVER HERE ALREADY BECAUSE FORCING ME TO WAIT THREE MONTHS IS DICKWEED BEHAVIOUR I’d much appreciate it.

10] Penguins Of Madagascar

$3,525,000 / $64,172,000

This is officially DreamWorks Animation’s lowest grossing CG film of all-time domestically.  I doubt that even a superhuman overseas showing – the film has cracked 11 markets so far and most of those are the ones that prior Madagascar films have performed well in – is going to drag this one anywhere close to the land of profitability.  I am now worried, I imagine that studio executives are sweating spinal fluid.  This is not good.

Dropped Out: Interstellar, Horrible Bosses 2, Dumb And Dumber To, The Theory Of Everything

Callum Petch would dial the numbers just to hear your breath.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

US Box Office Report: 12/12/14 – 14/12/14

The people were rather unmoved by Exodus: Gods And Kings, Top Five thankfully makes the top five, Inherent Vice has the worst opening of anything ever, Wild runs wild on you, brother, and Other Box Office News.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

For those of you keeping track at home, 2014 has only had one faith-based drama that was worth anybody’s time released in its twelve months, despite this sub-genre being strangely thriving this past year.  I am of course referring to Darren Aronofsky’s sublime and surprisingly moving and beautiful Noah, and most certainly not Ridley Scott’s, by all accounts, insipid Exodus: Gods And Kings.  Fortunately, in this instance, it seems that most of the public agreed and, although Exodus is still our new box office #1 by dint of being the first new wide release in two weeks, it reached that summit with only $24.5 million in ticket sales.  Noah, meanwhile and having to follow surprise hit Divergent, opened to $43 million.  VICTORY!!

In more good news, Chris Rock’s Top Five, which by most accounts I’ve heard is something really special, was an out-of-the-box success!  Playing at 979 theatres, with a full-on nationwide release coming soon, the film broke into the top five with wondrous ease, finishing in fourth with $7.2 million in ticket sales and a $7,000 per-screen average.  That’s $1.6 million more than Chris Rock’s last directing gig, 2007’s I Think I Love My Wife, opened with and that film had the luxury of almost double the number of screens that Top Five did!  So, not only did Top Five manage to send Chris Rock back on the interview circuit – seriously, I want him to keep making movies purely so he can keep going around giving interviews like this one and this one – it’s also apparently a really damn great movie and managed to make a fair bit of money!  DOUBLE VICTORY!!

Unfortunately, it’s not all good news, folks.  Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice was released in those five New York and Los Angeles art-house cinemas that all major awards season wannabes have to start off their life in if they want to taken seriously, apparently.  It managed $330,000, which sounds really great, and a per-screen average of $66,000, which is probably more than anybody working for this site or reading this article makes in a year.  But that’s also less than There Will Be Blood and The Master made opening weekends (per-screen in Blood’s case, overall and per-screen in Master’s case), so therefore Inherent Vice is a colossal failure of epic proportions that has ruined the careers of everyone involved.  Sorry Inherent Vice, thanks for trying!

In further limited release news, the Weinstein-backed The Imitation Game – so look for Benedict Cumberbatch to steal the Best Actor awards of whoever we’ve arbitrarily decided as a collective hive mind deserves it this year – continues to rake in the cash like Scrooge McDuck on a hot streak at the casino Blackjack table.  Expanding to 25 screens, the film took $875,000 this weekend for a per-screen average of $35,000, so look for it to crack the full list some point soon.  And finally, before we get down to business, we have Wild, which added 95 more screens this past weekend, cracked the Top 10 and allowed me to make a dreadful Hulk Hogan reference in the headline.  Yay films!


wpid-wp-1418666873280.jpeg

This Full List used to be a visionary, but has spent the past decade phoning it in with boring sh*tty spectacle pieces instead of anything decent.

Box Office Results: Friday 12th December 2014 – Sunday 14th December 2014

1] Exodus: Gods And Kings

$24,500,000 / NEW

Nope, can’t do it.  I can’t get over the fact that they cast white actors to play the roles of Middle East natives.  Especially since the good leads are lightly tanned, whilst the bad leads are made much darker in skin, and that the slaves are still people of colour.  I mean, sweet lord, how f*cking tone deaf do you have to be to not get that?!  We were raking The Last Airbender over the coals for trying to pull this sh*t back in 2010, and you thought that you were honestly going to get away with it now?!  Ridley Scott’s explanation doesn’t help matters, either, as all it does is remind us all of just how broken the Hollywood system is and… well, it’s not like casting recognisable names has helped much at the box office, has it?

2] The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1

$13,200,000 / $277,398,000

This is going to close around $750 million, I’d say.  It’s already at $611 million, it’ll pass The Hunger Games some point in the next week or two, and it shows no real signs of slowing down.  It’ll wrap up lower than Catching Fire’s $865 million worldwide, but it’s definitely going to be, in be within spitting distance of being, the biggest grossing film domestically of 2014 when all is wrapped up.  Does this mean we’re now done calling this a box office disappointment, even though it never was one to begin with?

3] Penguins Of Madagascar

$7,300,000 / $58,839,000

Well, sh*t.  At least I’ll be at the forefront of the “This movie was criminally overlooked at the box office!” brigade in a few years’ time!  Or more likely, considering how quickly we are to label things as underrated and “cult classics” and the like nowadays, two months’ time.

4] Top Five

$7,210,000 / NEW

March 20th.  March 20th.  What did I do to deserve withholding of this level, American film industry?  Huh?  Got a halfway acceptable answer you’d like to share with me or are you withholding that, too?  Look at you, getting off!

5] Big Hero 6

$6,145,000 / $185,325,000

You should see how quickly I sprint out of whatever screen I’m seeing new release movies in when the trailer for this comes on.  I refuse, I completely refuse, to have even one second of this film spoiled for me.  It’s a new Disney film, I am there.  You don’t need to throw jaw-dropping setpieces, trailer-ready quips, Fall Out Boy songs or anything else at me to get me in.  Just, “YO!  DISNEY PUTTING OUT NEW FILM!  IT’S CALLED [X], IT’S OUT [Y]!” and you have my attention.

6] Interstellar

$5,500,000 / $166,800,000

Next week is The Hobbit, so expect this to sink like a stone as Peter Jackson confiscates all of its IMAX screens.  Still, pretty good run, all things considered.  In fact, I find it strange that people keep insisting that the box office has been in a horrendous state of affairs this past year when, week in week out, I keep typing out Total Grosses that stretch into 9 figures for many films featured in this list…

7] Horrible Bosses 2

$4,630,000 / $43,601,000

I don’t really have anything to put here.  Here’s an It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia clip instead.

8] Dumb And Dumber To

$2,757,000 / $82,117,000

This isn’t tracking particularly well overseas.  Still, I do find it rather comforting that the only people who were crying out for a Dumb And Dumber sequel 20 years later are apparently all contained on one mass of land.  Good to know the crazy is bottled up, kept from being spread, and not in control of anything particularly important.

9] The Theory Of Everything

$2,525,000 / $17,148,000

Adds 394 screens, to cross the 1,000 screen mark, makes less money than the week before.  Maybe this signals the upcoming slide out of my goddamn chart!  It’s all going to be OK, folks!  It’s all going to be OK.

10] Wild

$1,550,000 / $2,423,000

The Dissolve’s Tasha Robinson, following on from her piece this past Summer about The Trinity Effect (which I referenced in this week’s DreamWorks Retrospective entry, *plugplug*), wrote an excellent piece last Monday about how the new breed of genuinely strong female characters are those that are relatively weak.  You should go and read it.  Like, right now.  Don’t worry about missing anything, we’re done here for the week.

Dropped Out: Gone Girl, The Pyramid, Birdman

Callum Petch has the microphone but you can sing it as well!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

US Box Office Report: 5/12/14 – 7/12/14

Self-fulfilling prophecy comes true as nothing really makes money or switches places since nothing came out, and Other Box Office News.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Well.  Hello, there.  Welcome to the Box Office Report, I guess.  How are you doing?  Not too bad?  That’s good to hear.  Call your parents recently?  See any movies this past weekend?  No?  Yeah, well, that’s you and everybody else, don’t fret.  Post-Thanksgiving weekend is a dead zone according to studios, so nobody ever releases anything that weekend.  Kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you ask me, but that’s how it is.  Also means that nothing happened in the chart this week, which makes writing up this report rather pointless.  I, however, have nothing better to do, so let’s see what scraps we can work with instead, eh?

Ooh, there were two new releases this past weekend!  First off we have The Pyramid, a dreadful looking and barely marketed horror movie crapped out at the beginning of December because it’s not like there’s any better weekend for it.  Dumped into 589 screens to die a painful death, it did meh-y, raking in $1.3 million for ninth place and a $2,292 per-screen average.  Second off we have Wild, an adaptation of the memoir of the same name about a woman who did a solo 1,100 mile hike along the Pacific Coast Trail in order to better herself as a human being and deal with her traumatic life beforehand.  Notice how I didn’t make any jokes, there?  I am capable of compassion!  Anyways, opening on 21 screens, the Reese Witherspoon-starring, Nick Hornby-adapted, Jean-Marc Vallee-directed awards season contender managed a very great $630,000 and a per-screen average of $30,000.

In expanding news, The Imitation Game doubled its screens to 8 and managed another $402,000 for a per-screen average of $50,250.  The Homesman jumped up a good 104 screens to 154 total and banked a good $501,000 for the weekend, although its per-screen average was a decidedly not-good $3,253.  The Babadook, meanwhile, terrified 19 new screens, bringing its total up to 22 and a weekend haul of $66,600.  I will refrain from making the obvious hack joke to instead sadly inform you that the thing’s per-screen average is still only $3,027, which at least is slightly more than The Pyramid’s if nothing else.

And… yeah, that’s about it.  Everything else that’s worth mentioning is located in the Top 10 and I don’t much fancy blowing my material all early.  Also, Penguins Of Madagascar collapsed 56% between weekends and is now pretty much guaranteed not to cross $100 million.  That is really bad news for both DreamWorks as a whole – Christ, even Mr. Peabody & Sherman crossed $100 mil domestic and that was their lowest non-Antz CG earner ever – and for the movie – which is one of the absolute best animated films released this year.  For f*ckssake, America, can’t you at least try making decent animated movies successful!?  If this ends up finishing lower than The Nut Job domestically, then I am going to take out a vendetta on the lot of you.  First The Boxtrolls, then The Book Of Life, now this!  When will the bad public film-skipping choices end?!


the pyramid

This Full List…  Nope, I got no particularly great puns for this week.  Such is the state of the chart.  Let’s just get on with it.

Box Office Results: Friday 5th December 2014 – Sunday 7th December 2014

1] The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1

$21,600,000 / $257,700,000

I have actually had a desire to go and see this again recently.  A real full-on, “I should find time to go and see this again” desire.  Consider me completely amazed at this development.  Of course, I’m not sure how much of that is just down to that “Hanging Tree” song randomly worming its way into my brain at every opportunity, but it’s there none the less.  I’m referring to both the desire and the song.  “Are you, are you…”

2] Penguins Of Madagascar

$11,100,000 / $49,591,000

Saw it first thing on Friday, finished the review the same day, was posted on Saturday, obviously.  I loved this movie and need to find the time to go and see it again.  Seriously, I haven’t had this much pure fun in a cinema since Lucy, which doesn’t sound like that long but one needs to remember that fun has been in rather short supply this past year in film, so a film that is pure fun is going to get a very high grade from yours truly.  Also, my heart went all fuzzy and warm whenever something nice happened to Private and I liked that feeling.

3] Horrible Bosses 2

$8,600,000 / $36,075,000

A pretty strong hold – only a 44% drop – which doesn’t sound too bad until one remembers that the film opened to $15 million and that this thing will be very lucky if it crosses $60 million.  Ah, well, least everybody realised they could just stay home and watch It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia on Netflix instead!  I call that a win!

4] Big Hero 6

$8,130,000 / $177,548,000

My local Cineworld now has a big inflatable Baymax stood up in some out-of-reach corner of the lobby to advertise this film and it is so freakin’ adorable!  I just want to take it home with me, install it in the corner of my uni apartment and give it hugs whenever I feel close to down!

5] Interstellar

$8,000,000 / $158,657,000

It’s within spitting distance of $600 mil overall, with China and South Korea going wild for the thing, so I think it’s safe to say that Christopher Nolan’s box office rep isn’t going to take that big of a hit after this is all said and done.  Weirdly, in real life, most everybody I’ve talked to loves the heck out of this movie and my “Eeeehhhh” keeps getting misconstrued as pure outright hate for the thing.  It’s weird, what did I not get when I saw the film?

6] Dumb And Dumber To

$4,169,000 / $78,081,000

Only one more weekend left to go until I get to join in with everyone’s strangely high disappointment to this thing!  I mean, it’s a 20 years’ late sequel to a comedy film, The Farrelly Brothers haven’t made anything worthwhile in over a decade, Peter Farrelly helped mastermind Movie 43… and you actually thought this was going to be good?  That’s just wilful ignorance, is what that is.

7] The Theory Of Everything

$2,688,000 / $13,613,000

…  …  …  …  …  That’s how little I care about this thing.

8] Gone Girl

$1,500,000 / $162,861,000

If you had told me back in September that Gone Girl would be one of the year’s most successful films financially and would even make it to double digits on the “Weeks In The Top 10” counter, I genuinely would not have believed you.  Yet, that is the world we live in because sometimes, just sometimes, good and just things occur.  If it makes it to 11 weeks, I will be utterly astounded but I don’t think it will.  Thanks for everything, Gone Girl!  Sorry about Life Itself stealing the “My Favourite Film Of The Year” title from you!

9] The Pyramid

$1,350,000 / NEW

Well, that looks like yet another indistinguishable crappy horror movie crapped out for a quick buck!  Guess we’ll just mov…  wait…  is that James Buckley?!  Is that…  no!  No!  Jay from The Inbetweeners is not in this thing!  He can’t be!  He jus…  WHAT?!

10] Birdman

$1,150,000 / $18,919,000

It’s going to be between this and Boyhood for all Best Picture awards this season, isn’t it?  Brilliant.  I look forward to seeing Birdman, disliking it immensely and therefore just not giving a shit about all award bodies this coming January and February!  I kid, of course; I really want Birdman to be good and I’ve got a good feeling about it!  I just really, really, really, really dislike Boyhood and the fact that it’s guaranteed all of the awards forever irritates the living hell out of me.  I really want to be proven wrong on this, but we all know what award bodies are like.

Dropped Out: St. Vincent (which was fantastic, by the by)

Callum Petch (*crushing guitar riff*).  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

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)!

US Box Office Report: 28/11/14 – 30/11/14

Mockingjay insults the rest of the chart, Penguins Of Madagascar smile and wave goodbye to a lot of money, nobody particularly like Horrible Bosses now, and Other Box Office News.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

This past weekend, Americans were witness to a dystopian future.  One with barely restrained tensions, majorly unfair financial differences, and a complete lack of fairness and generosity.  These disparate groups would congregate under one roof to try and make it through proceedings in a civilised fashion, until one side insulted Peeta at which point all bets were off.  Proceedings were violent, conflicts escalated, both sides exited wondering who had really won that round, filled with feelings of unsatisfaction, like the resolution had been postponed for another year or something.  But enough about Thanksgiving with your family.  At the box office, much like my joke construction, The Hunger Games repeated its Thanksgiving first place status to diminishing returns with Mockingjay, Part 1 taking home $56 million this year.  Expect history to repeat itself next year and for me to basically copy-paste this dreadfully unfunny paragraph again in the hopes that you won’t notice.

It’s not like Mockingjay, Part 1 had much in the way of competition, though.  Continuing an absolutely dismal year for DreamWorks Animation, Penguins Of Madagascar decidedly underwhelmed in its opening weekend.  Even with the 5-Day Thanksgiving bump, it could only manage $36 million.  Without it, that’s $25 million over the weekend which, for a spin-off of one of the few remaining cash-cows that DreamWorks has and as promoted to hell and back as this film has been, is dismal.  The one saving grace for the film is that Annie and Night At The Museum 3 aren’t out for another 3 weeks, so there’s still a chance that it can make up some of that cash before it gets dogpiled.  I’m sorry, you were expecting snark?  Nope, no snark here, this news genuinely bums me out and has me majorly worried considering the position DreamWorks is in right now.

Still, could be worse.  You could be Horrible Bosses 2.  Yes, the widely-trashed comedy sequel that quite literally nobody was ever asking for didn’t do so hot.  Over the five-day weekend, it barely reached $23 million and over three days it could only make $15.7 million for fifth place.  Yeah, safe to say we are all being spared from Horrible Bosses 3: The Final Chapter, Part 1.  What we are unfortunately not being spared from, however, is The Theory Of Everything which went nationwide this past weekend and managed to bank $5 million from 800-odd screens.  If Eddie Redmayne takes the Best Actor Oscar from Dan Stevens in The Guest (or Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler), then tables will be flipped.  Just warning you Academy; you don’t want no part of this shit.

In more limited release news, The Imitation Game finally reached American shores this weekend and the typical Weinstein push ensured a very solid opening.  $482,000 from 4 screens for a per-screen average of $120,500, putting it only behind The Grand Budapest Hotel in Best Limited Release Openings of 2014, is most definitely more than “very solid”.  One can only imagine how the latter film would have done if it had a legion of Benedict Cumberbatch fangirls and fanboys filling the back rows with their…  Yeah, OK, I’m just going to move on.  Foxcatcher added another 48 theatres to its run and broke past $1 million, meaning we should see it in the Top 10 soon enough.  The Babadook, meanwhile, finally got a release in America and it did OK: $27,000 from 3 theatres for a per-screen average of You Do The Math.  In other words, it’s The Guest all over again.  Goddammit.


hunger games

This Full List is gonna take ya riiii-ght in-to the DANGER ZONE!!

Box Office Results: Friday 28th November 2014 – Sunday 30th November 2014

1] The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1

$56,875,000 / $225,693,000

Have you heard the CHVRCHES track from the Mockingjay, Part 1 soundtrack, yet?  If not, go do so immediately!  It is SO GOOD!  Like, “this could’ve gone on their debut album” good, and The Bones Of What You Believe is a bloody damn good album!  In fact, from what I’ve experienced of the soundtracks to all three films so far, everybody brings their A-game when they’re called upon for a track.  Nobody coasts.  I love that about them.  Think it’s time I took the plunge and bought the lot.

2] Penguins Of Madagascar

$25,800,000 / $36,000,000 / NEW

Friday.  It’s out here Friday, I am seeing it first thing Friday, I will not go to bed that day until there is a review ready to run on Saturday.  I’m genuinely really excited for this.  In the meanwhile, the DreamWorks! A Retrospective archive is here.  Go amuse yourself and make me feel like I haven’t wasted 5 months of my life.

3] Big Hero 6

$18,770,000 / $167,209,000

Only a 7% drop between weekends, which is pretty darn astou-WHY IS THIS MOVIE NOT IN FRONT OF MY EYEBALLS RIGHT NOW?!!  IT’S NOT FAIR!!  (*proceeds to have a mini-breakdown*)

4] Interstellar

$15,800,000 / $147,090,000

I would really like to go and see this again on the big screen for a second try, especially since I’m still not 100% solid on my opinions on it.  However, six films are coming out this week in the UK and I have way too much work to do to find time to see it again.  Plus, I have to give up a good 15 hours of my life to The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit in the next 11 days.  I genuinely don’t have the time.

5] Horrible Bosses 2

$15,700,000 / $23,010,000 / NEW

Saw it on Friday and I’ll see if I can find time to get a review out – I’m currently working on one for Paddington in between essay work, DreamWorks work, other articles, and social commitments so this will more than likely fall by the wayside – but the skinny is this: I laughed a good consistent amount, but it is still an utterly pointless sequel and it drops the ball and crosses the line on the Julia stuff spectacularly.  Think of it as the American equivalent of The Inbetweeners 2 and you’re about there.  If you have nothing better to do or just want to get some easy laughs for 100-odd minutes, this is fine but it’s still ultimately pointless.

6] Dumb And Dumber To

$8,295,000 / $72,205,000

So… Jim Carrey’s not making a full-on box office comeback, is he?  (*dejected sigh*)

7] The Theory Of Everything

$5,082,000 / $9,604,000

Still refuse to believe that this is anything other than dreadfully mediocre slop.  Still can’t be proven right or wrong until New Year’s Day.  Still going to bitch and moan about its existence until then.

8] Gone Girl

$2,470,000 / $160,557,000

I was going to say that we must bid adieu to Gone Girl, but then I looked at the release schedule for next week and saw that nothing at all is coming out.  Wild is only in 5 theatres, and The Pyramid is being sent to die on 550 screens, like Fox have been reading the signs with regards to Horror films at the box office this past year or something.  So, we’ve got one more week before this inexplicably long-lasting flick finally drops out.  Seriously, I love this film to death and I have absolutely no idea how it has managed to make over $330 million worldwide.

9] Birdman

$1,880,000 / $17,237,400

“Dayman, AAAHHHHH!!  Fighter of the Nightman!  AAAHHHH!!  Champion of the sun!  AAAHHHH!!  You’re a master of karate and friendship for everyone, Dayman!”

10] St. Vincent

$1,773,000 / $39,327,000

So maybe it won’t have the courtesy to stick around for its UK release after all.  That sounds very much like Bill Murray.  Always leaving the parties that he crashes before I have the chance to book the plane ticket to take me there!  That prankster!  Of course, this joke only works if I actually went to parties and nobody ever invites me to theirs because I’m… I’m… (*breaks down sobbing*)

Dropped Out: Beyond The Lights, Fury

Callum Petch will hold up to an idea.  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)!