Tag Archives: Shrek

Turbo

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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


turbo-sq1000_s8_f122_cc-2_rgb27] Turbo (17th July 2013)

Budget: $127 million

Gross: $282,570,682

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 67%

I really couldn’t have planned this better, folks.  Turbo really is the perfect note to send the Retrospective home on – film-wise, in any case, we still have two weeks left – because it not only perfectly demonstrates why DreamWorks Animation are currently struggling at the box office, but also excellently embodies the evolution of “The DreamWorks Movie”, the type of film that animation fans like to deride and flanderize DreamWorks as only making, which, as this series should have proven, is mostly patently untrue.  In a perfect world, I’d have the time to look at the film in-depth from both angles, but word counts are word counts, so we’ll speed through the box office stuff and then dive into the true meat of the matter: the film itself.

Turbo bombed.  Turbo bombed.  It didn’t cost DreamWorks Animation as much as Rise of the Guardians did, but it was still the second write-down that the company had to take in as many years – not to mention that Mr. Peabody & Sherman would force them to take yet another write-down not 9 months later.  Two straight bombs for an independent studio sure as hell rattles investor confidence, although confidence in Turbo’s TV spin-off – Turbo: FAST on Netflix, one of the shows that we’ll be looking at next week – may explain why Katzenberg broke the news by basically going, “Well, at least it was ONLY $13.5 million this time!”  (Plus another $2.1 million later once the film finished underperforming overseas.Turbo failed to break $100 million domestic, becoming the lowest-grossing CG DreamWorks film domestically ever – until Penguins of Madagascar managed to sail under even that low bar – and you don’t even need to adjust for inflation as it grossed even less than Antz!

Unfortunately, for those of you looking for a giant point-by-point breakdown as to precisely why a film like Turbo failed, much like I did for Rise of the Guardians a fortnight back, the reasons as to why Turbo failed are extremely simple and honestly rather justified.  The first is that release date: July 17th 2013.  It is like 20th Century Fox and DreamWorks were trying to kill the film before it had the chance to get started!  That is a release date that came a month after Monsters University, two weeks after juggernaut Despicable Me 2 – which actually beat Turbo in the latter’s opening weekend, which is sorta tragic – and two weeks before Planes dropped.  Not to mention the fact that Summer 2013 was, erm, CROWDED, to say the least.  Animation fatigue, coupled with the fact that all of those other films are connected to already-liked franchises and DreamWorks’ prior-discussed problems with oversaturation, undoubtedly lead to a belief in the general public that they could give Turbo a miss and have no protestations from their kids.

The other problem stems from Turbo looking incredibly, kinda insultingly generic, unoriginal, and rip-off-y.  I mean, look at this goddamn trailer.

Does anything about that trailer scream anything other than “Generic DreamWorks Film #278”?  It’s a talking animal movie (check) about impossible dreams (check) where the message is that you can totally achieve those unachievable dreams if you wish hard enough (check) with an all-star cast providing the voices (check), including some prime A-grade stunt casting (big check), all set to a licensed soundtrack (check) and a whole bunch of jokes that come from pop culture references, animals doing and saying non-animal things, and silly catchphrases for the kids (check, check, and WHITE SHADOW!).  Oh, and that DreamWorks smirk (checks the size of George Clooney’s starring fees).

By this point in time, “The DreamWorks Movie” had bled over into popular consciousness.  No longer just a derogatory thought process held by film critics and snarky animation buffs, it seems that the mainstream audience were now tired of the DreamWorks schtick.  What was once a fresh, original voice in a stale animated feature landscape is now itself the stale voice in a fresh, original animated feature landscape.  As previously mentioned, DreamWorks were still trying to party like it was 2007 and they were the only names on the block, so people would have to turn up to their films.  Unfortunately, nowadays, animation is very competitive and one needs to have a new, exciting voice to stand out.  Pulling the same trick out with seemingly no variation makes you seem disposable, and parents don’t have time for disposable films in today’s ultra-competitive animated landscape.

No, seriously, look at this upcoming slate of animated features of the next 22 months.  It is ridiculous in the best possible way!

And DreamWorks’ constant returning to that “The DreamWorks Movie” formula, even whilst they tried to re-invent their image with more dramatic, emotionally-engaging, and (for lack of a better word) prestige pieces – said returns coming from films like Megamind, Puss In Boots, and now Turbo – can lead to backlash, as people return to the Shrek series and Shark Tale and realise that they weren’t as good as they thought they were.  This is why Shrek Forever After did badly by Shrek standards, yet Madagascar 3 shattered box office records for its series.  The former refused to adapt sufficiently, making tentative steps towards a newer, less pop-culture focussed identity but pulling back to safety at every opportunity, and was punished for it, whilst Madagascar actively found its own voice, as a wild silly cartoon, committed to it, and was rewarded forty-fold because it was something different.

Hence why Turbo was probably doomed from the start, even if it wasn’t released immediately after two guaranteed monster hits.  It looks like the kind of film that DreamWorks should have stopped making by this point.  Christ, it even has Ryan Reynolds in the lead role, who had just come straight from DreamWorks’ own The Croods from back in March, using the exact same voice as the one he used in The Croods!  Now, I know what you’re expecting, by this point.  You’re expecting me to now turn around and refute this entire assumption, reveal the film to secretly be some kind of pro-feminist piece or secret satire of the kinds of knock-offs that the studio had spawned and indulged in since their success or something.  That’s pretty much been my thing with this series, after all, going far deeper than most people are willing to go to when looking at and analysing these films, finding new angles and such.

Well, not this time, because they were right.  Turbo is “The DreamWorks Movie”.  Those trailers and awful aggressive pun-based taglines – “He’s fast, they’re furious”?  Oh, God, just kill me already – were not setting up some kind of Bee Movie-style refuge in audacity bait-and-switch.  Turbo is the movie that you’re being sold.  It’s a film with pop culture references as the primary source of humour in a landscape where the most successful films get their jokes from physical comedy and character work.  It’s a film that casts Snoop Dogg and Samuel L. Jackson as snails whose roles are basically “Snoop Dogg” and “Samuel L. Jackson”, in a landscape that casts Idina Menzel in a big Broadway-style musical and gives her an actual character to play.  It’s a film with an unnecessarily large budget in a landscape where non-Disney-affiliated outlets aim to produce quality at a sustainable sub-$100 mil budget.

It’s a film that stops for a full minute to poke fun at annoying auto-tuned YouTube remixes of stupid stuff, long after those stopped being entertaining prospects in their own right, by doing its own annoying auto-tuned YouTube remix of stupid stuff, and it is exactly as awkward and unfunny as it reads on paper.

So why do I really like Turbo?

I mean, from everything that I’ve written about the film so far, I should hate the damn thing, and that YouTube remix really should have murdered the entire film by itself.  So why, despite setting off every single goddamn alarm bell that I have, do I really like Turbo?  Well, much like every other answer in this article, it’s quite simple: there’s heart here.  There’s heart in the film’s central dynamics – it’s a tale of two sets of brothers, Turbo & Chet, the snails, and Tito & Angelo, the humans who end up spiriting them away and looking after them, and the film does a good job at playing with the parallels – but that’s not what I mean when I say that there’s “heart”.

What’s the typical mode of attachment with “The DreamWorks Movie”?  Does it have genuine affection for its characters, set-up, mechanics, and general existence?  Or is it distant, snarky, and dismissive about all of that?  Well, if it was the latter, then I imagine that Shreks 2 and The Third, Shark Tale and, arguably due to its occasionally cruel tone, the first Madagascar wouldn’t be so reviled.  Formula is rarely noticed so readily and so dismissively by the general public if the film itself is happy to be here and happy to be doing what it sets out to do; once again: The Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Most of the lower-quality DreamWorks films – again, the first Madagascar is only included here because of those occasional moments where it forgoes its own voice in favour of sticking to formula – feel cynical from frame one, a conscious decision to just redo the Shrek formula for money instead of telling the stories they want to tell.

Turbo almost never gives off this feeling.  This doesn’t feel like a film by formula because Katzenberg wanted to guarantee a profit, this feels like a film by formula because the people making it genuinely seem to love working from it.  They recognise that it’s not perfect, hence the injection of genuine heart to ground proceedings, but they love it anyway, and that shot of love and energy is what proves to be the revitalising spark required to make the film work.  That’s why the pop culture references inspire some genuine laughs and chuckles instead of just sighs of derision, they’ve had full-on thought put into them: for example, Turbo’s radio problems received genuine laughs from me because the songs fit the situation, the animation has a field day, and each instance of the joke doesn’t outstay its welcome, in contrast to the Pied Piper from Shrek Forever After.

That’s why Samuel L. Jackson playing Snail Samuel L. Jackson works, because the love for that idea means that the film commits to it.  Robert de Niro playing Shark Robert de Niro in Shark Tale was lazy, never fully committing enough to the idea and instead just having him say vaguely Robert de Niro things in a kid-friendly manner, as if the film is constantly stopping to remind you of its joke.  Turbo, though, commits and so we get a snail who has the same kind of attitude, authority, and gravitas as Samuel L. Jackson, but who manages to still feel like a distinct entity because the film doesn’t bend over backwards to remind you that, “No, guys! It’s Samuel L. Jackson as a snail!”

That’s why the extremely generic nature of the entire film – it’s basically a pastiche of A Bug’s Life, Antz, Ratatouille, Toy Story, Cars, and at least a dozen other animated films that have slipped my mind right now – works, because it cribs and borrows from so many elements yet the Frankenstein’s Monster hybrid still feels uniquely Turbo thanks to a focus on a more Latino viewpoint with the human cast.  That’s why the constant licensed music cues work, because they’ve been carefully matched for optimal strength – OK, “Jump Around” is majorly on-the-nose for its scene but it’s still a great drop, and the mashup of “Eye of the Tiger” and “Holler If Ya Hear Me” is both frickin’ genius and the best usage of “Eye of the Tiger” in years.  That’s why that DreamWorks Smirk works, because its deployment in-film is legitimately awesome!

It’s a laundry list of DreamWorks tropes, yet almost every one of their usages works, even having Angelo’s character design heavily resemble that of his voice actor, Luis Guzmán.  Therefore, it might come as both a major and not-at-all surprise to discover that the Turbo’s director and co-writer (from an idea of his own), David Soren, has been a mainstay at DreamWorks for most of its history.  The “not-at-all” part coming from the fact that this is a film that could only have been made by somebody who has been a long-time member of DreamWorks and who is determined to remind the viewing public that formula and tropes are not necessarily bad things.  The “major” part coming from the fact that David Soren was the Head Of Story of Shark Tale and, as we already know, Shark Tale is one of the absolute worst films ever released.

Yet, here, he is energised, he is happy, he is heartfelt, a man with something to prove.  The idea was his own, the result of DreamWorks holding an internal one-time only competition for a one-page film pitch that he won by pitching exactly what you’re thinking Turbo would be pitched like, and it had been gestating for years before finally getting made.  Soren is clearly in love with his idea, he’s also in love with the formula – I don’t know why I don’t put quotation marks over every instance of that word, this series has hopefully shown you that DreamWorks didn’t really have a pre-ordained formula and it’s a common misconception – and he’s clearly excited to be making this film.  That’s why nearly everything works!

In fact, I’d argue that Turbo is actually a better Cars movie than the original Cars.  There are distinct Radiator Springs feels towards the Starlight Plaza strip mall that our human characters reside in, a corner of Los Angeles that nobody visits and who just want people to patronise their businesses.  Then, in flies this hotshot racer, by accident, who may just be what they need to save their forgotten part of town.  Where Turbo surpasses Cars in this department is in characterisation.  Cars clearly sketches its supporting cast in a way where they are solely defined by their one character trait – the hippie, the drill sergeant, the sassy black female – and where it’s hard to imagine them as anything else.

Turbo barely features and characterises those non-Tito good humans, which kinda begs the question as to why you’d hire Michelle Rodriguez but hey ho, but that makes them contradictorily much deeper.  By not defining them as anything specifically, besides the most minor of glimpses that we get, then they feel less stereotypical, less rigidly defined.  I find it easier to see them as full-on people instead of walking stereotypes, who have lives outside of the plot of the film, whereas I just find the secondary cast of Cars to be, well, the secondary cast of characters in an animated movie.  I can’t really explain why, but it just works and that makes me care more about them as a result.

Of course, this all being said, Turbo is not a particularly great movie.  By its design, the most it’s aiming to be is a fun way to spend 95 minutes whilst telling a story with heart and proving that formula is not necessarily bad.  It’s a fun time with a nice heart-lifting centre and climax, but nothing that connects on an especially deep level.  Penguins of Madagascar aims for a similar thing but its deviations from formula and the sheer surprising extent of its heart make it ascend past the level of fun, diverting entertainment.  Turbo doesn’t quite manage that, although it really tries, especially by having a lead character who is just the definition of “lovable determined underdog that you can’t help but root for”.

More problematic is the film’s gender issues.  This is resolutely a boy’s tale, which means that the three female characters with speaking lines are shunted to the side-lines; not inherently a bad thing.  The problems set in with the characterisations.  The lone female snail, played by Maya Rudolph, is an aggressively flirtatious being whose sole defining trait – hence why I praised the purposeful malleability of the human cast earlier – is that she is stalker-obsessed with Chet, recalling the purposeful marginalisation of female cast members in at least half of DreamWorks’ filmic output.  Michelle Rodriguez’s character mostly just exists, but the real problem is Kim-Ly, an elderly manicurist played by Ken Jeong.

Yes, really.  Her character is fine – again, malleability – but it’s the fact that Ken Jeong was hired to do the voice.  On its own, in the context of this film with the rest of DreamWorks’ history put to one side, it’s a bit of slightly racially insensitive stunt casting but mostly slips by fine on the strength of Jeong’s committed performance.  In context with the studio’s history, it’s those things and also a perfect encapsulation of their typical depiction of women in their films: love interests, or barely there non-entities whose existences will be undercut at every opportunity for gags; gags like, “Ha! That woman is being voiced by a man!”  Let’s not forget, this is a company that released two Shrek sequels where their interpretation of The Ugly Stepsister was that she looked like a transsexual and was voiced by Larry King and “Eeeeeewwwww!!!”

Again, this isn’t really a knock against Turbo, per se: the film is very good and I really like it.  But Turbo is also a walking embodiment of DreamWorks The Studio and its evolution from Shrek 12 years earlier to near-enough now.  DreamWorks The Studio has nearly always had a problem with the female gender and Turbo, by pure accident, demonstrates why.  DreamWorks The Studio is rarely the most original studio on the block, and Turbo ends up being a collage of nearly every animated film released in the previous decade.  DreamWorks The Studio, due to its multiple films a year production model, doesn’t aim for the stars with every film, and Turbo shows that that’s perfectly fine when the film is really good but also explains why many of the studio’s films are underperforming: it’s not essential, which doesn’t cut it so well in today’s landscape.

Turbo, essentially, is a film made like it’s still 2007, like its mere existence guarantees that it will be a success because DreamWorks are on a roll and why would anybody watch anything else over this?  Again, this is not to disparage the film which is a very good film that I really like, but it is as perfect an encapsulation as any as to why DreamWorks are not doing so hot right now.  For example, that budget means that the film looks damn great, but I think that the art style and colour scheme are strong enough on their own that the excess detail is unnecessary gloss that over-inflates the budget – I think you could get a film that looks close to as good as how this one looks for about $30 million less if the excess detail were stripped out.

But I feel there’s no better indicator as to where DreamWorks currently are in the animated feature landscape than this comparison.  Turbo is a film that teaches viewers that you can follow any dream and succeed with a whole lotta belief and little bit of luck.  In the same twelve month period that Turbo came out, however, Monsters University and Wreck-It Ralph taught viewers that there are, in fact, limits as to what you can achieve, but that that’s OK and that giving up on your dreams in favour of finding something else you’re good at that can bring you joy is not necessarily a bad thing.

Disney had begun re-inventing itself by offering more modern messages, stories and ways of communicating both, re-establishing themselves as must-see viewing.  DreamWorks were still doing what they were known for doing nearly a decade ago.  Their successes came from divergence from that, but their inability (and I mean they literally cannot afford to) to move away from an efficient factory-like release and production schedule means that those get hobbled as they are still not truly must-see viewing.  Feature-length animation is leaving DreamWorks behind; they need to adapt or die.


Next week, we take one last detour into the world of television to look at the studio’s various televised spin-offs of their successful (and not so successful) movies, as we try and figure out why the studio seems to be having more luck in television at the moment than they are film.

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

Callum Petch’s God in him saw the Devil in you.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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

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


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

Budget: $145 million

Gross: $746,921,274

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 81%

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Puss In Boots

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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


Before we get started this week, and I have to get all mildly irritated at wasted potential, let’s briefly address this week’s news.  As I have touched on multiple times throughout this series, most specifically in the Joseph: King Of Dreams and Bee Movie pieces, DreamWorks Animation today is not in a good spot, like, at all.  Their films have been significantly underperforming, the studio has been losing money, and certain films – most specifically B.O.O.: Bureau of Otherworldly Operations – have been in development hell for years.  Their attempts to find a buyer have failed, primarily because Jeffrey Katzenberg is trying to play what everyone knows is a crap hand like it’s a royal flush, and things look really grim.

Compounding that misery was this week’s onslaught of news.  Following on from a recent string of major misfires, and in an attempt to stop haemorrhaging money, the company is cutting approximately 500 jobs, top execs have left the company, the number of feature films being released each year will now count two maximum with one always being a sequel of some kind, and they are closing PDI – the animation studio that has been with them since Day 1, that they acquired totally in 2000, and which just released major bomb Penguins of Madagascartotally with most of its staff being laid off instead of reassigned.  That loss of 500 jobs equates to almost 20% of the company’s current workforce.

Look, Katzenberg, if for some utterly ridiculous reason you are reading this, you need to change tactics and you need to step back.  As we have seen (sort of) throughout this series, the Western feature-length animation landscape is not what it was back in 2005.  It has new faces, new voices, resurgent faces, and a whole bunch of filmmakers who can deliver top-quality animation for well below $100 million – Despicable Me 2 cost $78 million, whilst The Lego Movie only cost $60 million – and who don’t ram multiple films down the audience’s throat every single year – even when they’re good, like they were for 2014, they still just burn out the general public.

You’re trying to run the company like it’s still 2005 when it really isn’t, and your studio and films are suffering for that.  Katzenberg, you need to find a buyer, first of all.  You need to get off of Wall Street, so that DreamWorks have that safety net of a major company again if everything does go wrong.  Illumination are owned by Universal, Blue Sky by 20th Century Fox, Pixar by Disney; you need to join that group.  Secondly… you need to step down.  I’m sorry, but you do or, at least, step back.  Don’t try and make a power play whilst selling the company, don’t stick around and continue to micromanage, just stop.  You are the company’s own worst enemy at this moment in time, and it needs a new voice leading proceedings.

I know that it’s hard to let go of something you’ve helped build, but there is a point where you just have to admit that you are not the right man for the job anymore.  This is one of those times.  So sell the company, step back, and let somebody else take the reins for once.  Otherwise I am terrified that we won’t be seeing DreamWorks Animation, at least in this recognisable sort of form, for much longer.  OK, on with this week’s entry.


puss in boots23] Puss In Boots (28th October 2011)

Budget: $130 million

Gross: $554,987,477

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 84%

So, let’s talk about that incest subtext, shall we!

Question: are Jack and Jill brother and sister, or just two non-blood related people of opposing genders?  Not in Puss In Boots, we’ll get to that, I mean in the nursery rhyme.  The rhyme itself has changed over the centuries, but at no point in any of its incarnations does it specify exactly whether the pair are siblings, married or just two people.  A third verse makes reference to Jill having a mother, who whips her for laughing at Jack’s misfortune, but that’s as far as the specificity goes.  As a child, I always saw them as brother and sister.  I mean, the rhyme is so innocent and the nature of their relationship, to me, always seemed like that of siblings rather than friends or lovers or what have you.

Therefore, I grew up holding that belief, as I imagine a good majority of other people did.  Hence why seventeen year-old me ended up sat in the cinema in abject horror as the Jack of Puss In Boots started talking in earnest to the film’s version of Jill about impregnating her with a baby.  Because “our biological clocks are ticking.”  Now, again, the nursery rhyme doesn’t specify, so you get that wiggle room, but neither does the film.  They are mentioned as husband and wife, but they are never openly denied as brother and sister, and this is a problem.

See, the Shrek series up to this point has been pretty darn faithful when it comes to presenting fairy tale and nursery rhyme characters in their universe.  They may gain sassy personalities or have that thing they’re known for doing twisted around for comedy – The Wolf, for example, is a crossdresser who just wishes to lay in other people’s beds and it’s funny because it’s a man dressed as a woman – but they are portrayed with the backstory (or unspoken backstory) that viewers know and accept, unless specifically stated otherwise.  That’s why, even though it is never specifically stated so in the nursery rhyme so they do have that leeway, a good subset of the film’s older audience may be grossed out by the implication.  Especially since DreamWorks still have that poor double-coding stigma attached to them; if they did intentionally start making incest references, would anybody here be surprised?

This also ends up being emblematic of the problems that face Puss In Boots.  The first is how the baby desires are brought up, made a huge deal out of, and then promptly tossed off-screen and out of the film after its interest is lost – which is what ends up happening to Jack and Jill and, to somewhat of an extent, Kitty Softpaws.  The second is because it’s a film that wants to find its own voice and do its own thing, hinting at true greatness constantly, but keeps being dragged down by the worst impulses and traits of the series that it’s spun-off from – having villains who are happily married and have humanising conversations about their domestic life is a great idea.  Marrying it to nursery rhyme characters for no reason, ones with misconceptions surrounding them: not so much.

But let’s hold up for a minute.  You may notice that I mentioned offhandedly a few paragraphs back about how I saw Puss In Boots in the cinema.  That is information that runs contradictory to my constant notes that Kung Fu Panda was the moment that I decided to stop seeing DreamWorks films in the cinema.  Well, Puss In Boots very much turned out to be the exception, brought on by a friend of mine at Sixth Form at the time having gotten free movie tickets she needed to burn and there being nothing else on that week.  I ended up finding it incredibly boring, a nice distillation of all of the things I disliked about DreamWorks in one forgettable, only occasionally enraging package reminder to stop subjecting myself to their output already.

Of course, I was a different critic back then, one who wouldn’t fall headfirst back down the rabbit hole of animation until a good year later and one who, quite honestly, was probably wanting to dislike it.  A second watch has made the stuff that doesn’t work stick out even sharper, but has also revealed the nugget of a genuinely great film fighting against everything that stands in its way to burst out and reveal itself – the film that the critics saw and showered with praisePuss In Boots is a potentially brilliant film that just can’t stop lapsing into bad habits, like an addict on the road to recovery and with that same kind of “dammit, no!  You can be better than this!” feeling attached to it.  Fitting, really, since those are actually the arc words of the film itself.

For example, and as I’ve previously discussed in their respective articles, the Shrek sequels run on pop culture references and a sprinkling of mean-spiritedness.  The characters go through the motions, but their bonds never feel sincere, instead being obviously controlled by the almighty screenwriter from upon high.  In short, there’s no heart.  Puss In Boots, by contrast, is very character-driven.  In addition to those little exchanges between Jack and Jill, the film’s central emotional core pivots on Puss and Humpty Alexander Dumpty.  There’s even an 11 minute stretch of the film dedicated to the flashback that sets up and explains the duo’s dynamic, recognising that hard work like that will pay off down the line.

And, for a good half an hour, it does.  Puss and Humpty swap banter, re-affirm their bond, de-frost in the former’s case, and generally just strike up a good rapport with one another, which is good since most of the movie consists of those two and Kitty Softpaws.  Speaking of, although she really doesn’t get much to do – no surprise for a DreamWorks Animation joint by this point, I know – she still brings a fun dynamic to the cast.  She brings out the really entertaining Casanova side of Puss, and I really like the fact that she’s actually rather soft personality-wise naturally, with her harder and more anger-filled moments coming from genuine reasons to be so rather than just being pissed all the time until the film decides it’s time for her to fall head over heels for Puss.

So the central trio are extremely well-drawn and likeable with good chemistry and a nice sense of heart.  Shame it’s all pissed away when Humpty is revealed to be the villain who had been the mastermind behind everything from the start in an overly-elaborate revenge scheme on both Puss and the town of San Ricardo.  It’s one of those special kind of twists where it’s blindingly obvious and yet incredibly stupid and nonsensical at the same time.  The film telegraphs the twist way too early and obviously – really exaggerated shifty eyes, silent mouthing, clearly fake smiles – in a way that contradicts Zach Galifianakis’ sincere vocal performance, it screws up the character arc majorly – especially since it promptly forgets about it barely 10 minutes later in order to do the redemption finale – and it reduces the reveal flashbacks themselves to a lame gag, undercutting whatever power the twist should have.

It was apparently executive producer Guillermo del Toro – in his first major work on a DreamWorks film since coming aboard as a Creative Consultant for the company in 2010 – who decided that Humpty should redeem himself at the end with the self-sacrifice, which is a smart move, the film has put way too much time and effort into the relationship between Humpty and Puss to just throw it away for third act explosions.  But it also throws into sharp relief just how pointless the betrayal itself is, especially since the film could still have this exact same finale without it!

Look, I’ll fix it for you right now.  Instead of the betrayal, have the trio arrive at San Ricardo looking to give back to the town, only to have them reject and shun Humpty due to the whole “once a bad egg, always a bad egg” type of stigma.  Let that throw Humpty into a fit of jealous rage and cause a falling out between Puss and himself, with Humpty planning on skipping town with the Golden Goose when no-one’s looking.  When its mother shows up, then have Humpty decide to leave San Ricardo to burn, only to experience a moral panic just as he’s about to flee.  Puss then turns up, they talk, he convinces Humpty to help save the town as just because he was bad before, and the town still thinks he is, doesn’t mean he needs to still be, and then the finale progresses as before.  You then get to hit the same beats and tackle the same themes without having that stupid pace-ruining, near-character-derailing betrayal!  It was so easy to avoid!

As, in fact, are a lot of the film’s problems.  As mentioned earlier, this is a film that very much is striving to find its own voice, to set itself apart from its parent series as something different and new.  So the tone is that of a swashbuckling adventure movie with a distinctly Spanish feel and location.  Again, there are times when it works very well, the trip and heist from the giant’s castle is a particular highlight, and the emphasis on drama, and often melodrama, works to the film’s advantage, preventing itself from undercutting everything like Shrek ended up doing – although it still chooses to do so enough times to get annoying; the exit from Puss’ flashback finds Kitty having been sent to sleep by it.

The problem is that it doesn’t manage to commit to that voice for the entire film.  Just when it settles into its groove, engages the more sceptical viewer and threatens to push through into greatness, it falls back on old, bad DreamWorks and Shrek habits.  There’s the aforementioned accidental incest stuff, but then the gross and utterly inexcusable prison rape gag rears its head to piss away any and all good will the film had accumulated thus far.  Later on, in the space of two minutes of one another, we get jokes about Puss being a drug addict – because no action-comedy tells the audience that we’re supposed to believe the character’s protestations that film’s equivalent of marijuana is for “medicinal purposes” – and masturbation.  There’s a Fight Club reference that’s only a decade late to the “That Joke Is No Longer Funny” party.

Puss In Boots is a film that wants to be its own thing, but either can’t break free of or keeps retreating into, for safety, the Shrek formula and the Shrek voice, like it’s worried that the audience won’t turn up unless it hits all of those necessary beats when required – hence why Humpty Dumpty and Jack & Jill are, well, Humpty Dumpty and Jack & Jill.  It’s a film with a Shrek cast member, if nursery rhyme or fairy tale characters don’t show up, people might not turn up!  Despite the fact that the film is set in Spain, and so the world of the film gets all muddied with the world of Shrek.  Yes, the film isn’t supposed to overlap with Shrek, but that leads to the question of why this needs to be Puss In Boots.  Why not just come up with some totally original characters and worlds?  Job’s already half-done.

In fact, flow-breaking side-bar real quick: this is definitely the ugliest-looking of the Shrek-related films that I have seen, almost by design.  It’s a film that has the majority of its side cast as humans and, as we have already discovered in three prior Shrek sequels, humans do not look good or appealing when put through the Shrek art-style, which is what Puss In Boots subscribes to albeit with more dirt and grime.  Therefore, the film attempts to steer into the skid, purposefully adding excess facial hair with large amounts of detail, extending proportions, bending things out of shape and such.  I get what it’s going for, but I really don’t think it works, frequently and accidentally crossing the line from “creepily off-putting” to “just plain ugly to look at”, especially with Jack and Jill.  Animation itself is fine, although boarding is a major step down from prior DreamWorks films, but the design is what lets it down.

Anyways, I get the feeling that the reason why DreamWorks didn’t go the whole hog and come up with original casts and worlds and such is because everybody at the company was still worried and hurting over the failure of The Road To El Dorado from 2000.  Puss In Boots actually, in its best moments, strongly recalls that much better movie.  See for all its faults, The Road To El Dorado never doubted what it wanted to be.  Never tried to awkwardly take turns appeasing kids and adults separately with easy cat jokes for the kids and one night stand gags for the adults.  Never panicked and zigged instead of zagging because it felt its plot was being too predictable.

Puss In Boots, however, is a film caught between two worlds and not confident enough in its own abilities to just leap off into the good one.  And since The Road To El Dorado exists, it ends up coming off as a poorer attempt to turn that into box office gold, this time.  El Dorado just does everything better: the central dynamic is more convincing, the dialogue is better, it doesn’t sacrifice its emotional heft at the altar of “argh, the kids might be bored by this seriousness”, it looks nicer, it’s more fun, and its ultimately tertiary female lead is better – both Kitty and Chel serve the purpose of “headstrong love interests who wander in and out of the film as required” but Chel ends up having the bigger impact on the film’s plot and makes a bigger mark for me.

But, hey, the film continued DreamWorks’ hot streak with the critics and won back a significant portion of the disillusioned Shrek fan-base.  Not so much at the domestic box office, mind.  Continuing a downward spiral that, quite honestly, throws the current box office woes into sharper relief, Puss In Boots’ no. 1 debut was the lowest for a DreamWorks Animation film since Flushed Away$34 million dead.  It would repeat at the top the next week, holding extremely strongly in all fairness, before falling off in the weeks following as Happy Feet Too, The Muppets, and Twilight 4 Part 1 leeched away its screens.  Puss would close at just under $150 million domestic.  That’s not half bad, honestly, but it’s also the lowest for any Shrek-related film yet released, and you just know that DreamWorks, Katzenberg, and shareholders will have wanted and expected more.  Least it still earned a good $400 mil overseas, putting the thing nicely over the profit line, unlike two films that we will come to in due time.

A sequel to this film is supposed to be still coming at some point.  They’ve been promising it for years, but it’s never really gotten further than those promises that it’s coming eventually.  With that creative re-shuffling and the scaling back of their feature film output going on at DreamWorks, it seems less and less likely that it’s ever going to happen, and I honestly find that a shame.  We already know that the Shrek series and I don’t get along and Puss In Boots’ worst moments are when it relapses into that voice.  It’s a film that is always seemingly on the verge of becoming its own thing and being hugely entertaining whilst doing so, but keeps falling back into those old habits.  A sequel could be the confidence boost it needs to push forward on that original voice, but I guess, at this rate, we’ll never find out.

Still, least it’s a better final note for the Shrek series than Shrek Forever After or, god forbid, Shrek The Third!  That’s always a plus!


After putting out their masterpiece in the shape of Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss In Boots marked a return to the kind of fun, lightweight animated movies that, nonetheless, attempt to have their own voice that DreamWorks were known for.  The box office repaid them in kind and the critics seemed to be more accepting of this kind of film than before.  Things were looking a little shaky at the box office, but everything was mostly continuing to be smooth sailing.  Not to mention how having a growing collection of beloved live-action auteurs in their pocket – Roger Deakins and now del Toro – was doing wonders for their storytelling.

Next week, we look at a film that is unexpectedly co-scripted by one such auteur.  The result finally pushed its once-maligned series into critical acceptance and was rewarded with major box office returns.  The auteur is Noah Baumbach, and the film is Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted.  Da-da-dada-da-da-AFRO CIRCUS.

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

Callum Petch owns the money, he controls the witness.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Kung Fu Panda 2

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Firstly, sorry for the sudden two week break.  I had a mountain of university essay work to do and, like a pillock, I don’t pre-write these.  So, anyway…

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


kung fu panda 222] Kung Fu Panda 2 (26th May 2011)

Budget: $150 million

Gross: $665,692,281

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 81%

Jennifer Yuh Nelson is one hell of a director.

If I have one major regret about my work throughout this series so far, it’s that I haven’t talked anywhere near enough about direction.  Part of that is due to my own personal biases with regards to DreamWorks Animation before embarking on this project, with myself having spent much of my life subscribing to the belief that DreamWorks, way more so than Disney or what have you, was a factory that pumped out films collectively rather than individually.  Jeffrey Katzenberg seemingly having his fingers in damn near everything we’ve talked about so far didn’t really help in my attempt to dissuade myself from that notion as we’ve journeyed forth.

The rest is because I am very much learning as I go.  Yeah, to tear down that Wizard Of Oz curtain here, I am not an expert on animation.  In fact, quite frankly, I know very little about the medium, the process, and the history of it all.  If I were to show my work to somebody who has dedicated their life to studying animation, like, say, one of my university lecturers, she would probably make it to about paragraph 4 of the first entry before attempting to gut me like a pig, such is the butchery I have likely committed with regards to talking about animation.

But all of that is OK because a) I have never attempted to claim that I am a super-expert on animation (except when I was a bit younger and much more stupid) and b) I am actively trying to learn and better myself.  For example, I spent a lot of last year referring to different layers of animation, specifically where characters would be animated obviously separately to the background, as “Chroma-Keying” which, as it turns out, is incorrect.  The process, as detailed to me by the Hullaballoo production blog, is actually known as “Compositing”.  See, I’ve learned something – and now so have you, more than likely, yay! – so I don’t feel bad about having gotten it badly wrong beforehand.

Hence why I haven’t referred to directing too much during this series.  Animation is an extremely collaborative medium, where tens to hundreds of people all work on the same project and any of them can make decisions that can alter how something ends up in the finished product.  I was reticent, therefore, to praise specific directors for parts of these films that I liked.  After all, how could I be sure that it was their choices and their quirks and not Visual Effects Artist #5?  But somewhat recently I got to thinking: isn’t that the same thing with live-action films?  And why do I subscribe to this thinking with regards to DreamWorks, yet I will get giddy at the prospect of a Lauren Faust animated film?

Besides, although auteur theory is very much passé and disproven in film and television nowadays, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.  To shift from DreamWorks for a minute, I have recently been making full-on observations as to how I can tell that some of my favourite animated shows are made with certain people at the helm.  In that, yeah, it’s a team effort, but theirs is the creative voice that stands out the most.  For example, Genndy Tartakovsky – who incidentally just turned 45!  Happy Birthday! – is the creator of Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack, and both shows carry the same deliberate pacing that works long beats, pauses, and repetitions into their DNA for both dramatic and humorous effect.  It also shows up in The Powerpuff Girls, even though that’s a show by Craig McCracken, because the two were friends and Genndy had a significant hand in shaping that show.  Future shows have shown McCracken to have a faster and slightly tighter voice than Tartakovsky – Wander Over Yonder, for example, wastes not one moment of any of its episodes.

In the end, it was a combination of those and Oliver Sawa’s excellent reviews of The Legend Of Korra over at The AV Club that managed to make me realise that I really should have referred to direction more in this series.  So, with that in mind, we circle back around to our opening statement.

Jennifer Yuh Nelson is one hell of a director.

If you’ve been following along with this series, the name “Jennifer Yuh Nelson” should be relatively familiar to you.  Yuh has been with DreamWorks Animation since 1998, starting as a story artist on Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and the first Madagascar before progressing to Head of Story on Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas.  Her true breakthrough came when, as a fan of martial arts movies growing up, she asked to work on the first Kung Fu Panda and was subsequently made Head of Story there, as well as getting to direct the opening hand-drawn dream sequence.  She won an Annie Award for her work on it – which, as we saw back when we talked about it, was more than deserved – and Katzenberg personally approached her to direct Kung Fu Panda 2 as a result of her work.

Hence why Kung Fu Panda 2 looks so damn incredible.  Yuh’s love for martial arts films is on full prominent display, both in terms of individual shots and scene construction – which is what most of this week’s article is going to be, just a heads up on that department – and overall pacing and tone.  Now, I must admit that I am not too familiar with Wuxia and other sorts of Martial Arts films, but I do have enough of a grasp on the style and tones of them to realise that Kung Fu Panda 2 bleeds martial arts films.  It’s one of those (worryingly rare) action animation films that has each frequent action scene actually mean something instead of just marking time.  It’s a film that deals with its character work through equal parts dialogue and action, with both working equally well.

As an example, look at the fight sequence between Po and Master Croc & Master Ox.  No, seriously, look at this thing, I’ll wait.

(You’ll have to follow this link, I’m afraid, as it turns out that embeds for the clip have been disabled.)

It’s not just a fight scene for the sake of a fight scene.  It’s a fun way of livening up what would otherwise be rather dry and boring sequence of Po pleading for help.  The dialogue is written in a way that perfectly complements the action, the music takes on this 70s funk tinge to counterbalance the cheese with some coolness, and the choreography pitches itself as this purposefully silly and slightly cheesy releasing of each character’s various emotions in order to make that sad, defeatist walk into the cell next door an act that has a genuine sadness attached to it rather than just being understatedly humorous.  It’s its own thing whilst still clearly indebted to the classic Hong Kong martial arts films Yuh loves so dearly.

Which, in fact, is very much a running theme throughout the film.  Kung Fu Panda 2 is one of those heavily-indebted animated films that actually takes full advantage of the fact that animation increases the visual and storytelling capabilities to stage things that couldn’t be done (or done this smoothly and naturally) in live-action beyond the whole “talking animals” thing.  For example, look at the rickshaw chase scene that comes immediately after the prison cell fight.  No, seriously, look at it right now.  Do it.

There’s a certain wilful excessive escalation going on in this scene – I’m specifically thinking of everything to do with the basket of baby bunnies – that I could see also occurring in Kung Fu Panda 2’s live-action equivalent, but not with the same sense of flow and believable madcap energy that animation can achieve.  For example, the moment where Po’s rickshaw flies off into the air and he has to spin it around in order to catch the flying children could be pulled off in live-action, but would require multiple frenetic cuts (compared to the controlled, calculated, and varied three shots that it takes up here) and likely a whole lot of distracting green screen work to pull off.  Again: indebted yet its own thing.

Or how about the dragon costume disguise?  Once again, something that wouldn’t feel out-of-place in live-action yet takes full advantage of the medium by utilising the smoother flow and faster possible speed of animation to turn it into an excellent gag.  Not to mention the way in which the film finds every possible spin on the gag that it can and blazes through them in quick succession.  The first time utilising the squash-and-stretch capabilities of animation to create a genuinely inspired piece of toilet humour, the second time playing the image against the kid’s confused horror, the third time using the launched goons for projectiles, and the fourth and final time using clever boarding to create an image reminiscent of top-down arcade maze games, with Pac-Man being the intended but not sole reference.

But, I have wasted too much time on the direction of the comedy.  Instead, the sequences that really impressed me, as in they got me to genuinely say the opening sentence to this entry out loud as the film was still ongoing multiple times, were the more dramatic character revelations and breakthrough sequences – the dramatic stuff, in other words.  For example, much of the dramatic thrust of the film revolves around Po discovering that he is adopted, a revelation played for laughs and legitimate drama without either undercutting the other, and his desire to learn what happened to him.  His slightly overbearing father, Ping, and Po’s eating habits have mostly been a source of comic relief up to this point, but then one exceptional sequence is able to recontextualize the pair of them into genuinely emotional character traits, again without losing the comedy.

Yes, you know what to do now.

It’s the subtle direction choices that make this scene.  How every shot is saturated in this bright, warm golden glow to signify nostalgia which firmly sets us in Ping’s mind without overdoing it to send the technique into parody, the frequent usage of slow dollies into the faces of Po and Ping to connect them both so totally even within a few moments of their first meeting, James Hong’s soft-spoken and deliberately underplayed delivery in sharp contrast to his usual ham-and-cheese, Jack Black’s similarly underplayed reaction to Po’s disappointment at having no concrete answers, the music melting into the very background to let the words and pictures tell the story.

It’s a scene of enormous confidence.  Most animated films are very much content to overcook everything, or just have the characters loudly state the themes or what have you without it fitting their characters, but this scene ends up being typical of Kung Fu Panda 2.  It has the nerve and the confidence to realise that not every joke needs to be a giant laugh-out-loud gutbuster, that a score doesn’t have to force its way to the forefront of the mix to render emotion, and that the viewing audience will get exactly how sad or upset a character feels without having to force their voice actor to strain for emotion or to have the animation flail around wildly.

The best example of this confidence in the viewership, undoubtedly, comes from when Po, under the guide and care of The Soothsayer, finally confronts and accepts his traumatic past.  I mean, just…

First of all, and because you just knew I was going to go straight for this, just look at the transitions between the CG world and the cel-animated memories.  Like, look at them!  The vivid exaggerations of the cel animation, coupled with their bright primary colours that give way to progressively darker shading as we get further and further in, brilliantly convey the dream-like lost childhood memory nature of the revelation that Po initially saw it as.  Note how the wolves themselves seem more demonic, rabid, and dangerous than the snivelling, mangy versions that we’ve been used to seeing in the movie up until that point.  And then how we switch from cel animation for the flashbacks to CG once Po has fully accepted what happened; that these are no longer horrible nightmares, but genuine fragments of his past.  How he has grown to accept the reality of the situation and how they are a part of him.

The score ends up being the most powerful piece of the entire film, striking exactly the right balance between nakedly emotional and spiritually uplifting, the dialogue cuts out literally any line that is not 100% necessary to proceedings because too many words would simply undercut the drama, and the mood remains serious the entire time as Yuh and her team trust the audience won’t grow restless as we deal with this major character breakthrough.  Then there are the actual transitions, the way that the match cuts and smooth pans and camera moves between animation mediums never jar because they utilise more subtle gestures – like the rain drop in CG that substitutes into the hair bun of Po’s mother in cel.  And finally there’s the mini-clip-show which is lingered on precisely long enough to achieve maximum impact without once invoking wonders of unnecessary repetition.

Seriously, Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s direction of this whole film is exceptional, but that sequence is frickin’ virtuoso.  It’s a sequence that heavily reminds me of Avatar: The Last Airbender – in fact, the whole film reminds me a tonne of that and The Legend Of Korra, especially with how Lord Shen is portrayed as a dark mirror version of Po who turned to rage and violence when confronted with parental abandonment – yet feels of its own, its own uniqueness, its own style.  It’s powerful, it’s inspirational, and it couldn’t have been handled better.  Undoubtedly a team effort, but clearly guided and controlled with such skill and passion by one woman.

I could sit here for the next 10 or so A4 pages gushing over Kung Fu Panda 2 and its every last facet – I am pretty much adamant in my belief, by this point, that this is DreamWorks Animation’s masterpiece – but my deadline and word count limit aren’t too far away, so I’m going to wrap up by talking about, what else, the female lead of a DreamWorks Animation film.  Now, in the first Kung Fu Panda, The Furious Five are very much minor characters who exist in service of Po’s story and little more.  We get a tiny insight into their various personalities but not much more than that.  The same is mostly true of the sequel, just with the switching of Go-To Comic Relief from David Cross’ Crane to Seth Rogen’s Mantis, barring one crucial difference.

Tigress is now co-lead.

Now, one could be cynical and claim that this is only due to somebody at DreamWorks remembering that they got Angelina Jolie to voice one of their characters, and that if you’ve gone to that much trouble, you should probably make actual usage of her.  However, I feel that that is severely underselling the character of Tigress in Kung Fu Panda 2.  One of the frequently recurring themes we’ve seen throughout this series – of articles, not the Kung Fu Panda films specifically – has been DreamWorks’ constant voluntary torching and diminishing of any female co-lead they come up with.  Fiona in Shrek, Gloria in Madagascar (although that one hasn’t bothered me so much yet), Marina in Sinbad, and of course Astrid in How To Train Your Dragon; these are (bar Gloria) all females who have their own agency and character and plot arcs, only to have said agency and arcs ripped from them as they suddenly fall for the gravitational pull of the lead male’s genitalia (METAPHORICALLY) and need saving from there on out.

Tigress is a step-up from those, a vast step-up, if not a clean break.  She gets her own plot line and arc, as she learns to slowly defrost that icy demeanour and let people into her life, although it does relate around Po and her relationship to him.  Crucially, however, “relationship” in this case very much points towards “platonic” rather than “romantic.”  It would have been very easy to twist her and Po’s various interactions with one another into romance in order to close out the film with yet another Marina-type scenario, but it instead resists.  Po is an affectionate guy, constantly hugging and professing his love for his friends, and Tigress’ slow releasing of emotion ends up coming as a result of his influence: hence the hug.  It’s not romantic, it’s platonic, a sign that she cares as a friend, further enhanced by her hysterical statue-reaction to being on the receiving end of a proper Po hug at the end, the unfamiliarity for her of that hug robbing the sequence of almost all intended romantic subtext.

Yes, she also gets captured, but only because she thought her one true friend had been killed and she had lost the will to fight, just like the rest of The Furious Five.  Yes, her plot and arc are tied to Po, but she still has her own agency and nobody questions her or her abilities.  Yes, she’s a terse emotionless, mostly humourless girl, but that part of her arc was dealt with in the first film and this one expands her character, softens her edges so that her arc feels more gradual instead of monumental.  There are even times where she gets to display genuine agency, like during the final battle where she takes Lord Shen’s shot meant for Po with no guarantee that she would get out alive.  I’m reminded a lot of Mako Mori from Pacific Rim in terms of how her character is handled, albeit not that revelatory.  It’s not perfect, but it is a major step-up for a company that, as we have touched on multiple times this series, has had a recurring problem with the female gender.

Two months ago, I covered the first Kung Fu Panda and noted how I would never truly be able to love it, despite recognising that it’s a great film and desperately wanting to love it, because I had too much prior life baggage attached to it, although I noted my high hopes for Kung Fu Panda 2.  As you may have gathered, those hopes ended up being more than fulfilled.  I actually finished the film mildly angry, because it turned out that I had spent nearly 4 years voluntarily depriving myself of a modern masterpiece.  Kung Fu Panda 2 is insanely good, the kind of sequel that recognises and improves upon what worked in the first film and jettisons what didn’t, that gets more ambitious, more confident in being able to go darker and have the audience follow along no matter what, and the kind of film where a strong directorial voice is able to elevate an already great film into something even more through their vision and drive.

So I’ll say it again, loud and clear, Jennifer Yuh Nelson is one hell of a director!  Thank the Maker she’s coming back for Kung Fu Panda 3!


A hit with the critics and a runaway smash overseas, albeit a major underperformer at home – a fact that we will touch on again in a few weeks – Kung Fu Panda 2 solidified DreamWorks’ third potential franchise as one that would stick around for the long haul.  Their other film for 2011 would attempt to re-invigorate the Shrek brand by spinning-off the series’ non-Donkey breakout character into his own franchise.  Surprisingly, the move worked with critics and even did decent business at the box office.  But was this all justified?  Next week, we pay one last visit to the Shrek universe and look at Puss In Boots.

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

Callum Petch is doing all that he can to be a warm-hearted man.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Shrek Forever After

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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


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

Budget: $135 – 165 million

Gross: $752,600,867

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 58%

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Monsters vs. Aliens

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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


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

Budget: $175 million

Gross: $381,509,870

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 72%

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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


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

Budget: $150 million

Gross: $602,308,178

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 64%

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Callum Petch can’t realise why he’s living alone.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Kung Fu Panda

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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


kung fu panda again16] Kung Fu Panda (6th June 2008)

Budget: $130 million

Gross: $631,744,560

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 87%

If one were to look at the history of DreamWorks Animation and try to figure when exactly their peak year was, the year in which everything seemed to come together for the company and made them appear near-untouchable, I personally would argue that year to be 2008.  I know that many people would go for 2004 – in which Shrek 2 finished as the year’s highest grossing film, and the major success of Shark Tale proved that the company could shove any old crud into the cinema and still make a profit – or for 2010 – in which they found their next major franchise in the shape of How To Train Your Dragon, sent the Shrek franchise off with a rather large sum of money, and made the critically well received Megamind – but I’m going to put my foot firmly down for 2008.

See, 2004 had the major public failure of their first CG television series Father Of The Pride and the fact that Shark Tale was an absolute abomination (plus, y’know, Shrek 2 is really bad, but I’m not going to bang that drum for another few weeks).  2010, meanwhile, had another subpar Shrek film, Megamind severely underwhelmed financially – although, as I will touch on when we get there, there are a multitude of other factors responsible for that – and Neighbors From Hell, a TV series that a subdivision of DreamWorks had a hand in… well, this is likely the first time you’re hearing of it, which basically demonstrates my point.

2008, though, was pretty much a non-stop success for the studio.  For one, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, abysmal title aside, was a financial smash and critically seen as a big step up from the first film (we’ll look at whether this success is deserved next week, just in time for Penguins Of Madagascar).  For two, the year also saw the launch of their first successful television series, Nickelodeon’s The Penguins Of Madagascar, a show that is still going strong today and is about to see the release of its own movie – which is actually based on the continuity of the films instead of the TV show, I think…?  I don’t know, I’m just willing to go with it cos the film looks funny – six years on.

And then, for three, there is this week’s film: Kung Fu Panda.  This is the film that a good percentage of animation fans like to cite as the moment where DreamWorks Animation finally started finding their own creative voice and stopped alternating between ripping off Pixar and recycling the Shrek formula.  Kung Fu Panda was the first DreamWorks film not primarily made by Aardman to break into the 80% range of the Tomatometer since Shrek 2 four years prior.  It even, in a huge surprise that pretty much nobody saw coming, completely swept the 36th Annie Awards.  If it was eligible for a category, much like with Wallace & Gromit two years back, it took home the award and in some cases was nominated multiple times in the same category.  It beat Wall-EWall-E!  (The film, however, would come up short to Wall-E at the Oscars.)

That critical praise was matched at the box office, too.  There was the first place opening, of course – $60 million, crushing the horrid You Don’t Mess With The Zohan – and the slow descent down the chart that followed afterwards, but it also managed to hold pretty decently against Pixar’s Wall-E, released a month later.  And though it lost domestically to Wall-E barely, I might add – it turned out to be a HUGE hit overseas, especially in the United Kingdom and China – incidentally, China were so flabbergasted at how accurate and faithful these Western filmmakers were to Chinese culture, that they held official government meetings to try and figure out why their own films weren’t that accurate.

See why I’m willing to go to bat for 2008 being DreamWorks’ peak year?  This must have been a giant relief for Katzenberg and co., too.  It had been 3 whole years since they had an original film that was successful enough to consider spinning a franchise out of which, in a company that aims to franchise everything, is absolutely killer and probably didn’t help investor confidence much – Shrek could only come along once every 3 years, after all.  Having another giant hit to franchise must have taken a huge weight off of everyone’s feet; one that was so critically well-received, no less!  Plus, with Madagascar 2 proving that Madagascar wasn’t a fluke, and The Penguins Of Madagascar finally breaking them into TV, 2008 really did make DreamWorks look dominant and untouchable.

So, naturally, this was the point in which Contemporary Me got off the DreamWorks train.

I was 13 at the time of the release of Kung Fu Panda and, like pretty much everybody who hits their teens, I was a Stupid Goddamn Teenager.  I was outright rejecting many of the things that brought me joy as a happy child, and animation was one of them – although I must note that I wasn’t doing so consciously.  This wasn’t one of those situations where I looked at all animation, even the stuff I loved as a kid, and went, “That’s a dumb baby thing for poo-poo heads!”  I still loved Pixar films, I still loved classic Disney, I still loved Tom & Jerry and Looney Tunes, and I was still bitter about Codename: Kids Next Door coming to an end (more on that in the near-future, I promise).  Nothing else, however, was clicking.

Turns out this is less because stuff wasn’t any good – only a Stupid Goddamn Teenager would believe The Marvellous Misadventures Of Flapjack and The Princess And The Frog and such to be without merit – and more because I was unconsciously rejecting what I once loved in an attempt to appear more mature than I actually was.  Christ, for Christmas 2009, I asked for the first season of The Wire on DVD because the one episode I had caught on TV sufficiently resembled grown-up intellectual television and, being a Stupid Goddamn Teenager, I was determined to prove how superior I was to the uncultured folk that peppered my Secondary School by getting into The Greatest Television Series Ever Made™.  I really have no idea how I managed to finish Secondary School on relatively friendly terms with everyone in my year.

By the way, brief sidebar: it will have been 5 years this Christmas since I got it, and I still will not have successfully made it through the first season of The Wire.  Just thought you’d like to know that.

Now, in fairness, DreamWorks Animation really hadn’t been putting its best foot forward for a long time by the release of Kung Fu Panda and, as briefly alluded to, Shrek The Third had made 12 year-old Me a very angry boy indeed.  My patience was worn thin – their films were interchangeable, the quality was often ghastly, and they’d even dragged my beloved Aardman down with them (again, these were all contemporary thoughts, this series has hopefully shown that each film actually does have its own distinct identities and traits) – and I was looking for any excuse to drop them.

My reasoning for this finally being the straw to break the camel’s back was threefold.  1) I basically went in wanting to hate the thing because I was a Stupid Goddamn Teenager.  2) I had a friend at Secondary School – a good friend, an alright friend; you know who you are, Matthew, you lovable dick – who seemed to realise how much the film irrationally wound me up and took to quoting “skadoosh!” at me as many opportunities as possible – because he was a friend and that’s what friends do.  3) I believed that it wasted the considerable talents of Jack Black.  Yes.  Stop laughing.  I was a Stupid Goddamn Teenager, we have been over this.

In any case, that was it.  I was done with DreamWorks Animation.  I’m pretty sure I even made a dramatic statement about that fact, because I was a Stupid Godyou get the idea.  Of course, unlike many of the other things I rejected as a teenager, this one actually stuck.  Barring the one lapse for Puss In Boots in 2011 – because a friend and I had free cinema tickets and there was literally nothing else on at the cinema that weekend – it would take until Mr. Peabody & Sherman in February of 2014 for me to sit and watch a DreamWorks Animation film again – my watching of the first How To Train Your Dragon came about 48 hours before I went to see the sequel because you kinda need to have prior experience with a franchise before reviewing its later instalments – nearly six years later.

Watching Kung Fu Panda back today, for the first time since that fateful day, has only confirmed to me just how much of a Stupid Goddamn Teenager I was.  Quite simply, I have no clue why I didn’t love this movie at the time of its release.  This film has pretty much everything that should have caused that me to love it: physical comedy and slapstick, emotional heft, gorgeous visuals, a very Genndy Tartakovsky-indebted opening sequence, tightly choreographed martial arts battles, uplifting messages…  Yet, I didn’t.  Because I was a Complete F*cking Tit.

So, where do we start with regards to actually looking at the film that has all of this stuff attached to it that has nothing to do with the actual quality of the film – because we are now two and a half A4 pages in and your patience is likely worn thin?  How about with the humour.  Question: what is the typical DreamWorks Animation source for humour?  You get three guesses, the first two don’t count.  Answer: pop culture references.  The ones that relied heavily on it have aged really poorly, whilst the ones that don’t still have enough shoved in there for it to not exactly dissuade the stigma that DreamWorks had received by that point.  They’re forced into the film, instead of coming naturally from the characters.

Kung Fu Panda doesn’t do that.  I mean, it couldn’t, seeing as the film is set in Ancient China and so crowbarring in pop culture references would kill the thing stone dead, but that’s also in terms of the jokes overall.  At least 90% of the jokes in here are here because they fit naturally in the course of the film; they’re not just crowbarred in because “it’s a kids’ film and kids need fart jokes and poop jokes every few minutes on the dot or else they’ll get bored!”  The constant fat jokes, especially, feel natural and, most importantly, affectionate.  I mean, much like with Mulan’s jokes about her being a woman in man’s world, they occasionally risk crossing the line into agreeing with those whose intolerant viewpoints keep providing the jokes, but Po’s constant self-esteem issues and the eventual embracing of his fatness as a part of his fighting style reveal the film’s sympathetic and loving attitudes towards body type, much like with Mulan and femininity.

In fact, I once again see seeds for the How To Train Your Dragon series being planted in an earlier DreamWorks film.  I mean, there’s the obvious stuff – the high quality storyboarding, the emotional depth, the trust that an audience of children will follow a film no matter how dark it gets and no matter how long it is between jokes – but I also mean in terms of physical diversity.  Question: what sorts of protagonists do you typically see in animated films?  Yes, “animals”, but what about them?  Notice their builds – thin, athletic, muscular – and notice their physical capabilities – strong, capable – and notice how, typically, they are ‘normal’.

Now, what sets apart Hiccup from HTTYD and Po from Kung Fu Panda from the rest of that pack?  They’re not ‘normal’.  They genuinely have something that prevents them from that ‘normal’-ness; Po is overweight, whilst Hiccup at the end of his first film loses his left leg and has to get a prosthetic one instead.  You simply don’t get these representations in kids’ films, most instead focussing on personality traits for their “be true to yourself” messages instead of physical aspects, so imagine how inspiring it must be for kids who struggle with this stuff.  Kids who struggle with obesity looking at Po, who exhibits the same insecurities and eating habits that they do but instead learns to embrace them as not being a bad thing to be ashamed of, and maybe not feeling so bad.  Or kids who have lost limbs like Hiccup does, seeing him not losing a step because of that and maybe being inspired because of that.

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but we live in a world that very much prides and fetishizes beauty.  We hold up beauty and normality – Generic White Guy, Generic White Girl – as this thing that everybody should strive towards, and we mark out and shame those who don’t conform to it or who can’t conform to it or who don’t want to conform to it as weird or pitiable.  Those documentaries you watch about people who were born disfigured or with developmental conditions?  A good eight times out of ten, I guarantee you they are not being portrayed as people, or as people who are happy with how they are.  To see less-represented body types and such represented in animated films primarily aimed at children, be it directly (Kung Fu Panda) or rather indirectly (How To Train Your Dragon), is admirable and undoubtedly will have positively helped some children who relate to them based on those things.

Going back to the humour thing, real quick; again, rarely does Kung Fu Panda force in a joke where it is not needed.  This is a funny movie – although not rolling-in-the-aisles funny, it’s not trying to be that kind of movie, more lower-key with only a few moments of big setpiece laughs – but it knows when to scale back, when to let a scene run without gags, which really helps the tone of the film and keeps it from whiplashing too hard.  It reminded me a lot – and it ran for pretty much all of the four years that this film was in production for, so it had to have influenced the film in some way – of Avatar: The Last Airbender.  That show knew how to balance drama and comedy in a way that felt natural and flowing, and also has a general tone and feel that is incredibly reminiscent of Kung Fu Panda.

Incidentally, I didn’t start getting into Avatar until about 19 months ago, which means that I irrationally disliked it as Contemporary Me, so… you know.

Seeing as my time is fast running out, this week – both metaphorically in terms of word count and literally in terms of deadlines – let me finish off by talking in-depth about Kung Fu Panda’s layout and storyboarding.  Now, one of the things that sticks out to me from the non-hand-drawn-non-Aardman features that we’ve looked at so far is how not-sticking-out the imagery is.  Seriously, the only images from, say, Shrek or Madagascar that I can recall, or that made me sit up and take notice of their construction, are the ones that are either directly calling out to something (pop culture references) or were seared into my brain prior to starting this series due to a wonderful well-spent childhood.  The rest of the films kinda just… blend into one another.  The imagery doesn’t pop, it doesn’t grab, it doesn’t truly take advantage of the visual splendour that animation can provide.

It takes literally zero seconds for Kung Fu Panda to buck that trend.  The film opens in this gorgeous, visually-striking 2D animation – directed by the film’s Head Of Story, and the director of the sequel so we will be coming back to her, Jennifer Yuh Nelson – that is distinctly influenced by Chinese paintings and art but still has its own unique style.  Every little shot is packed with detail, every little shot has an outstanding usage of colour and shading, every little shot is magnificently composed.  It’s so good, and also so personally refreshing to see some 2D animation in feature-length films with my personal preferences and all, that the resultant return to 3D CG for the rest of the film is honestly rather disappointing, especially since I wasn’t expecting that level of visual care to follow through to the rest of the film.

It took a little longer to be proven wrong on that account, but I was still proven wrong nonetheless.  This is a film that, more than any other CG DreamWorks film covered so far, has clearly had a massive amount of thought put into each and every single shot.  There are the more obvious examples, such as the scene where Oogway ascends to a higher plane (backed with one of Hans Zimmer and John Powell’s most beautiful pieces of music, it must be noted) or many shots from the film’s training montage, but it’s the way that so many other scenes stick out in my head because of their layout and storyboarding.  Po despondently stood in the middle of the street with the food cart, the various angles throughout the tour of Tai Lung’s prison even after the initial reveal that continue to re-emphasise its imposing nature whilst still giving off the idea that escape isn’t truly impossible, Po reaching for Monkey’s cookies whilst Shifu looks on…

I could keep listing, too.  These are all images that aren’t supposed to be Money Shots, as it were, yet they are constantly boarded like they are.  Nowhere, though, is this approach more emblematic than in the film’s fight sequences.  I will admit to being worried initially – the first one, where The Furious Five ambush Master Shifu as part of practice, is too sloppy and a bit too incoherent in camera placement and movement to work – but the film eventually nails them.  That same care and effort that goes into boarding the non-action sequences goes double for the action sequences, which brings a level of care and coherence to proceedings.  Scene geography is always coherent, the camera is dynamic but still clear and does wonders for the size difference that typically ensues between participants.

The best illustration I have of this point, though, is simply to play the dumpling scene for you.  Like, just genuinely pay attention to the staging, here.  The camera placements, the positioning of the characters, the times that it chooses to go into slow-motion, the editing of when exactly it switches shots, the varying levels of detail, the speed of the scene… it truly is an absolute master class in animation construction and direction, with the result being a two minute sequence that just left me with a giant grin on my face for its entire length, like a truly great martial arts sequence usually leaves me with.

Kung Fu Panda, then, is a great film – the fact that I could happily spend way longer talking about it if deadline weren’t fast approaching should give that away.  However, I don’t think I’ll ever see it as a GREAT film, even though it kinda is.  Why?  Well, why’d you think I spent a very good length of time in this article letting you know about who I was at age 13?  There’s too much baggage associated with Kung Fu Panda, for me.  Too much extraneous stuff attached to it that can’t help but come along with me when I watch the thing.  I can blot a lot of it out, but I can’t blot all of it out.  In the same way that I’ll never be able to let go of stuff from my younger years, Kung Fu Panda will always carry around the “This Film Made Me Quit DreamWorks” banner and there’s a part of me that will always be bitter about that – albeit now because it reminds me of how absolutely f*cking dumb my teenaged self was instead of the film itself.

Still, Kung Fu Panda 2 doesn’t have any baggage associated with it, so I look forward to seeing how fantastic that supposedly ends up!


A total critical and financial triumph, Kung Fu Panda represented a major bouncing back from a very disappointing 2007 for DreamWorks Animation.  Next week, we’ll look at the film that helped cement the turning of the tides, and gave the company the knowledge that Shrek wouldn’t be the only franchise they could fall back on should things go rough.  Next week, it’s Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa.

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

Callum Petch could’ve been a princess, you’d be a king.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Shrek The Third

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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


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

Budget: $160 million

Gross: $798,958,162

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 40%

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Over The Hedge

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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


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

Budget: $80 million

Gross: $336,002,996

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 75%

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Madagascar

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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


madagascar10] Madagascar (27th May 2005)

Budget: $75 million

Gross: $532,680,671

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 55%

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Shark Tale

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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


shark tale09] Shark Tale (1st October 2004)

Budget: $75 million

Gross: $367,275,019

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 36%

Oy vey.

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

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

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

double facepalm

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

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

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

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

Answer: because you get Jellyfish Christina Aguilera.

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This is more terrifying than anything that Annabelle will cook up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you next week, folks!


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

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

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

Shrek 2

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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


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

Budget: $150 million

Gross: $919,838,758

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 89%

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Next week: Shark Tale.

Goddammit.

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

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

Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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


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

Budget: $60 million

Gross: $80,767,884

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 45%

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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)!