Tag Archives: Turbo

DreamWorks Animation Television, Part 2

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Apologies for the week’s break.  Swamped schedule and I needed way more time to prep myself for this entry.

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.


kfpBonus Entry #3] DreamWorks Animation Television, Part 2

Author’s Note: With only 2 weeks, which have been filled with stuff to do in addition to getting these shows watched, to research these 6 shows sufficiently, I have not had time to watch every single episode of every show.  With the exceptions of All Hail King Julian and The Adventures of Puss In Boots (as those have so far only seen 5 episodes released from them), my thoughts on each of these shows are based on a 4 or 5 half-hour episode sampling from each show, with the episodes chosen at random, across each of their seasons.

The last time that we looked at DreamWorks Animation’s television arm, things weren’t doing so well.  The studio had tried three times to launch an original series of its own and all three instances ended in unambiguous failure.  Toonsylvania was a sub-par Saturday Morning Spielberg riff that was screwed by the network and forgotten about soon after, Invasion America was a confused and dull X-Files wannabe that didn’t even get a proper first run, whilst Father of the Pride was such a doomed public crashing and burning that DreamWorks have elected to forget that it ever existed.

As we deduced the last time we paid a visit there, one of the main reasons why those shows failed was because they just weren’t very good.  They had no original voice, nothing to make them stand out, and if they did have something different then the bodged execution hindered it completely.  Despite being original shows, they were too pre-occupied with cribbing from other shows.  They’re also, with the exception of co-production Neighbors From Hell (which will not be covered here), the beginning and end of DreamWorks’ original television output.  Presumably terrified of pumping significant money into non-safe bets, and also because DreamWorks are all about franchising everything (as we already know), the studio stopped making non-movie-connected programming.

Instead, their television output from 2008 onwards has consisted solely of spin-offs, both of a stand-alone and between-film nature.  It makes good financial sense – again, DreamWorks are all about franchising what successful films they have, although they have (to their detriment) really been reticent to fully jump on the merchandising bandwagon, and you’ve got a near-guaranteed audience built-in if the film’s a hit – and can even make good creative sense, too, since you’ve already got the world, characters and tone set up, and can deepen those really well-liked characters who get short-changed in the constraints of a feature-length film.

In this decade, there have been 7 different DreamWorks Animation Television shows, with an eighth on the immediate horizon, but the flood took a while to arrive.  Despite launching in March of 2009, after a November 2008 preview, The Penguins of Madagascar (Nickelodeon, 2008 – Present, 3 seasons, 145 episodes and 4 still unaired) was the sole series on screen until Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness (Nickelodeon, 2011 – Present, 3 seasons, 70 episodes and 10 still unaired) launched in September of 2011.  I get why, DreamWorks still didn’t really have any franchises prior to Kung Fu Panda’s Summer 2008 success, Shrek is not a series that would adapt well to a weekly TV format because there isn’t much you can do with the concept (as each subsequent film would demonstrate), and there’s no point sinking the amount of money required to get an all-CG TV series going if nobody’s going to turn up to watch it.

Premiere ratings of 6.8 million viewers, the biggest premiere for any new show in Nickelodeon history at the time, curbed fears that audience demand wouldn’t exist and once those ratings remained stable over the show’s opening weeks, making it an out of the box hit, the floodgates would truly open.  Kung Fu Panda was next up, although it would miss its planned 2010 air date, with Dragons (Cartoon Network, 2012 – 2014, 2 seasons, 40 episodes; Netflix, 2015 onwards) and Monsters vs. Aliens (Nickelodeon, 2013 – 2014, 1 season, 26 episodes) following each year after that, whilst their recent Netflix deal has seen a surge in DreamWorks-related programming, first with Turbo FAST (Netflix, 2013 – Present, 1 season, 26 episodes), All Hail King Julian (Netflix, 2014 – Present, 1 season, 5 episodes so far), The Adventures of Puss In Boots (Netflix, 2015 – Present, 1 season, 5 episodes so far), and VeggieTales in the House (Netflix, 2014 – Present, 1 season, 10 episodes so far, will not be covered here)… but we’ll come back to that.

In theory, most of these shows should be slam-dunks, too.  They’re based on franchises that did great business as movies and are relatively beloved by kids and animation fans alike, and each of them very much seems tailor-made for TV, requiring minimal tweaking to make work.  The Penguins of Madagascar takes on a silly classic 11 minute cartoon set-up (amplifying the slapstick cartoon nature of the films to their logical endpoint), Legends of Awesomeness and Dragons (which semi-reboots itself each season with a different subtitle each time) aim to be TV versions of the films that they’re based off of (mixing comedy with drama, action, and heart), whilst Monsters vs. Aliens pulls away from Susan to focus more on the overall ensemble and be a cross between the wacky 11 minute shorts of The Penguins of Madagascar and a sitcom of sorts.  All Hail King Julian is a straight sitcom set pre-Madagascar, The Adventures of Puss In Boots is a swashbuckling action-comedy with elements of drama, and Turbo FAST is a formulaic cartoon.

Of these, the cartoons and comedies, with the exception of Monsters vs. Aliens – and we will touch on why that one doesn’t work in due course – work best for a variety of reasons.  For one, the writers for each of the various shows just seem to get comedy better than they do comedy-drama hybrids.  Shows like Kung Fu Panda, Puss In Boots, and Dragons have a tendency to come up with plots that are either too complex and busy to adequately deal with in just one 22-minute episode (the Dragons pilot, especially, is really bad about that) or don’t have enough going on in them to justify 22-minutes (the “Duchess” episode of Puss In Boots all but advertises its endless filler with giant neon signs), with the dramatic beats often either sped through or overly laboured on.

For another, they suffer most from flanderisation.  In having to do a weekly, often multiple season television series, it can be hard to keep on writing characters in a multi-faceted complex manner like they exist as in the movies.  Therefore, at some point, that depth will be accidentally or purposefully sanded down into more singular characteristics to fit the story the writers are trying to tell.  Occasional character beats will turn into full-blown tics and catchphrases – I only watched 4 episodes of Dragons and I’m still worried that “Bud” is now permanently seared into my eardrums – certain elements get blown out of proportion – Po’s naivety and over-earnestness more often than not ends up manifesting as full-blown childishness and selfishness, a complete betrayal of his character – and they’re rarely for the better.

But, more simply, the comedies are just better written than the action comedy-dramas.  In part due to the flanderisation, in part due to the story scope issues, in part due to pacing issues, the latter just never really hit me like they should have.  The comedy is often too broad, the drama never quite emotional enough, the action technically impressive but never really exciting or tense.  There’s a lot of plates to juggle, basically, and, for me, the shows never really manage to shake off the feeling that they’re just lower-quality versions of the superior films.  They have the voice of the parent franchise, alright, but they still never truly connect, they always feel… off.

Take, for example, “A Tigress Tale” (from Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness, Season 2, Episode 18).  On paper, this is an episode tailor-made for myself: a Tigress-focussed story about her finding what seems to be her perfect paradise – a Kung Fu training centre with a tough, firm mentor who pushes her further and an environment that takes Kung Fu very seriously – only to discover that she does crave companionship and fun.  The execution, however, never quite sticks.  To sell the change, she starts the episode as moodily serious, even outright hating Po despite the first film showing her beginning to enjoy his company, which feels forced and clunky.  The pacing is too fast to give off a decent enough impression that Tigress misses her old life, and the ending, where Po helps her escape, ends up making her personality evolution in Kung Fu Panda 2 (this series is set between the films) seem like it hinged on this one moment instead of something that naturally happened over time.  The episode just didn’t work, basically.

The comedy series don’t have to worry about overreaching story-wise or staying overly consistent to the way the films do their characters and such, however, because their only end goal is to be funny.  They can exaggerate certain character aspects – like Skipper’s crazed leader antics, or Mort’s stalker obsession with King Julian, or Chet’s safety-conscious ways – and get away with it as long as they don’t go too far (they rarely do) and if the resulting jokes are funny (they often are).  And since, unlike with Dragons and Kung Fu Panda, none of them purport to be tied to their respective franchises and their eventual future – The Penguins exists in some kind of alternate universe where the Penguins and the Lemurs got back to the zoo somehow, Turbo FAST changes and alters the premise to suit its own needs, and All Hail King Julian is only technically a prequel to Madagascar – they get to go nuts world-building and gag building without fear of contradiction down the line.

For example, I found a marked difference between an episode of The Penguins of Madagascar from Season 3 and one from the beginning of Season 1.  Not only has it cleaned up the pacing flaws and finessed the art style to keep the lower-quality animation from being distracting, but there’s a wider range of characters that recur from episode to episode outside of the main cast – the villainous Mr. X kept popping up in the episodes I chose – and minor callbacks to prior events.  It feels like its own universe instead of just an off-shoot of a movie.  Dragons does have continuous plot arcs – although I somehow picked primarily standalone episodes – but it feels restrained, as if the writers know that they have to save the big stuff for the movies, whilst Kung Fu Panda doesn’t have any continuity outside of two-parters (as far as I’m aware) which explains its pacing and characterisation issues.

As for the one comedy series that doesn’t work, Monsters vs. Aliens, that’s a case of the show trying to force its source material into a suit that it’s not comfortable for.  Pretty much every other show is operating within or near-enough to its general wheelhouse to not feel like there’s been a major disconnect between the film and the series.  Monsters vs. Aliens, however, is a singular-character-focussed feminist sci-fi action movie with (mostly failing) moments of comedy spliced in.  It doesn’t fit well with the loud ensemble sitcom-ish comedy series that the show forces it into.  Susan gets shuffled to the back by necessity, which buries that feminist heart, again by necessity, the episodes strain to adhere to their set formula, and the show is loud.  Like, headache-inducingly so.  The show doesn’t work, basically, despite it being the best looking of the CG shows.

Which is as good a link as any to talk about the animation.  Now, obviously, these shows can’t look as good as the films that they’re based on because they don’t have the budget.  No show has that budget.  Therefore, each show has to adapt its art style in order to remain visually appealing.  Most simply reduce their level of detail, because their parent franchises have gifted them an art style that works well regardless (Kung Fu Panda, in particular, comes off excellently).  Others turn into the skid and embrace the lower-budget by emphasising the squash and stretch capabilities and changing the character designs to make them look like playable dolls (The Penguins of Madagascar).  Others are able to deliver images and sequences that are almost film-quality, but fall down due to inconsistent character animation and subtle little details (Dragons whose character animations, in particular, switch between semi-naturalistic and semi-robotic depending on the episode or scene).

What most of them suffer from, however, is a general feeling of lifelessness.  Thanks to the lower budget, there’s simply not enough money available to create bustling streets and worlds filled with extras which means that there’s lots of empty space and lots of re-used character models.  That’s understandable, but the problem is that some of the shows keep drawing attention to it.  The Adventures of Puss In Boots is set in a once hidden city, which seems like a built-in defence mechanism against this sort of criticism, but even with that the town still feels empty and hollow.  There are seemingly only 10 residents of this city and all of them are cast members, which doesn’t help, whilst the bandits are all literally copy-pasted from the same guy all of the time, which really doesn’t help.  Coupled with the lower-than-usual CG quality and sub-par boarding – a problem for the majority of the shows mentioned here, just plain uninteresting layout and storyboarding – it begs the question of why the show was done like this in the first place.

Especially since Turbo FAST ditches the CG style and is instead a Flash-animated cartoon.  That is a decision that pays off.  Yes, the art style occasionally veers a little too “early-to-mid-2000s EXTREEEEEEME” and it has this habit of artificially lowering the brightness at more complex points (presumably to get Flash and such to actually make the damn scenes), but otherwise the show looks fantastic.  The art style is distinctive, the colour scheme is aesthetically pleasing, the boarding and layout are often striking, there’s a legitimate sense of life thanks to being able to afford extras, and the animation itself is consistent and so smooth that there were many times that I had to forcibly remind myself that this was Flash instead of traditional animation.  None of this should be surprising, the show’s animation company is Titmouse, Inc. – who did the animation for the criminally short-lived Motorcity and who DreamWorks approached to work on this from the outset – but it’s still the best-looking of these shows by a country mile.

Oh, I almost moved away from close analysis without mentioning Clover from All Hail King Julian!  Now, throughout this long and ridiculous series, I have frequently brought up DreamWorks’ troubled relationship with the female gender, because animation does have a gender problem, and their TV shows (from what I have seen, I must qualify that) continue that mainly through exclusion.  All of their shows, barring The Penguins of Madagascar, have at least one female member of the main cast – The Penguins does feature Marlene the Otter, but she’s in the secondary cast and factored into none of the episodes I managed to see – and pretty much all of them (again, from what I have seen) get nothing to do.  Astrid, Susan, and Viper barely factored into their shows, whilst Burn simply sticks to the same overly attached girlfriend role she had in her film, Tigress retains the overly serious and joyless side of her first film personality, and Dulcinea of Puss In Boots has the barest sketch of a personality at the moment besides “excessively kind and polite”.  They’re barely featured and, when they are, they don’t get to be more than a one-line-one-trait summary.  Exclusion.

Which is why I bring up Clover.  Clover, in stark contrast to her fellow female characters, is a full-on character.  She is the paranoid, self-confident, power-abusing bodyguard to King Julian who is always alert, nervous and/or intimidated by the previous King Julian, and devoted to her job.  And she is hilarious!  No, seriously, she is a comical force of nature as the show takes her no-nonsense archetype and plays it for genuine comedy.  She’s not the straight man, she’s allowed to look the fool and be as stupid as everybody else in the show in her own way, something that many comedies seem worried to try doing for some reason.  Couple that with India de Beaufort’s magnificent vocal performance, who takes already funny lines and turns them hysterical through her delivery, and you get one of the strongest female characters in DreamWorks’ entire history because she’s a proper character!

Admittedly, that’s not saying much, but just let me have this, OK?

So, at a time when DreamWorks have been struggling majorly with their cinema releases and could really use the eyeballs and network money that commercial television can bring them – the Dragons series has even been pulling in numbers close to those of non-event episodes of Adventure Timewhy move to Netflix?  Why seemingly limit the potential audience outreach?  Well, for one, Netflix is actually reaching a tonne more homes now – 57.4 million worldwide at last count – so the built-in potential audience is already massive.  For two, Netflix, it turns out, is apparently very hands-off when it comes to exerting control over the shows created, which undoubtedly must please those working on them to no end.

And for three…  Well, Nickelodeon really hasn’t been doing so well recently.  They’ve taken a major step back with their animated programming – shows like The Legend of Korra were unceremoniously booted online, The Fairly Odd Parents still exists although you wouldn’t believe it considering how irregularly new episodes of their once flagship show are being aired, and they are still actively giving Breadwinners money and airtime – and, in the last few years, they’ve begun unnecessarily screwing about with their cash cows.  The reason why The Penguins of Madagascar is still listed as “2008 – Present” instead of “2008 – 2012” is because Nickelodeon straight up refuses to just air the last 4 episodes, already, two and a half years on.  Kung Fu Panda’s third, and seemingly final, season has managed to air 18 episodes in about as many months because, again inexplicably as the series still draws good ratings, it keeps going on endless months-long hiatuses without warning and with no return date.

So with Nickelodeon not exactly being the most reliable of networks right now – not to mention the fact that Monsters vs. Aliens was cancelled in part due to the network wishing to make “more ‘Nickish’ shows”, the network’s ratings generally being in the toilet, and the possibility that this may all be being done out of spite for the Netflix move – and Cartoon Network treating Dragons well but its potential growth being rather stunted for now, it makes sense for DreamWorks to move to Netflix.  After all, Netflix is offering hands-off stability with room for viewer and programming expansion.  For a company that’s currently in financial turmoil on its home turf, the cinema, why wouldn’t it look for a nice bit of stability in a field that it’s doing well in?

But now we close with the question that has under-pinned this entire push to the finish line: why?  Why is TV successful?  Why was The Croods a success but Turbo wasn’t?  Why have DreamWorks been succeeding in television but not at the cinema?  Why is this their stable platform?  It’s a big important question, one that I can’t speak with full authority on, but I do have a theory.  DreamWorks have been creating TV shows that, for the most part, represent the spirits and tone and style of their successful films.  They are extensions of these films, the Dragons and Kung Fu Panda series especially, but delivered on a weekly basis.  It’s more of what worked (kind of, but I’m a jaded 20 year-old so what do I know).

And kids are more than likely going to eat that up.  What kid hasn’t come away from a film that they’ve loved mentally wishing for more of it?  More time with their favourite characters, more time in that universe, new twists, new surprises, new characters.  These shows offer that on a weekly basis, which undoubtedly satisfies and interests kids like those, and also explains why certain box office prognosticators worried that the Dragons TV series may have cut into potential box office demand for How To Train Your Dragon 2.  They may continue to fulfil the perception that DreamWorks only think of stories, films, and television as so much interchangeable product that you simply scale for size, but can you really blame a company for offering supplies to a prominent demand?

Point is, their shows are fulfilling a need and that need seems to be becoming the company’s main income source right about now.  As their film business crumbles around them, the stability afforded by their television arm justifies its continued existence even if the shows weren’t any good.  I mean, honestly, most of them kinda aren’t, but they’re connecting with the target audience, and in a way that the studio was seemingly incapable of doing pre-2008, so what do I know and what do I care?  At least they’re trying.  There’s clear effort put into each of these shows, which again is more than I can say for most of the pre-2008 output, and it’s paying dividends.  Time will tell if those dividends are strong enough to keep them propped up in case their film output continues to underwhelm.


Next week: we finally bring this whole thing to a close, as we look back at what we’ve covered, fill in the gaps of 2014, and then look ahead to the future to see if we can fashion some sort of optimistic ending out of all of this for DreamWorks Animation.

The DreamWorks Animation Retrospective will conclude next Monday at 1PM BST!

Callum Petch is underground, never commercial.  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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Turbo

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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


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

Budget: $127 million

Gross: $282,570,682

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 67%

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why do I really like Turbo?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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)!

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!

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