Tag Archives: The Croods

The Croods

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.


croods26] The Croods (22nd March 2013)

Budget: $135 million

Gross: $587,204,668

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 70%

Lilo & Stitch takes its time before revealing its heart.  Oh, sure, its appearance is obvious from pretty much the start of the film, but the true extent of its heart isn’t revealed until later into the movie, firstly disarming and softening up the audience with extremely funny comedy and then, when their guards are down, putting them through the emotional ringer.  It swings for the fences – of course it does, it’s a Disney movie, that’s what they do – but waits until such a time that the act is earned.  It’s also a flawlessly constructed film that never puts a foot wrong, contradicts itself or bends the world to the will of its protagonists, but the tone and heart reveal is still mighty important.

By contrast, How To Train Your Dragon, after its purposefully slightly chaotic opening scene, wastes no time revealing its heart.  If Lilo & Stitch hides the extent of its heart and then gradually rolls up its sleeve, How To Train Your Dragon rips off its sleeve at the outset and spends its runtime shoving it in your face screaming, “LOOK AT IT! LOOK AT MY HEART AND EMOTIONS!”  It swings for the fences from the outset over everything which makes certain scenes and gestures feel unearned because its prior swinging for the fences ends up accidentally robbing certain scenes of their impact – or, in other words, the Stoick and Hiccup stuff doesn’t work because Stoick is mostly just a one-dimensional disapproving jackass until he isn’t, which makes him insufferable until the switch and makes the switch itself ring hollow.  It’s also a problematic film that doesn’t quite work, due to it contradicting itself, bending the world to the will of its protagonist, and that certain other thing that I still can’t explain, but I know I’m in the minority on all of this.

Of these two approaches, The Croods opts for the first, which itself is a smart idea – and before I go on, I must stress that I say this because I prefer films with pacing, not because I think that all animation should be like Disney; I don’t think that.  But it also tries something different than the prior two, it rarely swings for the fences with its heart.  Oh, it still swings for the fences with its comedy, which is broad and loud and very physical in nature, but when it does reveal its giant beating heart, it’s decidedly more reserved, more understated.  There are still grand emotional gestures and BIG scenes, but in a way that doesn’t feel as pervasive as in those other two movies.

Now, of course, this might also be down to my own personal baggage.  Lilo & Stitch’s heart trades on the bond between a “pet” and their owner, and the general bond of a family regardless of how non-traditional they may be – which both worked, and still do work, gangbusters for me – whilst How To Train Your Dragon’s heart trades on the bond between a “pet” and their owner, and the approval of and bonding between a father and son – the second of which, as previously discussed in detail and thanks to personal stuff, does not work for me.  The Croods’ heart, by contrast, focusses solely on dad Grug’s attempts to protect and earn love from his family.  It doesn’t have a secondary outlet for its heart, like those other films do, especially since Eep is way less important to the film than she first appears – more on that shortly – and my general disinterest with tales about fathers and father figures in media may explain why I found the heart of this film less in-my-face than in Lilo & Stitch.

Not to say that it doesn’t work, mind.  The Croods pulls it off spectacularly well, which is why I rate the film so highly – more on that in a moment – but that’s probably why I find it more quietly moving instead of openly moving.  Looking at family through the perspective of women, and especially sisters and mother figures, touches and interests me based on my own experiences, so Lilo & Stitch’s heart piledrives me into the middle of next week.  I am a dog owner back home, so that part of How To Train Your Dragon’s heart shivs me in the gut.  But father figures have never held as much of an impact for me as I was primarily raised by my mother, so The Croods’ heart makes me warm and fuzzy but not as majorly as in those prior films.

Those of you who do not obsessively follow along to director’s credits in animated movies may be wondering why I have spent so long comparing The Croods to How To Train Your Dragon and Lilo & Stitch.  Well, each of those films share a co-writer/co-director in the shape of one Chris Sanders.  Sanders began his career as a character designer for criminally forgotten 1980s kids TV series Muppet Babies, before making the transition to Walt Disney Feature Animation during their Renaissance in the 90s, working predominately on story for The Rescuers Down Under, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast, along with helping script Mulan.  In the late-90s, Sanders was approached by then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner to direct his own film, under the provision that its budget would be lower than typical Disney fare ($80 mil for Stitch vs. $130 mil for Tarzan, for example).  Dean DeBlois would eventually be brought on to co-write and co-direct, and the results would come forth in 2002’s very successful Lilo & Stitch.

Then, however, something happened.  Sanders had started significant work on American Dog, a film about a Hollywood star dog who gets lost in the desert.  By the time that it came to screen the film to higher-up executives, control of Disney’s feature animation division had switched from Michael Eisner to Bob Iger, and ex-Pixar head John Lasseter – who, according to rumours that I can’t substantiate, was allegedly not a fan of Lilo & Stitch – was brought on as Chief Creative Officer of the studio.  These test screenings did not go well and Sanders was inundated with notes and suggestions.  According to Lasseter, Lee Unkrich, and several other animators, but not Sanders himself – he has stayed quiet on the issue – Sanders actively resisted these changes and was removed from the film.  Soon after, Sanders negotiated his release from Disney and signed onto DreamWorks.

(Because I know you’re curious: American Dog was handed over to Chris Williams of The Emperor’s New Groove and Byron Howard of Tangled, re-tooled significantly in the space of just 18 months, and released as the mild 2008 hit Bolt.)

Upon joining DreamWorks, Sanders got to work on Crood Awakenings, which itself has had a tumultuous road to being a finished product.  First announced in 2005, the film was to be another entry into DreamWorks’ five-picture deal with Aardman Animations, with a script by Racing Stripes and Quest For Camelot writer Kirk DeMicco and John Cleese.  Yes, that John Cleese.  The pair had been trying to get a film version of Roald Dhal’s The Twits made, which lead to DreamWorks getting a hold of their script and inviting the pair to work on an idea of the company’s, them both settling on the germ of an idea that would grow into The Croods.  Of course, the Aardman angle didn’t pan out – more on that in the Flushed Away entry – and the rights reverted back to DreamWorks.

Enter Chris Sanders in March of 2007.  DreamWorks’ newest signee was barely in the door and already chomping at the bit to get to work on a new film, even planning on significantly re-writing the film in question.  This was to be Sanders’ big new pet project… and then How To Train Your Dragon happened.  Prior to Sanders and DeBlois coming aboard, the project was allegedly a mess and needed a total overhaul, with Co-President for Production Bill Damaschke believing Sanders to be the best man for the job.  Sanders called in DeBlois, the duo remade and re-tooled How To Train Your Dragon in the space of a year, it received critical acclaim and financial success, and then, with DeBlois staying on Dragon duty, Sanders moved back to The Croods, with DeMicco returning to the project in a co-writer/co-director capacity.

The resulting film… is nowhere near as monumental or interesting as its journey into existence, hence the last page of content.  Isn’t it interesting to see how chaotic the world of animation can get, though?  Look, I like The Croods – I think that it’s a very funny, very well-animated, and surprisingly moving film – but there’s not really much to say about it because it doesn’t swing for the fences.  It tries to be lower-key in nearly every facet, a film that works as entertaining entertainment and not much more.  It succeeds, and I must respect a film that knows its limits and doesn’t try to be something that it’s not, but that automatically makes it the least interesting of Chris Sanders’ projects to talk about – Lilo & Stitch is an amazing movie that I could talk for hours about, How To Train Your Dragon has its conflicted push-pull nature and problematic issues that keep it from greatness which makes it interesting to talk about, The Croods… has clever character animation? Where the titular family only occasionally walk like recognisable humans, instead remaining in their less-developed Neanderthal states.

The one really interesting thing about the film that I can go into detail about is with regards to the film’s main character.  Now, going into this film, I had been led to believe that Eep, the daughter of the clan voiced by Emma Stone, was the lead character of the film.  The marketing had said so, the entire premise of the film hinged on her, and Sanders had worked with female protagonists before with Lilo & Stitch – Lilo’s arc in that film being just as vital and central to the film as Stitch’s.  I even noted The Croods down in my Monsters vs. Aliens piece as one of 11 animated films in the last decade to feature lead female protagonists that aren’t princesses (because this medium does have a gender problem).

Turns out that a severe hoodwinking has been ongoing as Eep is not the protagonist of The Croods.  Instead, she’s the perspective of The Croods, she’s how we see the family and how we’re supposed to feel about them changes as her thoughts on them change.  She provides the bookending narration speeches that animated films are overly fond of nowadays, but her arc is relatively minor – learning to not resent her father so much – and she’s shuffled back into the deck once the real narrative momentum kicks in.  She is not our protagonist.  Our protagonist is actually Grug, the Nicholas Cage voiced patriarch of the family, and his arc – where he learns that change and new are not necessarily bad things and that being overly protective is going to drive his family away from him – is the one that gets the lion’s share of the screen time.

Now, yes, I was and still am disappointed by this reveal.  Animation has a major gender problem – there’s nothing wrong with princesses as a concept, but there is something wrong when they are the only option available – and there should be more female-led and female-focussed and female-created animation out there.  Going to all of the effort of making out an animated film to be about the lead female character only to have the actual film side-line her in favour of focussing near-exclusively on the father – and the boy that she’s fascinated by and sweet on, Guy – feels like, for lack of a better phrase, a real dick move.

That being said, the stuff with Grug is really well-done, enlivened by the fact that we are encouraged to look at him primarily through Eep’s eyes.  Grug starts the film as a real irritant, a drag whose desire to protect his family crosses the line from nobly intentioned to selfishly suffocating, but he’s not solely that.  He’s capable of being funny, his tight-knit plans do help the family to survive in certain cases, and he does truly care.  But because we see him through Eep’s eyes, we also see how his intentions can be perceived by people who aren’t as fanatically devoted to him.  It keeps the viewer at that distance since, otherwise, the film runs the risk of becoming a “Father Knows Best, You Silly Women” story instead of a tale about a father learning to loosen his control on the world, accept change and tell his family every once in a while that he does truly love them.

The film commits to this too.  Grug comes further and further to the forefront as the film progresses, first becoming petty, out-of-his-element, and spiteful over the world telling him that his daughter and the new man taking charge of his family’s life are both right, before eventually softening, working through his issues, and becoming a more noble and tolerant member of the family.  Each stage corresponds to Eep’s relationship with Grug, with the tonal handling of the whole affair – first wacky comedy, then pathetic bitter alienator, awkward cringe comedy, and finally genuine heartfelt sincerity – providing a strong marker for how far along his road he is.

It all leads up to the sequence in which Grug selflessly throws the clan and Guy across the chasm, recognising that he can’t adapt and that the best thing that could happen for the family that he cares for is to sacrifice himself to save them.  That’s the moment in which The Croods reveals that it’s been buttering up the audience for a genuine emotional payoff, and it’s a legitimately moving sequence.  I was even genuinely fooled into thinking that this was the film’s endgame.  The film is building, from pretty much the outset, to some kind of grand gesture that puts Grug back into the genuine best interests of the family without suffocating them, and this seemed to be it.  I genuinely thought that we would end with Grug dead and the family making a new life for themselves in the new world, especially since there is no full-on antagonist for the film; wise move.

I mean, it obviously wasn’t going to, this is a family film after all and family animation rarely seems to want to push itself to as dark places as the medium and genre used to, but I believed it might, which is a credit to the film’s writing, pacing, and individual scene direction.  Therefore, as legitimately sweet as the final 15 minutes are, they still feel a little extraneous; the film rewarding Grug’s redemption and selfless act of kindness by reuniting him with those he values most.  Not helped, mind you, by the fact that his story offers three separate endings of varying quality for Grug before it settles on the Second Chance ending.  Again, it’s my fault for thinking that this light-hearted family comedy would end in a way that could even be remotely construed as bittersweet, but it still feels like punch-pulling.

Then again, if it had, audiences probably wouldn’t have kept coming back.  Yes, at the time when DreamWorks needed it most – mainly because of what’s to come, which we mostly won’t be covering here – The Croods was an out-of-the-box hit.  It opened to a great $43 million, comfortably beating the rest of the chart, and the typical strong DreamWorks hold – even major underperformers like Mr. Peabody & Sherman (32%), Rise of the Guardians (43.7%), and next week’s Turbo (35.5%) rarely drop more than 50% between opening and second weekends – was bolstered by a near-total lack of competition and strong audience reception, helping it to a very strong 10-week run on the Top 10.  It would close a hair’s breadth away from $190 million domestic.  Overseas, the film also did excellently, securing another $400 million, and making The Croods the ninth highest-grossing DreamWorks film worldwide.

So, why?  Why The Croods?  This is the through-line for the final leg of this series, after all; why The Croods was majorly successful and yet Turbo and Rise of the Guardians were not?  Well, much like with the film itself, the answers are pretty obvious and unspectacular, but you can’t exactly dispute what you’re seeing because, hey, they work, don’t they?  First off, the release date: end of March.  Same release date as the first How To Train Your Dragon, which worked gangbusters before and why not stake out a little patch of Chris Sanders’ own?  Plus, it was also the first proper animated film of 2013, Escape From Planet Earth came and went with almost literally no fuss a month earlier, and the next film for release, Epic by Blue Sky Pictures, wasn’t due for two full months which, in box office land, is practically an automatic monopoly for whatever did take its slot.

(Side Bar Notice, real quick: after Rise of the Guardians, DreamWorks Animation had fulfilled their contract with Paramount and, thanks to Paramount offering them a poor deal and wishing to make their own in-house animation studio, the company switched distributors to 20th Century Fox, where The Croods was distributed.  20th Century Fox also own Blue Sky, makers of Epic, so this release date will have been strategically determined and deliberated on majorly for a long, long time.  In fact, with the exception of next week’s Turbo, one can’t really foot the blame on DreamWorks’ underperformance with release dates, Fox have been really good to them with that.  Anyways…)

Second off, marketing.  If you haven’t yet, scroll back up and watch the first trailer for this film.  Yes, it recalls the tone of How To Train Your Dragon, but the tone of How To Train Your Dragon is also markedly different to anything DreamWorks have cooked up, especially in regards to the marketing.  The comedy isn’t excessively broad, that wondrous sense of discovery that the film has is on display, it doesn’t give away every beat and every gag but the audience knows what they’re in for, which is what Rise of the Guardians didn’t do and consequently paid a heavy price for it.  It’s a good trailer, it’s a strong trailer, and other types of marketing were bloody everywhere come release time, you couldn’t move for advertising material of some kind for The Croods.  Fox put their all into the marketing for this one and did so in a way that differentiated the film from the accepted tired DreamWorks formula without confusing or leaving the audience in the dark.

And third off, it’s a funny heart-warming film about family by a really talented storyteller.  Of course it was going to do well!  Good films about families will always, always bond with the movie-going public.  They’re sweet and sincere in a way that resonates harder with audiences because the typical audience for animated features nowadays are families.  It allows the heart to cross age levels, tap into insecurities in all generations, go broad but not gross with the humour because most audience members need to get every joke, and just generally be true family viewing.  Why do you think Paddington is still raking in all of the money ever?

The Croods is small and intimate and character-focussed, which is something that family filmmaking has mostly forgotten nowadays in search of spectacle, but the ones that do remember are the ones that end up making the most cash.  There is spectacle in The Croods, that $135 million budget is not just from it being 8 bloody years in the making, but it never drowns out that character-focussed centre, and those are the films that stick with people and the families that the film is aimed at.  I don’t think The Croods is brilliant, not by any stretch of the term, but it is very good for thuddingly obvious reasons that become clear when watched, and the reason why The Croods was a major success is not because of any fancy formula.  It’s just a very good film, marketed brilliantly with a clear target audience that it speaks directly to, released at a perfect time.


Next week, we close out the film side of this series by looking at a film with poor marketing, a target audience that no longer exists, that was released at the single worst possible time.  Did Turbo deserve the death march that it was forced down, and could anything have been done to stop it?  Those are the questions that we shall be addressing next time.

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

Callum Petch lost someone he could have saved.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

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Rise Of The Guardians

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.


Rise-of-the-Guardians-image25] Rise Of The Guardians (21st November 2012)

Budget: $145 million

Gross: $306,941,670

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 74%

Rise of the Guardians is a bomb.  It is a big bomb.  Oh, sure, it doesn’t seem like it is, its eventual worldwide gross is double that of its production budget – the typical measure by which you determine whether a film is successful at the box office or not – but it is.  Domestically, the film took 10 weeks to scrape and claw its way past the $100 million mark, and the longer a film stays in cinemas the less money the studio actually gets (you can get a full-on explanation of that here).  Overseas, the film performed somewhat better but still not great, especially in comparison to prior DreamWorks films, and once the breakdown of the foreign dollar came in (and you can find out how that works here) DreamWorks still didn’t make a profit.  In fact, they had to take an $87 million write-down on the film, the first time they’d lost money on a project since Sinbad nearly a decade ago.

So, why did it bomb?  It’s not the fault of the film being bad – which was critically praised and is a damn good if crippled film, but we will get onto that later – so why did it just face-plant right out of the gate?  That’s what most of this entry is going to focus on because that’s our through line for the last sixth of this series and it could provide us with explanations for the box office prospects of the remaining pair of films in this series.  So, apologies for those of you who were hoping for an in-depth look at the film.  We’ll look at it if there’s time, because it’s a damn good film with a killer final 20 minutes, but for this series we need to examine the box office performance of the film rather than the film itself, unfortunately.

Full disclosure, here: since Rise of the Guardians is a relatively recent film, and was the first notable major underperformer that DreamWorks had seen in a decade, much of the stuff that I’m about to say is being referenced and sort of lifted from websites who, at the time, were filing think-pieces on this very subject not even 48 hours after the first weekend totals came in.  Many of the things that I will say here were theories that I had prior to going off and doing research anyway, but other writers’ reasons and thought processes helped open my mind a bit as to specificity.  So, with that in mind, I’d like to give credit to HitFix’s Gregory Ellwood and Animation World Network’s Ed Hooks for helping, thanks to their respective articles, shape my thoughts and theories for this article.  With that said, let’s dive in.

Undoubtedly, one of the biggest reasons is that the budget for this thing is ridiculous.  Although it clearly makes usage of every last cent, $145 million for an animated movie in this decade is insane and unsustainable.  Yes, Pixar and Disney blow that amount on every film they make but, as we have previously touched on, they can get away with it.  Everybody else has realised that $150 million domestic isn’t guaranteed anymore, so they’ve purposefully started making films for less than/equal to $100 million to compensate.  That’s why Aardman’s The Pirates! In An Adventure! With Scientists! was able to recover from a dismal American showing, it only cost $55 million to make.

DreamWorks, however, continue to pump all of their movies with the same level of money, increasing the risk if one fails and regardless of whether said pumping is necessary.  If you’ve been following along, you’ll have been keeping track of the “Budget” segment of my article pre-amble and seen that no film post-Shrek 2 has come in at under $100 million.  Now, in certain cases, like with this film or the Kung Fu Panda and How To Train Your Dragon series, that’s fine, as extra detail and money helps with the world and tone and such.  But for animated comedies?  Did Megamind really need a $130 million budget?  Despicable Me came in at $69 million and it looks way more distinctive and, arguably, better than that film did.  Or, in blunt terms, is there any reasonable explanation as to why the budgets for How To Train Your Dragon 2 and Penguins of Madagascar are separated by only $13 million?

That’s as good a link as any to my next point.  The budget thing is also systemic of a larger problem: DreamWorks still trying to play like it’s 2005, like they’re the only non-Disney/Pixar players on the Western feature-length animation block.  However, thanks to them blowing up the Disney dominance back in the early 2000s, more and more animation studios – and, specifically, distribution studios like Universal who are now more willing to get in the game – have now sprung up, creating further competition.  They started poking their heads above the water tentatively in the mid-to-late 00s, when Laika would release Coraline and Blue Sky Studios – obligatory pleading to PLEASE NOT F*CK UP Peanuts – would quietly become a consistent and reliable studio, but 2010 onwards has seen them burst on through en mass.

2012, in particular, saw new efforts from recent upstarts Illumination Entertainment (The Lorax), Laika (ParaNorman), and Sony Pictures Animation (Hotel Transylvania), as well as long-timers Aardman (The Pirates!), Studio Ghibli (The Secret World of Arrietty actually opened on nearly 2,000 screens in a rare display of genuine confidence in that brand from at-the-time distributors Buena Vista), and Blue Sky (Ice Age: Continental Drift), in addition to Pixar (Brave) and a resurgent Disney (Wreck-It Ralph).  When you also throw in DreamWorks’ other 2012 release (Madagascar 3), that is a crowded as hell schedule – one, relatedly, that has only gotten more crowded the further into the decade we get, which pleases me to no end – and one just cannot coast anymore.  The days of DreamWorks being able to guarantee butts in seats, regardless of the quality of their films, purely because there is nothing else available have long since departed.

Not to mention that each of these films carried with them their own unique, distinct, and marketable identity that didn’t just rely on brand recognition.  The primary trailers for The Lorax hit the “From the studio that brought you Despicable Me” and “Based on the story by Dr. Seuss” buttons, but also clearly outlined the premise and the film’s bright, candy-land colour scheme and art style.  Boom.  Sellable.  ParaNorman had that gothic horror meshed with broad comedy feel and identity front and centre, albeit with its darkest edges sanded down to make it more palatable to, for some reason, snobby stop-motion-averse mainstream audiences.  Boom.  Sellable.  Ice Age is Ice Age and came out when literally nothing else was in cinemas, Wreck-It Ralph slapped the videogame conceit over everything, Hotel Transylvania emphasised its loudness and physical comedy.

DreamWorks, however, still sell their films the same way they always have – some attitude, pop culture references, and licensed soundtrack for comedies; lots of flying, out-of-context gags, and emphasis of the 3D elements for more dramatic fare.  They don’t sell individual films so much as they sell the DreamWorks brand – Home is even suffering from this, even though I actually rather like its trailers.  This is fine for, say, a Madagascar sequel, because audiences already know what they’re getting and like what they’re getting and the trailer just needs to promise them more of the same, but becomes a problem when you’re trying to sell a new film, especially when you pump them out with the factory-like efficiency that DreamWorks do.

Here, for example, is the first trailer for Rise of the Guardians.

Now, that trailer does a lot of things right: it establishes a clear tone, introduces us to our main characters, has some mystery in there instead of simply showing everything off all at once, and it sets itself apart from most of the other animated features on the market.  Yet, simultaneously, it’s a major failure.  It relies too heavily on kids’ prior affection for seeing characters like Santa and the Easter Bunny teaming up to fight evil (more on that in a moment), it fails to properly establish Pitch Black and his motivations, our true lead character, Jack Frost, is nowhere in sight, and it doesn’t explain much at all.  It’s a tough line to walk when it comes to trailers, show too much and you negate the audience’s desire to see it but show too little and you do just as much damage, and Guardians’ first one, although it does a lot for me, shows too little to engage general audience interest who like to have more than the sketchiest sketch of an idea of what they’re getting into.

In fact, to link into the film itself, that belief that audiences would be enamoured enough by the idea of Santa, the Easter Bunny, Sandman, Jack Frost, and the Tooth Fairy teaming up to fight evil feels sadly outdated.  In the 21st Century, this worthless irritating and pathetic century, heart-on-sleeve sincerity and wonder is something that society very much seems to frown upon.  That desire to be a little cheesy, to have fun, to be sweet and nice is something that we, as a culture for some utterly confounding reason, have decided is beneath us and that we must laugh out of the room at every opportunity.

Instead, the only way we can accept enjoying these things now is with a sort of ironic detachment – hence why 80% of movie musicals spend their entire runtimes apologising for being musicals, why romance films are so po-facedly serious about everything, and why sci-fi almost never kicks back and has any fun anymore.  When something like that does come along, like this past weekend’s Jupiter Ascending because never let it be said that I don’t try and keep this column topical, everybody laughs it out of the room because we apparently can’t accept that sincerity anymore.  Maker, animation has quite literally only just gotten over this image problem, and we can blame that tangible attitude of Shrek for sending us down that path whilst thanking this Second Disney Renaissance for finally pulling the public back out of it.

Therefore, you present the general public with a film like Rise of the Guardians – a film whose marketing relies on kids’ prior attachment and desire to believe, and whose finale literally involves the villain being defeated by a scrappy group of kids believing in wonder with all of their heart with no cynicism or sass from the film (and it’s f*cking amazing, for the record) – then of course it’s going to open poorly at the box office and never truly recover!  Our society doesn’t foster that kind of genuinely sincere wonder and heart anymore, so most will just dismiss it out of hand and move on with their lives.

And then there’s also the tangible thing.  A common complaint that keeps cropping up in people’s excuses as to why the film did poorly or just in general conversation about the film: Santa’s Russian accent.  This is very much a creative choice that has baffled people, with some even thinking that that’s why the film failed.  Because kids are familiar with Santa, err, not being Russian and that would therefore turn them off the film totally.  I sort of get where they’re coming from, it’s the tangible element of a larger problem that not many people can totally figure out – in that the beefy, warrior-ised, badass designs of the Guardians fit their personalities and the more action-heavy moments but clashes with the sincere childlike hope of the rest of the film – but I highly doubt that it’s a reason all by itself for turning people away.

Finally, there was the release date: Thanksgiving weekend.  I get the idea, it’s the holidays and a big family movie is just the kind of thing that audiences are in demand for.  But, as we have previously talked about, thanks to the way they do business, DreamWorks movies aren’t Events like a Disney film or a Pixar film are.  They’re films that come out on a semi-regular basis and you either watch them or you don’t.  Even when the films are Must See viewing – and we’ve covered several of those in this series – their releases don’t carry that air, despite the millions of dollars that the company throws into marketing these things.  So whilst Disney can get away with releasing Tangled or Frozen over that weekend, DreamWorks can’t because, unlike Disney, Rise of the Guardians is not an Event Movie.

Hence why the thing basically died in fourth place opening weekend behind Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Part 2 (second week), Skyfall (third week), and Lincoln (third week), and just barely fending off Life of Pi by virtue of that opening on less screens.  All of those prior factors, with really sub-par marketing likely being the inarguable main reason and let us not forget general DreamWorks over-saturation, conspired to send Rise of the Guardians to an early grave.  Many of these are actually rather recurrent in the reasons behind DreamWorks’ other recent failures, which means that we might get more time each week to actually talk about those goddamn films properly, but that’s also a really worrying sign that the company doesn’t seem to be learning from its mistakes.  Rise of the Guardians is rather much Patient Zero for this recent commercial trajectory that DreamWorks have gone down and, for some reason, it’s been allowed to fester instead of being quarantined and dealt with.

So… with all of that said and sorted… how is the film?  I realise that I have pushed it to the background here, much like I did with Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron way back when, but I needed to since, as we all know, this is the start of the spiral that DreamWorks are currently stuck in and to not talk about it is to do a disservice to this series I’ve been working on.  It is, however, a shame because Rise of the Guardians is very much worth talking about.  If I were writing for a website where 8 straight A4 pages of text could be presented in a way that wouldn’t cause one’s eyeballs to rip themselves out of one’s skulls and hightail it to the heavens to get away from the torture, I’d happily spend the next 4 pages talking about it.  Unfortunately, I’m about 1 full A4 page away from my word limit, so I’m going to have to be very brief.

Rise is a very good film that could have been an outstanding film had it not been forced to bow to the unspoken decree that ALL ANIMATED FILMS MUST BE LESS THAN 100 MINUTES, OR SO HELP ME!  The problem with it, and why it doesn’t work as well as it should for the first 70 minutes, is that it needs to be at least 2 hours and 10 minutes long instead of 89 (97 with credits).  Rise of the Guardians is a film that is stuffed to the brim with content and plot and story.  Not backstory, it’s smart enough to realise that you don’t need to waste time explaining the backstories of these characters, but story.  This is a film that needs to chronicle Jack Frost’s life, his emotional insecurities, to parallel that with Pitch Black’s insecurities, provide arcs for the pair of them, fill in the cast enough that the disruption of their daily schedules carries actual emotional weight, build a world, kill someone to raise stakes, cause the viewer to actually care about the kids who will factor into the finale, provide several suitably exciting action beats, and provide enough scenes of the guardians just hanging out together so that one gets the sense of how they are outside of the film, among many other things.

Surprisingly, it pulls off more of this than I was expecting – the Jack Frost stuff is brilliant, the parallels between him and Pitch are called out in dialogue more than action but it still works gangbusters and is far better done than it is in How To Train Your Dragon 2, and it nails the kid stuff spectacularly which is why the ending works so insanely well (more on that in a paragraph or two).  Unsurprisingly, though, it’s not totally successful, mainly because it never ever slows down.  How can it?  It’s got way too much content to have to get through, but it’s all necessary, so it has to pace itself like a drag race, never once letting up on the gas.  This does mean, though, that much of the first two-thirds of the film don’t click as they should – in particular, Sandman’s initial death should be a majorly heartbreaking “we are not f*cking around here” moment, but we barely ruminate on it enough for it to have any real impact.

There are chunks of film missing, basically.  The slower moments, the connective moments, where we ease up and relax with our characters.  They do exist, but they’re brief and hint at the film it could have been if there was more of that breathing time.  The best sequence not related to the ending involves the rest of the guardians helping Tooth Fairy with her job of collecting children’s teeth, because it allows the characters to just relax and be themselves.  Admittedly by turning this exercise into a silly competitive mini-setpiece, but it still feels genuine.  It deepens the cast, establishes their bonds, helps the viewer invest more, and the film needed more of that.  There just quite literally isn’t the time to.

Fortunately, though, the film f*cking nails its ending.  Seriously, the entire final 20 minute stretch, from Jack trying to help Jamie re-ignite his belief in Santa and the other Guardians, to the duo’s final goodbye, is damn near perfect.  It accurately captures that sincere, heartfelt spirit of being young and wanting to believe.  To believe that there are mysterious unknowable forces of absolute good in the world, that fear and nightmares really are just concepts that can’t actually hurt you, that you can effect real genuine change on the world through innocence and kindness.  It’s one of the best examples that I can find in recent memory of a film just getting that feeling of being a child, since most films instead either overly patronise or barely mask the fact that these are just adults attempting to remember how kids are and act.

Its emotional beats pay off excellently, even with the truncated runtime that the film has had to set them all off, the animation reaches extra special levels of gorgeous, seeing the guardians finally let loose is thrilling, the return of Sandman is one of those “oh, HELL YES!” moments that great fiction can pull from even the stoniest of human beings, and it’s all so sincerely joyous and heartfelt.  Again, the main narrative crux of the finale is whether a kid will believe hard enough that some kind of possibly unreal force of absolute good will rescue him from a nebulous force of absolute bad, and he and his friends are instrumental in saving the day purely because they believe hard enough.  And this is all played dead-straight for pure, heart-warming emotion, because this sequence, and consequently the film itself, absolutely would not work if it did so any other way.

And that is almost literally all of the time that I have this week.  There is so much more to talk about with regards to Rise of the Guardians – its sublime animation, the true extent of its pacing issues, its tone, how Chris Pine’s voice fits Jack Frost and unnecessarily distracts in equal measure, the marginalisation of Tooth Fairy, its themes of loneliness and how one can be shaped by that – but, much like with the film itself, I’ve tried to do too much in too little available time.  If I ever stupidly decide to retrofit this ridiculous series into a book format, then you’d better believe that I will be expanding this section majorly.  For now, though, Rise of the Guardians was a bomb, but it didn’t deserve to be, and it’s getting worrying that I can apply the first two parts of this sentence to more and more DreamWorks films as time goes on.


Rise of the Guardians was a major, notable financial dud for DreamWorks Animation, their first in nearly a decade.  It cost the company substantial money and likely put the studio on edge as to its future – not unfounded considering how 2013 would wrap up.  Rise also marked the end of the studio’s 8 year relationship with distributor Paramount Pictures as the success of Rango inspired the latter to make more home-grown animation, and DreamWorks’ desire for a deal with better terms for themselves.  In August of 2012, they signed a five-year deal with 20th Century Fox, owners of Blue Sky, and began this new relationship the following year.

Next week, we’ll take a look at the first film to come from this new partnership, The Croods, speculate on why this one was a success, and try to explore the further ramifications of this move.  Also, we’ll actually talk about the film this time.

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

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