DreamWorks Animation

 

To put it kindly, DreamWorks has had it rough from the beginning. And not just because their very first release was the perfectly faceless political action thriller The Peacemaker, but that didn’t help. Whether it was over-spending (they even managed to lose money on their biggest-ever hit, Shrek 2, by over-budgeting the marketing for its DVD sales) or poor decision making (Paulie? Shark Tale? The Lovely Bones? Cowboys & Aliens?), they haven’t been able to balance their occasional good fortune (a 3-year Best Picture streak with American Beauty, Gladiator, and A Beautiful Mind, the enormously successful Shrek series, the Medal of Honor games) with the perpetual rain-cloud hovering over them (no huge live-action movie hits, they co-produced a lot of expensive flops, they sold off the music division ten years ago, virtually none of its TV shows have lasted more than a season or two). The closest thing to a consistently fruitful arena for the not-so-triumphant trio of Spielberg/Katzenberg/Geffen has been in animation, yet even there, the runaway popularity of all the Shreks, Madagascars, Kung Fu Pandas, and How to Train Your Dragons (yeah two sequels are already well into production) is tempered by the rarely disputed opinion that DreamWorks Animation is but Pixar’s soulless kid brother. It’s not just the rockier line-up – where for every franchise sequel they pump out, there’s a new one like Megamind or Over the Hedge that makes decent money but fails to become a recurring topic of cultural conversation, whereas Pixar, even despite their recent quality sag, has maintained a remarkably even pace of similarly-grossing, buzz-worthy favorites for even longer than DreamWorks has existed – it’s the annoying tendency their movies have to pick at the low-hanging fruit of rigidly formulaic storytelling, lazy characterizations, over-caffeinated pacing, limp pop culture references, and often unappealing animation styles (the way the characters are drawn for Shark Tale, Madagascar, Rise of the Guardians just doesn’t make you happy). Go through the whole DreamWorks cartoon library and you’ll hardly find a single effort that even aims toward the ideal marriage of art, entertainment, and childhood-conjuring magic as any of the Pixar elite. Most like Kung Fu Panda settle for an amiable high-concept gimmick and then just decorate the whole thing in recognizable Hollywood-animation tropes (from far away, DreamWorks and Pixar – and Sony Animation, and Blue Sky – have a lot in common).

 

They know how to sell a product, in other words. It doesn’t always work on the sales front, but there are millions of factors for that: time of release, competition from other recent releases, the skill of marketing persuasion, built-in faith to the brand name, having a memorable selling point (like the minions in Despicable Me), current public interest in the movie’s topic/sensibility, the wingspan of its cross-demographic appeal, and possibly the number of times a butterfly flaps its wings in Japan. Every studio is subject to these myriad considerations, but Pixar so far has been the canniest at conquering them all. I reckon the common kid is more likely to identify the Luxo Jr. Pixar logo than the DreamWorks one with the kid fishing off a cloud (although it is a rather adorable banner), and maybe even the word Pixar over the word DreamWorks, and that’s partly because throughout the years, DreamWorks has shown more interest in being a well-oiled daycare center than an attentive parent.

 

Turbo21With its latest would-be blockbuster Turbo hitting theaters this week, this might be the first time in fifteen years that I cringe at the thought of watching one of their movies. I was at least mildly curious or foolishly hopeful about each of the others at those times, but Turbo may kill my soul for good. I don’t know if I can take its depressingly contrived plot (a snail infused with nitrous fulfills his dream of racing in NASCAR?), ethnic stereotypes, stunt casting, and recycled sense of humor. So instead, I’d like to think back on all the films in their catalog of computer-animated klassics (tutorial: the ‘k’ is to de-emphasize that they’re classics) and figure out what exactly desensitized me to their product line (hint: it was pretty much everything, even the good movies). Not included are the since-abandoned division of hand-drawn entries: The Road to El Dorado, The Prince of Egypt, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, and not just because virtually all memory of them has been wiped from the face of the Earth (and too bad, because three of those were underrated). They’re non-canon. Same goes for their former partnership with Aardman, which resulted in Chicken Run, the only Wallace & Gromit movie to date (Curse of the Were-Rabbit), and Flushed Away. None were technically from the DreamWorks factory, and they would just dominate the upper echelons of these rankings, anyway, so let’s be fair. We’ll cover the Aardman family tree next time they have a movie out (which, sadly, looks to be another two years away). Meanwhile, prepare to be slowly driven insane by hearing the same criticisms over and over again!

 

 

FROM BEST TO WORST

  1. SHREK (2001)  The prom king of the DreamWorks class is still the bedrock of their legacy because it half-created, half-spoofed an inviting, easily understood storybook world replete with potential and imagination, and then had larger-than-life, not-yet-overused types for protagonists (the grumpy guy with a funny voice – hey, did that help Despicable Me too? – and Eddie Murphy’s dragon from Mulan slash every motor-mouthed comic relief sidekick since Robin Williams invented them as the Genie), and finally, was cleverly written (there’s your adult audience) in a voice that veered from fairy tale quaint to post-modern sarcastic. It was snark and high adventure rolled into one, a bit edgier than Pixar’s output by then, and owes a piece of its inspiration to that greatest of movies that everyone since has realized is their favorite: The Princess Bride. (A-)
  2. How to TrainHOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (2010)  Arguably the only DreamWorks movie that fully commits to its concept – Vikings vs. dragons – without adding any pop culture riffs, synergistic corporate tie-ins, or sidekicks who bounce off the walls. It’s a straight-up young-adult adventure that doesn’t eschew the animation genre’s habits of rapid pacing, predominantly comedic sensibility, a main character who has identity issues and a rough connection with a single parent, and an elaborate action climax, but refines these elements into a hearty stew of old-fashioned escapism. Plus a dashing John Powell score – see “Test Drive”. (A-)
  3. Shrek 2SHREK 2 (2004)  This is both an equal sequel and another high point in the DreamWorks Animation chain. The savvy that went into maximizing the crowd-pleasing showmanship here deserves its own award – there are still a whole lot of playful ideas for skewering fairy tales and giving them a contemporary makeover, not to mention exuberant musical numbers (the blissfully romantic opening set to Counting Crows’ “Accidentally in Love”, the exciting finale synced to a stage rendition of Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero”), a still-razor sharp sense of timing and humor (example: when a crowd realizes in shock that Shrek and Fiona are ogres, the record-scratch abrupt stop that inevitably follows is improved by a great pair of extra beats, one of a dove reacting in shock and flying straight into a wall, the other a wide silent shot of the crowd and the distant cry of an unhappy baby), and best of all, the introduction of Puss in Boots, whose every second on screen is uproarious: hacking up a hairball, licking his privates, luring in victims with those doe eyes – Puss was later over-used without properly capitalizing on the inherently funny contrast between his Lothario ways and unavoidable feline nature, but here they got him just right, another shrewdly calculated ploy to have us laughing and cheering from start to finish. (A-)
  4. Kung Fu PandaKUNG FU PANDA (2008)  The first time I saw this I liked it well enough, but everything about the production seemed second-hand. I may have been burned out on the cannibalistic nature of CG animation at the time. Fast forward five years and the field is an even longer hall of mirrors – notice how in many reviews for Turbo this week the critics are finally getting around to accusing DreamWorks of borrowing all of Pixar’s motifs? Yeah, that’s been going for a while now, actually. But be that as it may, having recently re-watched Kung Fu Panda, I’m here to recant my dismissal of it as likable leftovers. Even with a lead as boorish as a fat, food-loving panda voiced by Jack Black (whose zeal actually translates marvelously to voice acting), this may be the most elegant work in the DreamWorks library – the misty mountains of ancient China look like stunning remasters of illustrated fables, while the dexterous duels compress more visual cunning into less time than any other animated film I can think of, besides The Incredibles. They even succeed in re-phrasing all the stock believe-in-yourself themes as gracefully articulated pearls of philosophical wisdom. Hell, it even has the nobility not to end on the hollow toasting of a big musical number! (a DreamWorks tag from which they have rarely ever deviated) (B+)
  5. The CroodsTHE CROODS (2013)  DreamWorks is so up and down you never can pin a downward spiral on them. Their release roster seems to rotate middle-of-the-road with fairly good with near-outstanding like clockwork. After last fall’s ill-advised Rise of the Guardians, I was less interested in their animation program than ever, but this gorgeously animated, manically inventive prehistoric family comedy redeems them yet again (until this weekend, when Turbo reverses the tide just in time). Like many CG cartoons in the modern era, this is another that transplants today’s archetypes into a familiar alternate world, in this case the era of cavemen, and then riffs on the comparisons and contrasts. There’s imagination to spare and the imagery that will make love to your eyes, plus a huggable giant cat beast that should become the company mascot. The should movie should also cement writer/director Chris Sanders as the DreamWorks boy wonder (his previous credits are just as quick-witted, pure-hearted, and visually splendid: How to Train Your Dragon and Disney’s Lilo & Stitch), but it looks like they’ve locked him into a lifetime of sequels. Such is the dystopian future we’re all on the cusp of suffering… (B+)
  6. MegamindMEGAMIND (2010)  The unlucky 2nd release in yet another duplicate-premise face/off (see also: White House Down/Olympus Has Fallen, or in more apt terms, Antz/A Bug’s Life and Finding Nemo/Shark Tale, among countless others), Megamind got tossed into the loser bin in the wake of Sony’s Despicable Me (whose own follow-up is currently making enough money to guarantee another 50 years of disposable sequels, re: the inevitable dystopia), but it should’ve been the one everyone remembered. It may have been terribly obvious from the start that a villain in the main character slot was really just an extreme version of the standard hero’s tale, but that’s why you hire gifted screenwriters! Engaging characters, surprising plot turns, a couple lingering moments of awe and rumination – with writing this intelligent, it’s kind of the Superman movie we’ve been waiting for all along (only a bit in reverse), the one that draws inspiration not from the big headline issues, but from the limited series that analyze superhero lore from a refreshing new direction while still satisfying our need for nimble excitement. This is like a wacky Red Son (the Superman comic where he was raised Russian), a “what if Superman didn’t land on the Kent farm and thus his whole destiny was re-mapped”? If only the humor were less DreamWorks-y – there’s an overdose of cheeky arrogance that grows wearisome pretty fast. (B+)
  7. Shrek 4SHREK FOREVER AFTER (2010)  A relative rebound after the forgettable Shrek the Third and a final chapter they can be proud of. There doesn’t seem to be anything essential about the movie – this is a franchise with pretty low stakes, so each chapter is like the latest episode of a Shrek TV series on whatever family channel competes with Disney. The series goes out on an “It’s a Wonderful Life” take, one of those criminally unoriginal gimmicks that nevertheless remains potent in most permutations. The fantasy kingdom that Shrek, Fiona, Donkey, and the rest live in is still as warmly animated and lushly hued as ever, and forgiving the expected supply of lame jokes, there are actually good ones here and there, plus a lot of well-timed sight gags. And while Shrek-and-Donkey-banter was about as fresh in 2010 as the mechanical mugging of Jack Sparrow (though Puss in Boots’ newfound obesity keeps him funny), the Shrek series has always chugged along at no less than a marginally witty clip even when the characters stagnate, and this hopefully last chapter leaves us plenty tickled, heartwarmed, and satisfied. (B)
  8. AntzANTZ (1998)  The company’s flagship animated venture wasted no time in establishing much of their irritating vernacular – needlessly A-list cast (Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, Sylvester Stallone, J. Lo, Christopher Walken), skewed (read: unpleasant) character designs (they have soothing colors and soft eyes but there’s something second-rate about it), superimposing common human foibles over the daily life of something else in the animal kingdom, and employing as their comic hook the overexposed schtick of a celebrity whose fame is just a few years beyond its heyday (read: tolerability), in this case Woody Allen. The nebbishy director didn’t even write the movie (it was actually Paul and Chris Weitz, later of American Pie fame) but a broad version of his mannerisms is blended into the now-familiar underdog-hero-goes-on-an-eye-opening-quest-for-identity-and-saves-the-day screenwriting program that yields enough easy laughs and pleasing adventure to keep you interested, if not blown away. The same year’s duel-premise competitor over at Pixar, A Bug’s Life, was definitely the better take on insect colonies, though. (B)
  9. Madagascar 3MADAGASCAR 3: EUROPE’S MOST WANTED (2012)  Just a few notches preferable to the crappy Ice Age movies, Madagascar was unlikely to improve in its third outing, but this is the most impressive one they’ve done so far and a pretty high upward swing from 2008’s Escape to Africa. The unavoidable weak spot hasn’t gone away – that the central quartet of zoo animals voiced by Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett-Smith, and David Schwimmer is unforgivably milquetoast, nary a single amusing or even notable trait between the four of them – so instead of trying to build another story around their blank personalities, part 3 cedes the spotlight to a new and blessedly more dynamic group of circus animals (Brian Cranston, Jessica Chastain, Martin Short), but also to a bounty of better-late-than-never artistic ambition. There are breathtaking chase sequences, lovingly rendered exotic locales, and a showstopping, psychedelic circus performance that somehow mixes Katy Perry and cartoon animals doing gymnastics into a briefly wondrous high point of triumphant ecstasy in the DreamWorks canon. Again, though, it’s the grating humor (even more than the familiar story patterns) that hinders yet another potential home-run for the SKG team. A mute she-bear and an unstoppable antagonist provide some reliable comic support, but everything else, from Sascha Baren Cohen’s lemur to Chris Rock’s “afro-circus” song, just makes you want to punch the nearest animal. If the brains behind part 4 are paying any attention, maybe they’ll jettison the comedy altogether and just make a series of music videos. (B-)
  10. Bee MovieBEE MOVIE (2007)  It’s Antz all over again, only it’s Beez and Woody Allen has become Jerry Seinfeld. Once again it’s all about as exciting, edgy, and cinematic as whatever sitcom is playing on CBS at this very moment. But don’t let me sound too harsh – like the majority of these movies, there is a fair dose of clever running through the veins here. Tame, but still pretty funny at times. Seinfeld is an inherently amiable fella, and his unthreatening approach to entertainment translates well for family animation. Ironically, it’s the riskier portions of the movie that lead it astray – bees suing the human race for taking their honey is just too stupid to suspend disbelief for. At least they tried to color outside the lines on this one, but the elements don’t combine into much of a better-than-average whole. (B-)
  11. Shrek 3SHREK THE THIRD (2007)  One of many in the DreamWorks lineage that I dare just about anybody who’s actually seen it to recap the story for me. It’s so minor, are you really sure you saw it? I never soured on the “Shrek” series myself, but I must admit, this 3rd go-round is a real phantom of entertainment value – it serves its purpose while it’s on, but once the end credits roll, you probably won’t even know why you’ve been sitting there for the past 93 minutes – did you fall asleep? Did someone hypnotize you? Who left the TV on? This is wheel-spinning escapist comfort food, useful if you’ve seen the first two “Shrek”s too many times and want a new one that apes the style reasonably well, but not up to the high standard the series had set for itself. (B-)
  12. Kung Fu Panda 2KUNG FU PANDA 2 (2011)  Copies a lot of what made the first movie so good, then adds nothing new. Is this all starting to sound familiar? That’s DreamWorks for you. Get your refills with more breakneck-speed action and a visual palette that looks like slipping into a warm bath feels, and then yearn for more that is not gonna come, because this aimed squarely at familiar. (B-)
  13. MCDMADA EC055MADAGASCAR (2005)  I’m not sure what made this movie so popular that it warranted additional installments. The characters look clunky (surprise surprise), they’re utter ciphers, the adventure has none of the universal appeal or enduring iconography of heavyweight animated champions (mostly Pixar and Disney), and most of the jokes in the movie seem actively intended to give you a headache. Why did kids watch it so many times? If this is all they want from their cartoons, why didn’t all the movies below this on the list make a fortune as well? Well, I can only speak for myself, but if you can look past the protagonists, the island where they spend most of the movie is such an inviting paradise that you’ll want to use it as a screensaver or something. In fact, the whole movie has a lovely sunlit glow. Yep, that’s the high point of this DreamWorks production. That is their mission statement, basically. Are you pleased with the bright colors? Great, our job here is done. See you in another few months, kids. (C+)
  14. Over teh HedgeOVER THE HEDGE (2006) Sing it with me now: bad character animation, a basic story told with minimal finesse and only a facsimile of heart, an obligatory roster of unfunny archetypes, a vaporous experience all around. Some minor flavor additives give this one a boost: a Ben Folds soundtrack, Bruce Willis sounding energetic for once, Nick Nolte cast as a grumpy bear (uncanny), and an inventive scene where a hyper squirrel overdoses on caffeine and the whole world stops in relation to his insane buzz. If only all these materials were used in a better movie by a different studio with a stronger grasp of comedy and storytelling…(C+)
  15. Puss in BootsPUSS IN BOOTS (2011)  The scene stealing star of the Shrek sequels gets the first DreamWorks spinoff (also coming soon: the penguins of Madagascar) and sinks like a stone. This should have been a DVD release, not a theatrical one. It’s low on visual energy (a lot of money was spent to make it look good, yes, but the animation never has much momentum), focuses on a trite narrative (it’s not even a story of Puss, but rather of his newly invented friend/plot-point Humpty Dumpty), and makes no attempt to find new ways to make Puss funny, thereby pointing out for 90 straight minutes what a 1-joke sidekick he really is. (C)
  16. Monsters vs. ALiensMONSTERS VS. ALIENS (2009)  The most universally appealing title for a movie ever (sorry, Pacific Rim, you went too subtle) and one of the company’s finest congregations of comic talent is actually just a shallow melange of the same DreamWorks ingredients that taste fine but don’t stick to your ribs. It’s another half-hearted platter of cute antics you’ve seen in other movies before. The animation doesn’t make you want to pluck out your eyes, but it also doesn’t aim too high either, so don’t get your hopes up. It’s nice. (C)
  17. RRise of the GuardiansISE OF THE GUARDIANS (2012)  Why does Santa have to be a formidable Russian mafioso? Why is the Easter Bunny an insufferable asshole? Why is this group of children’s superheroes a mix of holiday mascots and public domain mythical figures? Why not all of one or the other? It’s an interesting ensemble, but incongruous to a fault. As you’d expect, the movie moves fast, looks colorful, is loaded with actors you know, spins a worldwide yarn about good vs. evil, aims for the heart in the most generic ways possible, tries way too hard to be funny, and seems like it was market-tested into oblivion. (C-)
  18. Madagascar2MADAGASCAR 2: ESCAPE TO AFRICA (2008)  I can hardly recall a single thing about this movie, but looking at the soundtrack selections tells you everything about its quality: there’s “Stayin’ Alive”, the Chariots of Fire theme, “I Like to Move it”, the Hawaii Five-0 theme, and “What a Wonderful World”. Could this movie be more hackneyed? Enough finesse is poured on to keep it from being (entirely) torturous during the viewing itself, but good luck naming any concrete reason why you shouldn’t hate it in the long run. It epitomizes the studio’s patronizing techniques to placate their audiences, rather than dazzle, engage, or challenge them. The lame-brained jokes, arcane dramatic conflicts, and incredibly annoying musical number (yes, “I Like to Move it”, in 2008) – it’s just a heap of blah-ness. (C-)
  19. SShark TaleHARK TALE (2004)  The DreamWorks nadir, a combination of every mistake a cynical Hollywood executive can make in trying to estimate popular demand, from the motifs (mafia-movie cliches) and the marquee names (Will Smith at his most pandering, and the hype-permitted use of Renee Zellweger, Angelina Jolie, and Jack Black) to the sense of humor (just replace every word with its aquatic pun) to the story (yet another guy pretending to be a hero and seduced by fame) to the tone (in-your-face urban culture caricatures). Oh look it has some pretty underwater scenery – but good God what are those horrible smears that resemble bad celebrity likenesses? The characters we have to stare at the whole time? Please no. The only redeeming thing about this disappointing big-budget mis-use of sharks is that it didn’t make enough money to spawn a line of sequels. Nowadays its $160 million gross against a $75 million budget would be more than enough for the increasingly desperate studio heads to move forward with a 6-picture saga, but back then, audience indifference spoke a bit louder. Good times. (D)

Incoming search terms:

  • Dreamworks animation skg
  • dreamworks animation logo
  • dreamworks animation skg logo
  • dreamworks worst to best
  • best to worst dreamworks animated movies
  • best to worst dreamworks films
  • dreamworks animation skg new logo
  • madagascar 3
  • The Peacemaker dreamworks rated insanity
Be Sociable, Share!