DreamWorks has a complicated history, and can be a complicated studio to talk about.
Being over 20 years old, they’ve seen their ups and downs. Jeffrey Katzenberg formed DreamWorks SKG with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, after storming out of The Walt Disney Company in the autumn of 1994. Naturally, given his success with Disney’s animation, he jumpstarted DreamWorks Animation and got a strong force on his side: Pioneering CG studio Pacific Data Images.
Katzenberg’s initial M-O was to outdo Disney, given his bitterness towards Michael Eisner and his exit. Traditionally animated films The Prince of Egypt and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron would play out like Disney’s Renaissance-era animated films, but would be far more serious in an attempt to be “adult”. They all garnered PG ratings, as did their first CGI film Antz. Antz turned out okay in terms of the box office, but only The Prince of Egypt made some good money. They collaborated with British studio Aardman on their first full-length feature, Chicken Run, a charming gem that does feel like it was a bit controlled by Katzenberg and the brass.
Then in 2001 came a little movie called Shrek. It was a 180 degree turn from the traditionally animated films, as it was a straight-up send-up of fairy tales and Disney’s animated adaptations of them. It was funny, it was enjoyable, it wasn’t turgid, and it had great characters. While it doesn’t entirely work as a spoof (a lot of the humor works off of generalizations about Disney animated films, and some jokes feel like straight-up petty insults to Eisner/the company), it was perfect for audiences in 2001, who were tiring of Disney’s Renaissance formula. It was chock full of little innuendos and dirty jokes, because apparently that makes an animated movie “adult”. The general public ate this “anti-Disney” film up like candy.
The 2D films faltered at the box office because they were in this race to be “adult”. Steve Hulett of the Animation Guild summed up the situation perfectly with an at-the-time quote from DreamWorks staffers…
“We don’t get why our traditional features are like masterpiece theater, and the CG stuff has all the comedy.”
Katzenberg himself even questions those decisions some 13-15 years later…
“When I started DreamWorks [Animation] the goal, the ambition, was to go from what had been a G-rated approach to [the Disney animated] films to PG, where we actually tried to put more dimensions in the film and more adult, broader appeal. When I went back to watch “Prince of Egypt” for the 10th-year anniversary—I never watch these movies when they’re done, I see them each so many times while making them—I said, “What were we thinking?” It’s a dark movie, so dramatic! There’s a barely even a little humor. It’s beautiful and ambitious. But dark, jeez.”
Early DreamWorks does not appeal to me because of this. To me, most of those films make me think of Katzenberg wanting to stick it to Disney. The films felt like things 12-year-olds would consider “adult”. It’s no surprise, for he had misunderstood why Disney’s animation had so much appeal to begin with when he arrived at the studio in 1985, as wonderfully documented in several things from James P. Stewart’s DisneyWar to the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty.
Shrek kicked off a new phase, while DreamWorks ceased making traditionally animated films after Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas tanked in the summer of 2003. Katzenberg’s reasoning for that film’s failure was what – among a few other things – effectively killed traditionally animated feature films here in America, and they’re still recovering from that.
Shrek 2 was a gargantuan success in 2004, this was followed by Shark Tale, a CG fish flick that also relied on pop culture references, hip “edge”, and innuendos. We were now entering a dark era for animation in general, as many competitors tried to emulate what Shrek and Shark Tale did, and to a lesser extent, Blue Sky’s Ice Age. Pixar’s films had subtle innuendos as well, but these executives spearheading these competitor films had thought “CG + pop culture jokes + dirty jokes” = instant smash.
The shtick didn’t last too long from DreamWorks themselves. The grosses of the studio’s non-sequel entries dwindled a bit. Over the Hedge -released in spring 2006 – grossed below Shark Tale, and Bee Movie underperformed in late 2007. In mid-2008, Kung Fu Panda outdid every non-Shrek film of theirs… Kung Fu Panda was the beginning of a new era for the studio. Katzenberg began to take more and more of a back seat, the studio became a little more filmmaker-friendly…
Kung Fu Panda remains one of the studio’s strongest efforts, an earnest and fun martial arts comedy-adventure with an irreverent edge. Sometimes that tends to trip up a bit, but the film is so modest that you can’t help but ignore it, the film aims to have lots of fun and it wants you to have fun as well. The characters are strong, have wonderful personalities, and the all-animals world version of China is well thought out. There’s lots of heart, but a lot of great humor too. DreamWorks entered a new phase…
This was followed up by equally modest films like Monsters vs. Aliens, films that weren’t trying to emulate the Shrek routine. Madagascar 2 was one step forwards, one step backwards. 2010’s How To Train Your Dragon had heartfelt storytelling, two great leads, and a compelling mythical setting. Like Kung Fu Panda, How To Train Your Dragon was rewarded with outstanding critical reception and boffo box office. Perhaps a great new era for DreamWorks was upon us…
It was not to last, though.
From 2010 to 2012, we saw an interesting slew of features from the studio. Some of them more successful than others in execution, but at least the majority of them tried to do something neat. Megamind aimed to poke at the superhero genre, Kung Fu Panda 2 took everything that made Kung Fu Panda work and amplified it, even going down some pretty dark paths. Puss in Boots was a fun old-school swashbuckling adventure, while Madagascar 3 threw off the shackles and did what the first two films should’ve done: It was an all-out, even surreal, Looney Tunes/Tex Avery-esque cartoon stretched to 90 minutes.
Then there was Rise of the Guardians. By the time this film entered production, one Guillermo del Toro was now involved with what DreamWorks was up to. Many projects were in development, many of them tilting towards a darker vibe (Alma, The Grimm Legacy), some of them (Gil’s All Fright Diner) perhaps being more palatable to a much older audience. For the time being, DreamWorks seemed like a happenin’ place and that they were going to push mainstream animation into some crazy, thrilling new directions.
Rise of the Guardians was an indicator of what that future was going to be like, a weirdo fantasy-adventure that had a lot of dark and scary moments, but also a lot of visual creativity and lots of cool ideas. It balanced humor and the darker parts without fuss, and didn’t feel tonally uneven. Parts of it are just plain beautiful.
Sadly, DreamWorks and distributor Paramount bungled it. They sold it as a film for preteens, and made it look like The Avengers with childhood heroes. (It’s actually based on a book series by William Joyce, many of his works have been adapted into animation.) Pretty much anyone over the age of 12 thought it looked silly, while it looked too foreboding and out-there for kids. Consequently, the $145 million-costing film opened with a small amount. Really strong word-of-mouth kicked in afterwards, but it wasn’t enough to help the film make its money back.
In early 2013, DreamWorks laid off over 350 people on their staff and reshuffled their release slate. They continued to overspend on features. DreamWorks’ features actually used to cost in the $60-80 million region, and still looked fine. Starting in 2007, the budgets were ramped up to the $130-165 million region. 2013 brought two comedic, lighter features The Croods and Turbo, one flopped, one didn’t. 2014’s Mr. Peabody & Sherman went belly up, as did Penguins of Madagascar. How To Train Your Dragon 2 flattened a bit domestically…
Early 2015… DreamWorks lays off 500 people and completely shutters Pacific Data Images, after 35 years of work. The executives surmise that a tilt towards preteen-skewing features was what hurt them, and that their new plan was to greenlight family-friendly comedies… Though family-friendly comedies Turbo, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, and Penguins of Madagascar all flopped.
Home didn’t flop in spring 2015, giving DreamWorks a confidence boost as the company slowly-but-surely climbed its way out of the hole. No other feature-length film from them debuted last year, and Jeffrey Katzenberg said he’d be far more involved with future films, after spending so much time jump-starting the TV and Netflix end of things, which is currently functioning as a safety net for the studio. Kung Fu Panda 3 then did very well earlier this year, and after so many merger deals fell through with other companies (SoftBank, Hasbro), DreamWorks finally found itself merged with a bigger company… Comcast.
Comcast owns NBCUniversal, Universal Pictures currently knows how to market animated features. Just look at the success of Illumination Entertainment. Sans the kiddie-kiddie Hop, all of theirs opened super-well domestically and scored worldwide. 20th Century Fox on the other hand has mostly been fumbling with DreamWorks’ output, and it seems like they’ll be distributing their films up until 2018 – when the deal is set to close. It’s possible that Universal might distribute all of the films after spring 2017’s The Boss Baby with Fox’s name appearing on the promotional materials as part of a deal. (Much like how the Paramount logo appears on the Disney-distributed Marvel Cinematic Universe films that they were originally going to distribute.)
So what is going to be the direction now?
Katzenberg has stepped back, but Mireille Soria and Bonnie Arnold are still the Presidents of the studio, who will no doubt have a say in what moves ahead. Right now, it’s undetermined how Illumination CEO Chris Meledandri will run DreamWorks, or if he really will at all. Sources had said that DreamWorks brass told the crew that Shrek 5 and Shadows (Edgar Wright’s project, a reworking of the long-gestating of Me and My Shadow) are what’s going to come in 2019, keeping in tune with DreamWorks’ two-films-a-year plan. Early 2018 release Larrikins was at one time “expected” to be fully shifted from Fox to Universal, indicating a release date change.
Again, we have no idea how long the transition will be. The acquisition apparently finalizes at the very end of August. Will those remaining Fox-distributed DreamWorks film be ported over to Universal? Will Universal scoop up some of them instead? Or not at all?
Shrek 5 is a pure money grab, but Shadows might be an indicator of what’s to come. Shadows began life as Me and My Shadow, a 2D/CG hybrid that was originally going to be directed by Mark Dindal, the man who gave us Cats Don’t Dance and The Emperor’s New Groove. Dindal was later replaced by Alessandro Carloni, and the story was set to show us the world of our shadows, and how one shadow was stuck to a human who barely wanted to leave his own house. It sounded incredible, but it was so on-and-off over the years. DreamWorks had deleted it from their schedule following the Guardians fall out.
Carloni continued working on it until the heads scrapped his version and got Edgar Wright to direct the picture. Shadows, as it’s being called right now, looks to be a completely different film from what Dindal/Carloni were working on. The studio essentially pulled a Ratatouille on it. Same project and premise, complete rewrite. Regardless of how different it is, it has one major thing going for it… Edgar Wright. Wright has directed several acclaimed films and has his own unique style, and a director like Wright is something that mainstream feature animation absolutely needs. Especially in a climate where studio veterans and mainstays tend to direct…
Another project in development right now is Beekle, based on the book The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend. That’s set to be directed by Juno and Up in the Air director Jason Reitman. Again, an acclaimed director who is an outsider to animation. Who knows what other talents they’ll bring in if they keep it up. Who knows what projects will be greenlit. Hopefully exciting ones that take advantage of animation and tell some darn solid stories.
As for the sequels? They’re expected. Some of them will probably stay conservative, but they’re comfort food. Shrek 5 will likely be followed up by Madagascar 4, as the filmmakers behind the Kung Fu Panda and How To Train Your Dragon trilogies seem to want to move on to other things, and end their respective sagas. Madagascar 4 was at one time on the studio’s slate and carried a May 2018 release date, it’s only off the slate because of the whole re-sequencing of the slate following the early 2015 layoffs/PDI shut down. With how gleefully over-the-top Madagascar 3 was, they need to keep the momentum going for the fourth one. If they can, props to them. Anything else?
None of the recent films, other than The Croods, did well enough for sequels. The Croods 2 is in the works and is currently set for Christmas 2017 (though that’s very likely to change for very obvious reasons), so we’ll probably see a three come out from Universal. Home broke even but did it make enough to justify a sequel? It’s kind of like Monsters vs. Aliens and Megamind, it did fine but not well enough. Puss in Boots was also set to get a sequel. Is that still on? Other than these films, there’s little to mine from. Because of this, future sequels will actually come from upcoming originals. If Trolls does exceptionally well, expect a 2. The same goes for The Boss Baby, Captain Underpants, and Larrikins.
Right now, we know little, but a lot of information is out there… Where will the fishing moon boy go from here?