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Shrek Forever After

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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


shrek forever after family20] Shrek Forever After (21st May 2010)

Budget: $135 – 165 million

Gross: $752,600,867

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 58%

2010 DreamWorks Animation was a very different beast to 2007 DreamWorks Animation.  In 2007, DreamWorks Animation were at rock bottom, their films were critically reviled, box office prospects for non-Shrek films weren’t looking so hot (and Shrek itself suffered a financial stability wobble with The Third), they’d driven away Aardman Animations, and they were basically a walking punchline for anybody with an interest in Western Animation.  Plus, y’know, that long line of imitators they ended up spawning needs a lot of apologising for.

By 2010, however, the company was getting its groove back, in such a way that everybody was immensely surprised.  Kung Fu Panda was a fantastic out-of-left-field “Holy hell, when on EARTH did they learn to be able to do THAT?!” treat, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa was a huge step-up from the original, Monsters vs. Aliens was a tonne of fun and a staunchly feminist breath of fresh air, and I think enough words have been written about How To Train Your Dragon by this point.  Each of these were met with different levels of box office success, but they were all successes and all spawned franchises – or helped propagate, in the case of Madagascar – of their own.

DreamWorks Animation, by 2010, looked damn strong, basically.  They had also grown considerably as filmmakers and storytellers.  They had near-totally outgrown the kinds of films they used to make in the equivalent of their slacker-teenager phase.  They had mostly ditched the pop culture references, stopped seemingly greenlighting films purely off of the back of stars and concepts that could print money, and were now making movies with real heart based on concepts and stories that everybody was fully invested in and with likeable characters instead of stars masquerading as characters.

What I am saying is that, by May of 2010, DreamWorks Animation had outgrown ShrekShrek was their breakthrough onto the big stage, the giant grand rebellious statement that only a young, brash scrappy up-and-comer could make and make so sincerely.  It had attitude, sincerity, and a burning desire to impress those that came before it – and that it was indebted to – whilst simultaneously flipping them off in order to court a new generation of moviegoers.  It’s the kind of film that an animation studio can really only make once, as the more times you trot it out when you’re successful, the less authentic it comes off as and the more its continued existence becomes a blatant business decision rather than an artistic one.

I guess what I am trying to say is that Shrek is the pop punk of animated movies.  If you keep trying to make new films like it a decade on, when you’re the old big successful overlord that you spent that first statement railing against and the films keep using that exact same formula, you’re going to come off as completely un-self-aware and it’s going to look a bit sad, to be honest.  From a creative stand point, therefore, there is no reason for Shrek Forever After to exist.  From a business standpoint, I get why.  At the time of Shrek The Third’s release, DreamWorks weren’t doing so well at launching other money making franchises, there was no guarantee that Madagascar was actually going to work a second time around, and Shrek was a guaranteed money-spinner.  I don’t think anybody predicted the overall performance of DreamWorks between Shrek The Third and How To Train Your Dragon, so it makes business sense to make one more Shrek movie.

Yet, 2008 to 2010 happened, so a film that has no creative reason to exist also ends up having no real financial reason to exist, either.  After all, although Megamind would underwhelm somewhat at the box office – not entirely its own fault, however, as we shall see next week – the company was still in a very healthy shape financially.  And the company had just patched up its critical reputation, another Shrek film – and the backlash against any Shrek that wasn’t the first had set in by this point, so it was more than likely set to get mauled regardless of quality – was the last thing a company that could finally say “We make great films!” and not be greeted with derision needed.  Plus, DreamWorks already had two films out in 2010, a third in one year risks oversaturation, especially with Dragon having dropped barely two months earlier.

But, of course, you can’t cancel a film that you’ve sunk $100 million+ and several years into just because you no longer need it, and so the world was handed Shrek Forever After.  Now, as I think we’ve already discovered, the Shrek series and I do not get along.  I greeted this week’s entry with a resigned sigh, and I found the original Shrek, a good four months back (holy cow, I’ve been doing this for over five months, that is strangely terrifying), to be merely decent at best.  But I do see why the first film changed everything and I get why people really liked Shrek 2, even though it does not hold up at all.

My problem with the sequels is that they both lose sight of why the first film worked and do nothing but rehash it over and over again.  Shrek worked not because of its “edge”, not because of its pop-culture references, not because of its Disney pot-shots, but because of its giant beating heart and strong character work.  Yet all three sequels jettison that last part in favour of doubling down on everything else in that sentence, so the enterprise feels hollow.  And as for the re-hashing, Forever After is yet another tale of Shrek being miserable in his current predicament, setting off on and just go re-read my piece on Shrek The Third, I’m not going to pointlessly kill time by repeating what I said there.  Mind, the Obligatory Forest Battle sequence this time is actually a synchronised dance number.  That’s progress, I guess?

Shrek was a bold new idea that wished to inject life into a medium that had honestly gotten rather stale and risk-averse, Shrek 2 was an extended victory lap and cementing of the new status quo, Shrek The Third was a film that at least had a couple of good ideas in it – which it proceeded to actively go and squander.  All three of those films have reasons for existing that don’t just amount to “Scrooge McDuck money”.  Forever After… really doesn’t.  Its narrative conceit is a liberal borrowing of It’s A Wonderful Life in order to construct a version of Far, Far Away where Shrek never existed.  Except that it really doesn’t do enough with the alternate universe concept, instead shoving it all into the background in order to once again tell a story about Shrek trying to end up with Fiona.  Her, Donkey and Puss In Boots all very quickly revert to the dynamic they have in standard Far, Far Away anyway, so what exactly is the point?

It’s just going through the motions.  There’s no real heart there anymore, ironic since this instalment aims to be a big grand goodbye to the cast and the world of Shrek.  That lack of love ends up suffocating the film because nothing ends up connecting, nothing resonates.  The film focusses harder than any of the other sequels on the Shrek/Fiona relationship, seeing as the whole concept of the film is that the pair must fall in love again otherwise the world is DOOOOOOOMED – which is up there with Love Potion plots in terms of set-ups that make me more than a little uncomfortably queasy – but it doesn’t connect because nobody cares.  Mike Myers, who even tried to make Shrek The Third somewhat salvageable, most certainly no longer cares, failing to invest many of his lines with any real emotion and permanently ready to just be done with this whole franchise.

Shrek spends a lot of the first part of the movie wishing to go back to the old days, when he was a real ogre, when he had drive and fire and ambition, and it is very hard to not read it as meta-text as well – the cries of filmmakers and a studio that wants to go back to making films with invention and something to say rather than spending their days doing the same old song and dance.  Yet that’s all this film ends up doing.  It phones in what should be a rebellious clarion call, everything feels forced, there’s no imagination and nobody seems particularly interested in telling a story anymore.  There was actually a point in the film where I sat and wondered aloud to myself, “What is the point of any of this?  Like, why does this film exist, since nothing that happens in it is going to affect anything and it’s not doing anything with its premise to make up for that fact?”

Shrek learns his lesson – appreciate how great your life is instead of whinging all the time, you f*ckbag – within the first half an hour.  His character arc is all wrapped up and done, yet the film still has an hour left to kill and fills that time by having Shrek fall back in love with Fiona again – unnecessary, he already realises what he’s lost and wants to set things right – having Fiona fall in love with Shrek – irrelevant, nothing that happens in this reality particularly matters and the romance still feels WAAAAAAY too forced to remove the icky factor of the whole set-up – and padding out the film with action sequences focussed around an Ogre revolution against Rumpelstiltskin’s dictatorial control – confusing, since it begs the question of where all of these Ogres are in the correct reality.

In fact, let me briefly talk about Rumpelstiltskin.  UUUUUUUUUGGGGGHHHHHH.  First of all, considering the fact that one of the backbones of the Shrek franchise is upending established fairy-tale rules and conventions like who the heroes and villains are – Robin Hood in Shrek, Fairy Godmother and Prince Charming in Shrek 2 – having them go to Rumpelstiltskin and just making him a straight villain who does that thing he’s famous for smacks of wasted opportunities and lazy disinterested work.  Second, whilst I appreciate the DreamWorks tradition of having in-house production staff voicing secondary roles making a return, Walt Dohrn is honestly really poor as the villain, his chosen voice is just plain grating, very inconsistent, and frequently messing up what little actually decent material Rumpel gets.  (Incidentally, there are rumours that Tom Cruise was being courted to voice the guy instead, but they were squashed almost as soon as they were brought up.)

And third, he’s one of those villains who is irritatingly inconsistent in their intelligence level.  The entire dramatic tension of Forever After comes from Shrek needing to share True Love’s Kiss before the day is up, or else he and his old world will cease exist.  For Rumpelstiltskin to win, all he has to do is absolutely nothing.  I mean, it’s not like Shrek will figure this out on his own.  Yet, Rumpel still orders his witch army to capture Shrek for him so he can gloat and basically give Shrek all the instructions he needs to fix everything, which is incredibly dumb behaviour.  But he’s also a villain who hires a near-unstoppable bounty hunter, hides his escape clauses in complex origami, and can outwit the Ogre army with relative ease.  He’s not a character who is outwitted by the heroes – otherwise known as the right way to make a smart villain not appear a dumbass – he is somebody who openly orchestrates his own downfall because the script has written him that poorly.  He’s an utterly wasted character, is what I’m getting at.

The film’s focus on giant setpiece action scenes doesn’t help matters, either.  Not only are they there to artificially prolong the movie and attempt to hide the fact that there is incredibly little real character work going on here, they’re just really dull and uninspired.  Sometimes they’re framed and boarded in a way that caught my attention for a few seconds – it helps that chroma-keying isn’t particularly noticeable this go around – but then I remember that this is the first instalment made IN THREEEEEEEE-DEEEEEEEE and that a film as lifeless and uninterested in its own existence as Shrek Forever After probably only did that to justify the extra cash ticket.  It’s all loud noise and pretty colours, but nothing of substance.

In a positive development, at least, the amount of pop culture references are toned down significantly for this instalment, due to the shift away from standard Far, Far Away.  The downside is that Forever After flails even harder when it comes to telling jokes.  It blows all of its best material during the segment at the first birthday party of Shrek and Fiona’s kids – where a perfectly paced scene constructs, arranges, boards and then milks its jokes in a way and manner that genuinely works for the entire runtime – and then struggles to get actual jokes from there.  It’s like removing the pop culture references crutch, likely meant as a way to challenge themselves and stave off complaints, only revealed to the writers how little of a handle they have on any of the cast anymore.

So the attempts at character gags mostly fall flat, inexcusable given the alternate reality set-up.  The one constant hit involves Puss In Boots and that’s more from Antonio Banderas’ ability to commit to any line he is fed than anything else.  So, instead, we get these occasional jarring bursts of major black comedy that come off as really mean-spirited instead of actually funny – did we really have to have Fat Puss In Boots eat the still alive alternate universe version of the Gingerbread Man, especially when Shrek played his torment for drama instead of mean-spirited laughs?  And who honestly thought having Donkey devolve further into a borderline racist caricature – “What you talkin’ about, cracker?” – was a good idea?  Plus, the film can’t even commit to its “No Pop Culture Gags” edict.  We open with a Deliverance reference, of all sodding things, and the Pied Piper’s character turns out to just be an elaborate set-up to play “Sure Shot” by Beastie Boys.

Forever After is a film that is creatively bankrupt whilst simultaneously being the best of the Shrek sequels.  2’s overreliance on pop culture references to drive proceedings has aged it incredibly poorly, The Third’s total ineptitude and active wasting of its two decent ideas makes it an abominable mess, but Forever After is more just dull than anything else.  It’s competently made, but rather heartless and really dull, yet that’s still a step-up from the last two, which should be a good indication as to just how far the Shrek series ended up falling.  It doesn’t justify its existence as anything other than a belated cash stimulus for DreamWorks Animation, and it doesn’t really try to dissuade that notion at any point.  There’s no real send-off vibe to proceedings, even though it tries to; it just feels like a pointless epilogue to a series that wrapped with The Third.

But, hey, if it was supposed to just be a cash stimulus for DreamWorks, at least Forever After didn’t fail in that respect.  The very high scoring number 1 debut, the three-peat at the top of the chart, the very decent home media sales; all par for the course.  Hell, even though it only lasted 7 weeks in the Top 10 and is the lowest grossing main entry in the Shrek franchise domestically, I doubt DreamWorks were too upset, since the film is the company’s second best-overseas-performer ever behind Madagascar 3.  I mean, it looks bad for a series like Shrek to erode so thoroughly between instalments, but investors can easily be calmed by waving $752 million in their faces.  In fact, thanks to that stellar overseas performance, the film managed to hold off Despicable Me to become the second highest grossing animated film worldwide of a very competitive 2010.

So, from a business standpoint, Shrek Forever After had a reason to exist, even if that was just to mitigate the eventual underperformance of Megamind and to flush DreamWorks execs with even more cashola.  But from a creative standpoint, did Forever After really need to exist?  It’s clear that nobody here had any sustainable or substantial ideas for a film and that this is being made out of some corporate mandated necessity than any actual love.  The whole production is clearly tired and fed up and uninterested in crafting new worlds or characters or jokes that are worth a damn – best exemplified by the complete lack of effort in making the new Ogres not look like the single most terrifying things I’ve seen all week.  Yes, it sends off the Shrek series on a higher note than the excretable The Third did, but it also does so with an open contempt and disinterest for having to do so in the first place.  Say what you like about The Third, lord knows I have, but at least there was a spark of life in there for the majority of its runtime.  Forever After is practically comatose.

It’s not even a true send-off for the Shrek series!  In 18 months, DreamWorks would attempt to spin-off Puss In Boots into his own prequel series, one that’s apparently still getting a sequel at some point.  Katzenberg, meanwhile, keeps dropping hints about finally making that fifth instalment which, considering the state of DreamWorks Animation at the moment, could be an attempt to placate investors who would rather he keeps pumping that series dry until the money stops coming, and also a mighty tempting proposition right now.  If he is smart, he’ll just leave the series to rest for good.  It was was suffering from diminishing financial returns, blatantly running on creative fumes by the time of Forever After, and the original’s legacy has already been tainted by its sequels that it doesn’t need any further knocks against it.

I realise that the temptation is great, but Shrek is not a movie that the DreamWorks Animation of today can make.  Not in the landscape they helped build, not when they are the ones at the head of the medium.  They already tried making it again three more times and each successive one just came off as more and more desperate and forced.  I would love to see them somehow pull the series out of the endless tailspin that it’s been stuck in for a decade and properly say goodbye at the top of their game, but forcing it is the wrong way to go.  They need a story, they need to remember the real reason why the first Shrek worked, and everybody needs to be 100% invested in returning back for one last ride.  Otherwise, the series should just be allowed to rest in peace.  Forever After basically spent 90 minutes sleepwalking, anyway, it’s not much further of a stretch.


Although it was a financial success, Shrek Forever After still suffered from diminishing financial returns for the series, and was a creative black mark for a studio that had managed to near totally turn around its reputation in the public eye.  Their final 2010 film would be heavily regarded as middle-of-the-road fare and failed to blow any doors off any box offices.  How much of that was due to the film itself and how much of that was due to incredibly unlucky timing will more than likely be our main topic of discussion next week when we look at Megamind.

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

Callum Petch is saying sorry through a bottle.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

How To Train Your Dragon

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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


how to train your dragon19] How To Train Your Dragon (26th March 2010)

Budget: $165 million

Gross: $494,878,759

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%

Let’s talk about Astrid.

Astrid, at the outset of How To Train Your Dragon, is a tough, no-nonsense dragon warrior in training.  She takes extreme pride in her chosen life path, wanting to become a great dragon slayer more than anything else.  She has no time for f*ck-ups, no time for the boys that are constantly hitting on her even though she keeps repeatedly making it clear that she is not interested, and to not take training seriously is to deeply insult her – the mere insinuation that her path in life is anything less than noble and desirable sending her into an understandable rage.

Therefore, Hiccup infuriates Astrid, openly so.  She has been training her entire life to kill dragons and takes every little bit of it seriously.  And in comes Hiccup, bumbling his way through training half-heartedly, making a joke out of her profession.  Then Hiccup inexplicably starts getting good; he starts getting really good.  Astrid’s pride can’t take it, there is simply no way that Hiccup, a clumsy fool who has openly stated that he cannot and does not want to kill a dragon, can suddenly become a master of dragons overnight.  Not when she has dedicated her whole life to being the best at this stuff, not now that she is suddenly number two to what appears to be a halfwit.

When she is passed over for the opportunity to kill a dragon, she decides to tail Hiccup and find out his secret.  There she discovers Toothless, the incredibly dangerous Nightfury dragon that Hiccup has seemingly tamed and has been getting his dragon info from.  Terrified, she runs off to warn the village, but Hiccup and Toothless kidnap her before she can in order to get assurances that she won’t spill the beans.  To help convince her, Hiccup has her fly with him on Toothless to discover just how peaceful dragons can be and how amazing riding them is.  It does the trick, Astrid is very much convinced.

In fact, she’s so convinced that she kisses Hiccup practically the second they get back down to the ground and becomes his girlfriend for the rest of the movie, despite having held him in pure contempt for the previous hour.

Does this sound familiar?  It should; this kind of character trajectory – from a strong young woman trying to earn respect in a man’s world and with absolutely no time for the awkward flirting of the lead protagonist, to someone who is suddenly stuck in the gravitational pull of the lead male’s penis (metaphorically) and is reduced to simply being The Girlfriend who needs rescuing in the finale – has been utilised by DreamWorks Animation before.  Remember Marina from Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas?  And just like in that film, How To Train Your Dragon ends up taking a torch to its incredibly interesting female co-lead, with a whole bunch of potential distinctly female-focussed themes and narrative threads attached to her existence and character (although it’s annoyingly just left as subtext), for quite literally no good reason.

In an article posted on The Dissolve this past Summer, Tasha Robinson termed this kind of character trajectory as “Trinity Syndrome”, after the closest thing to a ur text in the shape of Trinity from The Matrix, and few things in movies annoy me more than it.  It gives off the impression that women are not important enough to have their own stories and narrative arcs unless they are inextricably tied to the whims of a man.  That ends up becoming even more infuriating when their plotlines are deep and detailed, yet are dropped like week old garbage the second the film decides that its time for them to suddenly be irresistibly attracted to the man’s genitalia (metaphorically).

Astrid is a character who has an incredibly interesting character and thematic arc, as previously detailed, and it very much seems to be building up to her swallowing her pride, recognising Hiccup’s way of doing things and growing to respect him as a fellow Viking.  Then, at the hour mark and quite literally out of nowhere, she falls hopelessly in love with Hiccup and, around that time, loses her competency in combat – her main character trait by that point – so that Hiccup can rescue her in the finale.  Much like with Sinbad, the film gains nothing from making Astrid The Girlfriend of Hiccup.  The film could have taken the romance part of the relationship out of it and lost nothing except a whole surplus load of problems.  It’s character derailment of the highest order and the only thing that even slightly redeems it is the early scene between the two in the sequel where proceedings are suitably adorable and cute.  That’s the sequel, however, so it’s still a problem in this film.

Specifically, in addition to ruining the character of Astrid, her sudden and inexplicable falling for Hiccup contributes to the film’s broken attempt at its message.  From the start of the film, How To Train Your Dragon loudly sets up a message of alternate masculinity.  Hiccup wants to be accepted in a very manly culture of walking badasses who practically reek of testosterone – including the women – but is physically incapable of being so because he’s physically weak and an altogether more peaceful guy stuck in a society that prides strength and violence above everything else.  From the very start of the film, the pieces are put in place for Hiccup to earn the respect and admiration of his father and the community in other ways, through inner strength and the ability to make peace with the dragons.  He will never be the guy who walks away from the explosion in slow motion, girlfriend in one arm, without looking back, but he can be masculine in other ways.

Yet his arc pays off by having him achieve acceptance in the way that the film’s society deems is the only way to be a true man: fighting and killing a dragon.  He even loses a leg in the process; truest sign of a man and a badass is when you have a war wound – direct quote from Astrid prior to training, “It’s only fun if you get a scar out of it.”  Sure, he’s riding a dragon and is only doing this in order to set the other dragons free and keep his dad from being killed, but it’s still very much a traditional way to wrap up his arc and makes the messages of the film – being true to one’s-self, what society deems to be masculine is not the only way to be a man, and that pacifism does not make you a coward or wuss – contradict events on screen.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 has this same problem, but works it into its overall narrative – the message of that film blatantly being that some people cannot be reasoned with and that, in those extreme situations, drastic steps have to be taken to keep things from spiralling further out of control.  The problem with How To Train Your Dragon is that the Alpha Dragon – the unreasonable thing that requires drastic steps to combat – is not worked into the message, so his existence and eventual combat feels like a sacrifice to big-budget filmmaking rather than a natural part of the film.  Yet, frustratingly, his existence is still inextricably linked to the film’s DNA – even though he contradicts the messages and feels superfluous, the film is still building up to a final showdown with Hiccup and Toothless against something big and nasty, so he can’t be ejected from the film.

So, Hiccup fits and slays a dragon; the biggest and baddest alive that also happens to be the reason why dragons keep raiding Berk and attacking and killing people.  He also demonstrates natural leadership, gets the girl of his dreams, rescues the girl of his dreams as The Strong Female Character cannot be allowed to be self-reliant in the finale, becomes accepted by the Viking society for actually totally being one of them deep down inside when the chips are down, and wins the respect of his father for basically doing what needed to be done.  There’s nothing particularly alternative or Hiccup about it, despite having Stoick state otherwise.  It’s like the film is at war with itself, between what it wants to be and what it needs to be – kinda fitting, in all honesty.

Yes, as you may have gathered, I don’t love How To Train Your Dragon.  I also don’t hate it, but I have many problems with it and I feel that, although it has many outstanding individual scenes, the whole doesn’t quite work.  Let it be said, however, that, despite how I may sometimes come off when talking about films, I was really trying to like it.  As a dog owner, the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless is the kind of pure, beautiful relationship between owner and pet that sends my heart all a-swelling; the film’s opening reel, where it sets up the intent of subverting typically accepted masculinity, had me all set to feel super “yay!” at the finale due to my personal relationships with masculinity; and, on the filmmaking side, the directors and co-writers are Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, previous of one of my favourite animated films of all-time in the shape of Lilo & Stitch.

Yet, both times that I’ve seen the film now – once prior to How To Train Your Dragon 2 because I learnt my lesson from February thank you kindly, once again for this series – it has left me cold overall, and I’m honestly not sure why.  I mean, those two issues I just spent extensive time going into are not exactly deal-breakers – broken Aesops are not major problems for me, and I’m a hardcore Disney fan so, although I am a feminist, I’m not going to write a film off totally for messing up its female characters (unless things switch over into an openly sexist, hateful misogynistic vibe, anyway) – and, as I think we’ve discovered throughout this series, I don’t have a bias against DreamWorks Animation and have loved and really like a good majority of their films.

But, try as I might, I can’t figure out why I feel no particular affinity to the whole of How To Train Your Dragon.  There’s just this thing, I don’t know what it is and I can’t describe it but I know it’s not in HTTYD, for me at least.  I mean, I’m rather alone on this.  It has the highest score on Rotten Tomatoes of any DreamWorks Animation film to date and that includes Aardman co-productions, it swept the 2010 Annie Awardsalbeit not without controversy – many people feel the film was snubbed when Toy Story 3 took the Best Animated Feature Oscar over it at that year’s Academy Awards, and, without fail, every single time I mention to somebody that this series and this film does pretty much nothing for me, they gasp in shock, assume I outright hate the film and demand an immediate explanation.  But I can’t.  I can tell them about Astrid and I can tell them about the walking contradiction known as the alpha dragon, but those are still not the reason why the overall film does nothing for me.  So, therefore, I can’t tell people why I’m rather indifferent on a lot of this film except for just knowing that I am.

It’s a real shame, too, because How To Train Your Dragon does a lot of things right.  Visually, the film is a delight, even if its ability to blow minds thanks to raw quality has been lessened somewhat by the sequel outdoing it in every regard.  DreamWorks, especially the Shrek series, have so far had a problem when it comes to animating and representing humans on screen – with them pretty much always falling into the Uncanny Valley and clashing badly with the rest of the film’s world.  HTTYD is the first to really break through that with strong distinctive character designs that are clearly more focussed on resembling ideas in artists’ heads than the famous celebrity voicing them.  Boarding and layout, meanwhile, take the arty heavily thought-out nature of Kung Fu Panda and runs with it, constructing gorgeous shots that make great usage of space and size.  (It likely doesn’t surprise you, incidentally, to find out that Roger Deakins was a visual consultant on the film.)

how to train your dragon

You could hang this shot in an art gallery and only arseholes would object to its conclusion.

Writing is mostly strong, excluding the prior mentioned issues and most things out of Snoutlout’s obnoxiously awful mouth.  It’s a film that maintains a serious tone for a large percentage of its runtime without being joyless.  It doesn’t force its humour, the dragon training kids are teenagers so it makes sense that they’d be obnoxious and silly, and many of the jokes work on a dramatic level too.  Stoick telling Hiccup that to become a true Viking he needs to stop being him, represented by gesturing to all of Hiccup, is funny because of how blunt he is and how incredulous Hiccup is about the whole thing, but it also works dramatically as Hiccup’s own father all but openly announces his contempt for his son to his face.

(Side Bar, whilst we’re on the subject: holy hell, do I find Stoick to be an incredibly irritating and unlikeable little sh*tbag in this film.  Despite the film’s best efforts, I don’t find him sympathetic at all in this film and it’s because the film pushes down so hard on the “contempt for his son” button.  His sympathetic side, including why he is especially vindictive towards dragons, is saved for the sequel so all we get here is miserable, angry, really unlikeable Stoick, with only very occasional hints of genuine love bursting through, so that part of the heart side of the film falls flat for me.  I also realise I’ve just undermined my “writing is mostly strong” point with this little digression, but I thought I’d talk about it briefly whilst it was still relevant.)

And then there is the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless.  When the film is firing on all cylinders, and it fires on all cylinders a fair bit despite the constant negativity I’ve been indulging in in this here article, it’s because of those two.  There’s a huge, giant beating heart powering all of their interactions and an incredibly sweet and natural development to their relationship.  The design of Toothless especially helps matters, balancing cute and cuddly and adorable with dangerous and wild for the appropriate situations; making him consistent whether he’s this dangerous mythical beast who is three seconds away from biting Hiccup’s face off, or this adorable cutie curling up next to his master after a successful test flight.

Their bond feels real and genuine as the film perfectly paces their relationship from predator and prey, to cautious friends, to life partners.  How To Train Your Dragon’s standout scene, the one that genuinely moved me to tears on first viewing because of its beauty, is the bit where Hiccup manages to tame Toothless and Toothless genuinely warms to Hiccup.  A sequence told almost entirely without words yet saying more than 75% of vastly inferior animated movies manage to say in their entire runtime.  It’s here where everything comes together – the strong writing, the brilliant character designs, the outstanding character animation, John Powell’s utterly sensational score, that giant beating heart – to create art.  It’s just so impeccably done and… you know what?  Just watch.

A close second is the test flight sequence, for pretty much all of the reasons listed about the prior scene and with the added pro of it being one of the best non-Miyazaki flight scenes I have ever seen in an animated movie.  Closely behind that there’s the sequence where Hiccup wakes up after the battle with the alpha dragon (officially known as Red Death, although I never once heard the film call it that), is re-united with Toothless and discovers his new prosthetic leg – Second Side Bar, real quick: although the path taken to get there and its overall thematic ramifications in this film is shoddy and rather unearned, I cannot deny that everything else this series has done, and hasn’t done, with the prosthetic leg is brilliant.

Yes, there is a point behind my devolving into referring to scenes without any real critical analysis to accompany them.  Again, I find How To Train Your Dragon to be a whole bunch of excellent scenes in a whole that never quite works, and those scenes are most emblematic of that fact.  They have that intangible something that, for me at least, the rest of the film doesn’t.  After all, pretty much every single one of those elements that I mentioned a second ago are working at that level for the whole film, and How To Train Your Dragon is never really bad – those negative marks I’ve mentioned are more things I find disagreeable than outright negative deal-breakers.  It just doesn’t work as a whole, for some reason, and that intangible thing that powers those three particular scenes to transcendental excellency doesn’t really show up outside of those scenes.

The problem of course being that, no matter how hard I try, I can’t figure out what that thing is.  And that fact is killing me!

So, as you may have gathered by now, it’s very easy to see why How To Train Your Dragon blew off many doors at the box office.  It had a really rather modest opening, $43 million which is way below par for DreamWorks films especially since it now had the bonus of 3D tickets, but it held.  It held extremely well over the following 10 weeks, even as DreamWorks’ own Shrek Forever After came along two months in to cannibalise long-term play.  Considering the fact that action-focussed animated films supposedly don’t hold well – a view more than likely enforced due to that turn-of-the-century animation problem we talked about many weeks back – the fact that it finished as the 9th highest grossing film domestically of 2010 is a damn near miracle.

Overseas gross ended up about equal with domestic gross, which is what kept the film from being a runaway hit and is decidedly underwhelming considering how DreamWorks normally do overseas, but I’m pretty sure that DreamWorks executives weren’t exactly crying over failures or what have you when the home media sales numbers started coming in.  Besides, the company made a tonne of money from the domestic dollar, which is mostly better for the studios than foreign dollars (once again, this article will explain everything).  How To Train Your Dragon today consists of two critically acclaimed and financially successful (sorta for the second one, depends how much you subscribe to Hollywood Accounting) feature films with a third on the way, a very successful TV series, four short films, multiple videogames, and an arena show adaptation that lasted about 10 minutes in America and Canada before it was uprooted to China instead.

And I get why this series is incredibly popular.  I really do, they are damn good films.  How To Train Your Dragon is a really damn good film!  I want to love it unconditionally like I do so many other animated films, like I do Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois’ Lilo & Stitch, like I do with so many of DreamWorks’ other films that we’ve covered in this series.  But the film as a whole does nothing for me.  I don’t know why, but it just doesn’t, much like how I cannot get into Adventure Time to save my life.  And if you find that fact bewildering and maddening, know that I am right there with you.  I’m really glad that so many people love and get something out of the How To Train Your Dragon series, but they just do nothing for me and I just don’t know why.


Even though the company had been on a significant upswing in terms of quality in the two years prior to its release, pretty much nobody saw the sheer quality of How To Train Your Dragon coming.  DreamWorks would be rewarded for that pleasant surprise with an unparalleled amount of critical praise and a very healthy return at the box office.  The hot streak that the company was on, however, had to come to an end sooner or later and, two months later, the company unleashed the final Shrek film to date upon the world to (relatively, considering how much a juggernaut Shrek was supposed to be) middling box office success and critical shrugs of indifference.  Next week, we’ll tackle Shrek Forever After and see whether it was unfairly dismissed by critics based on the brand name or is yet another low-quality squirt for cash.

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

Callum Petch is caught up in love and he’s in ecstasy.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Monsters vs. Aliens

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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


monsters vs aliens18] Monsters vs. Aliens (7th November 2008)

Budget: $175 million

Gross: $381,509,870

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 72%

In 2012, Pixar made major waves by releasing Brave, their first animated feature in the 26 years that they had existed (17 since they started releasing feature films) to feature a lead female protagonist.  Conversation about the film primarily revolved around this aspect and the company was roundly praised and criticised for the execution of said creative choice.  In late 2013, Disney released Frozen and one couldn’t move in 2014 without being drowned in think-pieces about whether the film was feminist or not.  2014 has also been the year in which the lack of female characters in films, long since held onto by movie executives who believe that female leads can’t carry non-romance movies – despite these past several years offering a laundry list to the contrary, and women now making up the majority of cinemagoers – has been roundly called out and questioned at large.

You can extend those questions of representation to the animated realm, too.  For example, Pop Quiz: name me five non-sequel Western animated films released in cinemas in the past 10 years that feature a lead female protagonist… who is not, or does not become, a princess.  Not a secondary lead character – so throw away Wreck-It Ralph – not a love interest, the lead character.  Off the top of my head, I can name Persepolis (which is cheating, seeing as it is based on a true story), Coraline, The Croods, this week’s film Monsters vs. Aliens…  No, that’s about all I can name.

The official list, which I have discovered through Wikipedia so apologies if some of these are wrong, consists of those films, Hoodwinked! (barely qualifies, it’s an ensemble piece by nature), Battle For Terra, Happily N’Ever After (again, barely), The Snow Queen, Anina, Epic and Legends Of Oz: Dorothy’s Return.  That’s 11.  11 in 10 years.  You can also throw the Tinkerbell series in that pile too – alongside the instalments of series like Barbie, Winx Club etc. that actually get a cinema release and fit the criteria – but it doesn’t change the fact that animation has a major female representation problem.  Pixar’s Brave provoked some heated conversation for not adding to that pile – something they will attempt to rectify possibly with next year’s Inside Out – and, although I enjoyed Brave, it’s an understandable thing to rake them over the coals for.

Especially since DreamWorks Animation will have already fulfilled this criteria six years before Inside Out attempts to.

Despite appearances, Monsters vs. Aliens is very resolutely Susan’s story.  There are stretches of the film where we hand proceedings over to the monsters or The President Of The United States, but those are basically just borrowing the film from Susan for a short while.  At its core, at its centre, Monsters vs. Aliens is a film about a woman who learns to take control of her life and stop taking men’s sh*t.  Susan is absolutely the main character, Susan is the character whose arc is the most fleshed out, Susan is the character who gets the lion’s share of the film’s awesome moments (as well as the best of them), and Susan is the emotional centre of the film.

Susan is Monsters vs. Aliens and her tale of female empowerment is why I spent so, so, so much of this film eating out of the palm of its hand.  Many stories of female empowerment that I have come across recently – best epitomised by the latest Tomb Raider, which is a videogame but is too relevant to this topic to not address – mistake actual lead female growth for “Let’s constantly put her down and beat her up until she finally turns around and fights back.”  They don’t let them grow emotionally, they don’t really let them choose to become powerful.  They’re forced into violence, forced into fighting back and they don’t really grow as a person besides a proclivity for violence.  There are ways to do this right, don’t get me wrong, but too many times I’ve seen media essentially put their lead female character through a Trauma Conga Line and have them come out of the other side broken but not stronger.

For an example of how to do this right, Monsters vs. Aliens spends much of its first half having bad things happen to Susan.  Her fiancée relocates their honeymoon to Fresno instead of Paris in order to try and further his career, she gets hit by a meteor and grows nearly 50 feet tall, she is captured by the military and forcibly locked away in prison, denied the chance to see any of the people she loves ever again, and is renamed “Ginormica” by the government.  She takes all of this how pretty much anybody would and retreats into despair, albeit trying to make the best of her situation by making friends with her fellow monsters.  When told that she would gain her freedom if she helps take down a giant alien robot, she runs away, not wanting to be put into that situation.

But, and this is the crucial bit, she then stops mid-escape on the Golden Gate bridge to help those people who she has inadvertently put in danger.  She risks her own life to help others, even though she has no reason to believe that she would make it out of the encounter alive.  Her growth is not motivated by her own survival instinct, it’s motivated by her naturally-being-a-good-person-ness being enhanced by her powers.  Susan is not a tormented dog turning around and biting back after being provoked enough because she has no other choice, she is somebody who actively chooses.  She chooses her destiny, she chooses her strength, she chooses to embrace her new role.

After the robot battle, Susan is on Cloud Nine.  She’s discovered a strength and a near-independence she didn’t know came with her personality, and she is proud of that fact!  And that pride ends up becoming a defining feature of her character.  Derek dumps her because Derek is a selfish dick, but he doesn’t take her pride with him.  If anything, he re-enforces her independence.  Naturally, she’s heartbroken for a short while, but the experience reminds her of how much more she’s accomplished by herself without holding the hand of Derek and that re-asserts her confidence.  When she’s captured by Gallaxhar, she doesn’t even pretend to play the scared damsel, she’s immediately breaking out and trying to kick ass.  When she’s de-powered, her first instinct is still to try and beat the crap out of Gallaxhar.  When she’s home free but her friends are trapped, she goes back and sacrifices her prior life to save them.

And she makes all of these choices herself.  Her agency becomes the drive for the film.  Whenever somebody else tries to snatch her agency away from her, she takes it, or tries to take it, right back.  Derek dumps her and breaks her heart; she seizes the wake-up call and announces that she will go on without him, no problem.  Gallaxhar kidnaps her; she immediately breaks free and rampages across the ship in an attempt to beat him down in response.  Gallaxhar takes her powers; her first instinct is still to try and take him down.  About to be swarmed by clones?  Susan immediately grabs a blaster and starts fending for herself.  Her friends are set to die?  Not whilst there’s still breath in Susan’s body!

She’s strong of mind, strong of personality.  Her ability to kick copious amounts of ass is just another side to her – it’s not the only side to her and it’s not the only way she asserts her independence as a woman.  She is – and I know that people absolutely detest this phrase but I can’t think of a better time to deploy it than now – a Strong Female Character.  Way stronger than anything that DreamWorks had concocted up to this point – way more so than the supposedly progressive Shrek series and waaaaaaaaay more so than the supposedly-openly-feminist Shrek The Third.  In fact, she reminds me at points – not always, their characterisations are rather different after all – of Korra from The Legend Of Korra, especially during her rampage through Gallaxhar’s spaceship which gave me flashbacks to the Korra Book 3 finale – where her kicking ass is not the empowering moment, because she doesn’t, but the fact that she is standing up and actively metaphorically yelling ‘no more!’ at her male oppressor.

This all being said, one could read the scene in which Susan fully rejects her original name and embraces Ginormica instead as yet another example of strong women being equated to masculinity – having to sacrifice their femininity to be happy or strong.  However, I think it’s hard to read it fully like that.  For one, Susan is rejecting the negative aspects of her old self – her passivity, her dependence on her man, the side of her that smiles and accepts bad things happening to her instead of fighting back – not her entire self.  She’s embracing the side she didn’t realise she had until she become Ginormica, so she’s associating that new identity, which combines the best aspects of her old self – compassion, strong loyal bonds – with her newly discovered independence and personal strength; with her new outlook on life.

For two, Ginormica still has a distinctly feminine edge to it, primarily coming from the “a” affixed to the end of the name.  It may have been assigned to her by somebody else – formally by General W. R. Monger, more than likely decided by a room full of men – but she has claimed the name back for herself.  What started as an unwanted designation turns into a name that she is proud to sport, one that denotes her strength and her femininity.  And for three, Susan doesn’t do anything, in this scene or in the remainder of the film’s runtime, that she hasn’t already proven herself capable of doing.  She’s not suddenly becoming more masculine, she’s just owning up to the identity that she has now created.

Plus, this scene is just absolutely f*cking amazing and I will hear absolutely no ill will spoken against it.

Yet, I saw pretty much zilch comments about this aspect of the film during my research for this entry.  Variety’s review – and I sh*t you not, here, go and follow the link to see for yourself – spends its paragraph on her talking about her in purely visual terms, as a thing to be attracted to and whose looks are the sole thing worth talking about.  Empire managed to get a brief segment in about it, Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek notes that the film’s very-unsubtle delivery of that message undermines and grates, but that’s about it.  Professional reviewers instead judged it by the usual things they judge animated films by – pretty colours, pop culture jokes, level of heart, nowhere near as good as Pixar – and I count 2 think-pieces at the time on its feminism.

The point I’m trying to make is that there was no conversation.  Brave sparked a conversation.  Monsters vs. Aliens did not.  Pixar sparked a conversation.  Disney are deemed worthy of a conversation.  DreamWorks were deemed unworthy of that conversation.  Now, why do you think that is?  After all, as I’ve pointed out time and again throughout this series, DreamWorks are a company with a complicated and storied history with characters of the female gender – next week I’m going to have to talk about Astrid, for example, and I am bracing myself accordingly – shouldn’t we be scrutinising their works the same way we scrutinise Disney or Pixar?

Now, of course, one can explain these away by either noting that a lot has changed in the last five years – hence why I noted the uptick in demands for representation this past year – and that Disney has a longer history than DreamWorks so there’s more to cull from.  That first one is sort of understandable, I guess, but the second is what I call shenanigans on.  After all, Pixar have only been releasing animated features for 3 years longer than DreamWorks have, and they’ve released less films overall than DreamWorks have.  So why do Pixar get preferential treatment?

It probably comes down to that rep that DreamWorks have accumulated.  I am not going to go over this in full again, as I have covered it multiple times in this series – hell, that rep is what basically helped kick-start this series in the first place – and it helps none of us if I spend forever repeating myself, but DreamWorks are seen as a commercial outhouse.  A factory, if you will, one that pumps out an endless stream of films – at least half of which are sequels – with no semblance of quality control in the hopes that something strikes financial, and maybe also critical if that’s possible, gold.  And whilst 2014 has shown that to be completely untrue – three home runs creatively, even if the How To Train Your Dragon series does nothing for me – that’s the rep they’ve acquired and it’s not one that they’re shaking any time soon.

Pixar releases, though, and official Disney releases are seen as events.  Because they limit themselves to one film a year, even taking a year off in some cases, each release and each entry into their canon is seen as something special, something to take notice of.  It’s why when they release a Cars 2 or a Home On The Range/Chicken Little, everybody is harder on them – those are seen as sullying marks on a track record that has shown it can do better.  Yet if DreamWorks releases a sub-par Shrek, everybody shrugs their shoulders and collectively goes, “Well what did you expect?” before proceeding on with their lives.  It’s why negative Cars 2 reviews compare it to Pixar’s prior classics, whilst negative Penguins Of Madagascar reviews also compare it to Pixar’s prior classics despite DreamWorks having a rapidly-growing list of quality films of their own to compare themselves to.

Look, I get it, Pixar are The Gold Standard for animation – hopefully still are, I pray to various deities that 2015 is the year in which everybody pulls their fingers out of their arses and gets back to a level somewhere close to where they were operating on up to and including Toy Story 3 – but they should not be the be all end all of conversation in the medium.  DreamWorks Animation are one of the biggest and most successful animation companies in the Western world for a reason, and their creative decisions should be getting as much scrutiny as their competitors.  You know how many think-pieces I’ve seen on How To Train Your Dragon 2’s gender roles in the past six months?  Three.  That Tasha Robinson piece from earlier that used the film as a jumping-off point to look at the industry at large, a short blog entry by Margot Magowan, and a list piece by Gina Luttrell.

Next year, both Pixar and DreamWorks are releasing films with female protagonists.  Pixar are releasing Inside Out, a film about the various emotions inside a 10 year-old girl’s mind, DreamWorks are releasing Home, a film about a black teenage girl who teams up with a not-particularly smart alien to thwart a double invasion of Earth.  I guarantee you that Inside Out will be talked about and scrutinised more for its depiction of the female gender than Home ever will be.  I mean, I’m also pretty sure that Inside Out will be a better film than Home as well, but that’s not the point.

The point is that we can’t and shouldn’t pick and choose which animated films and which animation studios are worth hard analysis.  This is a medium that deserves to be taken seriously – as I have repeatedly made clear in articles on this site – and that’s not going to happen until we look at everything with the same staunchly critical and analytical eye that we do for Pixar and Disney.  Do you think I wrote 3,108 words on Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas because I had nothing better to do with my time?  I mean, I don’t, but the point is that Sinbad had that much going on in it that I didn’t need to work especially hard to hit my self-assigned word count.  Ditto films like The Nut Job, or Escape From Planet Earth, or the Tinker Bell series.  They’re not high art, but they are still worthy and capable of supporting in-depth discussion.

And so does Monsters vs. Aliens, which I believe is a very feminist film.  It’s not a perfect feminist film – Susan is still the only girl, girl-ish screams are the focal point for a very long gag, “You got beat by a girl” is deployed as an insult form but at least in a dramatic way that affects character work this time – but I believe that it is still a loud, proud and powerfully feminist film about female self-empowerment.   I may be wrong.  Hell, I want to be wrong; I want a hundred feminist critics – preferably women, who have far more of a say in this discussion than I do – to come charging down the hill and take up both sides of the argument, either agreeing with my assessment or disagreeing and showing me ten to fifteen reasons why.

I want to see lengthy conversations about the film’s messy structure, about its uninteresting villain, about why the humour does or does not work, about whether the art style works or just ends up freaking the writer out for the length of the film, about how badly the unspoken “All Animated Movies Must Be 90 Minutes Under Pain Of Death” rule hobbles the film from excellency.  All things I would have talked about at length had I the time – although, for the record: awkwardly paced first half but the film soars from San Francisco onwards, script doesn’t give him anything to do, too low-brow for the most part and the film’s very dramatic undercurrent means that the attempts at parody undercut proceedings, takes a while to get used to but at least makes Susan and the monsters look great, and this needed to be 2 hours or even a full season of TV – and all things I could have easily based at least half an article of this length on individually.

Point is, I want a conversation to start.  Animation needs a conversation if it’s going to better itself and be fully respected, and that conversation needs to cover everyone – not just critical golden boy Pixar and good old Disney.  DreamWorks Animation should be allowed in on that conversation, regardless of its past or its very commercial and prolific nature.  I am one of about three people talking about feminism and non-Shrek DreamWorks films.  This should not be the case.  So, start conversing.


Monsters vs. Aliens continued DreamWorks Animation’s re-ascension to quality filmmaking in the eyes of critics, although the film’s major underperformance overseas prevented it from being the financial smash that the studio would have liked.  It wasn’t a failure, though, and so the company would close out the decade – Monsters vs. Aliens being their only release for 2009 – on a decent note with the company still looking strong.  Their first film of the new decade, though, would take everybody by surprise and be seen as the company’s new Magnum Opus, as well as the start of a very successful new franchise.

Next week, we look at the first How To Train Your Dragon.

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

Callum Petch should have cut his losses long before he knew.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

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)!

Bee Movie

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.


bee movieBefore 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

Gross: $287,594,577

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)!

DreamWorks Animation Television, Part 1

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.


invasion americaBonus Entry #2] DreamWorks Animation Television, Part 1

In the 20 years that it has existed for, DreamWorks Animation has gone from another wannabe pretender to Disney’s animated throne to one of the biggest and most influential animation companies on the planet today; one responsible for helping shape the face of Western Animation for a good decade and one with a considerable pop culture presence even long after the Shrek effect has worn off.  See, the company’s influence doesn’t just reside in the realm of film.

Even before the release of Antz, DreamWorks Animation was trying to stake their claim on the land of television, in Jeffrey Katzenberg’s continued attempts to beat out Disney across all possible fronts.  Not that you’d know that as the company’s first… scratch that, every attempt prior to 2008 to break into the half-hour animated television show market was swiftly and unceremoniously cancelled.  The company has even expunged their existence from their own website entirely, like they’d rather everybody forget about them and focus on the stuff that worked instead.

Well, such selective memory is not how we do things here at the DreamWorks Animation Retrospective – although certain weeks really make me wish we did – so that’s why I’ve spent the last few weeks going through enough of the company’s first attempts at television to get a feel for each show in order to theorise why nobody turned up to them.  (I am excluding Alienators: Evolution Continues as they were one of several companies involved in that show, and this series is only looking at DreamWorks specifically.)  The next time we reconvene to look at their television output – which will be at the end of this series – we’ll be looking at the shows made post-The Penguins Of Madagascar.  Today, though, we look at the three made prior.


1) Toonsylvania

Network: Fox

Number of Episodes: 19 across 2 seasons with 2 unaired

Original Run: 2nd February 1998 – 21st December 1998

Have you ever seen Freakazoid! or Tiny Toon Adventures or even AnimaniacsToonsylvania is basically a horror-tinged mediocre version of those.  I mean, this isn’t really a surprise, Steven Spielberg was the show’s executive producer, but it also very easily explains why the show came and went within a year.  There’s no real unique voice here, nothing to truly separate it from the other shows that I just compared it to and which were gone by the time Toonsylvania debuted (Animaniacs was wrapping up its run that year).

Not that there wasn’t some good old fashioned network meddling to help speed along that process, of course!  The show first debuted on Saturday mornings, as was the norm for animated shows on network television, at the beginning of 1998, usually paired with Goosebumps and re-runs of Eerie, Indiana.  By the time that season two came around, however, Toonsylvania’s original guiding voices, creator Bill Kopp and director Jeff DeGrandis, had left and were replaced by former Animaniacs writer Paul Rugg who threw out most of the show’s established style and replaced it with something less anarchic and more sitcom-y.  Couple this with a move to Monday/Tuesday afternoons (conflicting sources on that info) – which is basically Fox admitting that they’d rather burn through the episodes and be done with it – and it likely surprises no-one that the show was cut down quickly after.

I do not know just how much the show changed in its second season; I haven’t seen any of it.  I couldn’t find it.  I can’t find much of Toonsylvania on the Internet at all because the show has basically disappeared off the face of the Earth.  The most that I could find – in English, the series is now streaming on Mexico and Brazil’s Netflix – was a VHS rip of a Best Of Season 1 collection.  Each of the shows that we look at today have been buried in some way shape or form, but Toonsylvania might as well be about five feet away from the Earth’s core.

Therefore, I have only seen four full episodes of the show – the lowest amount out of the three we’re going to discuss – and even then they’re not the actual episodes; they’re random cherry-picked segments ordered and placed like how they would end up in a regular episode of the show.  That being said, I have a good enough grasp on the show to talk about it.  That’s probably more of a testament to the bland, forgettable averageness of the show, mind.

Anyways, each episode is split neatly into four segments.  The first involves the adventures of Igor (voiced by Wayne Knight, whose voice I apparently never tire of) and Phil (better known as Frankenstein’s Monster) as they attempt to serve their master, Dr. Frankenstein, although Igor would rather the roles were reversed.  Although this observation can be applied to every other segment on the show, these segments primarily derive their humour from slapstick and absurdity, albeit a very restrained and formulaic kind.  For example, one episode involves them looking after Frankenstein’s grandmother who spontaneously transforms into a werewolf at the slightest appearance of a moon of any kind.  This sounds like a bountiful set-up for a nice variety of gags, but the structure is the same for six straight minutes, right down to the animation of Granny swallowing Igor’s head looking suspiciously identical every single time it happens.

After that we get Night Of The Living Fred, created by award-winning cartoonist Mike Peters – as becomes abundantly clear the second one claps eyes on the art style.  The gag for this segment, the one gag, is that it’s a terrible 50s-style sitcom but the family we’re focussing on are zombies.  That’s the gag and, unsurprisingly, it wore out its welcome with me long before the end of the first of these, let alone the fourth.  Not helping matters is the stilted delivery of pretty much everything in each instalment – lines, pacing, physical humour – everything feels too off-beat and in a way that’s really distracting instead of humour adding.  These segments would sometimes be replaced by a B-movie parody instead, but none were included on the VHS so I can’t comment.

Igor’s Science Minute is up next and is basically those brief little educational segment breaks from Animaniacs only less witty.  Finally, there’s Melissa Screech’s Morbid Morals, where the kids at home are taught life lessons via a Dr. Seuss-style rhyming storybook.  These segments are fine if unremarkable, notable only for the instances where the show skimps on its rhyming metre and for the fact that Melissa Screech herself is voiced by Nancy Cartwright in one of those fun little “hey, it’s that voice!” moments (also prompting that reaction: Billy West who seems to have used this show as a training ground for his various Futurama voices).

In fact, that basically describes Toonsylvania as a whole: fine if unremarkable.  There really is little to differentiate it from the other, better Spielberg-produced animated shows it too closely resembles.  It lacks personality, it lacks anything particularly great, and it lacks the amount of big laughs required to get over its derivative nature.  I get the feeling that’s a big reason why the show never caught on.  The network meddling can’t have helped, and the rise of cable cartoon programming with Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon undoubtedly was responsible for said meddling, but a show that isn’t particularly distinctive in the first place isn’t really going to receive mass tears of anguish when it gets dropped at some point.  Unlike DreamWorks’ 1998 films, there was no personal personality in Toonsylvania, just a hollow attempt to emulate what worked elsewhere before.


2) Invasion America

Network: The WB

Number of Episodes: 13 across 1 season

Original Run: 8th June 1998 – 7th July 1998

I have absolutely no idea who Invasion America is supposed to be for.  I have watched 7 episodes of this show and I have absolutely no idea who the thing is supposed to be for.  On paper, I get why The WB must have whipped out the chequebook faster than a man on speed.  “Steven Spielberg, major filmmaker Steven Spielberg, and Harve Bennett, the man who came up with the story for Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, want to create a prime-time animated sci-fi action show for our network!  This must be some kind of wonderful dream!”  And it was, because in practice Invasion America is a dreadful dull mess.

There.  That’s why I could only make it 7 episodes through a 13 episode show.  Now, Invasion America has a lot of problems, and we shall look at them in due course, but they all add up to create the show’s easiest and most tangible flaw: its complete and total mind-numbing boringness.  For every last one of the 20 minutes that each episode runs for, I sat there in completely and total boredom; never engaged, never interested, just bored.  I’d get my phone out and browse Twitter or the Internet, I’d go to the toilet without pausing, I’d do laundry, pretty much anything whilst paying the bare minimum of attention, which is really all one needs as stuff only ever ends up happening in the last two minutes of each episode.

Yes, Invasion America is a show with a formula and that formula is as follows: cliffhanger wrap-up, exposition, big action scene that takes up the majority of the episode, short little comedown exposition leading into cliffhanger.  Now, of course, that’s not really a complaint as every television show has a formula of some kind – that’s sorta how TV works – but Invasion America’s formula is the bad kind of formula – the episodic mystery television show that keeps resetting to its default status quo to heighten stakes.  Questions are never answered, the villains never receive any setbacks at all, and lead character David is forever alone.  Not kidding; aside from about three people who somehow keep making it through episodes where they meet him, everybody that David comes into contact with dies.  All of them, all of the time, because David being alone apparently makes for better drama, and the show treats each and every one of their deaths as a huge shocking thing we should be torn up over.

Naturally, a point came where I just simply stopped caring.  It’s very, very hard to balance a show where the heroes have to remain the underdogs for a very, very, very long period of time.  Get it wrong, you see, and the audience just decides “well, what’s the point, then?” and switches off, because it becomes clear that nobody will ever win and that watching and rooting for the cast is pointless.  A show that offsets that really well is The Legend Of Korra where the screws keep getting turned tighter and tighter, to such an extent that one can wonder if Korra and co. will ever catch a break, but apathy in the audience is abstained thanks to constantly granting little victories and having a strong cast of characters who are lovable and entertaining.

Invasion America, as previously noted, doesn’t do the former enough, whilst the latter is foiled by the fact that it has no characters.  Oh sure, there are characters in the sense that everybody has a name, face and voice, but a deep and complex personality?  Their sole plot trait is their personality.  David’s character trait is that he’s our protagonist.  His mother and father exist to disappear and die, respectively.  He has a mentor figure who vomits exposition at him and then heroically sacrifices himself.  There’s a grumpy fellow alien hiding out in the desert with a good animal alien as a pet; his role is to bump into David shortly after mentor figure bites it and then “I’m too old for this sh*t” his way in and out of the show as required.  David has a best friend from high school who just keeps wandering in and out of the plot, there are two good government agents, a whole bunch of interchangeable evil government agents, a whole bunch of interchangeable evil aliens, and a brother-sister alien pair who get the closest thing to an actual personality in this plot dump.

This, arguably, is the show’s biggest problem.  With no actual characters, and so many of those blank husks running about the place, the show simply devolves into watching unimportant things happen to people you don’t care about.  That’s why all of the dialogue is so unbearably clunky, because it really is all just exposition.  That’s why none of the show’s giant action sequences excite on any level despite the great melding of the hand-drawn with CGI, because none of it means anything.  It’s why none of the frequent deaths carry any weight, because nobody was a character to begin with.  It’s why it takes the sight of a crazed near-death alien general trying to run over our hero with a spaceship the size of a hundred haemorrhoids combined to get a “so bad, it’s funny” reaction from me, because the show is so frickin’ joyless – including line readings that have less emotion than the population of The Neutral Planet from Futurama.

So, who is Invasion America for?  The relentlessly serious and miserable tone, and prime-time television slot, indicate a desire to appeal to adults.  But the lead is a teenage boy (who is The Chosen One, obviously), so they clearly want teenagers watching as well.  But the art style too closely hews to action cartoons that were popular with kids, like 90s X-Men specifically, so maybe kids are supposed to find all of this exciting?  But then they’ll be turned off by the grim tone and the painfully dull stretches of expository dialogue, whilst older audiences looking for something intelligent will be turned off by the overlong action sequences and the lack of anything going on under the surface.  Maybe it’s supposed to be aimed at families?  That would explain David’s pointless reflective internal monologues that keep bookending each episode…

The WB didn’t really have a clue what to do with it either, as it turns out, and they burned off the series in hour-long double bills (triple-bill in the case of the finale) over a month in the Summer.  The show was then kicked down to Kids WB! in an edited form for a second run before disappearing entirely, although the Internet has been better at saving this series than they have Toonsylvania – the whole thing is on YouTube if you want to simulate going brain-dead for 13 half hours.  Would Invasion America have caught on if it were scheduled properly?  I highly doubt it – it’s a show that clearly only exists to capitalise on The X-Files being a thing and audiences can smell terrible cash-ins a mile away.  Ultimately, the show is just a slog to sit through and one that has no idea what it wants to be, except maybe all things to all people, and ends up doing nothing well.

I do, however, know that its final episode ends with the text “End of Book One”, like everyone involved thought that they were guaranteed a renewal, which I find hilarious.


3) Father Of The Pride

Network: NBC

Number of Episodes: 15 over 1 season with 2 unaired and 1 unfinished

Original Run: 31st August 2004 – 27th May 2005

Father Of The Pride was doomed from the start.  On October 3rd 2003, long before the show went to air and about a year into production, Roy Horn, of famed lion-based magician act Siegfried and Roy, was mauled on stage by one of the pair’s tigers and was inches away from death.  Overnight, an animated show based around the question of what the lions in Siegfried and Roy’s magic show got up to when not performing went from an intriguing if slightly cynically designed for cash money show idea, to an incredibly tasteless and extremely awkward affair.  Even with the pair urging the show to continue production, it was all but guaranteed that a large subset of Americans would tune out immediately.

It must be stressed, though, that Father Of The Pride would likely have been doomed to failure even without that undeniably tragic event.  For one, DreamWorks, like it or not, had made their name by this point with animated films aimed primarily at kids.  With the DreamWorks connection front and centre on this one, many families will likely have tuned in expecting more of that on a weekly basis and immediately been horrified by a show that heus closer to Family Guy than Shrek – that being the view of animation in this day and age.  For two, advertising was apparently through the roof on this one, NBC pimping it like crazy during the 2004 Summer Olympics, and over-exposure is just as likely to turn people off of a show as it is to get them to tune in (again: fine balance).  For three, each episode cost between $2 million and $2.5 million to produce.  Sure, the primetime CG sitcom sounds like the kind of “well that sounds new and original, let’s tune in” sellable premise that execs dream of, but you’re still gonna need a sh*t-tonne of viewers to break even, let alone generate the tiniest slither of a profit.

Therefore, Father Of The Pride’s one season run – complete with a skipped pilot, a swift pulling from the schedules, outright cancellation shortly after that, and several episodes never making it to air in the US – will come as no surprise to anybody who could read the giant glowing neon signs from miles away.  The fact that critics tore it to shreds and that it’s generally looked upon with nothing but disdain by many animation fans to this day should also surprise nobody.  That DreamWorks Animation have culled any and all mentions of it from their website and anything affiliated with them also shouldn’t be too surprising, but shocked me regardless.  I get not wanting to have your major failures sticking too hard to your resume, but to deny you ever had any involvement in something that clearly had a hell of a lot of time and effort and money put into it seems a bit disingenuous.

But, in any case, let’s not get wrapped up too much in the ways in which this was doomed to fail from the start.  I mean, that is a through-line for all of these shows – all set to fail before they even got out of the starting gates – but shows also get cancelled based on quality, or lack of, so mismanagement isn’t always completely to blame.  So, Father Of The Pride had sealed its fate long before it hit the air, we know that much.  Unfortunately, the episodes that did make it to air didn’t exactly provide a good counter-argument for said treatment.

The problem, quite simply, is South Park Syndrome.  You see, animation is typically seen as something near-exclusively for kids – a really f*cking infuriatingly incorrect assumption that I have refuted here and will likely do so again many, many more times to come – and so the quickest way to break out from that assumption is to be as offensively adult as humanly possible.  Drugs, sex, violence, rape jokes, as much political incorrectness as you can get away with.  The Simpsons may have shattered that glass ceiling before, but its strong child fanbase meant that it didn’t really change anything.  Hence: the South Park.  Now, of course, South Park always had something more going on than just vulgar humour and mean-spiritedness, but remember our talk on the quantifiable from way back when?

So Father Of The Pride goes as South Park as it can within network television restrictions.  Except that it also marries those vulgar tendencies with continued forced attempts at heart that come off as unnatural – the marriage between Larry and Kate is the kind where the pair spend all of the time bickering hatefully at one another until it’s time for the heartwarming serious stuff; a dynamic that is never believable, with the only sitcom that I can think of that doesn’t partake in it being How I Met Your Mother – and situates these vulgar jokes in plots ripped straight from Baby’s First Sitcom Outline.  Despite that show premise, Father Of The Pride instead gives us plots about the lions trying to not be racist to some new friends of a different species, Kate and Larry suspecting their teenage daughter of being a drug addict, setting up a friend with another friend but said other friend actually having the hots for the person doing the setting-up, parent-teacher conferences, a disapproving father moving into the family home, and so on.

To put it bluntly, it’s like the show is still stuck in the 80s and no amount of drug references, fancy 3D computer graphics, and inexplicable Dick Cheney appearances and pot-shots could disguise those creaky old bones.  Audiences had seen this before and they’d seen it done better, especially since laughs were rather thin on the ground.  All this being said…  I don’t actually mind Father Of The Pride.  Oh sure, it had some terrible episodes (the Thanksgiving episode is awful), an almost admirable commitment to going through every cliché sitcom plot in the book, and a pair of blatant cross-over advertisements/ratings stunts (The Today Show’s Matt Lauer in one episode, Donkey from Shrek in another), but I still rather like it for three reasons.  For one, I got a couple of decent laughs out of most of the episodes, which should always count for something.

For two, the CG and storyboarding.  Now, obviously, this is never going to win any awards for animation quality or fully convince the eyes of the viewer – Siegfried and Roy, in particular, look like humans halfway through the process of being converted into Ken dolls – but the money has been well-spent in getting the animation to be as close to movie quality as one can manage – Donkey in this show is only some extra detail on his fur and more fluid movements away from being dead-on with his movie counterpart.  Well, most of the time, anyway – there’s a rave scene where the extras look like they’ve been ripped from a budget PS1 title, it’s pretty funny seeing just how blatant the drop in quality is in that scene.

Specifically, however, I want to praise the storyboarding and camera placements.  Have you ever noticed in primetime animated sitcoms how the majority of them have very standardised, uninspired and generic shot styles and placements?  Primarily wide-angle backgrounds of flat-looking rooms where the cast stand slightly side-on to the camera with little movement, the only change coming from the occasional Medium Close Up on a character talking before we cut back to that master shot?  I’ve probably done a poor job explaining it, but pay close attention the next time you watch Family Guy, American Dad! or Archer and see if you can tell what I mean.

Whilst Father Of The Pride does sometimes indulge in that – albeit with backgrounds that actually have depth – it also takes advantage of the 3D CGI aspect of the show to create more interesting storyboards and set layouts.  Say two characters are talking in a room.  That master shot, with the wide angle and such, will rarely be deployed outside of the beginning and ending of a scene.  Instead, we get plenty of over-the-shoulder shots, MCUs that come in from a slightly different angle, full on pans through a room, and many instances of the camera dollying along to shoot the scene from a different position.  It ends up livening up scenes of characters talking at each other, makes things visually more interesting, and overall gives the show a visual identity that both ties into and goes beyond its 3D CG DNA.

Finally, for three, there’s Siegfried and Roy themselves who are undeniably the best part of the show.  Now, considering the fact that this show was conceived, essentially, around them in what can be perceived as a marketing stunt, this is a major surprise in its own right, but what is truly surprising is just how far the show goes with them.  At no point does it paint the duo in reverential light, like a lot of shows do to celebrities who show up to play themselves (although the duo here were voiced by impersonators).  Instead, it is nearly always taking several mountain-fulls worth of piss out of them, but in an affectionate way that adds to the comedy.

The Siegfried and Roy of Father Of The Pride are heterosexual life partners who are pompously egotistical, announce their entrance to anywhere with their own theme song and usually some overly-elaborate magic trick, are almost childlike in their petulant attitudes, total lovebirds for the capitalist wad-shot known as Las Vegas, and who both love each other even when they’re bickering.  Therefore, not only do they end up as the heart of the show, weirdly enough, they are also a lightning rod for its more ridiculous and off-beat jokes and subplots.  One of them involves the pair attempting to “save” Vegas from a family-owned B&B, treating it like Patient Zero of a plague that will wipe out their way of life, whilst the ones that are clearly designed for marketing opportunities, the aforementioned Matt Lauer appearance and one entirely dedicated to Siegfried wanting a Big Gulp from 7-11, are saved by their ridiculous behaviour.

They’re entertaining, on a consistent basis, no less, and it’s because the show demonstrates an off-kilter and silly fun sensibility – likely helped by the real Siegfried & Roy apparently loving everything the show did with them – that rarely comes through in the rest of the show.  That being said, though, unlike Invasion America and Toonsylvania, I managed to remain interested throughout my time with the show, even genuinely entertained at points.  Father Of The Pride was a fool’s gambit, one that was going fail no matter what it did and one that likely still would not have truly found its voice even if it did miraculously make it to Season 2, but it’s a darn interesting one and I prefer interesting failures to dull-as-all-hell failures, if nothing else.

Plus, you know, John Goodman was in it.  I like John Goodman.  I mean, who doesn’t?


 

We will pick back up the television output of DreamWorks Animation in about three months’ time.  Next week, we return to their filmic output and look at the last film before their commonly cited creative rejuvenation period: 2007’s Bee Movie.

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

Callum Petch wishes he could buy back the woman you stole.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Shrek The Third

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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


shrek third14] Shrek The Third (18th May 2007)

Budget: $160 million

Gross: $798,958,162

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 40%

Do you know how absolutely fucking aggravating it is to watch a series that built its reputation on subversion, modernisation, and going against the status-quo fall back on the same tired old fucking stereotypes when it comes to its female cast of characters time after goddamn time?

Shrek The Third splits its cast into exactly the same configurations as Shrek 2 did, with Fiona stuck at the palace whilst Shrek, Donkey and Puss In Boots go off on a wild adventure.  This time, however, Fiona gets an actual plotline when Prince Charming shows up with a united band of villains, intending to take over the kingdom for himself and get his Happily Ever After.  For the next half hour, Fiona, her mother and the princesses that she is stuck with – Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty (Aurora, if you want to get technical) and Doris The Ugly Step-Sister – wander about the castle aimlessly before being captured.  Once they’re joined by Donkey and Puss and find out the Shrek has been captured, they band together to escape and take down Charming.

Sounds all well and good, right?  After all, Fiona, in both films prior to this one, has spent the finale as somebody who gets no agency of her own and is left at the mercy of the villain until Shrek and co. burst in to rescue her or fight over her.  Letting her and the other ladies take charge, shape their own destinies, break out of their pre-written roles as damsels in distress – a running theme of the film with regards to the villains – is a good subversive move for a film in a landscape and genre dominated by the men saving whatever day it is supposed to be.  Not to mention the feminist undercurrent of the women essentially being tired of being forced into such passive roles.

Except that it’s not.  Not in the slightest.  Well, technically, one could argue it to be, but to do so would be to give a pass to the most watered-down, man-skewed and man-approved version of feminism imaginable.  One that still doesn’t see women as anything other than one-dimensional stereotypes to laugh at and be annoyed by, except that these ones can kick ass when the plot calls for it, but not too much ass as they still need to be shoved back into their damsel roles so’s a man can turn up and resolve everything with his man ways.  Y’know, cos god forbid a group of female characters get to wrap up a story or anything.

Now, of course, this was a problem in Shrek, as well, where Fiona, who had previously been established as being somebody capable of taking out a group of 6 or 8 highly trained merry men without breaking a sweat, was left helpless due to the dreaded Wrist Grab.  But the reason why I only sighed disapprovingly at it in my piece on the film, instead of what I’m about to do (which is subject you to multiple A4 pages of me getting angry at the thing), is because Fiona is a character despite that.  She may still fall into traditional fairy tale and just plain film tropes – because the first film, as previously established, is a sappy romantic for that stuff at heart – but she’s always a character.  A fully-formed three-dimensional character who the film asks us to like and sympathise with.

What she is not, is a one-dimensional whiny, privileged, irritating, girly-girl stereotype who we are conditioned to laugh at for being too much of a girly-girl and who we are supposed to hate for being so very, very annoying.

Yet, that is the fate that befalls the princesses who are stuck in Fiona’s company – with the notable exception of Rapunzel, who is all of those things and also gets to be evil.  Also, her long hair is a wig that covers up the fact that she’s bald because, you know, parody.  None of the princesses are remotely interested in anything other than the man that will come and rescue them from their predicament, that and being snippy to one another as those women folk just end up doing when more than one of them are located in the same general vicinity as each other, amiright, fellas?  They are vain, shallow, materialistic, and pretty much every trope listed under “Annoying Gal Pal Friends”.

Except for Doris.  Her entire character is still “she has a face like a man and is voiced by Larry King despite supposedly being a woman.”  Because… it was 2007 and that gag was still funny and not-offensive to somebody?

Anyways, as you may be able to guess, the audience is not supposed to like these girls.  The audience is supposed to laugh at their terrible behaviour, their bitchy asides, the time when Snow White gives Fiona a dwarf as a present at a baby shower – the gag is essentially human slavery because parody – but they’re not supposed to like them.  They’re supposed to find them shallow, unlikeable, whiny, and petulant.  Therefore, their characters do not go beyond the one-dimensional “shallow popular girl” stereotype.  You know, the bitchy head cheerleader you see in every high school movie ever?  The film doesn’t sympathise with them, the film doesn’t give them any further depth than that stereotype, and they only exist to get on the nerves of the audience watching the film or to have us laugh at their expense.

Now, I get what the intention may have been when starting out.  The idea being to make the women like this in order to show what happens if you don’t take charge of your life and just wait for a man to come and whisk you away from all of your problems, and how such a lifestyle isn’t really a desirable one.  And I get that.  I really do.  Heaven knows that films should be empowering young girls and women with a message that they can and should strive for more than what our biased patriarchal society has dictated their aspirations in life to be.  If that was the end goal and that came about through character development, I would applaud the film and not be spending 3 A4 pages railing against it.

If you’ve been watching along with this series of articles then, first of all, I am so sorry for putting you through certain titles.  But, more to the point, you’ll know that that is not what happens.  No, instead, the princesses realise that they can beat up men and so they go and do that in a montage backed by a cover of Heart’s “Barracuda” by Fergie, the third least hated member of The Black Eyed Peas.

There is a fantastic tweet by television critic Todd VanDerWerff from a couple of years back, one that I would like framed and hung on my wall if it all possible, that goes “Just because your lead female character can kick somebody in the face, doesn’t make them a strong female character. #justagoodfacekicker.”  I have long since forgotten what it’s supposed to be in relation to specifically, but it fits worryingly well into most films and TV shows’ attempts at “strong female characters,” including this one.  Shrek The Third seems to believe that it’s OK to have a whole bunch of really vapid, annoying and one-dimensional female stereotypes, and to give its two actual female characters nothing to do, as long as they kick a certain amount of ass at the film’s climax.  Don’t need no stinking character development when you can have Snow White ordering woodland creatures to attack by howling lyrics to “Immigrant Song”!

The problem is that the film has given the audience absolutely no reason to enjoy these characters.  They still don’t seem to have learnt anything, they haven’t had any actual development, the only difference is that they do that thing they’re famous for to beat up people.  That’s not character development!  That’s shallow, borderline offensive stereotyping desperately trying to justify itself with the laziest attempt at female empowerment possible.  Are they taking control of their destinies?  In the barest possible terms, yes; but have they actually changed?  Have they grown as people outside of that fact?  We will never know, because they get captured as soon as they get to the finale, disappear completely after that fact, and I near-guarantee you that they won’t be turning up in the sequel.

The clearest possible indicator, though, that the film’s various writers just don’t get it, comes from the short little lock-and-load montage prior to the ass-kicking scene.  Just watch the embed below (start at 1:20) and see if you can get why.

These ladies aren’t even allowed to kick ass on their own terms.  They have to do so after “manning up”.  Dress rips, tattoo reveals, war-paint application, and that goddamn fucking bra burning.  The worst part is that absolutely none of this bit matters; the very next scene they are dressed exactly as they’ve been for the entire movie and do end up kicking ass on their own terms – by doing that thing they’re known to do but in an offensive capacity.  This isn’t feminism in the truest sense, in the way that the filmmakers think they’re being.  This is the male acceptable version of feminism where, to become a strong independent woman, one must first cut ties to their femininity and embrace the commonly accepted male way of doing things.

All this subtext – actually, it’s more straight text, considering how awful Shrek is at underlying themes, but whatever – is planted, then, for one.  God.  Damn.  Fucking.  Joke.  A joke that has no bearing on the film itself.  It is literally just there for a laugh.  A really cheap fucking laugh that only serves to undermine its barely-existent message.  And that 1 second shot of the fuck fucking bra burning perfectly encapsulates the thoroughly misguided and overall shitty male view of the affair.  It angers me… no, it enrages me to see a film aim for something relatively noble and miss the mark so wildly and so blatantly.  All in the service of a god.  Damn.  Fucking.  JOKE.

For those keeping score; yes, I have just spent 3 A4 pages talking about one relatively minor segment of a 90 minute film.  What else do you want from me?  It’s another Shrek movie.  In fact, it’s Shrek 2 all over again, to be precise.  See, as I noted in that piece a few weeks back, critics lauded all over Shrek 2 despite it having absolutely no central reason for existing.  By the time of Shrek The Third, however, the DreamWorks critical honeymoon was well and truly over.  Hence the drop of a good 49 points between Shrek 2 and The Third.  Many critics noted the lack of heart, the lack of intelligence in the jokes, the lack of quality material and, most damningly, the fact that the film keeps recycling prior material and hoping that nobody notices.

There’s a part of me that wants to sit here and go, “Well, duh!  Where were your brains during Shrek 2?”  However, the sheer blatant recycling and reusing of prior material really does deserve a dive into full-on detail, here.  I counted at least two instances, there may have been more, where the score simply reuses pieces from the first film and buries them low enough in the mix to try and keep people from noticing.  “Better out than in…” is used again, like there’s a quota per film to fill or something.  Donkey and Puss perform a duet cover over the cast list portion of the end credits.  There are not one, but two new Eels songs (and they’re uncharacteristically poor for Mark Oliver Everett’s usual standards).

And then there’s the fact that Shrek himself has gone through literally the same character arc in every single film so far.  Now, admittedly, and as my friend Jackson pointed out to me after I had finished watching the thing, this is something that a lot of franchises fall victim to; after all, a character has completed their arc at the end of the first film and that can leave the writer struggling to think of where to take said character from there.  Hence why most will simply just reset the character and do it all over again, but the better ones at least change the particulars of said arc so that one can at least get the illusion that they’re not just watching the first film again.

The Shrek series, as should probably surprise nobody by this point, doesn’t do that.  Instead, it does the exact same beats in the exact same way and almost to the very second.  Shrek starts the film as a grumpy, unhappy ogre in a situation he doesn’t want to be in, he goes on a journey to find someone to help get him out of said situation accompanied by a companion he doesn’t particularly want, despite his reluctance the pair grow closer together as the journey goes on, he has a moment of jerkiness just before the “third act” but then comes around to the situation he’s been forced into and becomes less of a jerk for the finale.  Now, am I talking about Shrek, Shrek 2, or Shrek The Third?

Admittedly, with The Third, it’s a little more muddled than that.  The situation that Shrek doesn’t want to be stuck in is twofold, kingly duties and the inbound threat of becoming a father, and the companion he’s stuck with doesn’t actually enter the film until just over the 50% mark, but the beats are still the same and can be nailed down to the second if you have had any previous experience with these films.  The only non-cosmetic – as in, names and places, although there will apparently always be a forest battle in the middle of these things – difference is that Shrek is slightly less of a jerk at the outset of each movie than he was in the prior instalment.  It’s all so lazy, and so unashamedly proud of it too.

The Third has one funny joke – the one where Pinocchio tries to avoid cracking under Prince Charming’s interrogation via double-negatives and clever sentence structures – and one brilliant thematic concept – the villains rise up because they just want their Happily Ever After – that it wastes by doing virtually nothing with.  Otherwise, this is a film that has absolutely no reason to exist.  The sole reason it does is because Shrek 2 was inches away from a billion dollars and DreamWorks Animation needed something to keep shareholders relatively happy.  After all, nobody cuts down a lucrative franchise like Shrek at instalment number 2 when said instalment was the highest grossing film of the year bar none, and DreamWorks had only one full-on Hit since becoming publically traded, in the shape of Madagascar, so they could do with the safety blanket.

In that respect, Shrek The Third can be called a success.  Compared to the last three films from the company, one of which cost them $109 million when it flopped majorly, Shrek The Third was the equivalent of a rich dead uncle leaving all of his finances to his favourite child, which in this metaphor is DreamWorks.  The film opened at number 1, naturally, with a haul of $121 million making it the second biggest opening of 2007 behind Spider-Man 3 which opened to $151 million two weeks earlier – and is currently the 15th biggest opening weekend of all-time.  But then something happened.  The film would fall off hard over the following weeks.  Compared to Shrek 2’s 12% drop between opening weekend and Memorial Day weekend, The Third sank 45% between weekends.  In fact, its weekend totals would drop by half with each week that went by until the film finally dropped out after only 6 weeks in the Top 10.

Now, in its defence, Summer 2007 was a very stuffed and competitive one.  The prior mentioned Memorial Day weekend brought out the third Pirates Of The Caribbean, whilst Shrek 2 only had to hold against The Day After Tomorrow, for example.  Plus, when all’s said and done, the film still finished as the second highest grossing film domestically of 2007 – behind Spider-Man 3 – and soundly beat Pixar’s Ratatouille at the box office.  But despite all that, it still looks bad if your sequel ends up making less money at the box office than the film it’s following on from.  Even worse if it spends less time in the Top 10 than both of your prior films.  Couple that with the lack of critical success, capped off by a total snubbing in the Best Animated Feature category at the 2008 Academy Awards – Surf’s Up, of all sodding films, would take its place – and one token nomination at the 2008 Annie Awards for Direction, and one can be more than justified in putting Shrek The Third down as a failure overall.

I mean, it’s certainly a failure creatively; there is so little to talk about that my giant feminist rant over a minor segment of the film encompasses about 3/5 of the article that you are near the conclusion of.  Financially… well, one can’t call The Second Highest Grossing Film of 2007 Domestically a financial failure.  What one can do, however, is note the shaking of public confidence.  That opening weekend fell off majorly in comparison to how well prior Shrek films did in their second weekends and over time.  One can blame an overly-competitive Summer, where seemingly every other week brought about a new film that was aiming for the same sort of audience, but there’s still the underlying root cause of Shrek The Third being a boring and terrible movie.  And once word gets out about that fact, no amount of brand recognition or good will can save you, especially if the overall word-of-mouth is of the “it’s not very good” variety.

Kids likely loved it.  I remember going by myself to see it just as I was turning into a stupid teenager and hating it, but being stuck next to a kid of about 8 years old who spent the runtime alternating between loving every second and trying to talk to me.  There’s also the fact that it did rather well on home media sales, for those who’d prefer cold hard facts to weird anecdotes, where parents would only have to pay the once for a way to keep their kids quiet for a few hours.  But at the cinema, where kids are at the mercy of parents being the ones who have final say over what everyone sees, the film struggled to keep its legs.  After all, those parents may want something to keep the kids quiet for a few hours, but they’re not going to keep forking out cash for repeat showings each weekend if the film is bad.

And Shrek The Third is bad.  It is a bad, bad, bad film with nothing to say, nothing going on, and no reason to exist.  But its worst sin, aside from that brief moment that managed to get my anger parts all riled up, is that it is unimaginably boring.  There’s a part of me that feels like the Shrek movies and I just won’t ever get along, I was even lukewarm on the first Shrek remember, but when the films are this cynically made with the sole goal of maximising a company’s profits, I’m going to be perfectly fine with disliking them.  At least there’s only one left!  Plus the prequel spin-off.  And there’s going to be a sequel to that spin-off in the future…  This series is never ending, is it?


A dud with critics and with relatively short legs at the box office, Shrek The Third at least gave DreamWorks a big win in terms of pure box office gross that they certainly needed after the inconsistent two years prior to it.  Their other film for 2007 would be nowhere near as much of a success, despite featuring the voice and significant creative involvement of one of the most famous and critically acclaimed voices in comedy during the 90s.  The film is question was entitled Bee Movie and we shall cover that… in several weeks’ time.

Next week, the DreamWorks Retrospective takes the week off because doing these non-stop for the last 4 months (almost) is burning me out.  Plus, that gives everybody time to get into the topic of our next entry, where we take a detour and look at the early days of DreamWorks Animation’s work in television via Toonsylvania, Invasion America, and the very public crashing and burning of Father Of The Pride.

The DreamWorks Retrospective will resume in a fortnight here at FailedCritics!

Callum Petch’s vocab is powerful, spit sh*t subliminal.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Flushed Away

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.


flushed away 213] Flushed Away (3rd November 2006)

Budget: $149 million

Gross: $178,120,010

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 75%

I hated Flushed Away.

As a 12 year-old kid in 2006, I hated Flushed Away.  I was there opening weekend, with my dad and brother in tow, sold on the fact that it was Aardman and that Aardman had never done me wrong before.  I was hyped, I was ready, and I was left feeling dissatisfied and confused.  I did not like Flushed Away and I had no idea why.  The whole film felt off, it felt wrong, it didn’t feel like Aardman.  Let’s not forget, I was going off of DreamWorks films at the time and, though I was about to enter my stupid teenager phase where one rejects everything they loved as a child out of hand (because they are stupid teenagers), their joints with Aardman were the only confident signs I had of them putting out quality during this winding down period in our relationship.

And I didn’t like Flushed Away.  But it was Aardman!  Aardman aren’t supposed to make bad stuff, with the exception of Angry Kid!  That confusion and disappointment stuck with me.  It stuck with me for a real long time.  It festered and festered, until it manifested itself as full-blown hate.  There may have been good elements to Flushed Away, but the sheer level of disappointment that the film had visited upon me had completely crushed those elements.  Therefore, I was absolutely dreading this part of the retrospective, exactly as much as I was Shark Tale (OK, maybe not, but close).  Expectations were low, I had never really gotten over the film the first time, and this series is only 1 month removed from the commonly accepted nadir period of DreamWorks Animation.

So… I strongly dislike Flushed Away.  I don’t hate it anymore, the pain has finally subsided, I’ve come to terms with my grief, and I managed to have some fun with it because it’s not a bad film or anything, but I still very much dislike it.  The reason why is basically the same as the reason why I hated it when I was young and impressionable.  Flushed Away feels like DreamWorks trying to make an Aardman film, or Aardman trying to make a DreamWorks film, take your pick.  Considering how much the two companies allegedly butted heads with one another during production, which represented the final straw in relations between the pair, I’m not surprised that the film feels that way.  For example, this was supposed to be a pirate-based film, but DreamWorks nixed the idea believing back in 2001 that pirate movies didn’t sell (although Aardman would get to make their pirate movie after all, but we’ll get to that shortly).

Yet, at the time, not a single credited writer on the film is actually affiliated with DreamWorks.  Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, for example, were responsible for The Likely Lads franchise, many episodes of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and the entirety of Porridge.  Simon Nye, the film’s other credited writer, was responsible for Men Behaving Badly.  Yet the whole film feels so… American, like 27 DreamWorks execs were all crowding around each writer’s shoulder micro-managing every line for maximum commercial appeal.  As such, there’s this awkward compromise between the cheap, easy, toilet and pop-culture obsessed humour of DreamWorks films and the witty, clever, pun-focussed, heart-felt and quintessentially British humour of Aardman productions, where the latter is done as cynically as one can manage and where the former vastly overshadows the latter to such a lowbrow degree.

The film making said incredibly American view of England, by having the villain be heavily obsessed with tacky British predominately royal memorabilia, really doesn’t help proceedings.  It instead marks them out with a giant arrow of “Look!  British things!  Y’know?  Fish and chips, World Cup, broad working-class accents, ‘ello ‘ello, Benny Hill and all that!”  It feels insulting, references that broad, that obvious, the equivalent of a Yank thinking that all of England is exactly like the London they read about in a particularly useless encyclopaedia from the mid-1970s.  Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run were similarly classically British, but they felt more genuine because the films weren’t stopping every five seconds to show off their British credentials.

Case in point, the moment where Roddy realises that Sid will ruin his solitary bachelor lifestyle if he hangs around is backed by, of all sodding things, “Yakety Sax”.  Why?  Who knows; the incredibly short daydream sequence doesn’t seem to reference any part of any Benny Hill sketch, the show that basically appropriated that track for its own ends.  It’s just there because a funny music cue was required, for some reason, and since this is supposed to be a British film we should pick the most British song available!  To be honest, I’m pretty sure the only reason why there isn’t a bonding sequence between Roddy and Rita set to “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” is because rights to songs by The Beatles are really bloody expensive.  It’s all so cringeworthy.

Speaking of, music cues in Flushed Away are primarily of the licensed variety, another creative choice that reeks of studio interference from upon high (note how nearly every important scene in both Shrek movies covered so far has been backed by licensed music).  Roddy’s trip down the loo to the sewer is backed by “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” by JET because the song sounds cool to soundtrack scenes to, although anybody who actually knows the song and tries to get caught up in it will be driven mad by the awkward editing to keep it at some instrumental part.  There’s a chase set to “Bohemian Like You”, again seemingly because it’s a cool song to soundtrack scenes to.  They are, I’m not disputing that, but the score is perfectly serviceable in and of itself and, again, their inclusion doesn’t have any reason beyond being cool songs to back things with (there’s none of the irony or joke-enhancing choices present in Pirates!’ usage of punk, ska and Flight Of The Conchords).

Well, unless they’re sung by the film’s most obvious comic relief, The Slugs.  See, unlike with Wallace & Gromit, which kept the appearance and usage of the bunnies to a minimum lest they run the risk of becoming this, Flushed Away keeps forcing in a group of slugs purely for the kids to laugh at.  They always just happen to be hanging around somewhere for a quick gag involving their high-pitch screams or Alvin & The Chipmunks singing of pop songs.  Also unlike the bunnies, they feel really shoehorned in, like one of said 27 execs noticed that the script didn’t have enough pop culture references or kid-exclusive gags and that must be rectified ASAP!  They only do the pop song thing twice, the other two times they do original compositions (which are eeeeehhh… “Ice Cold Rita” has Hugh Jackman singing going for it, but that’s about it), but they both feel incredibly unnecessary and a scene in which a group of slugs sing “Mr. Lonely” is going to feel like it’s going out of my way to annoy me, regardless of whether it runs for 30 seconds or 10 minutes.

When I keep mentioning “broad” in service of describing the humour, I mean that it’s lowest common denominator stuff.  Extended fart and burp jokes – which Wallace & Gromit also indulged in once or twice, admittedly – toilet humour in the literal and figurative sense, pop culture references where a thing is presented to you and you are expected to laugh due to recognising it – like a moment where the character voiced by Hugh Jackman tries to decide between wearing an Elvis Presley suit or a Wolverine suit – even extending to frequent, frequent cameos and references to past Aardman productions, to the point where it starts to feel less like little Easter eggs for more attentive and knowledgeable viewers and more like blatantly calling out their much better works to excuse what we’re watching.  “Look!  We made Wallace & Gromit!  DreamWorks made all these films!  We’re not normally this sub-par, honest!”

The puns, meanwhile, the bread and butter of many an Aardman production, feel really cynically calculated rather than genuine.  A groaner of a bad pun can still elicit laughs if the person who is writing or delivering the pun is completely sincere in their telling of it; this is why Curse Of The Were-Rabbit is a near-non-stop gag-fest.  Flushed Away’s puns, by contrast, feel… forced.  Again, the majority of the film feels like DreamWorks trying to make an Aardman film but not getting why Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit worked.  So you get threatening mob bosses telling their goons to put people “on ice” and then we find out that he means literally freezing them in an ice machine, followed by the even worse “prepare to meet your maker, your ice maker!”  But they just end up landing with loud notable thuds instead of laughter-in-spite-of-oneself.

At least they’re not lazy, though.  A surprising number of the gags here are extremely easy and very lazily delivered.  Le Frog and his ninja frog henchmen are all walking French stereotypes and whilst you can make those jokes funny, as Muppets Most Wanted proved this year and which this film manages to do once, here they just feel like yet another “Oh, look!  We’re British!  We get British customs!  Look at how British we are!”  Roddy’s fall from Toad’s lair involves not one unfortunate crotch shot, not two unfortunate crotch shots, but four unfortunate crotch shots, one straight after the other for about 20 seconds of film time; a gag the film does again later on but with slightly different parameters.  There’s a brief bit of random uncomfortable racism where Roddy accidentally dials a Chinese takeout and his attempts at communicating his situation are, thanks to the operator’s accent, hi-lariously misinterpreted as ordering Chinese food.  It’s all just so cheap.

And yet this film cost $149 million to make!  Not that all of that made it into the finished film, you understand.  The constant re-writes and do-overs ended up inflating the budget to nearly twice the combined budgets of Chicken Run and Curse Of The Were-Rabbit.  There was an initial trailer that predominately showed Roddy having hamster man-servants named Gilbert and Sullivan, only for them to be dropped totally in the final film.  Of course, this isn’t a problem in and of itself, I almost guarantee you that every animated film undergoes some giant fundamental change at some point during its production, but the film does such a poor job at hiding that.  The central story dynamic remains about the same throughout, think a gender-swapped version of “Common People” by Pulp played straight, but everything else is a giant mess.

For example, Toad honestly feels kinda pointless to overall proceedings or, at least, as the big overall villain.  As somebody who needs to pair Rita and Roddy together and drive the opening segment of the film, he makes sense.  As somebody who becomes a big overall villain who wishes to wipe out the entirety of the sewer so that we can have our big action finale?  No, he doesn’t, especially since said finale feels entirely rudimentary instead of earned and its existence requires the heroes to be unbelievably wilfully stupid.  The main emotional centre of the film, the burgeoning respect and all-but-explicitly-stated romance of Roddy and Rita, also feels false.  I never really bought it, that derogatory “Common People” comparison sticking with me a lot, and I never really found Roddy or Rita to be particularly interesting or consistent characters – Roddy flits back and forth schizophrenically between out-of-his-depth and try-too-hard-suave, whilst Rita spends all of her time talking tough but needing immediate rescue and help whenever action kicks off like a female Scrappy Doo.

As for the animation, which one would think I was OK with seeing as I’ve spent forever tearing into the script and neglecting it, it hasn’t aged well.  I appreciate the attempt to recreate the Aardman claymation style in CGI, to try and keep the house style, but a hell of a lot of the enterprise, Up-Top especially, now looks like an even lower-quality version of the graphics used to power Telltale Games’ Wallace & Gromit series.  Character models clearly try and recall the handmade plasticine models that became the Aardman calling card, but the bodies move too fluidly for the purposefully cut-and-replace mouth movements to gel with.  Rita, Roddy and Sid also look way too human.  In fact, let’s not beat around the bush, all of the cast look way too human, to such an extent that the good rats may as well just be human.  This technique would work if it were primarily limited to Roddy – him being an upper class pet, it would make sense for him to have humanlike movements – but everybody does it, to such an extent that they may as well just be human.

I get why Aardman chose to go CG.  The story takes place in a sewer, that requires a lot of water, you do not expose clay figurines to water, that is a stupid idea.  But considering the film we have, one that feels less like Aardman and more like a very sub-standard DreamWorks film, I can’t help but feel like it was yet another demand from upon high by the overlords at DreamWorks.  A desire to standardise even further, homogenise a unique voice in search of the more lucrative general audiences, and seeing as the script has received the sufficient amount of corporate retooling why not extend it to the whole style of animation too?  I know that that didn’t happen, but it still makes a tonne of sense considering the film Flushed Away ended up as.

To its credit, Flushed Away is still Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, comfortably at that.  Many reviewers threw around lines like “Best Animated Film Of The Year”, although 2006 wasn’t really a good year for animated film in Empire’s defence.  Many reviews were still relatively soft in the praise department, though; one even noting that “the Aardman magic is missing.”  And then there were the negative reviews, more than Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit combined; many lamenting the loud broad nature of the film, the generic nature of the film itself, the extreme anthropomorphism of its cast, and the fact that it was set in a sewer because The Guardian can be really unprofessional with its reviews a lot of the time (a little something to remember next time you want to take me to task for my review of Mrs. Brown’s Boys D’Movie).  For the first time, Aardman looked human to a lot of critics.

Financially… well, the film was doomed to failure as soon as its budget swelled to $100 million, the highest grossing Aardman film is still Chicken Run ($224 million) and a film isn’t considered a success until it has doubled its budget.  Nevertheless, Flushed Away marched ahead to a noble failure anyway.  The film debuted in third in America, behind a limited release Borat and a wide-release The Santa Clause 3 (side note: Santa Clause 3 happened, folks).  Paramount execs (DreamWorks’ new distribution partners, let’s not forget) tried to spin that as a surpassing of the expectations and therefore a good thing, but the arrival of Happy Feet in Week 3 and Flushed Away’s resultant descent into oblivion more than likely put pay to that.  Overseas, the film performed strongly, particularly in France and Aardman’s native Britain, enough to get the film technically in the black, but the film still caused DreamWorks to ultimately take a $109 million write-down due to its near-total failure domestically.

So, the film was a failure, it didn’t knock every critic for six, and it took a giant bath at the box office.  Combine these factors with the termination of their contract with DreamWorks, and the very public television failures of Creature Comforts USA and Chop Socky Chooks, and one could be forgiven for thinking at the time that Flushed Away was like some kind of Grim Reaper herald for Aardman.  That’s a pretty big tailspin to pull out of, after all.  Fortunately, as evidenced by the fact that we have a Shaun The Sheep movie due from them in a few months’ time, things managed to turn around for the company after making that breakaway.

For starters, in 2007, they found a new partner for feature-filmmaking, in the shape of Sony Pictures Animation (who, if Hotel Transylvania 2 and Genndy Tartakovsky’s Popeye end up as successful as I think they will be, are about to become a major known player in this field).  They even renewed their contract with them in 2010 – although they seem to be on their own again for Shaun The Sheep after production on Pirates! ended up more than a little troubled.  In 2011, they returned to the all-CG way of doing things with Arthur Christmas and, this time, managed to earn critical acclaim and a relatively decent profit.  Then, in 2012, Aardman finally got to make their pirate movie, in the shape of The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists!  That too received critical acclaim, although an apparently bowlderised US edit and a release date quite literally the week before The Avengers meant that its box office gross was underwhelming.

So though they may struggle to reap giant financial rewards, Aardman have clearly gotten their mojo back since their “amicable” split from DreamWorks.  More importantly, you watch either Arthur Christmas or The Pirates! and one can clearly get the sense that Aardman are getting to make the films that they want to make again.  Those films are quintessentially British in a way that doesn’t involve them having to loudly announce and restate that fact every five minutes in the broadest and most obvious way possible, like we’ll run it out of town if it doesn’t have sufficient British credentials.  Those films have a heart and soul that makes their puns and ridiculously silly humour charming and endearing instead of boring and annoying.  Those films are clearly made for the filmmaker’s artistic benefit instead of aiming for the widest possible audience.

In other words, they’re everything that Flushed Away is not.  Again, I don’t hate Flushed Away, I found enough funny sequences (especially the “he’s gonna steal your boat” exchange and the frog mime) to feel like I wasn’t wasting my time, but it is an awkward attempt to marry two distinct styles and identities that don’t gel well with one another.  It doesn’t feel like an Aardman film, and it’s not a very good DreamWorks film, so the result is just the worst of both worlds, coupled with the disappointment of it being a sub-par Aardman film.


Investors in DreamWorks Animation were likely spending a lot of 2006 scratching their heads.  Not only had the company’s two films for the year underperformed, they had managed to drive away the part of their company that was capable of bringing in critical acclaim.  Many investors, more than likely, were getting nervous.  Had DreamWorks already lost it?  Was their investment for nothing?  Then Shrek The Third happened and, like all sequels to still-lucrative properties, set everyone who was focussed on the bottom-line’s minds at ease.  Next week, in our final instalment before a week’s hiatus, we take a look at the moment where I all but cut the cord with the company.

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

Callum Petch has got a great car, yeah what’s wrong with it today?  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Over The Hedge

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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


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

Budget: $80 million

Gross: $336,002,996

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 75%

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit

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.


wallace gromit11] Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit (7th October 2005)

Budget: $30 million

Gross: $192,610,372

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%

I should not need to introduce you to Wallace & Gromit.  If you are British, you should know who Wallace & Gromit are, they’re a national goddamn institution.  Their influence is so great that they pretty much single-handedly saved the production of Wensleydale cheese.  They are so beloved that their fourth proper short film, A Matter Of Loaf And Death, the first in thirteen years, was the single most-watched programme on Christmas Day 2008, beating out both the soaps and Doctor Who.  They’re so re-watchable that the BBC has been re-running every single one of their shorts at every holiday opportunity for what feels like the last decade and a half and nobody ever complains.  You can probably quote half of A Grand Day Out right now if you tried hard enough, and everybody remembers the toy train chase from The Wrong Trousers.

Therefore, a movie really was the next logical step for the world-famous duo.  They’d already had three acclaimed short films, a collection of short shorts for the BBC’s Christmas 2002 line-up and now-defunct website Atom Films, a movie compilation released in American theatres that still managed to gross one million 1996 dollars, and they had raised the profile of Aardman animations so substantially that their breakthrough into worldwide stardom, Chicken Run, was able to be sold to audiences as “From The Creators Of Wallace & Gromit.  There wasn’t even a worry that it was too late for a Wallace & Gromit film, the characters were that beloved and the films are that timeless that Aardman could drop something Wallace & Gromit related tomorrow and the Internet, but especially me, would just meltdown in tearful anticipation or joy.

The movie in question, The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit, emerged in October 2005 to universal critical adoration with only 9 reviews that can be considered negative being published from professional sources.  Several critics included it in their best films of 2005 lists in some way, shape or form (and, lest we forget, 2005 was a pretty competitive year in regards to great movies).  It won Best British Film at the year’s BAFTAs, swept the year’s Annie Awards taking home the prize in every single category it could have entered (and shutting out everybody else in the Voice Acting In A Feature Production category), and scored DreamWorks Animation their second (and currently last) Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

Financially, the film did decent business domestically, considering the weird ghetto that stop-motion animation falls into at the box office – it opened in first place, before dropping quickly, most likely being dispatched by the end of October and the release of, urgh, Chicken Little; closing at about $56 million.  Overseas… let’s just say that it was an enormous success (especially in its native United Kingdom where it ended up having the third biggest opening weekend of the year, behind Goblet Of Fire and Revenge Of The Sith in that order, and managed to three-peat during an insanely competitive October) and leave it at that.

Of course, the film was not as successful as DreamWorks Animation wanted it to be.  After all, Chicken Run made $30 million more worldwide than Curse Of The Were-Rabbit did, was a genuine full-on bona-fide hit domestically, and Chicken Run wasn’t the big screen debut of a widely beloved pair of characters.  Never mind that Chicken Run cost $15 million more than Curse Of The Were-Rabbit and that $192 million against a $30 million budget isn’t exactly chump change, Wallace & Gromit underwhelmed for the parent company.

This split viewpoint on the film’s box office fate strained relations between Aardman and DreamWorks, which were the absolute last thing both parties needed.  See, production on The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit was more than a little troubled.  Contrary to the prior times he’d worked on Wallace & Gromit shorts, the film’s co-writer and co-director Nick Park was practically swimming in notes from higher-ups demanding changes.  They wanted the design of Wallace’s car to look cooler, they insisted that the British-ness of the accents be toned down to make them more understandable, every instance of the word “marrow” had to be re-dubbed as “melon” for the US release as DreamWorks thought that Americans would have no idea what the characters were on about otherwise (and, yes, that means that characters start referring to “your prize melon”), and there are rumours (that I can’t substantiate) that DreamWorks even tried replacing Peter Sallis as the voice of Wallace; well-known actors like Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter were cast in support roles as a compromise.

Unsurprisingly, Aardman would unofficially split from DreamWorks barely 11 months later (officially in January of 2007), on the eve of their latest release, Flushed Away (which we’ll get to in a fortnight), and with two films of their five film contract unfulfilled.  Flushed Away is more than likely the source of a lot of these grievances, a lot of the company even moved to America to work on that film’s CGI-only existence, but it’s clear that DreamWorks, a company that had previously chased Aardman for years in order to get a co-production deal with them, were negatively influencing the company in many of its facets.  Not maliciously, Nick Park admits that it was more about them trying to make sure their films played well at the box office, but still enough to potentially cause problems with the end product.

Not that you would know the film had a strained production if you watch the thing.  For The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit is as near-perfect a film as one could ask for.  Seriously, this film is 84 minutes long and there is pretty much nothing wrong with it; it’s airtight, almost non-stop in the gag department, gorgeously animated and shot, bursting with a tonne of heart, and I can find little wrong with it.  It is as close to perfection as something can get.  This also leads me to the annoying issue that I don’t really want to talk about it.  Not just because my motivation to write has vacated the premises since I returned to university, but mainly because the film is so great that just watching it is a far better usage of one’s time than me sitting here slowly picking it apart and boringly explaining why it works so totally.

Therefore, we’re gonna do something a little different for this week’s instalment.  Instead of going through a straight list of reasons why the film works, backed up by clips that may or may not be relevant to that particular paragraph, I am going to embed the film from YouTube below this paragraph and you are going to take 84 minutes out of your day to watch it; that will basically do my job for me.  Or, if you’ve already watched the film and know it in and out, you can instead use the below embed to follow my time stamps.  I’m going to pick out certain scenes that best epitomise why this film works and briefly look at them in a case study format.  And, yes, time stamps because finding individual YouTube clips is getting considerably harder the longer this series goes on for.

Right, either watch this incredibly low-quality stream or start following the time stamps!

0:00:29 – 0:01:37 Immediately, as in it’s the very first thing we see after the requisite studio logos, we are treated to a photo montage of the relationship between Wallace and Gromit.  It’s a short sequence, wordless, and often silly, but it very quickly establishes their characters, their little idiosyncrasies and the strength of their bond.  It’s also a reference to how all three of their shorts began – a shot of the wall in all three and a pan across a photograph of the pair in the latter two – but, crucially, the call-back isn’t the whole point of the scene.  It’s not just a do-over of a classic scene for you to point at and recognise, it serves its own purpose and tells its own story.  Most importantly, it’s earnest.  Yeah, the set-up gets stretched to create some funny laughs out of it, but there’s so much genuine heart in it that you immediately buy the relationship before you’ve even seen the pair physically.

Obviously their bond and relationship is shown and re-stated frequently throughout, via actions as well as being told (something that, say, Madagascar didn’t really achieve because it spent the majority of its runtime having its cast snipe at one another for laughs), but the way in which the film just speeds through this initial set-up for new viewers without it feeling like a backstory dump or like we’re skipping out on details is just masterful.  And for long-time viewers of the duo, it’s the kind of heart-warming fan-service reveal that could leave the more emotional in tears of joy.  That may or may not have happened to me when I saw it at the cinema on my 11th birthday in 2005.

By the way; yes, the wall-of-text-breaking embeds are now different Wallace & Gromit shorts instead of anything from the film.  I wasn’t kidding when I said that finding clips from it on YouTube is really bloody hard.  Do you want to see the first Were-Rabbit transformation scene backed by Kid Cudi, of all goddamn things?  Thought not.  Accept this and move on.

0:11:14 – 0:17:12 There is a lot that one could talk about here, but I’m going to zero in on two things specifically in the interests of time and because I’ll come to another one later on.  First, again note how quickly the film establishes the characters of Victor Quartermaine, his dog Phillip, and Lady Tottingham.  How the parallels between Victor & Phillip and Wallace & Gromit are clear but not beaten over the head; how much of pompous, self-entitled jerk Victor is whilst being a laugh riot instead of just being irritating; the connection that Wallace and Lady Tottingham have, and how the film is able to play it as something to put stakse in (vital for later on in the film) but not so much as to think that it’s true love between the pair; the way that it gives a lot of the bunnies individual characteristics so that they’re not just a nebulous “cute bunny” force…

I could go on, but you get my point.  Curse Of The Were-Rabbit is ridiculously good at establishing characters and setting up dynamics as quickly as possible.  Most of the time it takes just the character design, the attached voice, one action and one line of dialogue to convey that information; Totty has ridiculous hair and a haughty (and broad) upper-class accent but is also one-hundred percent genuine with her pleasantries and manner-of-speaking which indicates her upstanding citizenry, whilst Victor’s portly belly and crooked nose betray his slimy, uncaring and villainous nature well before his pompous choice of greeting and overly-theatrical-yet-contemptuous courtship of Totty make it more abundantly clear.  The speed of these set-ups gives the film more time to wring every last possible piece of material from them.

Which brings us to, second: do you notice how British the film’s humour is?  I’ve been sat here for a while trying to figure out the best term to describe it and British is the one that I keep coming back to.  Now, obviously, we’re not the first or only ones to pioneer jokes based around puns, word play and misunderstandings and then to juxtapose them with silly and slightly broad pieces of physical humour; but I feel we’re the only ones who do so with this, well, feel.  Like, everything feels restrained, but not overly so.  The “…in an hour?” and toupee jokes are funny, but the film doesn’t attempt to make them supremely obvious gut-busters or anything; the toupee one, especially, goes the obvious route and then has a more subtle second punchline that catches viewers off-guard with just how funny and rather clever it is.  Whilst the physical gags, like the bunny on Victor’s head, benefit from crackerjack timing and just the right compromise between broadness and subtlety.

It’s really hard to explain in words why the feel of the film, humour and not, is so uniquely British.  It’s just one of those intangible qualities that you just get when watching the film.  Can you imagine what this would have been like if it were made by Americans?  Like, no offense, Americans, I love the non-insane parts of you, but do you really think you’d be able to make a film like this if you tried?

0:26:00 – 0:30:09 OK, I picked this scene because it best exemplifies the way that Curse Of The Were-Rabbit truly makes the most of every last shot.  Note how the majority of shots in this church sequence carry some kind of visual joke, from the obvious – Totty’s background angel wings and stream of light which is openly called out – to the more subtle – the shot straight afterwards where the camera positions a gardening tool directly behind Victor’s head to make it look like he has devil horns.  The cross-fades/match-cuts in and out of the scene and how near-seamless they are, a technique I always appreciate whenever it crops up.  The fact that all of the background extras blink at some point during the scene, even if they’re not doing anything else.  It’s all of these little things that make the world of the film feel more alive, and demonstrate the love and effort poured into every single frame – not just from the thumbprints that you can occasionally see on some of the character’s models.

0:31:23 – 0:32:42 Following on from that, we get a scene that takes those techniques and skills that were applied for comedy not two minutes earlier and applies them to a straight horror scene.  The Were-Rabbit shadow created by Gromit’s ears, the ominous fog, the deathly silence, the clear setting-up of the environment to worry the viewer when stuff changes, the final release with a monster jump scare…  It’s a great example of how the techniques cross over if well used and how a legitimately scary sequence can come straight after one of the film’s funniest gags and not have the result feel tonally jarring.

Also, yes, I picked this so that I can have it on record that 11 year-old me jumped out of his skin at the carrot scare when he saw it in the cinema and that nearly 20 year-old me has still not gotten over that fact.

0:43:04 – 0:47:18 Or, y’know, I could’ve just chosen this scene and shown how the switch between horror and comedy works so fantastically in a scene where such a switch occurs pretty much every other second.  Ah, well.  That lets me briefly touch on the character expressions.  Note the last 20 or so seconds of the sequence where Victor’s absolute shock-filled terror turns to a confident evil-scheming smile as Gromit slowly sinks back in his chair.  See how smooth that change is?  Instead of quickly switching from pose-to-pose, that extra attention to detail goes into both actions to make the whole thing that much more menacing.  It encapsulates the best moments of the film’s animation, for me, where they put in the extra detail and work to make certain expressions and actions carry more weight.  It’s why I can’t not find the times where Gromit walks like a dog adorably funny, because of the specific way his legs are animated.

Are you aware that there are 700 different shots in Curse Of The Were-Rabbit that involve CGI in some way?  No?  Well, that’s exactly my point.  The integration of CGI and stop-motion in this film is so near-seamless that I mentally kicked myself when I found out that sequences like the floating bunnies in the Bun-Vac and the rolling fog were accomplished with CG instead of stop-motion.  Like, duh, of course I should have figured that out but it was so convincing!  Likewise, one would be forgiven for thinking that the Were-Rabbit transformation was achieved with CG instead of stop-motion.  You’d be wrong.  There aren’t even any CG augmentations made to the bit, it’s all done in stop-motion, as demonstrated by this featurette embedded before the next time stamp.  That shot of the foot transformation?  That took a year.  A year.

Two things to take away from this.  One: in case it weren’t abundantly clear already, Aardman did not cut corners anywhere on this thing.  Two: if it’s good enough and it fits the art-style of the rest of the film as closely as possible, you can add little CG augmentations to a stop-motion animated film and nobody will be the wiser.  Laika would recognise this and put it to good work in 2012’s stunning ParaNorman (which, yes, is a thing I did have to bring up because ParaNorman deserves bringing up at every opportunity).

0:54:12 – 0:55:43 First of all, that cross-fade/match-cut between Totty and the cloud is something I have just now noticed and subsequently fallen in love with.  Now, very quickly (because my word limit is coming up fast, here), let’s talk Hutch.  Hutch, upon first impression and especially if you were to know about his existence without having seen a frame of the film, seems like a giant walking alarm bell of studio interference.  A late-film comic relief character who only speaks in repurposed Wallace lines, whose appearance is hilariously cute, will likely be adored by kids and who turns up just as the film seems like it’s going to barrel down Serious Drama Street?  You can probably understand scepticism to him on paper and if said paper was the first time someone had heard of him.

All one needs to immediately discredit such notions is to watch this little scene.  See, rather than painfully contrasting Wallace’s heartbreaking breakdown over the possibility that he may remain a Were-Rabbit for good and sucking the drama out of the scene, Hutch instead compliments the scene.  The delivery and the line itself (taken from A Close Shave, unless I’m mistaken) may be excessively cheery, but that’s the point.  Hutch clearly sympathises with Wallace and Gromit in this situation but, because of the way the mind alteration has worked, that’s all he can say, it’s the only way he can say it and, as demonstrated a few seconds later, he can be a bit slow on the uptake with things.  It’s a very, very clever design choice that makes Hutch a full-on character, no matter how subtly, rather than just a hilarious joke machine – as, yes, it’s also a perfectly timed line with a perfectly timed delivery so one can’t be annoyed it.

And I’ve sailed past the word count limit.  Well, I would love to sit here and talk more about The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit, about the other things it does right and favourite scenes and there was going to be a full-on paragraph where I just rattle off my favourite quotes from it, but you are busy people with places to be.  Specifically places that involve watching this near-perfect movie on DVD.  I mean, what kind of horrible person doesn’t own all Wallace & Gromit releases on DVD?  Not the kind of horrible people I want to know, at any rate!

In all seriousness, though, this film really is Aardman’s feature-length masterpiece and as near-perfect a film as one will find.  Due to the ailing health of Peter Sallis, this will most likely be the duo’s only trip to the big screen, but I am OK with that because it is one hell of a trip and to try again would be to risk that reputation.  I say retire Wallace & Gromit and leave the legacy to grow.  The series as a whole is near-perfect and it deserves to go out on the high that it has (or slightly diminished high if you want to count A Matter Of Loaf Or Death) rather than taking any further risks.


Although it wasn’t quite the financial smash they were hoping it to be, DreamWorks Animation still continued their absurdly financially successful streak of films with Wallace & Gromit, along with the prestige of the company’s third Academy Award – although that one belonged to Aardman more than it did DreamWorks.  They were riding a four-film and two-year streak that could seriously have made other studios wonder if there was any foot the company could put wrong financially.  Their next film would only add more strength to such a viewpoint and even win back some critical respect, too.  Next week, we enter 2006 and take a look at Over The Hedge.

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

Callum Petch is using his power, he sells it by the hour.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Madagascar

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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


madagascar10] Madagascar (27th May 2005)

Budget: $75 million

Gross: $532,680,671

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 55%

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Shark Tale

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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


shark tale09] Shark Tale (1st October 2004)

Budget: $75 million

Gross: $367,275,019

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 36%

Oy vey.

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

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

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

double facepalm

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

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

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

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

Answer: because you get Jellyfish Christina Aguilera.

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This is more terrifying than anything that Annabelle will cook up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you next week, folks!


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

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

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

Shrek 2

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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


shrek 2 208] Shrek 2 (19th May 2004)

Budget: $150 million

Gross: $919,838,758

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 89%

Shrek 2 is a film of excess.  If the original Shrek was a tight, lean, and meticulously calculated and planned film (the kind of tight, lean, meticulously calculated and planned film that could throw out $4 million worth of animation because its star figured out a better way of voicing the lead character late into production, but nonetheless), Shrek 2 is the gloriously bloated victory celebration that follows the breakthrough into the big time.  It’s like when an Indie auteur who made a name for themselves for making tight, character-focussed stories and making the most of their miniscule budgets gets picked up by a major film studio, is given A Major Film Studio Budget and then goes mad from the power that’s been thrust upon them.  The kind of film where nobody ever said no to anything he cooked up with it because he made it work before and surely they won’t let the power go their head, right?  To put it in a more tortured and poorly-thought-out way, if Shrek was Thunderbolt And Lightfoot, then Shrek 2 was Heaven’s Gate, if you drop The Deer Hunter from this scenario and can get on this bizarre wavelength that I am currently operating on.

Shrek had a modest budget of $60 million, in the same ball-park as what-would-have-been-safe-bets-until-outside-circumstances-screwed-them-over Sinbad and SpiritShrek 2 had a budget of $150 million which, though it looks pretty standard today, was pretty frickin’ extravagant back then.  Shrek had a star-studded lead cast but had its supporting characters mostly played production members.  Shrek 2 has stars populating every single new and supporting role that wasn’t brought back from the last film.  Shrek kept its focus laser-targeted to 3 characters (plus an under-developed villain only made interesting by John Lithgow’s performance) and gave each of them a tonne of development that felt natural and well-paced.  Shrek 2 has at least 8 main characters and integrates its supporting cast into the plot as more than just one-appearance cameos, giving each of them some development but short-changing some of its cast (primarily the female side) for other members of its cast (primarily for the male side).

Shrek kept proceedings reserved to a handful of small locations, reflecting the relative small-scale of the story.  Shrek 2 similarly has few locations but all of them are much, much bigger than before (Far, Far Away is a very unsubtle expy of Hollywood), reflecting the wider-scale of the story.  Shrek featured pop culture references and parodies but derived most of its humour from character work and character interactions, the “satire” (in the thinnest definition of the word) and toilet humour aging poorly but not being the primary source of comedy.  Shrek 2 is 80% pop culture references.  Not parodies, references.  And that’s not 80% of the jokes when I say “80%”, that’s 80% of the film.  Shrek had a DVD bonus feature that was just a three minute extension of the Dance Party Ending from the film.  Shrek 2’s DVD bonus feature is a mini-epic, a six-minute take-off of American Idol complete with a requisite flat appearance by Simon Cowell himself (during that sweet spot of the 00s where people still gave a sh*t about what he did on a daily basis) and the urging of the viewers to actually go online, for the first three days after it was released into the wild, and vote for which they thought was the best performance.  Doris won, by the way.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that Shrek 2 has aged poorly.  Shrek 2 has aged really poorly.  Shrek 2 has actually aged so poorly that I finished watching it and immediately questioned how on earth anyone found it any good in the first place.  Considering the fact that this one is widely seen as DreamWorks’ creative high-point until Kung Fu Panda rolled around, I am baffled as to how bad this one is.  But, like most things that are bafflingly poor, it went on to great success.  In fact, “great” is probably understating it.  Shrek 2 was a monumental success.  Critically, it surpassed the original in terms of rave reviews, many even throwing around the phrase “a rare example of a sequel that’s better than the original.”  Financially, it was the highest grossing film of 2004.  Not “highest grossing animated film”, although it was that as well, not “highest grossing film domestically”, although it was also that too; Shrek 2 was 2004’s highest grossing film worldwide.  Although it’s been displaced in terms of being the highest grossing animated film of all-time worldwide (by films with 3D premiums or re-releases or both, whereas Shrek 2 has neither), it’s still the highest grossing animated film of all-time domestically.  The DVD and VHS releases have brought in, according to Wikipedia, $800 million for the company (although a miscalculation when reporting initial figures to investors led to DreamWorks Animation being sued by said investors cos, y’know, that’s the kind of world we live in), and the film was nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar at the 77th Academy Awards, although it lost to The Incredibles (thank Christ).

So, as you can see, Shrek 2 is a major, major success story.  The kind of success story that will go down in history as a great movie deservedly making all of the money, earning the respect it deserves from the normally snobby critical class, and remaining as a classic in the animation genre.  No matter what I write about it, I will not be able to convince anybody, much less history, that we got it all horribly wrong and that this was where the decline of Western animated features and DreamWorks Animation as a whole began, not next week’s film (oh, Christ, I have to do Shark Tale next week…).  Nevertheless, Shrek 2 is a bad film and the problem that it has, the biggest one of them all, is that everybody involved at DreamWorks seems to have learned the wrong lessons from the first Shrek’s success (and I get the very strong feeling that this will not be the last time I use that phrase).  Back when we addressed the first Shrek, I noted that the thing that everyone latched onto as the reason why the film worked, the most quantifiable element, was its edge, its satire, its pop culture references.  You may also recall that such a claim was emphatically shot down by myself (although I don’t purport myself to be an expert with these things, so feel free to tell me that I’m talking out of my arse) and that instead the reason the film connected was due to strong character work, an undercurrent of sadness and the same sappy romantic mentality that it spends most of its time pretending to dismiss with a dissatisfied mouth raspberry.

But, again, nobody realised that fact and everybody gravitated towards the quantifiable thing, the edge.  So, rather than risk alienating audiences by giving them more of what they didn’t know made the first film work, that’s what DreamWorks doubled down on.  I can understand why they’d want to play it safe.  Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas had failed spectacularly, and between that and the DVD release of Shrek 2, DreamWorks itself had been sold to Paramount and the animation division had been spun off into a publically traded company (hence the suing over DVD sales).  In fact, this can very much explain why DreamWorks Animation spent the rest of the decade playing it safe.  See, unlike, say, Pixar, DreamWorks Animation can’t afford a giant bomb, as one enormous failure is enough to pull stockholder support from the company.  Plus, why drastically change a formula that worked, eh?  Why not take a victory lap and give the people what they want?

As you can probably guess, there are several good reasons why this shouldn’t be the case.  But chief amongst them is the substitution of character for pop culture references.  These are no longer three-dimensional characters that feel real and have genuine depth and multiple sides, these are simplistic one-dimensional caricatures designed to feed the plot and jokes through.  Fiona, especially, is dumbed down and marginalised to hell and back.  In the original, she was a well-drawn character whose overly-romanticised notions of fairy tale endings and how her story is “supposed” to go are built into the fact that she wants to become “normal” and to be freed from the curse placed on her, but over time she defrosts from these notions as she accepts her true self and finds love in unexpected Ogre-like places.  In this film, she has all agency removed from her and simply becomes a thing that Shrek and the villains fight over, occasionally getting to complain about how the two men in her life aren’t getting along.  Puss In Boots’ character arc, meanwhile, is zipped through in one three-minute scene, Donkey has had the sadness inherent to his character instead changed into a simple “he’s a petulant child” routine, and the villains remain villains because, well, they’re evil and stuff.

And that’s when they’re not just blatantly recycling material from the first film.  The basic message of the first film, never deny your true self as you are special no matter how non-“normal” you may seem, is back and in full effect, but the genders are reversed this time so it’s completely different(!) True love comes in all shapes and sizes and it’s amazing no matter how it looks.  Am I referring to Shrek 1’s moral or Shrek 2’s?  Meanwhile, the “people who aren’t for your true love due to it not being ‘normal’ are meany-boo-beenies” message at least gets a boost due to the Fairy Godmother getting more screen-time and being a more interesting villain than Lord Farquad ever was, but the film doesn’t do anything with the villain set-up (she’s supposed to be this mega-famous, beloved fixer for Far, Far Away’s denizens, but the film only takes full advantage of this for one song during the climax) and the overall message is muddied by the fact that she has personal manipulative scheming stakes in the equation.  After all, why tackle a giant concept and place the villainy on all of society when you can just have one “I’m evil because EVIL” mega-villain, eh?

Look, I wouldn’t have a problem with this, these are all morals that people today can do with being bludgeoned over the head repeatedly with, if the film found new beats to explore these themes with, or was at least entertaining enough to make it not an issue.  But themes aren’t the only things that the film ends up recycling.  Many jokes from the first film make a return in both an example of the writers misunderstanding how you do call-backs, and giving off the idea that everyone involved had just discovered what global warming was and decided to do their bit by wasting absolutely no resources from the first instalment.  As an example, remember the “better out than in” gag?  That’s back and there is basically no difference.  Fiona burps, Shrek says his requisite line, and the rest of the participants of the scene are shocked because, “A LADY?  Burping like A MAN?!  Why I never!”  Oh, sure, the order of the gag has been switched around, but the principles are the same; instead of being a cute little nod to how close Shrek and Fiona are as a married couple, like I imagine the intention was, it just becomes the same joke from the first film with the intention shoved so far into the background as to become unnoticeable because, again, IT’S THE SAME DAMN JOKE!

And then there are the pop culture references.  Earlier in this article, I stated my belief that Shrek 2 is 80% pop culture references, but upon reflection and the further writing of this article I find that statistic to be a bit harsh.  Let me rescind that and rephrase.  Shrek 2 is about 75% pop culture references.  There, forgot just how much recycling the film did!  But, yes, barely a minute goes by without a pop culture reference bursting in through some window and dating the film immeasurably.  And, no, I don’t mean “parodies” or “jokes”, I do mean “references”.  A “joke” or “parody” would use the pop culture reference for genuinely subversive means, or at least have something to say or a reason for bringing it up.  For example, Character A might remark that Character B is so fat that they could pass themselves off as one of Jabba The Hutt’s fat rolls.  OK, that’s a bad example, because you may have gathered by now that I cannot write a funny joke to save anyone’s life, but hopefully you get where I’m coming from.

Shrek 2 does not have pop culture jokes or pop culture parodies.  It has pop culture references.  Things that were popular at some point or another, be they in celebrity culture or film or television or music or something, are presented to you and you’re supposed to laugh because that is a thing you recognise.  This approach kind of works for the opening montage of Shrek and Fiona’s honeymoon, even if I did audibly eye-roll at the Lord Of The Rings “parody”, because the idea is to put both of these atypical characters into your typical sappy romantic lovey-dovey montage and let them be themselves for comic effect, but it’s the only time that the film actually places a meaning behind its references.  In Shrek and Fiona’s room at the palace, there is a poster of Justin Timberlake on the ceiling because he was a total teen-girl crush at the time.  OH, THE GUFFAWS I HAD!  Puss In Boots is a take-off of the Zorro films, so it at least makes sense to do those requisite gags even if they don’t amount to anything more than, “Hey!  That actor you know from that movie you liked is here in our film playing a character like that one!”  But what is the point of the chest-burster reference in his first scene with Shrek other than to go “Alien was a thing!  Laugh!”  There’s a section where Shrek’s thwarted attempt to get back to Fiona is shown in an extended Cops reference, in an instance that feels more like the plot cramming itself into the reference than the reference coming organically from the plot.  Joan Rivers (R.I.P.) shows up to do that thing she does, the Far, Far Away sign is done in the style of the giant Hollywood sign, the Fairy Godmother sings a godawful Eurodisco cover of “I Need A Hero” (a situation everyone could have avoided if they remembered that Bis once made an entire song deriding that type of genre, but I digress)…

Rarely do they actually help fill out the world of Far, Far Away or act as anything more than a glowing neon arrow pointing out just how much they are a thing that is a reference to a real thing you may quite possibly know.  It’s all dated really, really poorly, playing now like a time-capsule of the year that it was released in and a really cringeworthy one at that.  The rest of the jokes are aimed at kids; so you have fart jokes, chase scenes, characters spouting playground-ready catchphrases that act like they have been meticulously calculated in a factory somewhere for maximum parental-annoyance, and fairy tale characters doing stuff they’re known to do!  You know: The Gingerbread Man goes on about The Muffin Man, The Big Bad Wolf lays in people’s beds, Pinocchio’s nose grows because he is a terrible liar, The Little Mermaid shows up kissing someone before being tossed back into the sea because “we’re to kewl for your sappy Disney fairy crap; now, to prove how hip we are, here’s a Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds song coming out of Captain Hook’s mouth!”  I laughed at one of these, the arrival of Sleeping Beauty at the red carpet (it’s an easy joke but, goddammit, it’s executed with the perfect rapid-fire timing that pretty much nothing else in this film gets), and found only one other of these, the run-down bad guy bar populated by most of the land’s villains, to actually fit the world of Shrek.  The ceaseless “look!  It’s fairy tale characters in Hollywoodland!” schtick makes the world of the film feel unreal, too constructed, too much like a joke-machine than anything real and anything to get invested in.

To put it another way, the jokes drive the film and not the other way around.  Again, unless that’s the point of the film, the comedy needs to come from the characters.  You can’t force jokes into characters or situations that don’t fit it or don’t need it, it just makes everything come off as too constructed and too unnatural.  You need the jokes to fit the situation or the character, and if they don’t then you need to drop them, regardless of how good they might have been.  Shrek 2 too often lets the jokes drive the film and that, coupled with the pop culture reference well being the primary source of said jokes, creates a film that feels unnatural and lacking near-totally in heart and emotional investment.  For example, straight after the prior-mentioned Cops segment, there’s a Mission: Impossible reference that then leads into a Kaiju movie parody (with said big dumb slow monster being named “’Mongo” because nobody was paid to think during the writing of this movie) and it feels completely unnatural and unnecessary, like the film is bending over backwards to fit these bits in somewhere because everybody involved thought they sounded really cool and couldn’t bear to just admit to cutting them as they don’t fit the story.

Oh, also, and normally I wouldn’t point this out but it’s indicative of a larger point, there’s this weird undercurrent of Transphobia running throughout the whole thing.  I count at least 10 instances where the film pulls a “That man looks a lot like/dresses like a woman!  EW!” joke from its arse and there is never once any change, never once any other tone, no overall subversion or message to make.  Just “EW!  That man looks like a butch woman!  How different and wrong!”  I don’t think that there was any malicious intent behind them, just overall laziness, a desire to just reach for the easiest jokes that require practically no skill or effort in telling and then knocking off for lunch.  But it’s that laziness that permeates the entire venture known as Shrek 2, a safe bet made because “look at the extravagant piles of money that we can (and kinda need to) make” rather than any artistic reason for existing, and it just ends up drowning out the things the film does well.  The voice acting is a noticeable improvement from pretty much everyone (even notable-Shrek 1-weak-link Cameron Diaz), pacing is still tight and fast, it touches on themes that highlight a better film underneath the muck, and animation is a vast improvement with extensive detail and smoother character movements… well, until Shrek’s human form took over the back third of the movie and my eyeballs involuntarily removed themselves from my skull and made a run for the Scottish border to get away from the hideous Uncanny Valley his face falls into.

But, again, what exactly do I gain by systematically pulling this film to shreds a decade on from its release?  Shrek 2 is, according to the history books, a bona-fide success story.  It debuted in the $100+ mil range, it stayed in the Top 10 for 10 weeks, it sold a fortune of DVDs, received giant critical acclaim, won a Grammy for “Accidentally In Love” (which is a good pop song but, let’s get real, is no “All Star”), proved that this is the template that animated films needed to take to be able to survive the decade, was held up as DreamWorks Animation’s creative peak until How To Train Your Dragon and the Kung Fu Panda series, and sufficiently enraptured 10 year-old me enough to see it in cinemas and watch it on DVD a whole bunch of times.  It did its damage and nothing I write about it can change that fact.  It won.  Shrek 2 won.  So this entire article is going to end up making me look like the kind of person who rags on about something that’s popular for no other reason than to prove my hipster credentials.  It’s like when people crack jokes about U2, except that U2 haven’t written a good song in a decade and Shrek 2 is a bad film.  It gave the people what they thought they wanted, the edgy kids’ film, and everybody was too in awe of that fact to realise that what they wanted was not what they thought they did.  Unfortunately, people didn’t realise this until far too late.

It’s what’s going to make the next two months (barring one certain week) absolutely painful.


Next week: Shark Tale.

Goddammit.

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

Callum Petch is flyer than a piece of paper bearing his name.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas

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.


sinbad 207] Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas (2nd July 2003)

Budget: $60 million

Gross: $80,767,884

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 45%

Have you noticed anything about the nature of DreamWorks releases yet?  I mean, do you notice how each of their films seem geared towards a specific audience with little overlap?  Maybe this requires further explanation.  Look at the filmography for Pixar.  With the exception of the Cars series, which are blatantly aimed near-exclusively at kids, notice how they don’t actually create films for a specific audience.  They go general, try and make films that can appeal to everyone near-equally.  They don’t go “And this one is the kids’ film, and that one is the award bait film, and that one is the one more aimed at adults…” and so on.  Pixar films mostly just aim for a wide-as-possible audience and then people get what they want out of it.  DreamWorks Animation, however, and at least in regards to the films featured up to this point, do work on a more-focussed mind-set.  Like, Shrek was the kids’ film, The Prince Of Egypt was the Oscar bait, Antz was the one aimed at an older audience…  See what I’m getting at?

Remember back when I talked about Chicken Run and I posited the theory that this intention was to create an animation company where a whole bunch of different types of films encompassing all different age ranges, genres and animation styles could congregate under one house name that represents quality?  It’s one that rings true the more I think of it and one day, if I ever get the chance, I’d like to put it to Jeffrey Katzenberg and see how far on or off-base I am with it.  So, in this cycle of DreamWorks films, if Shrek is the one aimed more at kids and Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron was the Oscar bait, then that makes Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas the one aimed at an older audience.  More specifically, it feels like DreamWorks going back and addressing some unfinished business that The Road To El Dorado had created.

You’ll recall that The Road To El Dorado was a silly, lightweight buddy-comedy adventure throwback that is far better than its critical and financial reputation suggest.  But those reputations were what people remembered El Dorado to be at the time (it would take a while for it to become the cult classic that it deserved to be) and one gets the feeling that DreamWorks felt that they had something to prove, that they needed to demonstrate that they could crack this genre and this kind of movie.  Hence Sinbad, a film that apparently has pretty much nothing to do with the Sinbad mythos excepting the character name, a Roc, the island that’s actually an angler fish, and that boats are involved; including the fact that Sinbad himself is no longer Arab (a move that was taken to task at the time of its release by certain publications).  It’s cut very much from the same cloth as El Dorado, being a fast-paced genre-blending adventure throwback.  The Wikipedia page even uses the word “swashbuckling” in the opening description without a hint of self-awareness!  It’s got charming actors and actresses swapping witty dialogue at all-times, the protagonists of both start off as anti-heroes and slowly make their way towards becoming true heroes, there’s a love-triangle (sure, you keep telling yourself that Tulio and Miguel aren’t in love with one another in El Dorado, I’m sure you’ll believe your own delusions eventually), it tries to blend traditional animation with CGI enhancements…

…and, much like El Dorado, nobody ended up biting.  It is currently the third worst reviewed film in DreamWorks Animation’s history, only ahead of Shrek The Third and Shark Tale (which is two weeks away, so brace yourself accordingly if you’re watching along), it has the smallest profit of any of their films ($80 million gross against a $60 million budget) and is also the biggest loser in the company’s history, racking up a loss of $125 million.  It, combined with the failure of El Dorado and the underperformance of Spirit, sent DreamWorks running from traditional animation as fast as humanly possible, was a key factor in the sale of DreamWorks the studio to Paramount, ending the company’s independent nature, and was the very last nail in the coffin for traditionally-animated films in the West, a topic we spent the majority of last-week talking about.  You can put El Dorado down as a failure, if you wish, but that film’s D.O.A. status (at the time) didn’t push the company to the brink of ruin.  I’d say that Sinbad holds a very ignominious position in the company’s history that is unlikely to be matched nowadays, financial-wise, but, well, I’m assuming you read all of my entry on Joseph: King Of Dreams.

So, how come?  Why did nobody bite?  Well, as per usual, we can blame marketing.  You have watched the embedded trailer for this one, right?  As I mentioned last week, it’s this kind of samey interchangeable marketing that drove people to computer-animated films that were marketed far better.  The New York Times noted that the only animated films that found genuine success during this dark period were comedies aimed at both genders instead of adventures that were aimed near-solely at young boys (of course, that doesn’t explain the disappointing underperformance of Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove, but sure I’ll go with that), a sub-genre that was already a bit over-saturated by the time of Sinbad’s release.  There’s also the release date, which was the same weekend as Terminator 3 and Legally Blonde 2 (look, they will have caused some neglectful parenting, believe me), during a Summer where Finding Nemo was picking new releases out of its teeth with $100 bills (which, in fairness, nobody could really have foreseen, especially with just how long those legs ended up being), and seven whole goddamn days before Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl.  Also, yes, much like Titan A.E. likely did so for that film, the very public crashing and burning of Treasure Planet will almost certainly have had an effect on this film’s box office takings seeing as pirates were still seen as box office poison (until seven days later, at least).

There is, however, a much simpler reason, one that explains why it didn’t receive a box office resurgence when Pirates Of The Caribbean made pirates cool again.  Sinbad just isn’t very good.  It’s not bad, and it has very good vocal performances and a great villain, but it is really unremarkable.  It wanders through its 85 minutes not really saying much of anything or trying anything different.  I mean, those aren’t necessarily bad things; El Dorado didn’t attempt to say anything and wasn’t attempting anything that a hundred other movies like it hadn’t already tried before, but I had a lot of fun with that.  The problem comes from how perfunctory everything feels.  Whereas El Dorado has love and effort put into every frame, Sinbad feels more slap-dash, more generic, like a lot of the things that do end up going on are only happening because those are the beats that need to appear in this stuff.  It feels like “here’s the action opening, now here’s the quiet little bit, here’s the villain giving our hero a reason to set off on an adventure, now we introduce the main dynamic for the film, it’s been too long since an action scene, set one off immediately!” with most being executed with a lack of soul.  The requisite thrills are there but there’s nothing beneath or in those thrills, if you get me.  It’s oddly soulless.

That’s the main problem with Sinbad, although there are other ones.  For another, the film’s structure is awkward and poor.  We jump straight into the action with Sinbad already a feared outlaw who is ready to pull one last job, and learn all the important character relationships and skills on the fly.  Nice idea in theory, but in practice it just leads to characters spouting exposition at one another (and then frequently re-stating said exposition so that even the youngest are absolutely aware of the vital info) and makes the relationship between Sinbad and Proteus, one that apparently was majorly important for the both of them in their younger years, hollow.  I never got a sense of why these two were friends in the first place, let alone why Proteus is willing to risk his life in the hopes that Sinbad still cares about him after all those years.  Contrast with The Prince Of Egypt for an example of a DreamWorks film taking the time to build up that central relationship so that it has meaning.  I understand the wish to not simply retread ground that El Dorado already covered, but I need full-on proof about a close bond in order to believe in it, not just having everybody repeatedly tell me so.

Mind, Proteus and Sinbad is not the main relationship that most of the film pivots on.  That would be Sinbad and Marina, Proteus’ fiancé.  Now, for a good hour of this film’s runtime, I really liked what it was doing with her.  She was tough without losing her feminine charm, not exactly “sassy” but capable of giving as good as she gets from Sinbad, she gets kidnapped at one point (by the Roc) but is still more than capable at escaping with Sinbad being more of an assist than her sole rescuer, and she was overall a well-written and interesting character.  Her capability at seafaring even seemed like it’ll remove Sinbad’s sexist ways via begrudging respect and a close fire-forged bond as friends when all is said and done…  And then, right on cue, it’s revealed that they have both fallen in love with one another because of course.  I mean, god forbid the token girl who ends up just as capable at proceedings as the men not immediately be attracted to the gravitational pull of the lead character’s genitalia, right?  It’s especially egregious here because not only could you cut the romance stuff and lose almost literally nothing, lest we forget that she is engaged to marry our lead character’s childhood best friend!  Oh, but it’s an arranged marriage, Proteus totally understands and just wants her to be happy, so it’s all OK(!)  I was reminded very much of how the first How To Train Your Dragon treated Astrid, giving her depth and character motivations of her own and teasing a plot where she eventually comes to respect and like Hiccup as a friend or comrade, only to set fire to that hard work at the halfway point by also having her succumb to the gravitational pull of the lead character’s genitalia (METAPHORICALLY! Metaphorically! They’re children, literally would be gross and horrible and wrong).

This makes as good a segway as any to talk about Sinbad himself and how he’s kind of an unlikable dick.  Oh, sure, he doesn’t immediately start that way, the opening action sequence with the ship raid finds him in relentlessly charming anti-hero mode, talking and acting like pretty much any Joss Whedon character ever.  The issue starts when he is set free from prison with the goal of getting to Tartarus and he immediately, and without any guilt, decides to head to Fiji and leave his childhood friend to die.  It’s a dick move, plain and simple; a bit too much of a dick move for me.  I get that the idea is for character development to eventually prevail and turn him from a puckish rogue into a full-fledged hero but, well, your lead character should probably not be so much of a jerk as to turn your audience against him near-completely.  Plus, his sexism towards Marina only compounds the unlikability.  Sexist characters, for me at least (being a very strong feminist and all), are often near-immediately thrown into the “I would like for you to suffer a painful death as quickly as possible” pile anyway (so, if you ever see any pieces of media in which sexists suffer long drawn out dispatches, be sure to check the writer credits cos I may have bumbled my way into an industry I have interest in being creative in), but it’s rarely exaggerated enough to be humorous, like the intention is supposed to be.  The film at least has the good grace to call out his behaviour as wrong at every opportunity, but then he gets over his sexism by falling in love and I just want to drink the draining fluid from under the sink.

Animation, meanwhile, is not great.  It does hold the distinct honour of being the first animated film made entirely in Linux (in 2003 when, according to TV Tropes at least, animation functionality in Linux was limited, to say the least), so it has that going for it, but it’s still not great.  Character animations frequently seem to be missing a whole bunch of frames, coming off as jerky as a result, character designs are too Disney-esque for their own good, feeling like pale imitators instead of a unique voice, whilst the attempts to blend CG and traditional animation (if it’s not a person, it’s mostly computer-animated) are frequently nowhere near as seamless as, let’s say, Long John Silver from Treasure Planet.  Backgrounds and complicated camera tracking shots are fine.  Ships, monsters, the sea and various special effects really aren’t, noticeably sticking out in a way that’s more distracting than a conscious artistic decision.  Time and advancing technology may be influencing my thoughts in this regard, it may have looked damn near seamless and really pretty back in its day, but I can only tell you about how a film looks now and it has aged poorly (and before you think I’m too in-love with it to level any criticisms against it, Treasure Planet kinda really suffers from this issue as well).

All this being said, Sinbad isn’t without merit.  Although its genre-blending often leaves the film feeling a little schizophrenic until it finally settles into its groove, it does enable us to have a fantastic villain in the form of the Goddess Of Chaos herself, Eris.  She’s everything I like in a good showy movie villain: she’s playful, affable, perfectly aware of herself and using that to her advantage, hammy without being overly so, and in it just enough to make you wish she was there more but not so much that she overpowers the film.  Most of the animation work also clearly went into her, too, because her every movement is filled with details both obvious, like how she never once stays totally still for even a half second, and incidental, how her eyes can flit between being something close-to-human and completely otherworldly depending on the situation.  Initially, upon the realisation that she actually was Eris, I jokingly and rather pessimistically made the mental note that she was going to give me the perfect excuse to go on about the Eris featured in The Grim Adventures Of Billy & Mandy, and Rachael MacFarlane’s performance of said interpretation, if she underwhelmed in any facet, but she doesn’t.  Everything really does come together on that character, here, and she is the best part of this film.  Hell, you can watch all of her scenes in this video embed, if you want, at least then you’ll know that you’ve seen the best parts of the film and saved yourself another 70 minutes of your life.

The other big plus is that the voice acting from the leads is really damn good, presumably because two of them had genuine personal reasons for getting involved beyond “is that a whopping great paycheque I smell?”  Michelle Pfeiffer plays the aforementioned Eris, a role that she took based on the urging of her children apparently (I sometimes wonder what it’s like to be the child of an actor and actress who might play a role in a cartoon), and she knocks it out of the park.  Barring one or two awkwardly delivered lines, she gets the character dead-on, going theatrical without being overly hammy and helping to make Eris a villain who is a prankster, but one whose pranks carry about them genuine threat.  Brad Pitt plays Sinbad, a role he took because he wanted his nieces and nephews to be able to actually watch one of his films, and his natural charm and likeability is trying its damndest to keep Sinbad himself from veering off the cliff of tolerability, even if I did spend a lot of the runtime distracted trying to figure who exactly was voicing him (you know when you recognise the voice but can’t remember who it belongs to?  Yeah, this was one of those times).  He was even committed enough to be conflicted about the fact that his Missouri accent sounds nothing close to ethnic or Arab, which is something I guess.  Catherine Zeta-Jones is Marina and she’s very convincing in the role, especially when Marina is barely tolerating Sinbad’s sh*t.  Also, Dennis Haysbert is in this!  I like Dennis Haysbert!  He was David Palmer in 24 and Lambert in one glorious instalment of the Splinter Cell series, and his voice is like a hug from a warm teddy bear!

I should mention that I don’t dislike Sinbad.  I had some good fun with its mildly entertaining action beats, Eris is a cracking villain, and I was really liking what the film was doing with Marina until it ended up exactly where I should have known it was going to end up.  It’s just really mediocre, though.  It doesn’t do anything that hasn’t already been done better, its animation is of a lower-quality than I expect, and it’s all rather soulless.  There’s no real emotional connection to the film and it leaves the enterprise feeling hollow.  Did it deserve the 6th place debut and complete and total failure that it got?  No, and I feel that it wouldn’t have suffered that fate if a) traditional animation wasn’t officially in the last stages of life support, b) it were much better marketed, and c) released a few months after Pirates Of The Caribbean in order to capitalise on the resurgence of pirates, but that’s how it ended up and it wouldn’t have fixed the issue of the fact that it’s not a particularly good film.  There may have been a higher opening weekend, but it would likely have still sunk like a stone afterwards, and most definitely would not have had the same legs that Finding Nemo had.  Sometimes, films fail at release and disappear into obscurity for a reason, and this just happened to be one of those times, I’m afraid.


As you may have gathered, DreamWorks was in a bad spot in mid-2003, with their last two films underwhelming spectacularly at the box office and the company itself having been bought out of its independent roots in order to survive.  Fortunately, things would swiftly turn around next year with two major financial successes, starting up a box office hot streak that would last for the next 4 years, albeit at the expense of critical praise and respect by the Internet animated fandom.  Next week, we tackle the first of them which is still one of the most successful animated films of all-time: Shrek 2.

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

Callum Petch is here of his own free will.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!