Whither an Animated Dream(Works)

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May 14, 2016 by bck1402

When the passing of a torch occurs, we tend to look back at all that’s come before and ponder what the future might bring.

Dreamworksanimation2004DreamWork’s Animation has been under the stewardship of Jeffrey Katzenberg since its inception and it looks like with the upcoming sale of the production company to NBCUniversal/Comcast, the animation division will be under the guidance of Illumination Entertainment chief Chris Meledandri. Katzenberg will reportedly remain as a consultant while taking up a new position- chairman of DreamWorks Animation New Media. What exactly that is remains a mystery for now, but it’s not likely to do with the movies.

While many would prefer Pixar’s movies, and they are great for the most part, I tend to lean more towards the output of DreamWorks Animation. As of this writing, DreamWorks have put out 32 feature films since the release of AntZ in 1998, compared to Pixar’s 16 movies since 1995’s Toy Story. Of course, on both sides, not all are gems and each movie do have their fans. DreamWorks has taken more chances than Pixar, and have had better success with their franchises.

And all under the guidance of Jeffrey Katzenberg.

 

Katzenberg’s Journey

KatezenbergKatzenberg’s career with the movies goes back to his time at Paramount Pictures where he was responsible for helping to get films like Airplane made and kicking off the Star Trek movie franchise. In 1984 he moved over to the Walt Disney Studios and helped to revive their movie division, focussing on the adult comedies such as Three Men and a Baby and Good Morning, Vietnam. When he took over the animation division, he managed to revitalise that too kicking off a renaissance of Disney Animation features from The Great Mouse Detective to The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, securing a Best Picture nomination for Beauty and the Beast. A fallout with Disney CEO, Michael Eisner, resulted in Katzenberg leaving the company towards the end of 1994, and he subsequently co-founded DreamWorks SKG with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. While Spielberg would handle the movie division and Geffen takes on the music division, Katzenberg would be wholly responsible for the feature animation division.

prince_of_egypt_ver2With the success of Pixar’s Toy Story, DreamWorks teamed up with animation and visual effects company Pacific Data images to start creating their own CG animated feature. Even though The Prince of Egypt was well into production at the time, AntZ would be the first animated feature out, premiering in October 1998. The Prince of Egypt premiered a mere two months later in December 1998. While it would be over a year before the next feature, The Road to El Dorado (March 2000), DreamWorks Animation would maintain one to two releases per year after that, due to the splitting of the workload. PDI would have their own features while DreamWorks began to create their own animation departments, shifting from traditional hand drawn animation (albeit with CG enhancements) to full CG Animation.

By 2004, DreamWorks Animation became an individual entity away from the umbrella of DreamWorks SKG.

 

The Films

The rise and success of Toy Story seemed to spell the end of the traditionally hand-drawn animated feature film. While Disney’s own features petered out to the truly forgotten Home on the Range, and an attempted revival, The Princess and the Frog, came to naught, DreamWorks managed only four before the decision to go full CG animation kicked in. Even so, they weren’t all bad.

sinbad_legend_of_the_seven_seas_ver2The Prince of Egypt was an impressive if truncated retelling of The Ten Commandments while The Road to El Dorado attempted to bring The Man Who Would be King to a younger audience, if unsuccessfully attempting to capture that Disney magic by having Elton John do the songs as he did with The Lion King. Then there was the classical epic adventure in Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron in 2002, savaged by the critics for Matt Damon’s earnest voice-over for a non-talking horse and Bryan Adams’ supposedly on-the-nose songs. The box office losses of Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas in 2003 sealed the fate of the traditional animated feature, and that’s despite the fairly rousing adventure (sans songs or cutesy sidekicks) that could stand among the better adventure movies these days.

The massive success of their second CG animated feature in collaboration with PDI, Shrek in 2001, and winning the first ever Best Animated Feature Oscar gave the studio their first franchise. This is verified by Shrek 2 in 2004. The formula for dropping in jokey cultural references and using named movie stars as voice actors appeared to work, but the next feature, Shark Tale, proved it wasn’t always the case. The success of Madagascar in 2005 came more from the side characters like the Penguins or King Julien rather than the four leads. The subsequent movies had moderate successes as DreamWorks Animation attempted to aim for a rather elusive audience, trying for slightly more grown-up comedy rather than simply catering to an easier younger audience resulting in more misses than hits. It was in this uncertain environment that the company would find a new and unlikely franchise in Kung-Fu Panda (June, 2008), and again in 2010 with How to Train Your Dragon, just as Shrek was wrapped up with its fourth (hopefully the last) chapter, Shrek Ever After.

dreamworks-animation-studio-3d copy

trollsA delicate balance between drama and comedy seemed to be working in their movies, seen in the likes of Kung-Fu Panda 2, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Rise of The Guardians and even Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted. In between DreamWorks Animation continued to test new properties while expanding on certain franchises, so we got Puss In Boots, Megamind, Turbo, The Croods, Penguins of Madagascar and Home. Known properties were being looked into such as Mr Peabody and Sherman and the upcoming Trolls (based on the lucky trolls dolls with the colourful hair), along with those in production such as Captain Underpants and The Grimm Legacy (based on the novel by Polly Schulman).

 

The Future

Still, the risk-taking proved to be financially nonviable, and finding a steady audience proved tricky. It wasn’t that the movies were financial disasters, but current trends of box-office patterns – a movie has to hit a certain target over its homeopening weekend, else be considered a failure – resulted with less than stellar returns, particularly from the newer properties (Turbo, Guardians, even Penguins of Madagascar), resulting with productions on several projects being cut-back or postponed, hence Home being a singular release for the company in 2015.

With the success of Kung-Fu Panda 3, released in January/February 2016, and Trolls expected to hit later in November, the slate for now still sees at least two movies per year with new properties between the franchises. How to Train Your Dragon as a third part to conclude the trilogy (down from a planned 6 movies initially), while The Croods, Puss in Boots and the Madagascar gang are all scheduled for another outing. This is in addition to the franchise properties having other forms of exposure be it in comics or TV series. The status of these projects would be determined by the incoming Chris Meledandri.

 

The New Boss

Illumination-MeledandriMeledandri was in charge of the animation division at 20th Century Fox and executive produced a majority of the feature films under Blue Sky Films including Ice Age, Robots, Horton hears a Who! and Alvin and the Chipmunks. The last is not really under Blue Sky, but there ya go.

He left his post in 2007 and founded his own animation company, Illumination Entertainment, primarily known for The Lorax and the Despicable Me franchise, including The Minions. Illumination Entertainment also has two films scheduled for 2016, The Secret Life of Pets in July and Sing in December. With NBCUniversal/Comcast taking in DreamWorks, Meledandri will be overseeing two production companies, not unlike John Lasseter overseeing Disney Animation while still keeping an eye on Pixar. Whether DreamWorks Animation and Illumination Entertainment will combine forces also remains to be seen, as Illumination Entertainment is officially a subsidiary of Universal Studios.

Then again, Disney has its own animation division and Pixar. What Meledandri will bring remains to be seen since I can’t say I’m a big fan of the Minions.

 

Personal Preference

shrek

Of the movies DreamWorks Animation has released, 32 to date, I enjoy a majority of them AntZ was a great start, even if the animation was a little rough and finding its way. The Prince of Egypt is astounding in terms of what the animation achieved, eschewing the traditionally ‘pretty’ character design of Disney and still managing to imbue the main characters with some gravitas. The Road to El Dorado is a fun romp and the hint that it was never meant for little kids is there. Chicken Run is hilariously enjoyable anytime. Shrek gave us a glimpse of the humour the filmmakers could achieve, but it stunted them for a while. spirit_stallion_of_the_cimarron_ver3Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron is an amazing piece of work, an old fashioned nature adventure given some gorgeous animation, cinematography and spectacular vistas. Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas was a glorious throwback to the swashbuckling adventures of old, with animation allowing for some truly visual spectacles that would have been so cheesy had it been done as live-action. It would still be years before Pirates of The Caribbean would draw audiences back to the swashbuckling adventure on the high seas.

Shrek 2 managed to recapture the magic of fusing pop culture with storytelling, but that formula fizzled with Shark Tale. Madagascar gave us commando penguins and ear-worms while Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit gave some glorious chills. over_the_hedgeOver the Hedge brought the popular comic strip to glorious life and put the animation studio on a more mature level in terms of the story and jokes while Flushed Away was equally fun but likely too… frumpy? The animation and characters were still great, but it did not connect with a large audience. Shrek the Third felt a touch tiresome and it seemed the formula that worked well before was no longer working. Bee Movie tried a different approach with its highly unlikely and absurd scenario while fusing an environmental message with more grown-up humour, and then Kung-Fu Panda kicked his way into our collective hearts.

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa showed that the penguins were the real stars of the show while Monsters vs Aliens tried to harken the sci-fi heyday of the 50s in glorious fashion, but again, no one was buying it. It created a lull in which How to Train Your Dragon managed to soar the studio to new heights. Shrek Forever After monsters_vs_aliens_ver7managed to redeem itself while Megamind brought us a very different kind of super-hero in hilarious mispronouncing fashion. Kung-Fu Panda 2 married drama and humour beautifully as the visuals for the movies began to improve by leaps and bounds, and bounding about with some amazing action set pieces did Puss in Boots accomplish. Drama, humour and action all came together in perfect unison for Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted.

Rise of the Guardians tried to break new ground as a franchise, and it should have been far more successful than people gave it credit for.croods The Croods brought more heart than the audiences were willing to share. Turbo tried to prove that nothing was impossible, but it was ground to a halt, while Mr Peabody and Sherman gave us a wild romp through history where no one seemed to care for nostalgia. Audiences appeared to want more of the same, but How to Train Your Dragon 2 proved that change can be a good thing, raising the bar once again. The Penguins of Madagascar gave us a hilarious spy thriller romp with jokes flying so fast, it likely flew over the heads of most kids who enjoyed the penguins on TV. Home tried to bring more heart, but it got locked out until Kung-Fu Panda 3 kicked the door in once again.

<phew> I could expound on each movie individually, but that’s a whole other thing.

Sure, people tend to lean towards Pixar for their dramas and journeys of self discovery (more often than not). It feels like I’m being played emotionally when I watch a Pixar film. The stories frequently appear contrived to achieve the maximum impact for tugging at the heart strings and quite often, I can see it coming. Their characters start one way and end in another based on a realisation of who they really are more so than where they belong.

For DreamWorks, that personal journey is less obvious at times as the core of a huge majority of their stories is more about belonging without changing one’s self too much. Their main characters are very often the misfits and the odd ones who simply want to be accepted for who they are and find a place where they belong. I can sit through repeats of the movies from DreamWorks more often than sitting through Pixar’s movies, great as they are.

Dragon III

So, Pixar is about self discovery, and DreamWorks is about belonging, but that comparison is rather too pat, too simple to truly appreciate their movies.

Well, for me, it’s always more about finding your place and belonging.

If Meledandri can keep to that, and there are hints in his own movies that he can, then perhaps, DreamWorks Animation’s future is in good hands.

Only time will tell.


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