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.
Before we jump into this week’s film, I’d like to take a few paragraphs to address a news story that broke this past week. So, last Thursday it was rumoured/revealed that Hasbro and DreamWorks Animation had entered into merger/buyout talks with one another; Katzenberg looking for a lifeline for his company that is really not doing well at all right now and Hasbro wanting to continue their expansion into multiple markets. Those talks broke down by Saturday, however, as Katzenberg was asking for too much ($35 a share for a company in DreamWorks’ state is rather unreasonable, let’s be frank) and Hasbro’s stock dropped 6% when the deal talks leaked to the press.
Yeah, to put it bluntly, DreamWorks Animation are so far down in stockholder appreciations that merely being rumoured to possibly being associated with them in the future is enough to get dragged down with them (incidentally, DreamWorks’ stock went up 16% when the news leaked). Fact of the matter is that the company is in a really bad spot right now. Three of their last five films have failed to earn over $310 million at the worldwide box office, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is the second highest grossing animated film of the year and has comfortably out-grossed the original but took too long to do so and gained most of its money from overseas (this article and this article should adequately explain why these are negative things for DreamWorks), and they really only have the Madagascar franchise as a legitimate fall-back cash-cow now (and even then I may have to revise this statement in two weeks if Penguins Of Madagascar underperforms).
Look, DreamWorks need a partner and they need it soon. Their films have mostly been good to great recently, but whether it be due to overexposure, the fluctuating quality of those films (again, I stress “mostly”), the continued public perception of what a DreamWorks film is, and also the fact that they haven’t changed the way they market those films in a good half decade – after all, what worked once isn’t necessarily going to work today in a field that is way more competitive – the public just aren’t turning up. There’s too much competition, too many new voices, many of which are actually trying new things and new ways to enrapture viewers – there’s a very good reason why The Lego Movie stomped all over all-comers this year, and it’s not just due to its release date.
As I have mentioned before, DreamWorks Animation is an independent publically-traded company. Unlike Disney, unlike Pixar, unlike Blue Sky, even unlike Laika as it turns out, they don’t have a fall-back if they hit a string of big failures. They don’t have big daddy Disney or 20th Century Fox to bail them out. They hit too many duds, then investors will panic and pull support & funding from the company and then it’s all over. They will be finished. This is why Katzenberg is searching desperately for a buyer, somebody to provide them with a fall-back. Problem is, Katzenberg doesn’t really seem to understand the severity of the situation that he’s currently in – which explains his high asking price and apparent demands to be the head of whatever the company ends up as after the merger.
Even worse… I really can’t think of a better partner than Hasbro. DreamWorks brings the few successful franchises and mega-hits it has, the apparently lucrative deal that they now have with Netflix to stream and fund their television output, and a whole mega-tonne of potential merchandising dollars from toys and the like – assuming that current licensing deals aren’t too scattered and complex (I don’t have time to search that up, unfortunately). Hasbro would bring the bank required to keep DreamWorks afloat and the reach to be able to force DreamWorks back into the popular culture again. It’s a near-perfect partnership… except that it now won’t happen due to Katzenberg’s stubbornness and Hasbro blinking when Wall Street declared DW a sinking ship – although I can’t blame a company that lost $300 million in value after the news broke for trying to back away as fast as humanly possible.
Though I worry now, I do feel that DreamWorks will be fine in the long run. He may be as stubborn as a mule, but I think Katzenberg will eventually relax and work out a deal that benefits the buyer as much as it does himself. I also get the feeling that this recent string of box office disappointments will cause a rethink as to the greenlighting process at the company – maybe being more selective about what goes from pitch to screen – and the scheduling process in general – three films a year cheapens the Event feel of a DreamWorks movie (unlike a Pixar movie, where a release is an Event) and undoubtedly leads to audience fatigue. It might also be time for Katzenberg to step aside, too, and I’ll maybe explain why I think that later in this series because we need to move on now.
So, to conclude, DreamWorks will probably be fine, but they need a major overhaul of how things work there and they need a buyer yesterday with Hasbro having been the closest thing to a perfect partnership that they could have had. For more on this situation, I point you in the direction of Variety’s excellent little piece on the matter. Now, though, we move on to the main crux of today’s article: Bee Movie.
15] Bee Movie (2nd November 2007)
Budget: $150 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 51%
Does the fact that Bee Movie failed, and has largely been forgotten about by everyone who has ever come into contact with it, surprise anyone? It’s a DreamWorks film that came out during the absolute nadir of their history so far, it looks on the surface like every single one of their interchangeable subpar films combined, the trailers (the real trailers, not the ridiculous yet hilarious live-action ones that trailed the public’s actual first look at the film) were filled with pop culture references, CA-RAY-ZEE action sequences and promised a plot that audiences had already seen a good 86 times prior. The Jerry Seinfeld connection wouldn’t have helped, either, setting unrealistically high expectations that would cause disappointment no matter how it turned out.
So, yeah, it probably surprises nobody that Bee Movie didn’t really do too well. Although it debuted in second place with $38 million, behind American Gangster, and managed to take the number one spot the week after, Bee Movie wound up as the lowest grossing computer-animated DreamWorks film worldwide at that time (with the unfair exception of Antz) – that dubious distinction would later be handed to Turbo and finally Mr. Peabody & Sherman, to link that detour at the beginning of this piece back to the article at large. Admittedly, this may have something to do with an ad campaign that was… thorough, to put it in the nicest possible terms, and subsequently driven people away. After all, remember, there’s a fine line between promoting your film enough to get people to see it and promoting it too much and turning them away for good.
Critics, meanwhile, were kinda ambivalent about the whole thing. That 51% Rotten Tomatoes rating is less due to them being polarised in pure absolute sides of “I love it!” “I hate it!” and more the severity of how “meh” they felt towards the thing. Many found it generic, lacking in heart, lacking in laughs, and – in that most generic of cast-off statements towards any non-Pixar animations, even when it really doesn’t apply – good for young kids but not much else. Again, the Seinfeld connection (he voices the lead, wrote the script with several of Seinfeld’s writers, and oversaw every facet of production for the four years it ran for) likely raised expectations to levels the film couldn’t reach, or coloured them for a film this was never going to be. Or, to use a phrase that will now likely position me as the site’s beret-wearing hipster, they simply just didn’t get it.
For I would like to posit to you, dear reader, that Bee Movie is actually an underrated piece of pure genius. Intrigued? Confused? Too busy laughing in disbelief to coherently read any of these words? Well allow me a small manner of indulgence for the next several paragraphs, and I shall explain.
It doesn’t start out particularly great, mind. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: an animal voiced by a relatively famous comedian objects to his regimented place in life, a life that is very much anthropomorphised to a large degree, and wishes to instead explore the outside world. There he makes friends with a human, engages in a whole bunch of manic chase/action scenes, runs afoul of the Real World, and, through strength and resolve and sheer goodwill, is able to change his society’s entire structure, earn the acceptance he so desperately craves and live a life that balances the Real World with the Animal World.
And the first 30 minutes proceed pretty much exactly as you’d expect. A tonne of incredibly easy bee puns and bee-related jokes – although I will cop to laughing at the cleverer ones and eventually being worn down by the sheer number of them into laughing at the lesser ones in spite of myself – stapled onto a narrative that carries so many parallels to Ratatouille that I started wondering if the two studios weren’t swapping ideas. Throw in some mediocre-to-blergh animation – character designs are incredibly generic, although not unappealing, whilst the actual animation lacks detail pretty much everywhere, chroma-keying is frequent and noticeable, and camera movement is jerky and really distracting which is a problem considering the number of bee flying sequences – and a bunch of pop culture references – “What’s the deal with Tivo?” – and you get exactly the film you’re probably expecting.
Then Barry B. Benson, the bee, falls in love with Vanessa, the human. And he has a swordfight with a supermarket staffer with a drawing pin. And he sneaks into a honey production facility that very much resembles a slave labour camp. And then he sues the entire human race for control of all of the world’s honey. It’s about the time that Barry is openly pointing out the fact that Bee Larry King is a walking pop culture reference instead of a joke – by openly noting that he has a human equivalent with the exact same schtick and hammering home all of the ways in which the reference is the laziest kind of joke – that it finally dawned on me. Bee Movie is not a bad, heartless, nonsensical cash-grab animated kids’ film.
Bee Movie is a parody of bad, heartless, nonsensical cash-grab animated kids’ films.
I mean, just think about it for a sec. The ridiculous platonic friendship/pointless romance between the two leads – she leaves her husband for a BEE, for Christ’s sake! – the random cameos from real celebrities that reek of stunt casting, the arbitrary shoved-in action scenes that disrupt the film’s flow, one single male animal managing to cause giant change in their species’ and society’s entire way of being, the suddenly large stakes in the finale? Every one of these tropes and ideas show up in practically every bad animated film – even many of DreamWorks’ own films – but their deployment here is done so knowingly, so openly, so blatantly, so ridiculously that it’s hard to not read the thing as a parody! Especially since the film keeps lurching between being completely in on its joke and not realising just how ridiculous it’s being.
Nothing in this film is designed to be taken in the slightest bit seriously, least of all the tired tropes; refreshing considering the total straight-facedness that the films Bee Movie ends up mocking usually deploy them with. For example, most bad animated films would have the appearance of a celebrity be the joke in and of itself – The Nut Job and Psy, for instance – and Sting’s appearance seems like it’s just there for yet another bee pun and a “Hey, look! It’s Sting! He’s somebody I recognise and therefore will laugh at!” gag. But then it extracts an actual really funny joke out of it – Layton T. Montgomery’s incensed reaction that his legal team didn’t know that Sting wasn’t the guy’s real name, like this is case-losing information – saving the concept from the initial groan I let out when he was revealed.
Any time the film seems like it’s aiming for drama, it purposefully undercuts proceedings with a joke, effectively openly calling out how dumb it is for there to be genuine life-or-death stakes in a film that has already mined a tonne of gags out of the fact that it had previously established its cast to be indestructible. The early goings make a big point out of bees dying shortly after their one sting, so one would expect the moment where Barry’s best bee friend Adam wastes his sting on Layton to be played for unearned pathos. Bee Movie, however, is smarter than that and so undercuts the drama not once but thrice, to absolutely hammer the point home. First with Layton’s hysterical overreaction to a tiny bee sting, second by showing Adam the bee getting his own hospital bed (complete with beeping heart monitor) that Barry visits him in, thirdly by having Adam make a full recovery and replace his stinger with a tiny plastic fork.
Silliness, utterly insane silliness, ends up being the vehicle used to drive home the parodic elements, again enhanced by the film playing itself straight for literally only as long as it needs to. It reminds me a lot of The Emperor’s New Groove, just without the fourth wall breaks and the secret heart in the centre. It’s a joke machine. An incredibly efficient and ridiculous joke machine. That’s why the film’s constant mangling of its messages isn’t a problem, or accidentally come off as White Male Privilege talking – if you were to play this movie straight, the message would be “don’t attempt to change entrenched social injustices, like racism, as your actions may cause repercussions that could doom humanity as a whole.” Nothing is supposed to be taken seriously because the film’s sole goals are to be funny and to mock films that would otherwise play this stuff straight.
The downside of this, of course, is that it takes a long while for that ridiculousness to become apparent. Bee Movie’s opening stretch, as mentioned, is played rather straight to make the moment where it casts off its trench coat and reveals itself to be a streaking bonkers lunatic – specifically about the time that a colony of bees are arguing against a Texan caricature in a court of law with everybody in the film’s universe treating this as a normal and acceptable thing – hit that much harder. Therefore, it can be mistaken as the film being completely earnest about these scenes and trying to play them as anything other than silliness – like what happened with What We Did On Our Holiday (with the caveat that that film had no parodic undertones).
Openings can set impressions, you see, and left-turn twists and genre and tone changes can come off badly or off-putting if they feel too abrupt. Again, Bee Movie builds its ridiculousness, it builds its parodic intentions, starting very subtly – disguising its more subversive material by drowning it out with endless bee puns and incredibly generic presentation of worlds and ideas you’ve seen before – seemingly peaking in the middle with the trial, before finishing by throwing in last minute life-or-death fate-of-the-human-race stakes and a needless action scene with a crowbarred in moral – everything to do with the plane. The rise is why the nonsensical finale works so well, but the film follows those tropes close enough and resembles them enough that one can mistake it for a bad stupid kids’ film if they’ve checked out in the opening third.
And you know what? Maybe it just is. Maybe I’m talking out of my arse. There are six credited writers on this thing (four officially, two “additional screenplay material”), so any chance of any intentional committed through-line is likely impossible, let alone one that’s a giant parody of terrible kids’ flicks. Yet the film lends itself so easily to this interpretation, particularly with just how often it seems to be in on its joke, that I don’t feel like I’m incorrect by sitting here and officially classing the film as such. I don’t think that Bee Movie is excellent, the animation is way too poor and the voice acting from Seinfeld himself is too all over the map for it to be excellent, but I do think it is way better and way smarter than people have given it credit for. I mean, the film ends with a character voiced by Patrick Warburton screaming how “THAT BEE IS LIVING MY LIFE!!” I think it knows how ridiculous it’s being. Not bad for a film that literally only exists because Seinfeld made a pun to Steven Spielberg.
So, yeah, consider me the unofficial head of the “Bee Movie was a criminally underrated film that deserves reappraisal” group whenever that inevitably starts up. I’m just as surprised about this development as you are.
Bee Movie backfired in DreamWorks’ face rather heavily, failing financially despite major promotion and failing critically despite the significant creative input of Jerry Seinfeld. The company had basically hit rock bottom in the eyes of the more discerning animation fan, but at least was still in an OK financial state thanks to Shrek The Third. 2008, however, would herald the beginning of what many see as the creative renaissance of DreamWorks Animation with two films, one a sequel to a film that wasn’t well regarded, that demonstrated a new creative spark in the company; a commitment to making good films instead of a pure steady cash-flow, although both films would provide that as well.
Next week, we will look at the first of these two films. One that, despite its critical adoration and stellar box office success, finally got Young Me to say “no more!” to DreamWorks films. Next Monday, we tackle Kung Fu Panda.
A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!
Callum Petch is climbing tree trunks and swinging from every branch. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!