Tag Archives: The Prince Of Egypt

Joseph: King Of Dreams

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

joseph 2This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary.  In celebration, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full on retrospective treatment.  Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.


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

Direct-To-Video

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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The Road To El Dorado

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

This year, DreamWorks Animation turns 20.  In celebration, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full on retrospective treatment.


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

Budget: $95 million

Gross: $76,432,727

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 49%

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Prince Of Egypt

prince_of_egypt_ver3by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

This year, DreamWorks Animation turns 20.  In celebration, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full on retrospective treatment.

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

Budget: $70 million

Gross: $218,613,188

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 79%

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Artist Unknown, 1998
Artist Unknown, 1998

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Antz

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

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

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

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

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

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


Antz Poster01] Antz (2nd October 1998)

Budget: $105 million

Worldwide Gross: $171,757,863

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95% from 89 reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Callum Petch considers fun – natural fun!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!