Has The Dream Ended?

It’s been a few days since the cancellation of a certain film that DreamWorks had on their release slate for a long, long while. Normally, I don’t like to resort to hyperbole or asking big questions like this after these things happen.

With DreamWorks however, it has been a string of frustrating news stories. Unlike some out there, I am actually a fan of DreamWorks Animation SKG. Some folks out there may still see them as “that studio that makes fart-fests” or just another “inferior” non-Disney/Pixar entity that’s just churning out forgettable animation. Not me. I think they’ve made some pretty darn good films, and are staffed with artists that quite frankly aren’t being allowed to spread their wings and soar.

To me, DreamWorks’ animation unit never truly had an identity to begin with. They were a studio that mostly operated on the whims of one miffed ex-Disney mogul… Jeffrey Katzenberg.

After having such big success with animation at Disney, he immediately fired up competition after storming out of the studio in 1994. DreamWorks was set to be Disney’s first big rival in animation since Don Bluth, and would go far, creating both traditionally animated pictures and computer animated ones not visually dissimilar to Pixar’s output.

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Katzenberg pushed for the early films to be these generally dark, more serious, PG-rated pictures. This happened at a time when earning the PG rating was no easy feat. Most of them failed at the box office or underwhelmed, maybe because audiences saw through the edgy exterior and saw that most of the movies in question really weren’t all that good. Maybe marketing failed to get audiences interested. Only one picture struck a chord, and that was The Prince of Egypt, but even that seems to have faded. By 2003, Katzenberg believed traditional animation was a bygone art form and the cause of these flops, and killed the medium at the studio. Their partnership with British animation studio Aardman didn’t last too long after a few pictures.

Where DreamWorks really scored, box office-wise, was in their CG films. Their second computer animated film, Shrek, was a sleeper hit that became something of a phenomenon while also being a critical darling. For audiences, it was the right mix of heart and edginess. It was also the perfect escape for people who were then tired of Disney’s 90s Renaissance formula, and didn’t want to see a wannabe-adult movie made for preteens. Its 2004 sequel was met with similar acclaim and record-breaking box office results.

Moving on from the attempts to be a studio making output that was “darker” than his old home’s work, Katzenberg steered the studio towards making snarky comedies that were littered with pop cultural references, crude humor, and the occassional PG-rated innuendo. The attempts to outdo Disney were done by this point, considering how far Disney had sunk under Eisner by the time Shrek 2 came to theaters. Shark Tale, Madagascar, and Over the Hedge did quite well at the box office, as did Shrek the Third in mid-2007. Where things dipped a bit was in late 2007, with the release of Bee Movie… Which for some reason has seen a resurgence and is a long-lasting meme.

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Then in spring 2008, DreamWorks lunged back into the limelight with a simply great family comedy-adventure, Kung Fu Panda. Here, DreamWorks shined, showing that with the right minds in place, they could make a work of animated entertainment that could stand alongside the current titans. The problem was, they made an animated family film. Not a snarky comedy for preteens or a darker feature for a more mature audience…

DreamWorks continued making this kind of movie, and in my opinion, they actually were in top form during this woefully short era. To me, a lot of those early 2D movies feel like Katzenberg trying to outdo Disney (and particularly stick it to his old boss, as this has been written and talked about – he even questioned making such decisions in the recent years), and the more comedic films mostly felt hollow and trend-chasing. It also gets me because at Disney, he watered down their animated output and made it much more kid-oriented (nearly cutting ‘Part of Your World’ out of The Little Mermaid, for starters!), and then after leaving the studio’s animation output that way, he went to make what they weren’t going to make. It feels kind of hypocritical in a way. Kung Fu Panda on the other hand felt complete as a story, had great characters, and wasn’t forced in any way. If only that kind of care had been brought to those earlier films, perhaps DreamWorks could’ve really stuck out amongst their colleagues: The Disneys, the Pixars, the Blue Skys, the soulless Disney imitation films of the 90s…

After a strong streak of movies, DreamWorks was slapped with their first major box office failure in years, the poorly-marketed, poorly-titled 2012 fantasy adventure Rise of the Guardians. Now this feature was, despite being mostly a family film, actually pretty dark and spooky in some areas. I felt it was balanced very well, the darkness wasn’t just for show, and there was a story with good characters. With its failing, DreamWorks laid off several employees and reconfigured their slate. A then-upcoming, eccentric, dark-sounding tale called Me and My Shadow got shuffled out of sight.

The possibility of more fantasy tales like Rise of the Guardians, How To Train Your Dragon, and Kung Fu Panda disappeared overnight. The slate was mainly filled with comedy romps, some of which (The Croods) did very well, many others flopped. Ironically, while most of those comedies failed, the emotional and often dark How To Train Your Dragon 2 soared above them all. DreamWorks’ executives blamed the issue on catering to preteen audiences, an audience animation should never be pitched to. Didn’t Titan A.E. and Treasure Planet’s failures mean anything? Didn’t the failures of their own The Road to El Dorado and Sinbad mean anything to them?

In January 2015, DreamWorks suffered a collapse. The Pacific Data Images studio, after 35 years of work and pioneering, was shut down with 500 employees without a job. Several planned features were cancelled, and more cutbacks occurred. DreamWorks, unlike a studio like Pixar, never had a safety net to fall into in case something like this were to happen. Pixar has the infinite money pit that is Disney, so the flopping of their misunderstood The Good Dinosaur not too long ago didn’t have a big effect on them.

DreamWorks on the other hand relied on the features to stay afloat, and Katzenberg left the features end to a man named Bill Damaschke, focusing on building other ends of the business. While successfully launching a Netflix deal, boosting consumer products, setting up animation units around the world (notably in Shanghai and India) and securing theme parks, the features department was without a strong voice. A voice stronger than Katzenberg or Damaschke. A John Lasseter-type figure…

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Katzenberg decided to get back into spearheading the features. Under his watch, DreamWorks pushed harmless comedies forward, especially after the recuperating success of bubbly comedy Home in early 2015. Films like Trolls, The Boss Baby, and Captain Underpants moved forward. Safe, more kid-oriented things… One exception was the quirky, Australia-set musical Larrikins, which was set to be directed by Matilda the Musical creator Tim Minchin.

DreamWorks was set to be bought by some major companies, but they ultimately turned them down. First there was SoftBank, then there was Hasbro. Finally, in mid-2016, it was announced that Comcast – whose Universal already has a powerhouse animation studio under them, Despicable Me creators Illumination Entertainiment – was going to buy them. They did. This came off of three box office successes: Home, Kung Fu Panda 3, and Trolls.

Changes came. Katzenberg retired after over thirty years of work, and for a little while the ship was without a rudder. Universal’s executives looked over them for a while, aiding them in the cancellation of The Croods 2. This indicated that DreamWorks could perhaps go towards a better future, canning a sequel to a comedy smash that any studio executive would’ve pushed for somewhere else. Then a slight slate change was in order after the studio cut ties with the India unit, more layoffs occurred. How To Train Your Dragon 3 was pushed back for the umpteenth time to spring 2019, and the long-gestating Shanghai-produced Everest finally got a release date.

Other than that, the slate seemed okay. All still seemed rather fine for the output.

Then, former WB executive Chris DeFaria was named the leader of the studio.

Weeks later, a sequel to Trolls – a film that was more of a success in the consumer products field than at the box office – was immediately slapped with a 2020 release date.

Then… A few days back, DreamWorks pulled the plug on Larrikins. The movie was set to be a February 2018 release. Director/writer Tim Minchin publicly stated how badly this shut-down affected him. “Impotent rage”, he had. He dedicated so many years of his life to this passion project, and I hope he can somehow shop it to another house.

Larrikins, being one of the quirkier features on the studio’s slate, going the way of the dodo was quite disheartening. Everest is no longer a Shanghai production either, and it might’ve been cooked into something it wasn’t meant to be. Shadows, previously set to be directed by auteur Edgar Wright, might not fare well under DeFaria and the new executives.

Is DreamWorks going to be molded into an Illumination-esque studio that only specializes in rather harmless family-friendly fluff meant to sell toys? Stuff you can kinda chuckle at for an hour, and then not really revisit years later while your kids get some mileage out of it… And the toys.

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Let’s be honest… Most of the American animation industry makes toy-selling fare. Some films just happen to be more artistic and well-written than others. Not for one second does the average commentator cynically think of the merchandising when talking films like Inside Out, Zootopia, and several others. When you get to things like Minions, though, the conversation is a bit different.

Ironically, one movie series to completely dodge this while also arguably embodying it, is the Lego Movie series. But The Lego Movie and The Lego Batman Movie are some of the most creative animated features to come out of the pool in the last decade, so few bring up the Lego backdrop and the fact that these movies are driving Lego sales. They’re like the anti-toy commercial toy commercials, if that makes any sense at all. Warner Animation Group allows the studios and writers to make these zany, colorful, and hilariously irreverent movies that wouldn’t get off the ground at another studio.

On the other hand, a studio like Illumination will make films that will sometimes get good marks, but little else. No one put The Secret Life of Pets or Sing on the level of the Lego movies, or Inside Out, or Zootopia. A relatively safe film like Disney Animation’s Moana got critical acclaim out the wazoo because of the telling of the story, and how it respected the audience both young and old. Trolls may have had psychedelic visuals and a more creative style than that of Moana‘s, and an overall fun script, but that wasn’t enough to get it up to the high levels… Because the storytelling matters most. But of course, sometimes critical reception never speaks volumes. Mediocre Minions cracked $1 billion at the worldwide box office, and despite getting mostly good reviews, The Good Dinosaur had trouble finding audiences. Laika’s excellent movies barely do well here or everywhere else.

Trolls wasn’t quite the blockbuster, but it made a real killing in toy sales. Everywhere I went, I’d see aisles of Trolls merchandise. Being based on the classic dolls, it makes sense, and DreamWorks even owns the company that created those toys in the first place. I haven’t seen this much merchandise for a DreamWorks film in years… It’s doubtful that The Boss Baby and Captain Underpants, their final two movies for 20th Century Fox, will even match that in both fields. Heck, is Trolls 2 even guaranteed to match the success of Trolls? Sometimes animated sequels make even less than their predecessors…

We’ve seen that with DreamWorks, too. Kung Fu Panda 2 and 3 failed to repeat the domestic success of the first one, ditto How To Train Your Dragon 2 in comparison to its breakout predecessor. Madagascar 2 slightly missed the first one’s domestic gross, but 3 made up for that some 3 1/2 years later. Attendance-wise, that’s a whole other story.

Anyways, mainstream American feature animation doesn’t deviate from the PG family-friendly adventure. Some films poke the barrier hard, others don’t, some films instead surprise you with their wit, their themes, and their strong character work.  While I believe this particular field of animation is mostly in the doldrums, there is still plenty of good work to choose from.

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I shouldn’t be surprised about the DreamWorks news. DreamWorks, like I said, never truly established who they are in the world of feature animation and hit their stride when making exactly what their competition was making. The days of The Prince of Egypt and Spirit will not be reconsidered, though in my ideal situation, they’d go back and make movies like those again – but with more passion, more of a drive to try something new rather than just using them as vehicles to one-up someone else. Look at films like Rango, Laika’s films, and Fantastic Mr. Fox. Those are edgier family films made out of passion and love. It’s far more compelling than sugar-coated but safe-as-vanilla things like Trolls and The Boss Baby.

I hate to cynically declare mainstream feature animation to be in an underwhelming state. Sony Pictures Animation seemed to lose a lot of its potential when seeing its big management overhaul way back in early 2015, cancelling cool-sounding projects and greenlighting The Emoji Movie. Illumination may or may not surprise one day, and make something that’s more than just a solid good romp. Blue Sky? I have no idea, sometimes they surprise, but to me they haven’t made a truly exceptional feature outside of The Peanuts Movie.

I don’t want to be that “oh ignore all the big guns, look at the indies” guy, but in times like these, I honestly want to beat that drum. DreamWorks has shown that they do have the potential to make truly great animated features, and have made some real stunners before. Long the butt of animation jokes, DreamWorks made movies like the Kung Fu Panda trilogy, the How To Train Your Dragon movies, and Rise of the Guardians. That, to me, is one hell of an accomplishment. Even a handful of their more comedic films were pretty strong!

But alas… They may just become another run-of-the-mill studio in need of a real captain. Someone like John Lasseter. For all the ribbing John Lasseter gets… Let’s look at his resume for the past 7 years…

  • Toy Story 3
  • Tangled
  • Winnie the Pooh
  • Wreck-It Ralph
  • Frozen
  • Big Hero 6
  • Inside Out
  • Zootopia
  • Finding Dory
  • Moana

Outside of those critical darlings, you also had the Pixar entries Brave, Monsters University, and The Good Dinosaur. The Internet rags on them for not being “perfect” Pixar movies, but to most folk and me, they’re pretty strong. I’ll take the mother-daughter fantasy story of Brave over candy-coated screaming any day, I’ll take Monsters University‘s careful pacing and strong character arc over some nice-looking but overall meh feature any day, and I find a lot lo like in the atmospheric Western-tinged Good Dinosaur. It’s quieter and less frenetic than most of the shouty features out there.

That’s one hell of a resume. Cars 2, schmars two. The guy is killing it, with TWO studios no less, and for the most part it’s paying off. Why is that? Because Lasseter GETS animation. He was an animation enthusiast growing up, was an animator in his early 20s, got kicked out of Disney for being too Walt-like in his ambitions, and helped launch an acclaimed studio…

Step it up, DeFaria, Meledandri, and all the other animation studio leaders out there. Animation is an art form. It’s more than just toy commercials. This ain’t the mid 1980s.

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