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Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron

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.


spirit06] Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron (24th May 2002)

Budget: $80 million

Gross: $122,563,539

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 69%

So… I won’t actually be talking about Spirit much, this week.  See, this is less down to the quality of the film and more because everything that surrounds it is vastly more important.  Spirit, you must understand, had the misfortune to be released just as traditional animated Western films where entering the last stages of their lifespan.  And, well, that whole business is just way too interesting and important to not talk about, especially if you want to know why everyone, even the House Of Mouse, decided to switch to CG.  So, a lot of this week will be devoted to looking at that whole business, especially seeing as it fits into next week with the last traditionally animated film that DreamWorks Animation has released so far.  I’ll get Spirit specifically at some point but it’s more than likely going to have to fall by the wayside, this week.  I’ll mop up the points about it that I want to/need to touch on next week if I run out of time here.  Sound good?  If not… well, sorry, I guess; you can’t really change an article that I’ve already written.  Sorry.

Right, with that being said, let’s flash back to 1999.  Again.

You’ll recall back in the entry regarding The Road To El Dorado that 1999 was a pretty terrible year for non-Disney-affiliated animated features.  You may also recall in last week’s entry on Shrek that 2001 was a much better year than both 99 and 2000.  Again, financially, not with regards to quality (1999 is pretty much untouchable and I will fight anyone who tries to claim otherwise).  However, one would be wise to pay attention to which films were the actual big successes during the period from 1999 to 2003.  Tarzan, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Dinosaur, Chicken Run, Shrek, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, Ice Age, Lilo & Stitch, Finding Nemo.  Notice that the CG successes vastly outnumber the traditionally animated ones, that said traditionally animated ones are by Disney and that those are only 2 of the 6 films they released during that time frame.

Now, initially, this doesn’t seem too significant.  A whole bunch of animated films are released every year (hell, fifteen have been released in America this year, at time of writing) and few of them are actual bona-fide hits, some will fall by the wayside (again to use this year for an example, remember how Legends Of Oz: Dorothy’s Return happened?).  The problem comes from how lopsided that equation looks.  Again, CG movies are becoming the runaway successes and audiences are primarily skipping traditionally animated features.  Imagine you’re an executive at one of these animation companies and you see these figures, the bottom lines, the only parts that matter to you.  What do you deduce?  You deduce that nobody is going to see traditionally animated films anymore and that what the public wants instead are these fancy computermabobs.

That, in case you were in any doubt, is how CG managed to push traditional animation out of the feature-length game.  Raw figures.  If there was any doubt left that traditional animation was officially a poison at the box office, 2002 killed it off mercilessly.  Hey Arnold! The Movie, The Powerpuff Girls Movie, The Wild Thornberrys Movie, Pokémon 4Ever!, Adam Sandler’s Eight Crazy Nights, and the complete and total catastrophic bomb known as Treasure Planet all dropped in those 12 months and all sank without a trace.  The year’s highest earner was Ice Age, which even outgrossed Lilo & Stitch, Disney’s only unqualified hit during the first half of the decade.  The public weren’t biting and they especially weren’t biting big screen versions of cartoons that were supposedly major hits on TV, so why not pack up shop and move where the money is?

Here’s the thing, though, and this should surprise absolutely nobody: it didn’t have to be this way.  Yes, audiences did flock to the newest and shiniest thing available to a point (I would like to remind you that Disney’s Dinosaur would not have made $137 million domestic and $349 million worldwide if didn’t have that new tech smell), but they didn’t just give up totally on traditional animation.  Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron, which we will get into if you hang on a bit longer, ended up taking a pretty good $73 million at the domestic box office, and people didn’t just suddenly decide to show up for Lilo & Stitch and then collectively make a pact to stop watching Disney films until the end of decade.  The reasons why people stopped turning up to these films are because the marketing was atrocious, the release dates were really poor and… most of them just weren’t very good.

Look, I will defend Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet to the death, but neither of them are going to be troubling anybody’s personal Top 10 Disney Films list.  Whilst one could also say the same for… for… OK, this list of films from the Disney Renaissance is ridiculously good… err… ooh!  Pocahontas!  Whilst one could also say the same for Pocahontas, that film made bucket-loads whereas Atlantis and Treasure Planet really didn’t (in fact, Treasure Planet only made $38 million in the US and failed to recoup its budget once worldwide grosses were factored in).  The difference being that Pocahontas had a strong marketing campaign and a good clear release date (a week before Apollo 13, which it held strong against) going for it, whilst Treasure Planet and Atlantis had neither of those things (the former was released the week after the one-two punch of Harry Potter & The Chamber Of Secrets and Die Another Day, whilst the latter had to battle Shrek and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) and also had to deal with the fact that the very public crashing and burning of Titan A.E. had tainted animated films with sci-fi elements for everyone else.  This could have been averted with a strong marketing campaign but… well…

(Incidentally, yes, it is rather telling that 60% of this film’s overall gross came from foreign markets.)

The complete and total failure of The Powerpuff Girls Movie, meanwhile, can be laid solely at the feet of distributor Warner Bros. (and no, I am not just saying that because I am a huge mark for that show and for Craig McCracken in general).  I mean, they put it up against Men In Black II, Like Mike and a still-going-strong Lilo & Stitch and gave people who weren’t already interested in the show absolutely no reason to care (that trailer above is literally the only one they made), what the f*ck did they think was going to happen?  The Box Office Mojo report for the weekend even noted the bizarre decision to not have any evening showings for the thing!  The Wild Thornberrys Movie opened the same weekend as Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, Hey Arnold! The Movie opened seven days after Lilo & Stitch, Pokémon 4Ever! inexplicably opened in limited release and stayed there for the duration of its run, Eight Crazy Nights had an abominable trailer (and sucked, so I don’t think anyone’s complaining in this respect), whilst we all know by now that Titan A.E. failed because nobody at Fox’s marketing department knew who they were supposed to be aiming the damn thing at (and, whisper it, it wasn’t actually a particularly good movie to begin with).

To put it bluntly, the good movies primarily failed because the studios screwed them over royally, either on purpose or just down to plain old-fashioned incompetence, whilst the bad movies primarily failed because they sucked.  By the time Home On The Range hit cinemas in 2004 and Disney openly announced that they were done with traditional animation, it was fair to say that even the House Of Mouse wasn’t hitting it out of the park like they used to.  Every year, there are a handful of great films and a nice heaping slop of complete stinking garbage and, most of the time, the good ones make all of the money whilst the bad ones sink without a trace.  The problem is that the good ones weren’t getting the attention and marketing power that they deserved as, post-Titan A.E. especially, studios had already decided that the new frontier was going to be computer animation and that traditional animation was going to drop dead sooner or later.  So they helped speed it along by not pushing the golden eggs like they should have; instead of having a few high-quality successes towering over the failing mountain of slop, everything ended up taking a financial dive together, quality be damned, because nobody was trying to sell the damn films!

You know why Lilo & Stitch was Disney’s only home run, financially and critically, for nearly 8 years?  Because everyone knew it was damn fantastic and everyone knew it was damn fantastic because this was the genius marketing campaign that got people into the cinemas in the first f*cking place to enable them to tell everyone that Lilo & Stitch was A GREAT F*CKING MOVIE WORTH SEEING!!

I’m sorry for the harsh tone of the last few paragraphs, but this whole thing really upsets me.  People did not stop going to see traditionally animated films purely on the basis of computer animated ones being shinier keys that were dangled in front of their eyes.  People stopped going because they all looked dreadful, even when they weren’t.  Computer films looked different, they looked like a break from the usual crap that was being created and sold in the traditional medium.  They were marketed better, in a way designed to capitalise on that newness (Dinosaur got butts in theatres because its main trailer was the outstanding opening five minute sequence to the film, falsely promising a much different film than the generic one we got), whilst traditionally animated films got the same marketing voice they always had and people were tired of it.  They wanted something new, and these films were often doing something new, or at least something of high quality, and these films were often of a very high quality, but they didn’t look new and they didn’t look high quality so people stayed away, and that’s when they knew the film was coming out in the first frakkin’ place.  The form was as good as ever, but the only people who knew that were the ones turning up, the devoted.

So, if you’re wondering why traditionally animated feature films made in the West all but disappeared after 2004 and why Disney’s big return to the field collapsed in a heap after only two tries (2009’s great The Princess & The Frog, which opened one week before Avatar and had a poor marketing campaign, and 2011’s exceptional Winnie-The-Pooh, which opened the exact same day as the last Harry Potter and similarly received a really poor marketing campaign), now you know why.  It’s primarily down to executives who had already pre-emptively decided that that the form was dead and decided to speed along the burial.  And it’s also partly your fault for not giving them the bird and hunting them down anyway.  Yes, I am still bitter that the failure of The Powerpuff Girls Movie has pretty much guaranteed that my Samurai Jack movie will never get made (yes, my Samurai Jack movie; I am so desperate for it that I have basically decided that Genndy Tartakovsky needs to make it to preserve what little sanity I have remaining).

Right, then, with all of that addressed, and saving me a tonne of additional words next week, let’s get on with today’s film: Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron.


Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron is both an experiment and a clear foreshadowing of the company’s far-more successful How To Train Your Dragon series.  The experiment?  Can we do what Dinosaur eventually chose not to and make a serious drama film about animals that the audience can relate to and love without them ever uttering a single word of dialogue out loud, and can we blend traditional animation and computer-aided CG and cel-shading without breaking the audience’s investment in the film’s reality?  These are bold experiments, the first more so than the second as everyone was attempting to do the second in the onset of the 21st century in an attempt to stave off the pre-determined inevitable, and I do want to sit here and tell you that they are pulled off with aplomb by the film.  See, technically, the film pulls off both splendidly and holds up majorly over a decade on from its first release; at its best moments, it is a work of pure art.  Except there are a couple of fundamental things that drag the whole enterprise down from “incredible” to “frustratingly good” and those things are so fundamental yet easy to have avoided that I am actually upset at the film almost willingly crippling itself by featuring them.

If you’ve read my thoughts on both How To Train Your Dragon movies, you can probably see why I made that comparison.  The way that Spirit handles some scenes reminded me very much of that later success; they especially came to mind in the relationship between Little Creek and Spirit, with the scene where the former first tries to gain the trust of the latter enough to be able to ride him in particular.  That dynamic is very similar to the one that plays out in the first How To Train Your Dragon only much more compressed for time (Spirit is about 72 minutes with an additional 8 for credits, but in no way does it feel like it has skimped out in any department).  The difference is that whilst I feel that the HTTYD films are a whole bunch of individually excellent scenes failing to come together as a whole (and before anyone jumps in, yes, I am perfectly aware that I am in the minority on the series, a la my thoughts on Adventure Time), Spirit is a collection of individually excellent scenes that absolutely do come together to form an amazing, heartfelt and emotional whole…  It’s just that that whole is almost irreparably ruined for me by two very definable factors.

The first of these factors…  Tell you what, I’ll give you a chance to figure it out before I tell you, because that enables me to just show you some of the film’s best scenes (which is the easiest way to get across to you just how fantastic the film is when it fires on all cylinders) and it’s also really, really obvious as to what the first of the film’s two problems is.  The following scene is the second half of a sequence in which the film’s villain, The Colonel, has tried breaking in Spirit, who had spent his prior time being held in the camp against his will desperately trying to escape and resisting attempts to domesticate him.  Just before this bit starts, it seems like The Colonel managed to successfully break Spirit.  See if you can figure out the one thing that nearly ruined this exciting, fist-pumping and heart-soaring segment for me; it’s not hard.

If you said “Err, hang on, why is Matt Damon needlessly monologuing Spirit’s thoughts?  And why does he sound bored-as-hell?” you have discovered the first of the two arrows that Spirit takes to the metaphorical knees.  Spirit technically sticks to its conceit of only having its animals, primarily horses, communicate solely through facial expressions and whinnying instead of through talking, but I’m guessing that some higher-ups at DreamWorks were dubious as to the likelihood that children would sit through long stretches of film in which there are no dialogue or nobody literally telling the audience what our characters are thinking and feeling.  Enter Matt Damon as the narrating voice of Spirit and, as you may have already gathered, he is HORRIBLE in this.  His every line is utterly dreadful anyway, the kind that explains everything that’s going on on-screen to make absolutely sure that the youngest and stupidest get it, but his delivery practically permanently screams “Can I have my paycheque now?  Can I have my paycheque now?  I am Matt Damon and I have an infinite number of better things to be doing with my time, so can I please have my paycheque now?”

There’s a scene late on in the film where Little Creek, the Native American that Spirit escapes the U.S. Military camp with, has his village raided by the U.S. Army and Spirit’s love interest, Rain, rushes in to save Little Creek only to be shot by the Colonel and get washed down river.  The scene’s existence is telegraphed from practically the first frame of Rain’s appearance, but goddamn is it still an absolute knife to the heart when it finally does arrive.  Spirit’s confused dash through the chaos to find her, the moment when the penny drops for every viewer as Little Creek sits atop Rain with the Colonel directly across from them, her collapse into the river, Spirit’s mad and desperate attempts to keep her alive, the fall from the waterfall, everything that happens on that riverbank…  Give me a sec, I am genuinely welling up just thinking about it; I was an absolute mess watching it.  Then Matt Damon’s voice pops up to tell us what we already know and could deduce from the excellent animation (seriously, you could cut the narration from the film and lose absolutely NOTHING) in such an uninterested and emotionless way that I am constantly pulled back from 100% investment and a total emotional breakdown because his presence.  Is.  Just.  Plain.  WRONG.  That scene would be a piece of goddamn art if his narration was cut, although it at least does distract from the question of why Rain doesn’t seem to actually be visually injured despite taking a bullet at near point-blank range.

As for the second thing?  Well, I’ll let you figure that out again.  It follows right on from the clip embedded above and, quite frankly, you should figure this one out in about 10 to 15 seconds.  Why do you think I have a problem with this scene, a scene that otherwise should have worked totally?

That is correct, folks.  Spirit has multiple songs by Bryan Adams and they are all absolutely godawful.  The issue isn’t so much to do with the fact that they’re lacking in hooks or anything like that, it’s because they are 100% pointless.  Much like the narration, its sole purpose is to engage any kids that may have grown restless watching a film about animals in which none of them speak human words, and to have lyrics that spell out exactly what is happening and what you should be feeling in the clumsiest and most distractingly on-the-nose way possible.  They also don’t fit the rest of the soundtrack; whilst the score goes for a sweeping historical epic with a little Western tinge, the songs are late 80s/early 90s power ballads being delivered by a Bryan Adams that I spent the entire runtime mistaking for Don Henley.  They don’t gel, especially when the songs start obviously straining for awards consideration.  Every time one started up, and there are a hell of a lot of them so this is a frequent issue, I got pulled out of the movie due to Adams’ strained wailing, or a thuddingly obvious lyric, or the deployment of instruments that do not fit the mood the film is going for.

The Internet is a place where people take seemingly innocuous things absolutely seriously, so I know that somewhere someone has edited together a version of Spirit that strips out the narration and the songs and replaces the still-not-great score with a much better one.  Someone has to have and if there is one, or even just a copy of the film with all of those things stripped out (the animation was actually completed first and the narration, score and music were added on afterwards; like everyone involved saw the Mona Lisa in front of them and decided what it needed for improvement was a hacksaw randomly applied to various parts), I want it in my inbox ASAP.  No joke, if the narration and songs were nowhere in sight, this would be one of my favourite animated movies of all-time.  It just works, folks.  It just totally works for me.  The animation is smooth, natural and stunning, the character designs are strong, the shot composition is fantastic, the characters are remarkably well-crafted and ones that I formed strong connections to despite the lack of usual aids, like dialogue, and the fact that they’re not particularly deep, the integration of CGI is often near-seamless (check out the opening a bit further down and just try and spot when the shots switch from hand-drawn to computer-aided cel-shading), the tone, mood and atmosphere are perfect, and the film’s emotional gut-punches hit like a ten-tonne truck with rocket boosters deployed.

But those two utterly boneheaded design choices sit there, sticking out like sore thumbs infected with rabies that won’t go away no matter how much you wish they would.  I’d like to think that those are the reasons why the film didn’t really catch on with the public at large.  The kids probably feel insulted by just how dumb the narration and songs think they are, and it simply wouldn’t get taken seriously as a film for older viewers because every damn time it gets locked into a groove the pre-school level narration and dreadful rejected 80s power ballads rear their heads and remind older fans like me (yes, 19 is granddad age when analysing animated films in this scenario, shut up) that the film isn’t aimed at us either.  It makes the film appear confused, even though it really isn’t.  Unsurprisingly, I am not the only person to call out the film for these creative choices, so I wouldn’t be shocked if that’s why Spirit never became a rousing box office success.  Well, that and its marketing.  Seriously, “a motion picture experience for everyone” is something your marketing department comes up with as a first-draft placeholder or when they’ve truly just stopped giving a sh*t.

I want to love Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron.  I really, really do.  That film hit me hard, worked so well and genuinely surprised me with its quality and ambition.  I just absolutely wish that everyone involved hadn’t decided to shove their dicks into the cake at the last possible moment.  Present me with a narration and soundtrack-free version, and I shall rescind everything negative I have said about the film in this article and spend the next half hour lecturing you on the many, many things it does right.  It really is a film that is within spitting distance of the gold medal, but then brains itself on the concrete metres before the line and literally leaves its brain matter spread along the track.  Goddammit, I’m disappointed now.


Next week, part 2 in our look at the fall of traditionally-animated Western features as we take a better look at the box office for Spirit and then shine a spotlight on the film that sent DreamWorks scurrying away from the hand-drawn arm of the industry for good: Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas.  Yes, in the early 2000s, the company did have a strange obsession with titles that were simply Character Name: Job Description, just go with it.

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

Callum Petch finds romance when he starts to dance.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Shrek

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

shrek 2This 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.


05] Shrek (18th May 2001)

Budget: $60 million

Gross: $484,409,218

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 88%

What can I say about Shrek that hasn’t already been said and that won’t just dissolve into hyperbole?  See, everybody knows Shrek.  Everybody knows the impact that it had on Western Feature-Length Animation for almost a full decade, everybody knows just how much to the forefront it brought stunt casting to the medium, everybody knows how it signalled the switch to an all CG format for these films, everybody knows the lyrics to “All Star” by Smash Mouth.  Shrek is one of those films that everybody knows, and that makes it rather difficult for me to talk about.  I don’t want to just sit here and regurgitate facts at you, but I don’t want to resort to hyperbole and overstate the film’s importance like, let’s face it, it is very easy to do.  So, instead, I am going to have to go the dull route this time and explain the joke, explain why Shrek works and why it was seen as a major breath of fresh air at the time.  I know, that means I have to turn into That Guy, but a nice bit of perspective is good every once in a while.  Plus, it may be able to help contextualise why the next two DreamWorks films didn’t do so well and why everybody, including the company itself, would spend the following decade making shallow rip-offs of the winning formula.

First, however, a clarification, Shrek is not the saviour of Western Feature-Length Animation.  1999 may have been a dreadful year for animation, as we already discussed, and 2000 honestly wasn’t much better, but 2001 was not too bad, most likely down to the relative lack of releases.  Yes, there were bombs, most notoriously the live-action/animation hybrid Osmosis Jones and the photo-realistic CG spectacle known as Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, but there were several unqualified successes.  Recess: School’s Out quadrupled its budget thanks to the large popularity of the show at the time, Atlantis: The Lost Empire significantly underperformed but still managed to turn an OK profit, Richard Linklater’s experimental Waking Life somehow managed to take $2.5 million, Monsters, Inc. became one of the year’s highest grossing films, and Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius was so successful that Nickelodeon were able to spin a full-fledged franchise out of the thing.  Shrek was not an anomaly, is what I’m getting at.

It was, however, and this cannot be overstated, a full-on box-office phenomenon.  It opened to $42 million, a ridiculous opening for an animated film that didn’t have a company with the kind of marketable goodwill that Pixar had with Toy Story.  It did not stay at the top for Week 2, due to Pearl Harbor, but it did something far better than Pearl Harbor: it gained money.  Not a lot over the three day weekend, 0.3%, but the full-on four day Memorial Day weekend saw a 30% increase over the opening weekend takings.  No, this simply does not happen to films that open that big; that’s the power that Shrek held at the time.  It only started making serious slides down the chart when Atlantis showed up and, even then, it gave as good as it got, actually beating Atlantis on the pair’s last appearance in the top 10.  Domestically, it actually beat Monsters, Inc. overall for the year.  You can overstate its importance in the animated landscape, you cannot overstate its box office dominance.

So, why?  Why was Shrek such a major success?  Why did it connect with audiences in a way that most non-Pixar films weren’t?  Well, honestly, it’s due to a multitude of factors but only one of them was taken away by people, both viewers and executives who noted the film’s success, who saw the film, the most tangible element: its edge.

Now, to say that Disney films are toothless and aimed at the youngest is a major misnomer.  You want an animated film that’s toothless and aimed at only the youngest, go and watch The Quest For Camelot.  However, Disney films are sentimental, very much so, and are prone to trying to water down the darker or more adult elements of their stories with comic relief sidekicks for the kids, primarily of the talking animal variety.  Mushu, Terk, Timon & Pumbaa, all the way back to the seven dwarves.  Regardless of whether you like them or not (and they are often some of the best parts of their movies in the best instances), their mere existence can scream to most people, “Look!  Funny cartoon for kids!”  And Disney films are romantic to a fault, especially their early work, with tales as old as time of brave, dashing princes saving fair, kind-hearted young maidens from whatever evil befalls them, of true love at first sight, magic and all that fancy, wonderful stuff.  They were on their way of at least toning down the overtness of this formula, and this obviously wasn’t the formula for everything they did, but it still wasn’t really enough.  Their films were still a bit too sentimental, too younger-skewing, too “safe”.  The fact that most other competitors were more focussed on attempting to emulate Disney’s style than come up with a voice of their own probably didn’t help matters.  Times had changed and the public needed something different.  Something with edge.

Cue the opening of Shrek.

I mean, sure, it looks tame and childish and petulant and toilet-humour and, well, that’s because it is, but for the time this was quite revelatory.  This was DreamWorks Animation throwing down the gauntlet.  “This is our film!  We’re not like those Disney films!  We’re not going to romanticise anything!  Here’s a real protagonist, he’s ugly and he farts and he’s as far removed from your typical clean-cut hero as we can get!”  Again, edge.  Sledgehammer-subtle satire and open digs at Jeffrey Katzenberg’s old company.  The film is littered with these: the Duloc welcome machine, the design of Duloc looking like it was rejected from Disneyland, Princess Fiona’s continued assertions that her rescue is all wrong, the Robin Hood song being rather disturbing in content and quickly cut off because we are a film in the 21st century and musicals are sooo last century man, waterboarding the Gingerbread Man, there’s an extended Matrix reference because this was 2001 and we were just close enough to the end of Spaced’s second series (the cut-off point for this stuff) to not be completely sick of Matrix references yet…   Most of these achieve the desired effect of “parody” and “satire” barely, the best instances coming up with actual jokes or character work (you get no surprises for guessing what one element of Fiona’s character arc is) instead of just pointing at them and going “That’s a dumb thing for poo-poo heads!”  There are a lot more of the former than I was expecting, it’s just that a lot of it has aged really poorly; satire that curiously and possibly ironically carries the same toothless easy safeness that its target applies to telling actual stories.

Yet, at the time, it worked, possibly due to that broadness and occasional childishness, because that allowed everybody to get it and have everyone feel like they were part of this big taboo thing.  Although the film wasn’t really doing anything particularly edgy and risky, toilet humour and digs at Disney aren’t exactly hard to come by nowadays and I suspect they weren’t back then either, people lapped it up because it looked risky, it looked edgy.  They were insulting Disney and making a whole bunch of fart, burp and poop gags!  You simply didn’t openly insult that sacred cow on film or show that stuff in feature-length animation because, well, nobody else has done those things before to our knowledge so it must not be OK!  It’s like when you first watch an escapologist on a stage show in a locked water tank.  He’s not really in any danger cos he’s done this trick a million times before and there’s a highly trained rescue crew all set in case anything does go wrong, but you’ve never seen the trick before and the sheer audacity has you on the edge of your seat wondering if they can get away with it.

Plus, the constant piss-taking of the nature of fairy tales and especially their sappiness seems rather hypocritical when the film, in its final third, turns into a straight fairy tale, just with non-conventionally attractive characters.  I mean, it was obviously coming from frame one, but it’s the way that it mocks certain tropes (ones that it’s not using for character development, like Shrek’s belief that fairy tales are a bunch of bullcrap) but then goes ahead and plays them straight in the finale anyway.  A lot is made out of Fiona’s agency in the first two-thirds, how she may be overly attached to the romantic storybook nature of fairy tales but is still strong, capable, more of a tomboy than she first appears and frequently acts like a woman willing to take charge and drive proceedings, but then the plot entirely hangs around whether she’ll be saved from the evil man by her true love, Shrek.  She even spends the finale being easily restrained by the villains despite having previously had an entire sequence that showed her effortlessly wiping the floor with a group of the exact same size.

So, edge is predominately seen as the reason why Shrek was a runaway mega-success.  You may claim different, but it’s what countless lesser imitations took from it and it’s why Donkey became the thing that practically every kid was quoting on every playground for a good while after.  Like it or not, toilet humour connects with kids and jokes aimed squarely at parents, often around mocking how terrible the kind of dreck they’re often forced to sit through is, connects with them too.  It was the tangible “something different” that audiences could latch onto, the edge.  So, naturally, that’s what everybody ran with, the fact that it had an attitude.  Except that, well, that’s not the reason why Shrek works or, in fact, the reason why it was so successful.  See, edge on its own, with nothing to back it up or off-set it, is just off-putting; an entire film of just Shrek pointing at fairy tale tropes and sugarcoating and the like and smugly going “Heh!  Look at those squares with their baby stories!  We’re too cool and grown-up for that sh*t!  Now here’s a fart joke!  *fart*!” would be insufferable and likely have turned away the mass public it ended up courting.  In that case, what’s the real reason why Shrek succeeded to the extent that it did?

Well, let’s look at a few more surface-level and tangible things before we ensnare the real reason in our grasp.  For one, you cannot fault the marketing.  You’ve seen the trailer that was embedded earlier in this piece.  Hell, you’ve seen the trailers for the films in every one of these articles so far.  Regardless of what you think of the film it’s advertising, you have to admit, from an objective standpoint, it’s a fantastic trailer.  It’s got laughs, it sells the premise easily, the cast is clearly marketed because apparently such a thing really does drag people who wouldn’t normally see this stuff into the cinema, and it has a clear target audience in mind.  Allow me to put it to you this way: compare that with the trailer for Titan A.E., or the trailer for Atlantis: The Lost Empire, or hell even the trailer for The Emperor’s New Groove.  Again, we’re not rating the films, we’re rating the effectiveness of their marketing campaigns.  Also, and yes it really must be said, the fact that Shrek was CG probably helped get a lot of initial butts in seats.  You may scoff, but do you think anybody would have seen Dinosaur or Jimmy Neutron without that New Technological Advancement Smell (see also: films that inexplicably made a bucketful more of money post-Avatar than they would have because they too came with alternative 3D viewing modes) coming off of them?  Plus, Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz were at the top of their box office games when this was released, for whatever that’s all worth.

But this is all getting away from the real reason why Shrek was such a runaway success and why it still, to a degree, works today.  Of course, the film itself wouldn’t admit to it if you showed it to it, it’d probably derisively laugh and snidely quip about how that’s so yesterday daddy-o or something.  And, perhaps surprising no-one, it’s the element that all of the desperate imitators that cropped up in Shrek’s aftermath (you have no idea how much my soul cried upon seeing Disney’s Chicken Little when I was younger, you really don’t) chose to ignore.  Nonetheless, it’s the reason why the film works and it’s really quite a basic one.  See, strip away the CGI, the well-done marketing campaign, the stunt casting, the toilet humour, the Dance Party Ending and the “satirical” and “edgy” humour, and you find filmmaking basics: great character work and a tonne of heart.  That’s it.  That’s the secret ingredient.

I’m not kidding.  This film is at its best when it wears its heart on its sleeve and feeds its humour through character work or genuine heart instead of just “for-the-hell-of-it”.  For all of the opening’s pomp and circumstance, the edgy-but-not-too-edgy Smash Mouth soundtrack and the extensive sequence of Shrek showering himself in muck, the little character beat that best sells the character of Shrek is a blink-and-you’ll-miss it little cue near the end when he spots the villagers coming to hunt him and he just sighs and shakes his head before heading off to do his ogre thing.  In that one little action, likely missed by most people, the personal conflict that appears in Shrek’s arc, his preference for being alone but in actuality craving some kind of acceptance, is conveyed.  It’s why the onion thing works, too.  It’s not just an easily quotable scene that’s rendered funny by the rapport and delivery of Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers, it gets across Shrek’s desire to be looked upon as more than just an ogre in his jerkier form; note how the stargazing scene that he and Donkey share later on basically touches upon the same things but in a softer way, more reflective of how he’s warmed to Donkey even if he won’t admit to it.

The character work is why the fact that our four lead characters are played by major and recognisable Hollywood actors isn’t an issue.  See, unlike, say, Shark Tale (we will get to that thing, believe me), everyone in Shrek is playing a character instead of themselves.  Donkey may be a very Eddie Murphy character, but he has his own identifiable character, arc and traits that are obviously distinguishable from Murphy.  He delivers his lines in a way that is unmistakably Eddie Murphy, but he’s still playing Donkey, if that makes sense.  The same is true of Mike Myers, the same is true of Cameron Diaz, the same is true of John Lithgow.  It’s not just stunt casting because they’re big name stars (although, considering the fact that she is by far the weakest of the bunch, one could still level that complaint at Cameron Diaz), it feels like they were picked because they honestly were the best for the job.  Mike Myers, especially, commits 100% to making Shrek a character instead of a thinly-disguised Mike Myers self-insert or something; the decision to have the character speak in a Scottish accent came from him and, according to Kaztenberg, caused $4 million worth of animation to be thrown away in order to fix the lip-syncing caused by the change.  Of course, seeing as that Scottish accent so perfectly embodies the character of Shrek in this film, I have a feeling that few people minded in the end.

Shrek, though, is always at its best when it wears its heart on its sleeve.  Because it does have a heart, a great big mushy one not unlike the fairy tales it spends a lot of its runtime openly flipping metaphorical birds at.  See, when you get right down to it, this is a film about sad lonely characters outcast by society for their various physical deformities and eccentricities forming friendships and relationships with one another based on that shared lack of acceptance.  It’s why the film’s turn in the last third into a straight fairy tale, whilst admittedly a bit hypocritical seeing as it spent the prior 60 minutes snobbily scoffing at their continued existence, works, because it believes in the characters.  It loves the characters, it wants to give them that fairy tale ending because it truly cares for them, and we sit there and go, “Yep, story checks out,” because it let that heart break through early on and its total taking over of the picture doesn’t feel false.  That middle 30 minute stretch with Fiona, and most specifically the montage set to an admittedly on-the-nose choice of Eels song (in fact, let’s not beat around the bush, all of the film’s song choices, whilst mostly great, are so on-the-nose it makes The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty’s sound cues look subtle by comparison), is what makes the curse twist and what makes an otherwise super on-the-nose “Hallelujah”-backed montage carry genuine emotional resonance instead of ringing false.

But the heart isn’t just limited to the obvious moments and arcs, it informs some of the film’s best gags and scenes.  For every Matrix reference just because, for every open mockery of Disney (which, again, really has not aged well at all), there are gags and scenes that have had heart and effort put into them.  Think of the Magic Mirror The Dating Game riff.  On the one hand, yeah, it comes out of nowhere and is a clear reference to dating game shows.  But, on the other hand, it’s a different spin on the exposition dump that princess back-stories in these types of films are usually saddled with.  It dresses up the trope in fancy new clothing, making what once was rote, boring and obvious now fast, funny and interesting.  There’s a genuine reason for it being here and, barring one awfully-misguided gag about Snow White (and, no, this is not the last time that I will call out a Shrek film for going too far joke-wise), it retains a respect for the characters it ensnares.  The fight scene in Duloc’s palace is funny for its wrestling references and there is something basely funny about an old woman screaming for someone to “Give him the chair!” but, again, it works on character and heart-based levels.  It’s not just a wrestling scene just because, like Fiona’s Matrix sequence ends up, it helps foster Shrek and Donkey’s relationship and gives Shrek his first taste of public acceptance, igniting the need he didn’t think he had.  Likewise, the plight of the fairy tale creatures, their persecution and occasional torture, is nearly always portrayed sympathetically.  Yes, there is something inherently funny on seeing a legless Gingerbread Man begging to keep his gumdrop buttons, but the film is always on his side and isn’t just doing it for the laughs and cruelty.

That is why Shrek works.  Strip away the still pretty-decent CG (the strong character designs are what carry it through comparatively stiff animation), the all-star cast, the pop song soundtrack, the double-coding of gags (incidentally, the recurring “Do you think he’s compensating for something?” line in relation for Farquad’s castle is an example of double-coding done right), the “satire” and the “edge”, and what you have left are strong characters and a tonne of heart, the cornerstone of most great films worth their salt and what Disney were still putting out at the time of Shrek’s release.  But, of course, most people take those things for granted and look for the more obvious and tangible elements to praise instead.  Admittedly, they’re not totally wrong, the attitude, “edginess” and CGI are what made Shrek unique and are likely a large reason for its success, we do like to have our classic stories and tropes dressed-up in newer clothing after all.  But they’re not the reason why the film works, they’re not the reason why people kept coming back to the cinema for eight full weeks, they’re not the reason why the film won the 2001 Annie Award for Best Film and the first ever Best Animated Feature Oscar, and they’re not the reason why the film still works 13 years on and well after viewing #30 (yes, I was a kid and mainlined the VHS and DVD at the time).  Shrek works because it remembered that edge does not equal a substitute for strong characters and a giant beating heart at its centre.

Unfortunately for most of the 2000s, it’s a shame that nobody else really seemed to figure that out.


Shrek changed pretty much everything, but it would take a while for its effects to be fully felt and for anyone to be able to capitalise on the major impression that Shrek made on the pop culture and Western Feature-Length Animation landscapes (animation lead times, and all).  In the meanwhile, DreamWorks Animation still had two traditionally-animated films to burn through… unfortunately, they ended up being released in the worst possible time for that form of the medium.  Over the next two weeks, we’ll chart the fall of traditional animation in Western Feature-Length Animation, beginning with 2002’s Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron.

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

Callum Petch ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Joseph: King Of Dreams

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

joseph 2This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary.  In celebration, 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.


Bonus Entry #1] Joseph: King Of Dreams (7th November 2000)

Direct-To-Video

Direct-to-video rarely signals quality.  This, I think we can all agree on.  Sure, sometimes a just-plain bungled or vindictive release plan can cause something great to slip through the cracks (Man Of Tai Chi for the UK, and apparently this fate is going to befall Snowpiercer for most countries for some utterly bewildering reason), but most aren’t worth the time of day.  They have budgets that resemble a Lifetime Original Movie at best, dreadful acting, poorly constructed stories, and oftentimes exist solely to cash on in whatever or whoever is currently popular at the time of its release or to ring some extra cash out of an audience with goodwill towards a great movie from a few years back.

It’s particularly bad in animation.  Everyone’s realised so at one point or another.  You wander into the DVD aisle at your local supermarket, and you see it flooded with knock-offs or cheap sequels.  Late in 2011, as DreamWorks’ Puss In Boots was entering theatres, for example, I saw a DVD entitled Puss N Boots that even apes the DreamWorks’ art style to a degree that could genuinely confuse the less-attentive doing browsing.  I’m pretty sure that I saw several parents during that time period actually do a double-take on it, having to give it a closer inspection before realising and moving on.  Hell, that one got so bad that its Amazon listing actually has to have “(Not DreamWorks)” in the title!  As for sequels… I really don’t think I need to clarify that I’m referring to Disney in that regard, right?  You all know that there are only two great ones (The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride and Pooh’s Grand Adventure) and that the rest are mediocre at best (the Aladdin sequels) and wretched at worst (Mulan II and Cinderella II).  And I’m pretty sure that you already know about the twelve Land Before Time sequels.

So it’s definitely strange that DreamWorks Animation have so far only had one direct-to-video film.  No, really, just the one.  Those Madagascar and Shrek holiday specials?  They were TV specials that got a home video release for the extra money (in the case of the How To Train Your Dragon and Valentine’s Day Madagascar ones, those are shorts and aren’t really the same things as a full-on direct-to-video feature), although we may touch on those at some point in this series if there’s time.  The only direct-to-video feature that DreamWorks Animation have produced is this one, Joseph: King Of Dreams.  It’s especially weird as, let’s not forget, we’re talking about a company that ruthlessly franchises everything (even Turbo, which actually caused the company an overall loss, has gotten its own Netflix Original Series) and that it’s actually rather safe to assume that any film that doesn’t get a continuation of any kind is a stillborn franchise.  Even weirder is that this was the company’s fifth release, overall, and was in production during The Prince Of Egypt, a time when the company half-assed absolutely nothing.  Going direct-to-video could be seen as Jeffrey Katzenberg and co. wanting to expand their all-conquering reach to every facet of the animation industry, again that theory of having an all-encompassing range of animated fare brought under a company umbrella that signals quality, but it still feels weird to see just the one, and this early in its lifespan.

Mind, even if it weren’t direct-to-video, Joseph: King Of Dreams would still be facing an uphill battle by merely existing for it is a prequel (kinda, sorta, spiritually at least, depends on how you view a studio making two Bible adaptations in similar styles to one another) to The Prince Of Egypt.  As you may recall from three weeks back, The Prince Of Egypt is f*cking amazing.  It is so amazing that, nearly fifteen years on from its release, it still holds up and may even be one of the best animated films I have ever seen (one of these days I will actually sit down and try to figure out which actually are sat behind Persepolis).  If you want to come along and call yourself a prequel, spiritual or literal, to that film, you are going to be mercilessly scrutinised, my good fellow, and if you even come up even a little bit short then your privates are going to be nailed to the damn wall.  There are high standards, is what I’m getting at, and falling even a little bit short is going to be seen as a failure at some level.

Of course, if you watch Joseph with the sound off, maybe instead replacing the songs and dialogue with a fitting soundtrack of your choice, you’d be hard pressed to call it a failure of all but the most minor of kinds.  It’s not as pretty as The Prince Of Egypt, of course not (reduced budgets will do that), but is has aged just as well.  Movements are wonderfully fluid, shot composition is fantastic, CGI is kept to the bare minimum or is so well integrated that I didn’t notice it, there’s good usage of lighting and shadows, animals are theatrical-release quality…  It looks a lot like Egypt except that there’s a bit less detail and a slightly smaller scale (wide shots of expansive sets and landscapes don’t feel wide, for example) which betray the lower budget.  The dream sequences, though, look astounding.  It’s the way that they blend and utilise several different art styles yet never have the end result look a mess.  Joseph’s early dreams employ a swirling background that gives off the style of a living painting, all of them accurately capture the symbolic yet ultimately shifting nature of dreams without becoming disorientating, some employ the camera-swivel effect that Beauty & The Beast’s ballroom dance made famous and it creates this very dream-like off-ness to the scene, whilst the visualisation of Pharaoh’s dream takes full advantage of the fact that CGI doesn’t age well to purposefully create this otherworldly and foreboding imagery.

I mean, I shouldn’t be surprised that it looks this good.  Reminder, this was a film made at a time when DreamWorks were young and hungry, with something to prove, and didn’t half-ass anything.  They even went into the production knowing from the outset that this was destined for a direct-to-video release and yet refused to let the animation quality suffer.  There’s heart and soul being put in, here, the result of a team refusing to settle for good enough.  Compared to most animated films that go direct-to-video nowadays (or, in some cases, get called up for the cinema), it’s a visual tour-de-force.  The reflective gold decorations on Joseph’s coat look better and more convincing than the gold featured in The Road To El Dorado and, lest we forget, they had to write an entire program from scratch to render gold in that theatrically-released film!  If the sound was off, if they only paid attention to the visuals, and they hadn’t seen The Prince Of Egypt (the slight lack of detail and scale is missed but not as badly as one might think), I imagine that several people would actually fail to believe that this is a direct-to-video film even if they were told it was.

Unfortunately, that’s about where the good comparisons end to The Prince Of Egypt.  See, whilst that film invested its narrative with good pacing, emotional stakes, and a willingness to not sugar-coat its darker sections and themes, Joseph: King Of Dreams is a bit of a mess, one that attempts to do too much in too short of a timeframe without much of an emotional connection.  In fact, I was genuinely not in the slightest bit surprised to have found out during my research of the film that it had a very troubled production.  The film’s co-director wrote an entire article on the eve of its release about the disastrous first act story-reel screening he had in early 1998 and the major reworking that had to occur for it to be usable.  Apparently, proceedings at that stage made no sense and lacked characters, instead just being a series of disconnected events that happened with little rhyme or reason.  This is a fundamental issue, as you may be able to gather, and it’s a hard one to correct in an animated production where a whole bunch of work has already been done and the release date is two years away.

Credit where it’s due, they did fix the issue.  Proceedings do make sense and there are characters with motivations and the like.  The problem is that everything feels rushed and completely lacking in depth.  To compare it to The Prince Of Egypt (which is something I’m going to keep doing even though, in all honesty, it’s kind of an unfair comparison), that film’s emotional centre works because it takes half of the film before we actually hit the liberation of the slaves conflict.  Prior to that, we get the character work, we learn about Moses, about Rameses, about Egypt, the stakes involved, why we the viewers should care.  There’s an expert usage of pacing going on in Egypt and it’s that pacing and that character work that imbues proceedings with emotional heft.  It takes its time, doesn’t rush (presumably because the actual meat of the story is rather short and simple by comparison), lets us get a sense of who these characters are and what they’re like so that the emotional moments matter.

In that respect, Joseph was probably doomed from the start.  To try and invest this story with the kind of emotional heft that Egypt had, like it very much wants to, it needs a runtime longer than 70 minutes (75 with credits).  The story of Joseph is too large and expansive to be able to adequately do justice in just over an hour, at least from what I can gather here.  And unlike with Egypt, Joseph can’t get away with focussing on one specific part of his story because it all feeds into the conclusion of him forgiving his brothers; without that, you have no emotional climax.  So, really, this is a story that needs a feature-length runtime, otherwise you just get a rather dry retelling of the tale like the one we’ve ended up with here.

For example, the central relationship that propels the film’s opening and close is Joseph’s relationship with his brothers.  The basic strokes of the relationship are presented, they’re jealous of him because his father favours him over them, but it doesn’t really go further than that.  We don’t even really see their side of the equation, they’re only shown to be wanting to be kind to him once and that’s during the opening song before they’re shut out by the over-coddling Jacob.  I understand the concept of narrative economy, but this is a bit too economical.  None of his brothers really feel like people, they certainly don’t feel like individuals, and the fact that most of the opening of the film is sped through in a musical montage where they’re basically background filler doesn’t do them many favours.  Maybe it was a deliberate choice, to keep them one-dimensional and unempathetic so that we don’t end up siding with their idea to sell Joseph into slavery, but it’s the wrong one.  Not only does it make the conflict at the end, will Joseph forgive his brothers when they unwittingly re-enter his life in desperation, lack stakes or investment (why should Joseph forgive those who were only ever utterly terrible to him; also, weirdly and despite that, the sequence unwittingly makes him come off as a bit of an arsehole, I feel), it also feels like a cop-out when Egypt was willing to humanise Rameses and give him depth even though he was a full-on abusive slave-dictator come story’s end.

Meanwhile, the relationship in the middle part of the story, concerning Joseph and his slaver Potiphar, similarly feels rushed.  Hell, it barely feels like Joseph has kicked off his shoes before he gets falsely imprisoned for two years.  So the scene where he forgives Potiphar, supposedly the rebuilding of this strange kind of friendship the two had fostered before the falsified attempted rape, either rings hollow or kinda is just a thing that happens despite the film trying to make a big deal out of it.  The passage of time is especially weird, two years supposedly pass between Joseph being sold off and him being thrown in prison but on-screen depictions make it seem like it’s only been a few months, at best, or a few days, at worst.  It gets better later on, the length of his stay in prison is well-communicated and the time span afterwards becomes very clear due to the laid out milestones, but it just adds to the overall lack of real involvement.  So much of this film takes place in montage, backed by what feels like an endless number of songs, that it only compounds the one-dimensional nature and lack of emotional involvement.

Speaking of, the songs are decent.  There’s a bit more variety to them than in The Prince Of Egypt (contrast the prior embedded “Miracle Child” with “More Than You Take” which is embedded below this paragraph), “You Know Better Than I” is lyrically well-done and captures the intended “God has a plan for all of us” vibe and mood much better than “When You Believe” did in Egypt, and there are several instances of Jodi Benson singing and that is never not a wonderful thing to hear.  The problem is that there are too many of them.  Way too many of them in too short of a time-frame and they crop up so often that I found myself wishing that they’d just stop for ten minutes and let the characters lead the story instead of yet another damn song and montage.  Their frequency also means that, despite the variety, they eventually just blend into one another.  There’s also an issue where song lyrics end up being played over dialogue and sounds that are going on on-screen; the non-song sounds and words being too quiet to overtake the mix but too loud to block out and dismiss, so many lines in the songs get muddled in the rest of the mix.  It’s not a frequent occurrence, but it happens often enough to be really distracting and feels rather amateurish every time it does happen.

So, as it turns out, there is a reason why Joseph: King Of Dreams has languished in obscurity for the 14 years since its release (I mean, be honest, did you really remember this film before opening this entry?).  It’s a very pretty film that has significant narrative and emotional shortcomings, one severely hampered by its direct-to-video nature and shortened runtime.  Nothing really to write home about.  Let’s bring this entry home, then, by attempting to answer the big question that appeared near the start: why is Joseph the only direct-to-video feature-length that DreamWorks Animation have ever made and released?  Well, me being me, I have a couple of theories if you’ll indulge me for a paragraph or five.

Theory #1: It has been said that there were plans for more direct-to-video Bible story adaptations if Joseph was a success.  I imagine that DreamWorks were banking on this being a rather successful little supplement to their cinematic films; maybe pump a new one out every year around about Christmas and reap a nice consistent cash flow from the more religious or simply parents who want to get a stocking stuffer for their kids and, hey, cartoons always keep them quiet.  The fact that it’s 2014 and that the only DreamWorks Bible films we have are still The Prince Of Egypt and Joseph: King Of Dreams should give an indication as to how well it ended up doing (even though, as much as I’ve tried, there seems to be no sales data of any kind for it out there).

Theory #2: Direct-to-video really isn’t all that profitable.  Or, at least, not to the degree that DreamWorks would have liked for it to be.  I mean, it’s still a profitable market (let’s not forget that there exist twelve goddamn Land Before Time sequels), but it’s not really profitable enough to consider diving into on a frequent basis unless you have giant safety nets behind you.  I mean, how many films that go direct-to-video do you think generate decent returns, especially the kind of returns that are able fund feature-length animated films with the visual fidelity DreamWorks aspire to?  Disney could get away with doing this in the early to late 2000s (when even their theatrical films were tanking hard, but we will come back to that) because they often made enough money to be worth the cost of making them and they still had the safety net of their merchandising arm.  DreamWorks… don’t, and especially not at the time that Joseph was released into the wild (more on that in two and three weeks from now), so it’s too much of a risk for what has proven to be too little reward.

Theory #3: Direct-to-video is basically dead in the animated realm.  They wouldn’t have tried again in the early 2000s as they didn’t have the financial safety blanket if everything went balls up, they wouldn’t try it in the mid-2000s as they basically released everything they made in cinemas (they average 2 films a year back then, 3 nowadays), and they wouldn’t try it today because pretty much nobody does it anymore.  There’s a reason why The Land Before Time series finally went extinct a few years back, whilst Disney just send anything that was planned to go direct-to-video (I’m specifically referring to the Planes and Tinker Bell franchises) to cinemas now.  Why shouldn’t they?  They make actual money in cinemas, practically every goddamn animated film makes money in cinemas now.  Why not shake down gullible and/or desperate parents for extra money by making them pay twice for a film that they would otherwise only have to have paid once for in the hopes of keeping their kids quiet?  It’s proven to work.

Plus, DreamWorks Animation nowadays simply can’t afford to take the risk.  There’s a reason why the Madagascar and Shrek franchises just plain refuse to die, and that’s because they’re pretty much the only ones that actually still bring in money for the studio.  Most of their original films, their risk-takers, their attempts at trying to mature?  They’re failing.  They have been for a while, now.  Sure, they appear to turn a profit, but they keep causing the company to have to make write-downs.  Rise Of The Guardians?  $300 million against a $145 million budget sounds like nothing to sniff at, but they still had to list a write-down of $83 million and lay off 350 employees.  Turbo?  $282 million against a $127 million production budget plus a maximum $175 million marketing budget; write-down of $13.5 million.  Mr. Peabody & Sherman?  $268 million against a $145 million budget and still they had to take a write-down of $57 million.  This is why, despite having taken $535 million so far and having exceeded the gross of the original, some people are claiming that How To Train Your Dragon 2 has been a financial failure and they honestly might not be wrong.

So of course they’re not going to touch the direct-to-video market with a bargepole.  Of course the movie of The Penguins Of Madagascar is going to be a full-fledged cinema release.  Of course they keep bringing back Madagascar and Puss In Boots for cinema sequels.  They can’t afford otherwise.  It’s a problem that’s been affecting most of their non-franchise films for a long time now (as we’ll discover as the series progresses), and it’s why their schedule has at least one sequel every year.  Simply put, if their films underperform, the company stands a good chance of collapsing.  There is no safety net, especially seeing as even apparent sure bets like How To Train Your Dragon 2, now the highest grossing animated film of the year, aren’t even completely safe bets any more.  They don’t have the time, they don’t have the money and they can’t take the risk to go direct-to-video, especially since their television arm is infinitely more lucrative than any potential direct-to-video venture would be.

Those are my guesses, anyway.  Whatever the reason, it leaves Joseph: King Of Dreams as the black sheep of the DreamWorks Animation canon.  A one-off experiment that failed miserably and has since faded into near-obscurity.  Does it deserve such a fate?  Eh, kinda, quite frankly.  It’s very pretty and I appreciate the effort to try and bring theatrical production values to the world of direct-to-video, but the film beneath the visuals is wholly unremarkable, emotionally unaffecting and insanely rushed.  It’s diversionary enough, but in comparison to the film it spawned from it is simply not good enough.


Next week, we get back on track and look at the film that changed everything.  The film that announced DreamWorks Animation to the world.  The film that would shape feature-length animation for the decade to come, for good and for ill.  Shrek.

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

Callum Petch will be your god, he’ll be your girl.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Chicken Run

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

chicken-run-2000-3-g-640x509

This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary.  In celebration, 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.


04] Chicken Run (23rd June 2000)

Budget: $45 million

Gross: $224,834,564

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%

Say what you want about DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, the man had vision at the start of the company’s lifespan.  Let’s not forget, the company’s (planned) first film was a biblical epic the likes of which had never been attempted in animation, let alone in Hollywood at all for a good 30/40 years prior.  He jumped feet first into the wholly-CG realm well before any other Pixar imitators.  He got the company to throw money behind a buddy-comedy adventure that time has been much kinder to than contemporary critics and filmgoers were.  He had a real vision for his animated company; he wanted to rival Disney but, quite clearly, wanted to do it on his own terms with films that weren’t just pale imitations of what Disney were churning out.  He wanted an animation company that could hop from genre to genre, animation style to animation style, all aimed at a slightly older filmgoer instead of merely pacifying the youngest, but brought together under one roof with a company name that people could look at as a sign of quality, build trust in the consumer that their time and money weren’t going to be wasted.

So of course one of the first things that Katzenberg would do upon co-founding the company would be to hunt down, sign to a contract, and inject a rather large cash flow into cult British stop-motion animation company Aardman Animations.  Why wouldn’t he?  Prior to Katzenberg knocking on their front door, Aardman had built up quite the reputation in their near-three decade existence as Britain’s premiere animation studio with such creations as Rex The Runt, Morph and the Oscar-winning short (that would later be expanded into an ad campaign and later still full-on television series) Creature Comforts (1989).  They also made the iconic music video for Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” (1986) and, weeks before the DreamWorks deal was officially announced, they also released Steve Box’s stunning animated short Stage Fright (1997).  But, of course, they didn’t truly start making giant waves with the public until A Grand Day Out (1989) introduced them to Nick Park’s Wallace & Gromit, their household name status becoming truly assured with their follow-up shorts The Wrong Trousers (1993) and A Close Shave (1995), which both also won Academy Awards.  The company was on the brink of superstardom, all it needed was a film that could announce its presence to the world.

Again, enter DreamWorks.  By the time the deal had been signed in December of 1997, Chicken Run had been in pre-production for a good year and already had the financial backing of Pathé, and the critical prestige of Aardman (and particularly Chicken Run’s three-time Oscar-winning co-director Nick Park) meant that practically every American studio with money to throw around was desperate for a piece of the pie (the box office success of Don Bluth and Gary Goldman’s Anastasia a few weeks earlier, at a time when it seemed like any non-Disney animated release was a license to throw millions of dollars into a big ol’ fiery pit, may have also helped somewhat).  In the end, though, Katzenberg won out through sheer, bloody-minded persistence; he’d been courting the company since he first saw Creature Comforts.  It seemed like a perfect marriage, both companies even extended their deal, as Chicken Run was wrapping up production, for another four feature films.  Later history would show this to be far from the case (there’s a very good reason why their new films are being released primarily by Sony Pictures Animation), although a squabble over the film’s score would offer a brief glimpse at the creative differences that both studios would dissolve into, but at the time this was basically all leading up to a fairy-tale kind of ending.

And it did.  It really did.  Chicken Run opened at the beginning of the Summer, with its only competition being the disastrously performing Titan A.E., entering the charts at number 2 (behind Me, Myself & Irene).  The film proceeded to ride that complete lack of competition to a six week run in the Top 10, where the most it dropped between weeks was 40% in Week 5 when Pokèmon: The Movie 2000 replaced it briefly as the big new animated movie on the block, a domestic total in excess of $100 million and slightly-larger than that foreign total as well.  It even out-grossed Disney’s official entry into their animated classics canon for the year, The Emperor’s New Groove, and was only kept from being the highest grossing animated film of the year by Disney’s other animated film for the year (retroactively added to their animated classics canon later on), Dinosaur.  Critically, it was universally applauded, so much so that DreamWorks actually launched a campaign to get the film nominated for Best Picture.  It failed, sadly (Chocolat got in over it, if you’d like a reason to get really angry today), but it has been said that the film was popular enough with Academy voters for it to lead to the creation of the Best Animated Feature award for the next ceremony.  The film also failed to pick up the Annie Award for Best Animated Film because, well, it came out in the same twelve month window as Toy Story 2.

But other than the unfortunate shut-outs with regards to awards (seriously?  F*cking Chocolat but not Chicken Run?), this was basically the outcome that multiple hokey underdog stories use for their feel-good endings, only in reality and fully-deserved.  I was six upon the VHS release of Chicken Run and even I felt a tiny little something upon seeing the Aardman logo preluding a feature-length (not that I would have understood the full significance, obviously, I was still only six).  Growing up, my parents were very generous to stock the “please, for the love of God, pacify the bugger the five minutes” VHS collection with an armada of cartoons.  Disney films, BBC cartoons, Toy Story, Tom & Jerry collections, Looney Tunes collections, all that stuff, so I had a pretty early introduction to Wallace & Gromit.  The beauty about them, as is the beauty with most of Aardman’s best work, is that they work on multiple levels.  They’re not aimed specifically at families or children or anything like that.  Like damn great movies, they just aim to tell good stories with the knowledge that everybody, regardless of age, gets something out the best stories.  So, as should surprise no-one, Chicken Run ended up on regular rotation when it hit VHS.  It was funny, fast, linked in terms of tone and style to Wallace & Gromit, and I always had an affinity for stop-motion animation.  The fact that the DVD we eventually traded up to contained extensive clips of practically every Aardman short ever made beforehand admittedly helped matters.

The thing that I was dreading, though, upon sitting down to watch Chicken Run for this feature, the first time I have watched the film in at least 4 years, was that my earlier obsession with the film during my youth would dilute much of its impact.  For the longest time I couldn’t watch any classic episode of The Simpsons because my near cult-like devotion to a Season 4 boxset that I got one Christmas, and any of the numerous showings of any episode on Sky1 and Channel 4, had stripped most of those episodes of their humour and entertainment value.  There was a part of me that was worried I’d be left sitting on the outside of this film, mechanically looking at its deeper meanings and such rather than being drawn in and becoming invested in proceedings.  As mentioned just a few moments ago, though, the best Aardman works work on multiple levels with the same level of enjoyment being gained no matter which level you end up looking at it at.  And that ended up being true of Chicken Run, many of its jokes may have diminished from over-consumption as a child, but I was still able to be entertained because, thanks to my older age, I could truly grasp the multitude of ways the film ends up working in.

For example, the mood, structure and feel of the film are very classic.  Despite being a millennial release that was in production for the entire back-half of the 90s, Chicken Run feels even older than that.  The obvious comparison, primarily because it’s an affectionate parody of it, is the 1963 classic The Great Escape but it goes further than that.  The whole film has the feel of classic Hollywood and, more specifically, the kind of films that crop up on Channel 4 when they need to fill a couple of hours of television time during an early weekday afternoon.  I realise that that could read as an insult, but it’s really not.  There’s a warm, inclusive feeling to the film that lacks from most animated films these days.  Unlike, say, The House Of Magic or Planes or anything like that, Chicken Run aims at a general audience instead of just the youngest of children, and whereas that could lead to a bland or just plain lack-of-an identity it ends up working excellently.  It feels classic, a film out-of-time, like if The Great Escape was made by British filmmakers and filtered through that off-beat mind-set we used to be so good at.  It’s why none of the jokes feel out-of-place or tonally misjudged, whether they be a practical hurricane of poultry-based puns delivered by rats Nick and Fetcher, some well-timed physical comedy during the montage of escape attempts near the beginning of the film, or a bit where the chickens realise that they’re all for the chop and Babs knits herself a woollen noose.  It all fits the all-ages mood and the British touch keeps any of them from coming off as obnoxious or ill-fitting, most of the gags being rather underplayed, really.

Speaking of that mood, of a film that feels (again, very much in a good way) older than it is, the animation, much like most of Aardman’s stop-motion creations, feels very stuck in the late 80s and early 90s.  The way that the film’s imagery and colour-scheme seems rather washed-out, the low-key lighting of most scenes, I might have even seen some film grain, at points.  I’d like to use the phrase “charmingly rustic”, because that’s the one that keeps sticking out in my mind right now, but I’m not sure it fully fits.  It conveys the positive opinion I have, though.  Many animated films, particularly in this age of CG, are often on a mission to have “the most graphics” or to just blindly copy the style of whatever the latest hot animated film was; unsurprisingly, it dates those films pretty quickly (for example, this clip from TMNT was from a film that released in 2007).  Yet the Aardman style still looks pretty darn good.  The decision to shoot at 20-frames-a-second instead of 24-frames-a-second in order to save money does cause a bit of a stiffness here and there, but it adds to the charm, more than anything.  The works of Laika may have surpassed Aardman’s stuff technically in the years since, but there’s a cosy feel to Aardman’s productions that I like.  It may have something to do with my having grown up a devoted Aardman fan (you are looking at one of, like, ten children who actually stuck with Chop Socky Chooks for more than 45 seconds), it may not, but it’s there and it’s very much a plus.

As for things that I didn’t notice until this go-around?  The way the film handles scale and stakes.  Chicken Run is actually really clever in this regard.  The film is very small-scale, although there’s the really large cast of extras, there are only nine prominent characters and even less than that that the film expects you to full invest in.  You become worried for the nameless extras because Ginger is worried for the nameless extras and because Mrs. Tweedy is an unrepentantly evil person.  It gets that not every character needs a name, arc and recognisable character trait for you to be worried about their outcome; if it’s shown to be important to the main character, like how the continued survival of the chicken community in a freer land is to Ginger, and the film makes an effort to demonstrate why that’s the case, then it is expected that the audience will swiftly follow.  Also helping matters is just how quickly the film sets up the price that failure to escape will have on these characters; literally the first scene after the credits montage involves the death of Edwina, played dead straight at that, showcasing just how real the stakes are to our cast.  It’s splendidly well-done story work.

But that scale also manifests itself in more visual ways.  What struck me first, above all else, was the shot of the camera pulling back to show the entirety of the chicken farm in one image as the title fades into view.  I realised how small the map of the world’s film actually looked, how there’s very little space, how all of the huts barely looked like they could fit one chicken let alone twelve, how each of its landmarks look barely a stone’s throw away from one another.  But then we switch to the viewpoint of the chickens and there seems to be real distance between huts, how the courtyard (for lack of a better term) suddenly does seem like it could support an entire herd of chickens, and how every hut actually ends up more like a TARDIS than the thing we just clapped eyes on.  It should seem inconsistent, especially whenever Mr. Tweedy opens one of their roofs to inspect what’s going on, a mess of scene geography, yet strangely it isn’t.  I think of the little one-take scene where Ginger is walking through the hut the other chickens are turning into a makeshift plane and my first thought doesn’t go straight to “how on earth could all of this be happening in that tiny hut?”  Because the film does such an excellent job at communicating just how big the scenery and sets are and seem to the chicken cast, it makes it much easier to go along with because the film never truly breaks that scene geography, instead flitting between different viewpoints simply due to the angles and placements of camera shots.  Now, in fairness, this works better in certain scenes than in others, specifically the height of the chickens compared to the Tweedys never truly feels consistent or convincing, but it’s still much less of an issue than it could have been because, again, the world is so brilliantly constructed.

I guess I should also admit that it wasn’t until this viewing that I grasped the not-exactly-subtle debts that World War II paid to its production design.  Before you start laughing, I would like to remind you that it had been a very long time since I’d seen Chicken Run and that, for some utterly bewildering reason, I was never properly taught about World War II until I hit secondary school.  Are you all finished judging me?  Good.  So the production design borrows very heavily from World War II POW camps, with some Concentration Camp elements thrown in for good measure.  Now, yes, this is because the film is an affectionate parody/homage (take your pick) to The Great Escape, but it also helps bleed into the scale and stakes stuff I’d just mentioned.  Although the place is never exactly an oasis, it ends up becoming rather multi-purpose, perfectly fitting the mood of whatever tone the film wants to go with.  And, in practically every shot outdoors, the fact that the fence is nearly always in view creates a constant reminder of just how close freedom truly is for the cast.  The fence uncomplicated but very effective in its required in-universe design, much like many POW camps.  Plus, you know, there’s the fact that Mrs. Tweedy’s chicken pie machine and plan to turn all of the “vile, loathsome little” chickens into pies calls to mind The Final Solution somewhat and basically makes her Hitler.  It all adds into the stakes without overriding the film too much, there’s just enough of a gap between the subtext of the WWII design and the overriding prison break narrative that one can enjoy the film without appreciating, or getting uncomfortable at, the parallels.  Again: the benefits of aiming at a general audience instead of one specific group.

Of course, Chicken Run isn’t perfect.  In fact, having watched it so much as a child and this being my first viewing in years actually seems to have made it easier for me to identify the flaws in the film.  The plotting, specifically, is very generic and thuddingly obvious.  It’s paced fantastically, something that’s not exactly a given when directors jump from shorter-form productions to feature-length (as just one example, both Inbetweeners films suffer from pacing issues), and it’s all executed with a tonne of heart and love but it still feels perfunctory at times.  “And now here’s the scene where the seeming answer to everyone’s prayers appears… and now here’s the action scene where we demonstrate how much of a threat the pie machine is… and now it’s the All Is Lost Moment, complete with dramatic thunder and rain because of course.”  One can call the beats to the second.  It’s not much of a problem, primarily because the film instead packs a lot of fun beats into its characters to make up for the lack of originality in the plotting, but it still feels too generic; like Peter Lord & Nick Park and the film’s screenwriter, Karey Kirkpatrick (who pops up frequently throughout DreamWorks’ history; we’ll come back to him), were operating out of some kind of “My First Feature-Length Screenplay” guidebook to be safe.

Also, and maybe I’ve just been spoilt by my years of ingesting as much of the animation as I can have time for, but I think the voice acting is very hit-and-miss.  On the hit side, especially on the hit side, there’s Miranda Richardson as Mrs. Tweedy (who I am just going to assume was cast purely on the back of Blackadder II because, c’mon, you know it makes sense) who plays every line damn near perfectly and her refusal to ham it up all of the time actually helps sell the character as even more threatening than she could have been.  Tony Haygarth as Mr. Tweedy bumbles with half-clueless ineffectualness brilliantly, Benjamin Withrow as Fowler does a dead-on “Back in my day…” ranting old veteran voice but also manages to get that same voice to deliver sincere emotional heft when he congratulates Rocky for helping sabotage the pie machine, whilst Timothy Spall and Phil Daniels (yes, really, I was surprised too) easily slide into the snarking comic relief roles whilst still, with a little help from the script, managing to imbue the characters with actual character instead of just pun-delivery.

Where things fall down is with regards to the leads.  Mel Gibson, who plays Rocky the Rooster, isn’t bad, he’s certainly far better than a man having to deliver the majority of his lines over the phone sounds like he’d be, but he does really undersell a lot of the material.  His character demands for him to be more boisterous, more showy, more American than Gibson and/or the people directing his performance seem willing to go.  It works for when his character development changes him to be more humble, when he develops a conscience, but less so for the time he spends otherwise.  The real issue comes from Julia Sawalha, who plays Ginger.  She’s really flat most of the time, there’s a lack of energy and of real emotional connection.  A lot of her lines, whether they’re an upset cry to the heavens, an excited reveal of a plan, or a tender opening up to Rocky, are delivered in the same very underplayed and often-lifeless fashion and it really took me out of the experience.  The same relatively-detached underplaying that worked for Mrs. Tweedy doesn’t work for Ginger; Ginger needs some heart and passion invested in her line readings which either Sawalha didn’t want to do, couldn’t achieve, or had directors who weren’t looking for them in the first place which is the wrong way to go as it turns out.

Finally, and this is the case for a lot of films in general but I still feel the need to bring it up, I don’t buy the romance between Rocky and Ginger, nor do I think it really needed to happen.  I understand why everyone involved felt like it did, Rocky needs to have his shameful exit at the two-thirds mark and then needs a reason to make a big heroic return in the finale and what quicker way than to have him and Ginger become attracted to one another, but it still feels wholly unnecessary.  Hell, I basically just explained the fact that it was basically done for obvious plot’s sake rather than any natural reason.  Them hooking up just feels like something that everyone felt just had to occur because “that’s how these things go, I guess,” but it’s still not really an excuse.  The film could have just had them turn into becoming close friends instead of lovers, the romance starts at the halfway point with a dance and then Rocky getting over his sexist tendencies and referring to Ginger by name, and it still would have worked in both a narrative and character sense.  Instead, they get together because that’s how these things go and deviation from “My First Feature-Length Screenplay” was expressly forbidden in its foreword.  It’s not a deal-breaker, it’s just a personal pet peeve of mine, not helped by how we’re over a decade on and this kind of thing still hasn’t really changed in the film industry.

I realise that I sound a bit down on Chicken Run, but I’m not.  Really, I’m not.  It’s a damn great, often brilliant film and one that certainly justifies the love, acclaim and fairy-tale ending to the pre-2000s Aardman Animation story.  The effects still hold up especially so since they’ve been bettered, the jokes still pack some laughs that a childhood of running the VHS on loop couldn’t suck the entertainment from, the setpieces are entertaining and exciting, and the film’s mood is endlessly relaxing and charming, the kind that is often lacking from most animated films nowadays.  Again, I was worried that revisiting this film would only result in a souring of the memories, but the refusal to just stick to one specific age-group (and the fantastic work that’s put into making that not create a tone that wildly slides all over the place) ends up showcasing even more aspects of its brilliance and discovering other, newfound reasons as to why it works.  It turns out that it’s not an outstandingly amazing film (unless the re-watch significantly lowers its quality, I have a feeling that Curse Of The Were-Rabbit will be closer to that), but it still succeeds at more than enough things, and its whole is great enough, for me to feel comfortable in the legacy that it’s established.


Chicken Run proved to be the breakthrough smash-hit that Aardman Animations deserved, a runaway critical and financial smash that forcibly announced their presence to the world outside of the UK.  For DreamWorks Animation, it was just the success they needed to counter-act the undeserving failure of The Road To El Dorado.  Of course, it wasn’t primarily produced by them and many may have wondered if DreamWorks were actually capable of long-term staying power on their own terms.  Their next animated feature would silence those critics immediately, firmly put the company on the animated map, and completely re-invent and re-shape the animated landscape for almost the entire decade afterward, for better and worse.

But before we get to that, we have to take a quick detour into direct-to-video land for a prequel to The Prince Of Egypt.  Next week, we shall take a look at Joseph: King Of Dreams, the sole direct-to-video entry in the DreamWorks Animation canon.

A brand new instalment in DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST.

Callum Petch guesses it’s seen the sparks a-flowin’.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

The Road To El Dorado

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

This year, DreamWorks Animation turns 20.  In celebration, 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.


The Road to El Dorado Poster03] The Road To El Dorado (31st March 2000)

Budget: $95 million

Gross: $76,432,727

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 49%

1999 was a bad time to be anyone in animation not working for Disney.  Not in terms of quality, sweet merciful Maker no!  1999 gave us Tarzan, Toy Story 2, The Iron Giant, Fantasia 2000, Doug’s 1st Movie, Wacko’s Wish (the direct-to-video Animaniacs movie that not enough people give due credit to), the Dexter’s Laboratory TV movie Ego Trip, and South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.  That is the kind of embarrassment of riches that proves that today’s animated landscape can do much, much better.  Quality-wise, it was a near-untouchable year.  Financially… ever been stuck with a group of people in a factory as the place burns to the ground around you but you’re all still working as hard as you can because you just know the boss is going to fire you if you’re not pumping out quality products, even whilst your livelihood is going up in smoke before your eyes?  I’d imagine that being somebody who worked in feature-length animation in 1999 was kind of like that.

1999 was the year of bombs.  Tarzan made money, Toy Story 2 made money and South Park rode a nice wave of “AN ANIMATED FILM THAT SAYS THE F WORD?! WON’T SOMEBODY PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!” to relatively decent financial success.  Everything else severely underwhelmed and most bombed hardFantasia 2000, primarily hobbled by Disney’s… interesting release strategy, only made a $10 million profit.  Doug’s 1st Movie opened in a landscape free and clear of any animated fare and still only made $5 million opening weekend before proceeding, like everything else released in April of 1999 regardless of whether they shared the same target audience, to be crushed by the enormous popularity of The Matrix (although I should point out that its planned direct-to-video nature meant that it actually closed after nearly quadrupling its budget).  The excretable The King & I (because even 1999 had to have one outright puke-stain) failed to make back even half of its miniscule $25 million budget.  And The Iron Giant, primarily thanks to incredible mismanagement by Warner Bros.’ distribution arm (rushed late Summer release with next to no advertising), crashed and burned at the box office so spectacularly that it all but shut down Warner Bros. Feature Animation (the only reason it didn’t is because the live-action/animation hybrids Osmosis Jones and Looney Tunes: Back In Action did even worse).

2000 would end up just as bad and, in addition to a pair of very notable Disney bombs in 2001 and 2002, spelt doom for traditional animation in feature-length films, but we shall address that situation fully in a month’s time when we reach it.  For now, let’s return to DreamWorks.  1998 was a very good year for the company with both of their debut films releasing to large box office success, critical adoration and, in one instance, an Academy Award.  Unfortunately, the previously-mentioned competitive desires of its CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg had left the company without a release for 1999.  The plan was for Antz to open in March of 1999 and for The Road To El Dorado to release in late ‘99.  Neither scenario came to pass, Antz due to the A Bug’s Life feud which I am officially done referencing in this series as of now, El Dorado because… well… production on this film was “troubled,” let’s put it that way.  Reports of changes of directors, changes of tone, changes in intended audience (this started off planned at a PG-13 level) changes of story (which is absolutely killer mid-production in animation as anybody with a brain can tell you) and that many of the people who were working on The Prince Of Egypt were also working on this at the same time paint the picture of a film that had sealed its own fate long before release.

Oh, and then there’s the trailer.  Tell me, does this look like the kind of film that you must go and see with your kids opening weekend?

So, unsurprisingly, the film opened soft in the first weekend of April: second place with $12 million.  And though it held rather steady over the following month (rarely dropping over 30% between weekends), it wasn’t a strong performer during the week and soft drops mean little if you opened poorly to begin with.  It closed at nearly $51 million in the US, half of what The Prince Of Egypt was able to accomplish just fifteen months prior, and took only half that in foreign markets.  To date, it is the only DreamWorks Animation film to not make its budget back.  Critics, meanwhile, weren’t kind.  They lambasted its generic looks, its safe and edgeless humour, its formulaic plot, the fact it it’s lightweight and has little going on thematically and, in one bizarre case from Empire magazine, the fact that the two lead heroes seemed more in love with each other than the woman that comes between them (in fact, it’s actually been rumoured that the original plan was for the film’s leads to be lovers with one another, before being dropped because this was the year 2000 and such a move was, and still is unfortunately, considered commercial suicide).  Plans to create a whole franchise out of the film were very quickly scrapped and history would seem to write this one off as complete and total failure.

History would be wrong to do so, though.  See, 90% of the time, films that are both critical and financial duds are duds for a reason.  But, on that rare other 10% of the occasion, they end up unfairly maligned and being bewildering passed over at the box office.  They’re gems that never really got a chance to prove themselves.  And I think I know why such a fate befell El Dorado.  See, critics adored Antz because it tackled weighty themes and they adored The Prince Of Egypt for being an epic realised in animated form with a tone befitting such ambitions.  Past DreamWorks Animations were, in a way, making a purposeful play for critical praise.  El Dorado instead was aiming to be a swashbuckling adventure throwback, a sort-of road trip flick, a buddy comedy and a crowd-pleasing blockbuster, all mashed-up and fed through the lens of a kiddie-fied version of Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King.  It’s not trying to be deep, it’s not trying to be weighty, it’s just trying to be fun.  Of course, DreamWorks had proven themselves to be more ambitious than this, so critics were going to see this as a step back.  No wonder they were so hard on it.  Marketing, meanwhile, took the lighter tone to mean a license to aim at the youngest kids only, despite the film’s humour hemming closer to buddy comedies that are more enjoyable by older kids and especially parents.  No wonder most people stayed away.

It’s all especially a shame because The Road To El Dorado is a really good movie.  Fun is a rather undervalued commodity by a lot of people, but El Dorado has it in spades.  Real fun, proper fun, not the kind of “fun” that Transformers and its ilk traffic in.  This is a film that moves fast, where barely a minute goes by without something funny happening in some way, where proceedings are kept super lightweight and anything that threatens to bring that mood into something darker is near-immediately distanced and the party is back on.  It’s a film that wants to show you a good time, for you to sit back and let the witticisms, chase scenes, cons and overall silliness just wash over you.  And it owns that totally, which is why it works so well.  Plus, you know, the buddy dynamic is dead-on and excellently pulled off.

If you’re a regular visitor of the site, you’ll be aware that I saw and reviewed The Nut Job this past weekend.  I bring this up because El Dorado’s leads are rather similar to the lead in that film: they’re selfish, jerk-ish criminals who only look out for one-another and have little time for performing good or heroic deeds, but who eventually grow consciences for various reasons (Miguel due to bonding with the people of El Dorado, Tulio due to falling for a young native woman by the name of Chel who wants in on their scam) and end up risking their big scores to do the right thing.  In The Nut Job, this approach fails totally and just ends up creating an unlikeable dill-weed whose late-game change-of-heart rings false.  But it ends up working for El Dorado.  Why?  Well, one of the reasons comes from the fact that the two don’t remain jerks until the 80% mark, the film does a very good job of showing them slowly developing a genuine care for the city they plan on robbing.  If you’re going to do character work, you need to actually keep at it throughout the film, make it a thing whose progress you can actually track, and El Dorado does that very well.

The other reason is because El Dorado’s leads, despite being con artists attempting to swindle a mythical city out of their riches, are extremely likeable and entertaining guys.  You can do less-morally inclined lead protagonists, but if you want us to actually like them you need to make them entertaining (there is a very good reason why Guardians Of The Galaxy just made all of the money, after all).  El Dorado was created with the intention of making the show-stealing wacky, witty, and less clean-cut sidekicks that you normally see in animated films the lead characters and it works gangbusters.  These are two extremely funny guys whose frenzied life-partner dynamic is nailed totally, by both the script and their voice actors.  Tulio is Kevin Kline, so this outcome should surprise no-one who has seen A Fish Called Wanda, Miguel is Sir Kenneth Branagh which, again, should mean that this outcome surprises no-one.  They, in a rare case for animated movies (schedules and all that), recorded their dialogue together at the same time in order to better sell the rhythm, cadence and delivery of the material, improv in places and, overall, just better capture the chemistry the pair are supposed to have.  If you’re wondering as to whether it worked or not, here is the second half of the first scene the duo appear in.

They are a fantastic comic duo whose every bicker-filled interaction is hilarious, so the fact that they don’t start the film as paragons of virtue doesn’t matter.  They’re selfish and terrible, but they’re endearing.  They’re entertaining, and the fact that they’re entertaining is what makes it easy to care about them and to enjoy spending time in their presence long before their character arcs and development kick in.  If a character is entertaining or interesting to watch, the audience won’t mind the fact that they’re not stand-up folks and, thusly, your attempts to get them to care about the character will work superbly.  And so it goes here.  The dynamic the duo share is expertly conveyed, that sense of how much their partnership matters to one another being why its eventual crumbling carries some actual emotional heft and why its eventual rebuilding leads to a finale that can leave viewers with smiles for days on end.

Since it so effortlessly nails the buddy dynamic of the equation, the rest of El Dorado basically falls into place without much of an issue.  The whole movie, which lasts a brisk 90 minutes with credits, moves at a phenomenal clip, enough to let the fun of the whole adventure easily take one over but not so much that it screws up the pacing of the character arcs or the quieter scenes.  Action scenes are breezy and filled with fun little character cues to keep them from just being spectacle.  The comedy is of a very high standard; most of it, after all, coming from anything our two leads say or do but still finding time for some great pieces of physical comedy or silent eye-rolling snarking from Altivo, the horse that ends up inadvertently tagging along with Tulio and Miguel.  Chel (voiced with maximum sass and snarkiness by Rosie Perez) doesn’t get much to do but is a very fun compliment and foil to the dynamic of the two leads, and El Dorado’s high priest Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante) is a good villain because the film knows how to pitch him; threatening when necessary but with a pathetic-ness and radical-to-a-fault devotion to human sacrifices that it can mine for comedy.

That being said, there are two little snags with El Dorado that can’t be traced back to its intended “Hey, folks!  We’re here to help you have fun!  Let’s all have all the fun!” nature.  The first is the animation.  It’s not bad, a large quantity of laughs come from a fantastic set of choices in regards to facial expressions, character poses and well-timed movements and framing.  What it is, though, in terms of raw quality, is average.  The colour palette is a bit muted, the scale never seems to be quite as big as the film wants it to be, there’s a lack of detail going about the backgrounds and props, and character designs themselves (with the exception of the lead duo and the “yes, they really did manage to get away with a PG for this” design for Chel) are rather uninspired and flat.  More problematic are the CG enhancements which are frequent and most have not aged well at all; the one decent one is early on with the barrels that the duo hide in.  Almost all of the gold is rendered in CG, with the team apparently writing an entirely new piece of software because they wanted the gold to look gold instead of a shade of yellow, and it just looks phoney.  Again, the film doesn’t look bad, especially where it counts for the comedy, just average and it’s especially bewildering since the film cost $25 million more than The Prince Of Egypt did and that still holds up as, in my opinion, one of the best looking animated films ever released 15 years on.

As for the other snag?  Well, this may get me lynched by some people, but the songs aren’t great.  I know, I know, “How DARE you insult the work of Elton John and Tim Rice!”  Look, their songs for The Lion King are iconic and exceptional, some of the best ever committed to a Disney film (and we all know that is saying a lot), I am not disputing that.  Unfortunately, that means that I have high standards for them, especially so when all of the ads heavily trumpet the fact that El Dorado has six new songs by the duo, and the songs in this film aren’t even in the same country as those standards.  They’re all just really, really forgettable and they really break up the pacing of the film.  Most of the time they back montages, which is understandable, but they end up causing the montages to run for way too long, as they kinda just kill time until the song finally winds itself up.  “Friends Never Say Goodbye” is a particular offender of this and also isn’t helped by being very noticeably on-the-nose lyrically.  They’re not terrible, they’re just highly unnecessary, over-long and not good enough to make up for those facts.

The Road To El Dorado, like many actually great films that go unappreciated by critics and the general public at the time of their release, has managed to attain a sort of cult classic status on the Internet, where the art of animation and cartoons are taken very seriously indeed, and I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t relieved at that development.  It really does deserve a fairer re-evaluation by people, people who realise that a fun rollicking buddy-focussed adventure romp isn’t something to look down on and who haven’t been turned off by poor marketing (it even seems like some people at Disney were paying attention; think of Flynn and Maximus the horse in Tangled).  It doesn’t set any worlds on fire, it’s about as deep as the shallow end of a kiddie pool, and its animation isn’t exactly world-class, but The Road To El Dorado is damn great at what it aims to do: be fun.  It perfectly nails down the core relationship between Tulio and Miguel and, as a result, the rest of the film and the fun effortlessly slot into place to create a silly, breezy and highly entertaining 90 minutes.  It has no pretensions at being anything more than it is and I really appreciate and admire that kind of honesty in my films.  Honesty that I’m going to borrow because, frankly, the reason I really enjoyed this movie, and why it is way better than reputation suggests, is simply the fact that it is a tonne of fun and, sometimes, that’s all that one wants.  It’s a shame that audiences and critics circa 2000 didn’t seem to.


An undeserved failure with critics and the general public, El Dorado may have caused Katzenberg and the staff at DreamWorks Animation to get a little hot under the collar about their possible long-term staying power.  Fortunately, this was not the only film that they were involved in in the year 2000 and their next film, co-produced with a cult British animation studio, would give them the financial and critical praise that El Dorado lacked.  The animation studio: Aardman.  The film: Chicken Run.  Next week, we’ll take a good long look at the first of DreamWorks’ three collaborations with the creators of Wallace & Gromit.

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

Callum Petch got a taste of love in a simple way.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

The Prince Of Egypt

prince_of_egypt_ver3by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

This year, DreamWorks Animation turns 20.  In celebration, 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.

02] The Prince Of Egypt (18th December 1998)

Budget: $70 million

Gross: $218,613,188

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 79%

1998 was a damn good year for animation.  Pixar finally completed work on and released their follow-up to Toy Story in the form of A Bug’s Life, Disney turned in the best of their direct-to-video sequels in the shape of The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, DreamWorks’ debut animated feature Antz was a successful and unique opening statement, whilst Paramount and Nickelodeon finally brought Rugrats to the big screen to enormous success, and, of course, let us not forget that 1998 was the year that Disney gave us Mulan.  1999 would end up topping it (to a degree and with worrying signs that we will touch on next week), but there is no denying the excellency of 1998’s line-up.  For the most part (shuffles Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer The Movie off-stage).  And then, just as the year was wrapping up, DreamWorks dropped one last entry into the absurdly strong animated canon of 1998: The Prince Of Egypt.

You’ll recall from last week that this was supposed to be DreamWorks’ grand entrance into the animation landscape but was ultimately supplanted by Antz thanks to the competitive desires of DreamWorks’ CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg.  You may also recall that A Bug’s Life ended up opening on November the 25th of 1998, which is what Katzenberg was so terrified of, the possibility that A Bug’s Life may end up crushing The Prince Of Egypt at the box office.  Except that it didn’t work out like that.  Opening three weeks after A Bug’s Life, The Prince Of Egypt took a lucrative pre-Christmas release slot and still opened late enough for A Bug’s Life to have sufficiently worn out its box office welcome (it, after all, is very rare for animated film to continue to be very strong performers a month after release and with other options available).  The film opened at number 2, behind You’ve Got Mail (in case you wanted a reminder of just how close to the Millennium we are), but had staying power, actually making more money over the notoriously slow Christmas weekend, dropping rather steadily week-to-week and earning plenty of money during the week, too.  (Check the facts for yourself, here.)

The film was also a strong performer overseas, doubling its domestic American gross, and eventually closed as the highest grossing non-Disney animated film of all-time (until Chicken Run two years later, but we’ll get to that) and the highest grossing traditionally-animated non-Disney film of all-time (until The Simpsons Movie in 2007, which makes this the far more impressive of the two statistics).  But it didn’t stop there, as The Prince Of Egypt wound up scoring something that A Bug’s Life did not, an Academy Award.  Yes, of the studio’s fifteen nominations and three wins, The Prince Of Egypt was responsible for two, Best Original Score Musical Or Comedy (which it lost to Shakespeare In Love because the 1991 Academy Awards, everybody) and Best Original Song (which it won, and was a category that is conspicuously lacking in Mulan, but I digress).  So, yeah, I think it is fair to say that The Prince Of Egypt more than held its own against the raring up of the Pixar juggernaut (although, fun little fact, both would fail to take the 1999 Annie Award for Best Film; that went to The Iron Giant).

Besides, this continual competition that Katzenberg feared that A Bug’s Life would bring was rather moot from the very beginning because, much like with Antz, both films were both doing different things.  Only this time, the similarities only came down to the fact that they were both animated movies coming out around the holidays.  That’s the sole thing both films have in common, but that’s apparently all they needed to become fierce rivals battling for the public’s attention.  Such fears are especially baffling because The Prince Of Egypt is a biblical epic told via the medium of an animated musical.  And it’s not like the public could be in any way confused by the targeted audience of either film; compare the trailer for A Bug’s Life with the trailer for The Prince Of Egypt.

Of course, the true test facing The Prince Of Egypt was the fact that it was a traditionally animated film by a company that was not Disney.  Once upon a time, such a market thrived (hello, Don Bluth) but a whole bunch of middling, at best, animated films (Cats Don’t Dance, The Swan Princess, Once Upon A Forest, Quest For Camelot among many, many others) spoilt such a thing, making Disney pretty much the only consistently strong performer of animated goods, and therefore the only one worth putting down money for.  The fact that most films were trying to emulate the Disney style of storytelling, and ended up doing so really rather poorly, didn’t help things.  Misconceptions nearly always have some basis in truth, after all, it’s rarely just people being ignorant for the hell of it.  For The Prince Of Egypt to stride in, as the new feature film from an animation company that had only just released their debut feature (which was so wildly different in tone, style and animation technique that one could be forgiven for thinking that they weren’t even by the same studio), looking remarkably similar to many sub-par Disney knock-offs on paper and with a budget three times that of most non-Disney failures, was practically inviting premature commercial suicide.

But, as we all know, the film ended up a rousing success.  So, how come?  Well, one could throw some of the credit to the Christmas release window.  A biblical epic released one week away from that most religious of holidays?  That’s practically ordering devoutly religious families to clear a spot on their calendar for a seasonal visit or seven to the cinema!  Plus, it’s based on an Old Testament tale, Moses and his freeing of the slaves of Egypt to be exact, and one that has basis in plenty of other faiths (the film even has a short little bit post-credits where it quotes passages in the Quran, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament that praise Moses and the influence his story has on their faith) to make it very approachable for foreign audiences of different religious persuasion.  It’s also really accurate; though the film takes some liberties with the Exodus text (and admits so before you even see a single frame of film), the production crew called in Bible scholars, theologians of various faiths and Arab American leaders to keep the film as authentic as possible.  It sounds unnecessary, but let’s not forget the recent furores that sparked up over Noah’s deviations from the original tale.  You could also give credit to the title, which is vague enough to draw in the more secular for whom the descriptor “bible story” would send them running for the hills (you may laugh, but Disney named Tangled and Frozen the way they did because they believe that one of the main reasons for the failure of The Princess & The Frog was the fact that “Princess” was in the title), and the trailer promised an action-packed romp that could bring in excited young boys.

You could say all of those things.  I instead choose to believe a simpler, much more naive reason: The Prince Of Egypt succeeded at the box office because The Prince Of Egypt is f*cking brilliant.

As the opening statement for DreamWorks Animation it was clearly intended to be before the whole Antz business happened, The Prince Of Egypt is as bombastic as they come.  Everything carries a grandness to it, the kind that only a large risk-taking budget can provide.  It’s there in the look of the film; environments are large and wide open let crawling in detail, character animations look and feel extremely natural and fluid, conspicuous CG is used to enhance certain scenes and achieve its more audacious effects (like the parting of The Red Sea).  It’s there in the storytelling; which is melodramatic in the best kind of way, where everything is epic in scope and every action is a giant event of great significance, yet it is all rooted in a strong central relationship.  It’s there in the songs (hell, the score in general); which is the definition of grandiose and bombast, with booming choirs harmonising foreboding chants, an orchestra that sounds populated enough to fill an aircraft hangar and whose every note sounds like it’s heralding the incoming apocalypse.  You could not get closer to the kind of overblown historical epics that classic Hollywood used to pump out if you spliced in scenes from The Ten Commandments at random intervals (fitting, considering that the project allegedly came about when Steven Spielberg directly told Katzenberg that he should make The Ten Commandments).

In fact, why am I even describing what the film is like when all I need to do, literally all I need to do, to get you to understand the feel of this film is to just show you the plagues montage?

That is the whole movie.  It remains at that kind of grand sweeping level for the majority of its run time, and that makes the film unique.  Not just for animated films but for films in general, let us not forget that that kind of overblown historical/biblical epic was nearly killed off nearly half a century ago after the production disaster known as Cleopatra (when your film is the highest grossing of the year yet still lost money overall due to the exorbitant budget, history is going to write you off as a failure).  To put it simply, they didn’t make films like this in 1998.  They still don’t, in fact.  There’s genuine spectacle, here, especially helped by the fact that this is one utterly gorgeous film.  This film is 15 years old, I saw it in rather crappy standard definition, possibly poorly upscaled to HD, and it is still one of the best looking animated films I have ever seen.  There’s the detail that accompanies every scene, no matter how small, the smoothness and fluidity of the character animations, the opulence that drips from the Egyptian palace and the meagreness of the residencies of the peasants and the slaves.  And then there are the individual shots, many of which you could divorce from the context of the film and hang up in art galleries and nobody in their right mind would go, “Hang on, why on earth is that here?”

 

Artist Unknown, 1998
Artist Unknown, 1998

But opulence and spectacle unchecked just leads to the realisation that all you’re watching is empty flash, all the pretty visuals in the world can’t save a film without some kind of emotional grounding.  Fortunately, The Prince Of Egypt realises this also and so the dramatic centre of the film comes from the relationship between Moses and Rameses.  In this telling, Moses’ basket is found by the wife of Pharaoh Seti’s consort wife and he is brought up as Rameses’ adopted brother leading to the central dramatic conceit being whether Moses can convince his brother to do the right thing before he has to take everything from him.  The opening third of the film actually does a good job at establishing their relationship, they’re dearly loving brothers with Moses as the troublesome younger sibling and Ramses as the one who is being groomed for leadership and is eager for some kind of acceptance from his father.  The whole film runs on this relationship they both have and its eventual disintegration, and it’s why we take somewhere in the region of at least 50 to 60 minutes before the plagues actually come about.  The film wants to establish its characters before it rains down God’s fury and it works brilliantly; there’s a scene just before the final plague where Moses confronts Rameses one last time and the two recall a memory of a prank that Moses played and it’s genuinely saddening.  It never forgets this central dynamic, even during what should be a thoroughly uplifting climax when it takes the time to show Rameses stuck on a rock in the middle of the sea, futilely shouting Moses’ name to the heavens whilst Moses stands miles away, clearly still full of regret for the loss of that relationship.

Also helping that emotional grounding is some excellent low-key voice work.  The only one who ever lets loose with theatricality is Ralph Fiennes as Rameses, which is rather fitting, actually.  Everyone else plays things very reserved which leads to performances that feel genuine.  Patrick Stewart shows up as Pharaoh Seti and his calm, soothing voice is what really sells the scene where he informs Moses about the slaughtering of the peasants’ first born, as if he thinks it will actually cheer up the horrified Moses.  Val Kilmer plays Moses and his voice work is excellent here, most specifically in showcasing his character’s evolution.  He starts off like Fiennes, very theatrical and jovial and pompous and all that, but he actually changes up his voice as Moses goes through the film, toning down any and all theatricality in favour of a subdued and clearly weary voice, as if he can barely shoulder the weight of his task and the emotional toil and guilt it’s saddling him with.  He also, uncredited, voices God and his performance is so soft and paternal that, quite honestly, it amazes me that this isn’t one of the standards for God portrayals; it fits so damn perfectly.

And speaking of God, I’m pretty sure the thing that pushed The Prince Of Egypt over the top for me, the scene where it clicked that I was watching an incredible movie, was the way it treated The Angel Of Death.  Now, let’s face facts, this scene in concept is utterly horrifying.  I realise that God slaughtering all of the first-born sons of Egypt really is the only way to move Pharaoh and that it’s all for the greater good and how God only did it because he was forced to this extreme, but it is a truly horrifying thing to have happen.  Wisely, The Prince Of Egypt does not attempt to sugarcoat it and depicts the scene exactly as it sounds on paper.  And yet the scene is actually rather beautiful with the way that it’s constructed, the muted and slightly washed-out colour scheme and the impeccable sound design coming together to create a scene that I genuinely feel comfortable calling art.  It doesn’t pull its punches, not one of them, and the result is a wondrous scene of horrifying beauty.  And the film actually lets the scene breathe, it lets the distressing nature of the action linger and settle instead of immediately cutting to happy smiley fun times (the song that follows on actually starts downbeat and despondent and waits a while until it becomes triumphant).  In fact, just watch it, words can’t do it justice.

If there is one thing about The Prince Of Egypt that I don’t like (and it is just the one thing, as I otherwise love this movie), it’s the songs.  They’re not bad; not by any means, they’re all very grand and bombastic and overwrought and that kind of earnest go-for-broke-ness is extremely rare, so they have a charm of their own if nothing else.  It’s just that they’re all kind of… forgettable.  Interchangeable.  Eh.  Other than their overblown nature, they haven’t really got anything going for them.  They lack a tune, they lack something that makes them stand-out.  To compare it to something else that came out in 1998, remember how Mulan had “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You”?  Course you do, pretty much everybody who has seen Mulan can at least hum the basic tune of that at the drop of a hat.  Well, The Prince Of Egypt doesn’t have anything close to that, they all just wander in and out of the film when necessary and lack long term impact or memory.  I also really don’t like “Playing With The Big Boys Now” which is lyrically lazy instead of catchy, does little to advance proceedings and goes on for what feels like twice its actual length.  Oh, and the end credits feature a song by Boyz II Men, in case you wanted a reminder that this was a film made in 1998.

I’m going to admit that I was rather apprehensive going into The Prince Of Egypt.  Growing up, I attended a Junior School that basically forced you to be a Christian and to be knowledgeable about religion, we had mandatory daily prayers and mandatory weekly hymn assemblies with some scripture thrown in for good measure.  So my distancing from religion comes just as much from it being a forced part of my daily life growing up as it did my general lack of faith.  And I do not like being preached to about the wonders of religion; unlike most notable atheists, I’m not opposed to religion as a whole (I actually have a great deal of admiration for people whose faith is strong enough to believe in a divine power that looks down on us all), but I am opposed to people trying to force their way of life upon others.  Therefore, I tend to be apprehensive whenever biblical tales are presented for my filmic enjoyment.  This is a dumb subconscious feeling to have, I am well aware, especially since the Bible is comprised of some of the most classic and compelling narrative conflicts available, but it’s a feeling that continues to sit with me to this day (you’d think that Darren Aronofsky’s superb Noah would have beaten that prejudice into the dirt, you’d sadly be mistaken).

Fortunately, The Prince Of Egypt blows away past that cynical barrier by being like pretty much no other animated film out there.  Its strong emotional centre, its gorgeous animation, its great voice work and its infusion of classic Hollywood excess combine together to create a film that had my full attention from practically frame one and my emotional investment well and truly secured by the 15 minute mark at the latest.  It’s also a film that commits fully to its material; if this were a Disney film, they would have diluted the impact by adding a wacky talking animal sidekick to provide the kids with some mood-lightening laughs (I love Mulan with all of my heart, I would love it ten times more if Mushu were nowhere in sight).  Instead, The Prince Of Egypt is 100% committed to telling its story in the manner and tone that it deserves, and it’s all to its total benefit.  This is one of those films that has slipped into cult classic status almost accidentally, the result of a film that was a smash upon release but just kinda got overshadowed by, and for being so unlike, a studio’s later output, but absolutely deserves its status.  This is a f*cking fantastic film!


With two financial and critical successes under its belt, plus an Academy Award in only its second feature release, it would seem like a safe bet to say that DreamWorks Animation had arrived.  It would, however, be 15 months before they released their next film, one that would underwhelm critically and fall victim to a distressing trend at the box office.  The Road To El Dorado is the film in question and, next week, we’ll see if it truly deserved its fate or not.

A brand new instalment in “DreamWorks! A Retrospective” will be posted every Monday at 1PM here on Failed Critics!  I am also taking suggestions for a much better name for this feature.

Callum Petch went to descend to amend for a friend.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Antz

dreamworks-animation-filmsby Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

On October 12th, DreamWorks Animation SKG turns 20.  Long known as the number two CG animation company in terms of both quality and gross per film, the company has been responsible for, along with Pixar, revolutionising and revitalising American feature-length animated cinema.  And they turn 20 having finally earned sustained critical praise in addition to the usual millions upon millions from franchising and the box office (*quietly shuffles Turbo and Mr. Peabody & Sherman out of view*).  The company, in many respects, is stronger than it has ever looked.

I was a child once and, being a child, I used to be a fan of DreamWorks Animation.  I mean, like everybody, I was enamoured by Shrek and, being young and therefore incapable of good taste, I ate up their continual, lesser re-treads of the Shrek formula.  However, even children eventually develop taste and my patience with their products was waning by Flushed Away (yes, I know Flushed Away is an Aardman film, we’ll get to why I didn’t make that distinction later) and had evaporated entirely by Bee Movie.  I found their films to be stale, formulaic, uninspired, lacking in heart, and vastly inferior to what Pixar were putting out.  So, after Kung Fu Panda (which did not work for me, we’ll see if anything’s changed later on), I made the decision to stop going to see DreamWorks films.  After all, why should I keep going to those when Pixar were still riding high?

I held firm to that decision for close to six years (with one lapse for Puss In Boots because a friend and I had free cinema tickets that were about to run out and nothing else was on), finally breaking it this year due to my desire to see all the animation and because proper film critics can’t pick and choose the films they review.  Consequently, Mr. Peabody & Sherman was a big surprise for me, being a legitimately great and heartfelt film.  Was this seriously the company that, exactly one decade earlier, believed that Shark Tale was quality work it was willing to stand behind and release to the general public?  And whilst I may not have loved How To Train Your Dragon or its sequel, I can still see them as very good movies and a major step-up from, say, Madagascar.

So this journey back through their back catalogue has been rather a long time coming and the 20th anniversary of the company (which I didn’t know was a thing until the card popped up before How To Train Your Dragon 2) seemed like as good a time as any to start it.  So, every Monday for the next 30 weeks, I will be going through every single one of DreamWorks Animation’s films (up to 2013) and giving them a thorough re-evaluation.  How they were responded to at the time, what the animation landscape at the time was like to foster their success or failure, how they’ve aged and if they were good films to begin with.  We’re going to go through them all, from their debutback in 1998, all the way up to Turbo in late 2013 with a week’s break for their one excursion into direct-to-video land, in the shape of Joseph: King Of Dreams, and two weeks at some point or another to look at their television output, seeing as franchising is a major part of the DreamWorks business.  There will be some highs, some astounding lows, maybe even some surprises and, hopefully, we’ll all come out of this a little more knowledgeable about one of the biggest names in Western Animation.

But we start our adventure on October 2nd 1998 with the company’s first animated feature-length film, Antz.  Yes, with a “z”.


Antz Poster01] Antz (2nd October 1998)

Budget: $105 million

Worldwide Gross: $171,757,863

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95% from 89 reviews

I am not going to spend the majority of this instalment focussing on the feud between DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg and Pixar’s Steve Jobs & John Lasseter over whether or not the former stole the premise for A Bug’s Life from the latter and used it as the basis for Antz.  Why?  Multiple reasons.  1) The situation is actually rather complex and neither side, to this day even, seems willing to let it slide or come out and admit they were wrong.  You could write a book around the thing (or, at the very least, a novella) and I don’t have the time to go in-depth about the issue.  2) To spend 75% of the article’s length on circumstances surrounding its creation is to do a disservice to Antz itself as 3] With the exception of their general premises (lowly worker ants who have crushes on their colony’s princess and have fears of being insignificant in their daily lives and roles in society), Antz and A Bug’s Life actually have very little in common.

In any case, it is important information, so here is the condensed, likely-heavily-simplified version.  DreamWorks Animation CEO and co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg helped form the company after leaving Disney’s film division disillusioned by its direction and embroiled in a bitter feud with the company’s CEO Michael Eisner (and, really, who wasn’t angry with Eisner at some point in time?).  Katzenberg had stayed in touch with Lasseter after leaving and, when asked by Katzenberg during one of these meet-ups, Lasseter had described in detail their post-Toy Story project, A Bug’s Life.  Soon after, and soon after DreamWorks had acquired Pacific Data Images (PDI, the company responsible for the 3D sections of the Homer³ segment of The Simpsons’ “Treehouse Of Horror VI”), trade publications announced that DreamWorks’ first animated film was going to be Antz.  Lasseter, naturally, assumed that Katzenberg had ripped him off.  Katzenberg insisted that it was based on a 1991 story pitch by Tim Johnson that was related to him in 1994.  The situation was not helped by DreamWorks rushing production on the film and aiming for a release date two months before A Bug’s Life.  There’s also the fact that Katzenberg made an offer to an infuriated Steve Jobs that he would halt production on Antz if Pixar moved the release date for A Bug’s Life away from DreamWorks’ planned debut animated feature, The Prince Of Egypt (more on that next week); yes, that does sound an awful lot like a shake-down.

Lasseter still believes that Katzenberg ripped him off.  Katzenberg still insists that they were merely similar ideas.  (For the record, I would have been more inclined to believe Lasseter if you’d asked me about this before I saw the film and before this got out.)  In any case, Antz did end up launching nearly two months before A Bug’s Life to great critical and relatively good financial success.  A Bug’s Life, however, would debut on November 25th to near equal critical acclaim and runaway financial success ($363 million).  Not to mention the fact that that’s still held up as a very strong entry into Pixar’s canon, despite the strength of what’s come after, whilst Antz has pretty much faded into obscurity.  And then, to add insult to injury, The Prince Of Egypt was released a few weeks later, December 18th, and even with the competition from A Bug’s Life it managed to find great success, becoming only the second animated film not released by Disney to make $100 million domestic (after Paramount and Nickelodeon’s The Rugrats Movie) and the highest grossing traditionally animated non-Disney film ever until The Simpsons Movie came along.  Business may have gotten Antz out of the door first, but all it ended up doing was destroying long-held friendships and saddling the film with baggage, that may or may not be true, for the rest of its life when it’s brought up in conversation.

And that’s really a damn shame as, as previously mentioned, Antz and A Bug’s Life share an overall premise and precious little else.  Not to mention the fact that Antz has enough going on in its own terms that you can be able to discuss the film without having to make reference to the troubles surrounding its production.  So, if you want to know more about that side of proceedings, you can find an overall summary and several jumping-off points here and here.  The rest of this little piece is going to look at Antz primarily on its own terms.

Whereas A Bug’s Life was clearly aimed at the whole family and especially the younger end, Antz was aimed more at teenagers and adults.  Not that you’d know that from the trailer, of course (in fact, compare that trailer with the one for A Bug’s Life).  A Bug’s Life is focussed more on sight gags, slapstick humour and a light inclusive tone; Antz derives what little humour it has from the ramblings and snarkings of its neurotic protagonist, Z (voiced by Woody Allen, who also did some uncredited re-writes), and has a tone more befitting a high PG, low PG-13 family film (more specifically, my mind keeps cycling back to Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers, which was released two months earlier).  A Bug’s Life is a tale of slaves rising up and overthrowing their oppressors but the subtext is kept as subtext and the tone is light and inclusive, whilst Antz is a darker film that tackles the topics of individualism, rigid class structures, Communism (briefly) and blindly following orders, all with the subtlety of baseball bat.  To the face.  Of your grandmother.  At one point, the villain (voiced by Gene Hackman) almost quite literally sneers about how individualism is a disease held only by the weak.  Both films are clearly aiming at different audiences and are using their similar premises to do different things and tackle different aspects of them, they just had the misfortune of coming out two months apart from one another; not the last time that DreamWorks would fall victim to this (Megamind/Despicable Me, but we shall get to that).

A phrase that commonly gets tossed around in regards to Antz is “edge”.  That it has “edge,” “it’s edgier than A Bug’s Life.”  I get the feeling that that particular phrase is only used because everybody came to the film expecting a safe, kid-friendly romp.  Like it or not, animation has an image problem with people mistakenly believing that all animation is aimed only at kids because that’s the primary market that Disney were aiming at.  So with a film like Antz, which carries itself more like a live-action comedy adventure than a Disney film, people are going to label it edgy.  In reality, Antz plays with themes and topics that aren’t that alien from Disney films (Z’s narrative arc, which ends with him pretty much back where he started but happy about accepting it because he got to choose, is rather close to one that Ralph goes through in 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph) but just flowers it up.  Characters infrequently swear, for example.  Not majorly so, but hearing “bitching” and “crap” and “hell” is still jarring from a Western medium that goes to great pains to keep people from uttering a single bad word.  Z himself is basically a Woody Allen character dropped into an adventure movie; the guy is literally introduced ranting to his therapist about his insecurities and neuroses!  One of his lines later on in the film is a slightly altered line from Allen’s own Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid To Ask).  There’s also a genuinely frightening and disturbing war scene which is followed by a haunting aftermath and a prolonged sequence in which Z has to help comfort his dying and bodiless friend.  You know, just in case you believed that Mulan wasn’t at all held back by its G-rating and all-ages focus.  It could come off as a company desperately trying to break away from that image problem, and seem cringeworthy and forced with conflicting tones, but it’s a testament to the film’s quality that it all feels natural.  There are very few first film jitters, here, it’s a film that knows what it wants to be and rarely second-guesses itself.

Those first film jitters manifest themselves elsewhere, instead.  Subtlety is not Antz’s strong suit.  Everybody constantly re-iterates how their decisions and lifestyles are for the good of the colony, at such a frequent rate that it starts to cross over into Hot Fuzz-style parody.  The eeeeevil General Mandible goes on at length about his dissatisfaction with worker ants, stating them to be inferior to the physically superior soldier ants and how “only the strong survive” and build a purer ant colony and such.  Z’s love interest, Princess Bala (voiced stiffly by Sharon Stone), wishes to see how the common folk live but is ill-prepared once she is thrown out into the real world and resorts to complaining incessantly until she sees the true beauty of a lower-class life.  A subplot involving a budding romance between Z’s soldier ant friend, Corporal Weaver (Sylvester Stallone), and worker workmate, Azteca (Jennifer Lopez, yes, really), is exploited during a short torture sequence by the villains who look down on it as an abomination in a way that recalls to mind bigots’ reactions to mixed-race couples.  That last one is the most subtly handled of the film’s various themes.  I understand the need to ensure that you get your message across on certain touchier topics, and that subtext can often fly over the heads of children (that slavery/A Bug’s Life comparison is one that came to mind pretty much as I was typing it), but it feels overly-preachy at times, here, and amateurishly-handled; the result of first-time writers and directors not quite getting there, yet, in regards to handling weightier material (which was the case for first-time feature-length directors Tim Johnson and Eric Darnell who we will be frequently coming back to throughout this series).

Animation-wise, the film has aged better than one might think.  In terms of raw power and art design, it’s about on a par with the CG used to power the opening to Tekken Tag Tournament for the PS2, but that actually winds up being an advantage.  Early on, the film needs to get across to the viewer how Z sees his colony, a strict, regimented and personality-free hive-mind where everyone does the same thing in the same way at the same time.  The animation responds to this challenge by being mechanical, limited and relatively lifeless.  Every character moves about like they’re strapped onto a conveyer belt waiting for the next stop to be fussed with, which is almost exactly what happens in one scene where the ant queen is being presented with new-borns by a quite literally endless procession of ants.  A dance sequence mines a good laugh out of the mundane half-assery by everyone involved and has a spark of life injected when, in the centre of the image, Z and Bala decide to go against the grain.  It all works and, consequently, appears much less dated than practically all of the films that came out during the great CG boom of the early 2000s; except when the action really ratchets up, whereupon the stiff animation couples with a noticeable drop in quality to reveal that the film is nearly old enough to buy a lottery ticket.

One other thing about Antz that I found notable comes not 20 seconds in.  The first thing you see, before the main character, before an establishing shot, before even the title card, is a list of practically every single cast member in the movie, in alphabetical order by their surname.  Now, of course, casting famous actors in voice roles instead of professional voice actors was nothing new by this point, and neither was marketing an animated film based on having a big star voicing one of your characters (Aladdin was only 1992, after all).  However, animated films still resisted boasting their all-star casts up front; Toy Story opened with its playtime prologue before rolling the opening credits whilst Disney would credit the character’s primary animator before listing its voice actor.  The choice feels conscious, a way to try and draw legitimacy to the project as if, even though it’s an animated film and therefore inherently inferior, Antz is still as respectable as a live-action film.  That’s how it reads to me, anyhow, regardless of how much I may disagree with the sentiments, and it’s an interesting creative choice that foreshadows just how far down the big name stunt casting rabbit hole DreamWorks would later fall.

You know, I’m actually rather disappointed that Antz seems to have slid into relative obscurity.  Sure, it’s nothing outstanding or great or anything, but it’s definitely unique.  It’s one of those rare animated films that’s primarily made for a specific audience, with said specific audience being older than 11, and that wants to try explicitly tackling weightier topics.  It doesn’t fully work, its handling of its messaging and themes is not exactly deft and its central romance is the definition of undercooked, but it tries.  It’s a trier and it’s also good enough at the fundamentals to be an entertaining and good quality film divorced from that potential.  I feel that it deserves a better reputation than it has, a film that’s only trotted out as a historical landmark (it’s the third computer-animated feature-length film released, in addition to being DreamWorks’ debut animated film) or for its tumultuous production history and little more, although I suspect I may be frequently referring to this film in regards to various DreamWorks tropes later on in this series.  The company would be wise to re-issue it on Blu-Ray or, at the very least, refer to it in public every now and again.  I get why they wouldn’t, but it would certainly help with regards to giving it a fairer re-evaluation by the animation community and the general public at large, because it’s much better than I’ve seen people give it credit for.


A financial success upon release, Antz has fallen off of most people’s maps since then, much like most other CG-animated films that emerged once Toy Story changed the game forever (hey, who remembers Disney’s 39th animated classic, Dinosaur?  …anybody?  …is it seriously just me?) and it immediately set Pixar and DreamWorks up as bitter rivals at the cost of personal friendships.  On the plus side, it still turned a profit, was slightly more of a critical success than A Bug’s Life and has aged far better than one might have expected.  Overall, it was a fine debut for DreamWorks Animation.  It wouldn’t be until their next film, though, that the company would taste real success.  That film was 1998’s The Prince Of Egypt and we shall talk about that next week.

A brand new “DreamWorks! A Retrospective” will be posted every Monday at 1PM BST here on Failed Critics.

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