As the initial reviews for Pixar's Brave roll in (again, I'm waiting till opening day to take the kid), it's clear that the film is both pretty solid and somewhat disappointing considering the uber-high standards that Pixar has set for itself. I personally think it's almost dangerous to go into a Pixar film expecting each one to be as good as Up, but I digress. One of the running themes of said reviews is that the film is merely 'Dreamworks good'. If you think that's supposed to be an insult, it is. The meme for the last decade or so is that Dreamworks is not just inferior to Pixar (probably true overall), but a genuinely mediocre producer of mass-market animated films that constantly engages in some of the worst practices of mainstream animation. But as we examine the last fourteen years of Dreamworks Animation, it becomes clear that their reputation is somewhat unfair, akin to judging Pixar based on Cars. Dreamworks Animation may not have the sheer number of masterpieces as Pixar, but their 24 animated features (double Pixar's output) show a remarkable range of both quality and variety. They truly are more than just the worst parts of Shrek the Third and the best parts of How to Train Your Dragon.
Dreamworks Animation burst onto the scene in the final months of 1998, with two dramatically different animated films, Antz (one of my oldest existing reviews) and The Prince of Egypt. As the first of two bug adventures, Antz was an announcement that Dreamworks was going to be a little more adult and a little darker than the traditional Disney animated film. With a well-earned PG rating, violent action sequences that belonged in Starship Troppers, and the tone and sensibility of a stereotypical Woody Allen film (it actually starred Allen), it was a marked contrast to both the stereotypical Disney film and specifically A Bug's Life, a good but relatively generic animated adventure that debuted a month later (Pixar's second film is notable only for Kevin Spacey's chilling antagonist and a terrific rain-soaked action finale). The Prince of Egypt was a hand-drawn drama retelling the story of Moses, a college try at crafting an animated epic on the scale of The Lion King. The film falters due to needless comic relief and some useless musical numbers, but the first and third acts are quite strong while the film unflinchingly presents the inherent tragedy of its blood-soaked tale. Ironically considering its reputation today, Dreamworks began as a somewhat more adult alternative to the Mouse House, however fair/unfair Disney's reputation as a kids' cartoon studio might have been at the time (I actually prefer the post Katzenberg Disney toons of the 1995-2004 era to the Waking Sleeping Beauty years, but that's for another day). Both films recieved good-to-great reviews and were relative box office hits (Prince of Egypt crossed $100 million but was quite expensive).
The next two films on the road to Shrek both dropped in 2000. The Road to El Dorado is a completely minor entry and is notable only for being among the last hand-drawn features in the Dreamworks library and for basically being utterly forgotten twelve years later (I remember the Elton John theme song, but little else). It's a one-off, an off-season toon along the lines of Disney's Home On the Range or The Wild. Along with Wild Wild West, it stands as evidence that perhaps Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh shouldn't work together. During the summer of 2000, Dreamworks dropped what still stands as among its better films, the Aardman Studios claymation adventure Chicken Run. Other that star Mel Gibson, this one had few celebrity voices and Dreamworks deserves major kudos for letting the creators of Wallace and Gromit play around in the big-budget studio sandbox. It's a great film that justly crossed $100 million at the box office in America. It would be the first of three Dreamworks partnerships with Aardman Studios, which would produce the Oscar-winning Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit in October 2005 and the over-budgeted but somewhat underrated Flushed Away in November 2006, which was enough of a financial disappointment to sever their relationship and send Aardman scurrying to Sony just last year. While Dreamworks Animation financing and releasing Aardman Studios films isn't quite on par with Disney's efforts to bring Miyazaki films to America, it is still a noteworthy effort and credit is due.
So we've now discussed six of Dreamworks' 24 features without a single 'stereotypical' Dreamworks cartoon in the bunch. Of course, the next Dreamworks cartoon after Chicken Run would both turn the company into a genuine Disney rival and define the studio in a perhaps unfair fashion. Released in May 2001, Shrek was of course a mega blockbuster ($262 million in domestic grosses alone) and went on to win the first Best Animated Feature Oscar at the 2001 Academy Awards. Alas, the entire Shrek franchise is remembered for its least worthwhile features (pop-culture references, satirical Disney jokes, pop songs on the soundtrack, celebrity voice casting) as opposed to why all four films (to varying degrees) hold up. Point being, the Shrek films are among the most realistic and honest mainstream films about adult romantic relationships ever made. They examine a single adult relationship (Shrek and Fiona) through the initial romance, the honeymoon phase, the difficult adjustment to actually being a functional couple, the fears of going from a couple to a family, and the initial trauma of parenthood and how it forces us to readjust our life expectations. The first two Shrek films are still pretty great comedies and the third and fourth entries deserve credit for their ideas if not their execution. Alas, the massive success of the Shrek franchise was a double-edged sword, as its negative traits came to define not just the Shrek films but Dreamworks Animation as a whole, even when their output had little relation to Shrek the Third. But the four Shrek films are more than their pop-culture references and lived up to their premise to examine the standard 'fairy tale romance' in a more relevant and plausible fashion.
The two Dreamworks films between Shrek and Shrek 2 were the studio's last two hand-drawn features. Spirit: Legend of the Cimarron, released over Memorial Day weekend in 2002, is unlike any mainstream animated film released in modern times. Its tale of horses existing in 19th century America is a straight western, presented with no comedic side-kicks or modern references. It is a straight drama where the animals don't talk, and viewed today it almost comes off as precursor to War Horse. It's not a masterpiece, but it is the kind of creative risk taking usually associated with Pixar. Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas is still Dreamworks' biggest financial disaster and seeing it for the first time just last year, it's easy to see why. It's not a bad film so much as a very slight and insignificant one. Needlessly cast with celebrity voices (Brad Pitt, Michelle Pfeiffer, Catherine Zeta Jones, etc.), the film is notable for being Dreamworks' last hand-drawn film and for a few terrific second-act action sequences. Following the astonishing success of Shrek 2 ($441 million in the US, the third-biggest grosser of all-time at that time), Dreamworks entered into what can perhaps be called the era of the zany talking animal. This period, which saw rival studios trying their hand at the wise-cracking anthropomorphic animals as well, saw Dreamworks' worst film, one of it's best films, and the start of one of its most vibrant franchises.
While A Shark Tale remains one of Dreamworks' bigger non-Shrek hits domestically, it is still not only their worst film but a template for everything that currently can pollute mainstream animation. It is filled with celebrity voices (Will Smith, Angelina Jolie, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, Renee Zellwigger, etc.) that bring nothing to the table, it is filled with pop-culture references and pop music and, like Cars, exists in an alternate world where fish have humanoid societies and much of the humor comes from fish engaging in human behavior (it wasn't funny in Howard the Duck). It's dreadfully dull 'don't try to rise above your economic/social class/stay with your own kind' narrative is just one of the reasons it remains, along with Disney's Chicken Little and Lionsgate's Happily N'Ever After, one of the worst mainstream animated films of the 2000s. If you want to see why some critics still instinctively hate Dreamworks, rent A Shark Tale. Fortunately it was mostly uphill from there. Aside from the aforementioned Curse of the Were-Rabbit in 2005, Memorial Day weekend saw the release of Madagascar. I'm actually not a huge fan of the first Madagascar and its non-stop zaniness can get a little wearying.
But the film, and its superior sequels in 2008 and 2012, tell a refreshingly different animated fable, one without explicit villains where the biggest challenge is conquering your own neurosis (it's both very Jewish and a prototypical western). The first film's major conflict involves a lion realizing that he now wants to eat his best friend, a zebra. That's certainly a bit different from an "I've gotta win that race/save the world/stop the bad guy/find love" narratives found in most animated films. And Madagascar contains the funniest line of 2005, a Thomas Wolfe joke that I firmly believe was inspired by the retched reviews for I Am Charlotte Simmons. Madagascar became the highest grossing non-Shrek Dreamworks animated film yet ($197 million domestic, $532 million worldwide), although the company's stock took a serious hit from brain-dead business pundits who inexplicably expected it to perform like Shrek 3. Their major summer 2006 entry, Over the Hedge, made my ten-best of 2006 list. Despite having a celebrity cast and the now-standard zany animal cast, the well-acted picture told its character-driven tale with maturity and occasional subtly (the film is nearly silent when it needs to be), plus a brutally satirical take-down of consumerism with next-to-no pop-culture references. Over the Hedge marked an upswing in quality that, with a few bumps here and there, is still in place. 2007 was not a good year for Dreamworks, even as if was a superb year for Disney/Pixar (my two favorite films of that year are Meet the Robinsons and Ratatouille). I'll count A Bee Story as an accident, a product of the allure of working with Jerry Seinfeld, and Shrek the Third remains the least of the Shrek films. But 2008 was the pay-off promised by the surprising potency of Over the Hedge. June 2008 saw the release of Kung Fu Panda, which was easily among the best Dreamworks cartoons to date. While it had helpings of Jack Black slapstick, it was at-heart an emotionally-driven kung-fu drama that took its story and its action quite seriously. The film is a visual marvel and it, alongside Wag the Dog and Moonlight Mile, contains one of Dustin Hoffman's best performances from the last fifteen years. 2008 was capped off with Madagascar 2, a minor effort that nonetheless was a superior film to the 2005 original, telling an engaging family drama amid the zany comedy (bonus points for not overusing the penguins). 2009 saw only Monsters Vs. Aliens, a truly lesser effort that saw the studio falling back into some bad habits (needless celebrity casting, pop-culture references, a refusal to play its story straight, etc). But with all the hoopla surrounding Brave and its female lead, Dreamworks was ahead of the curve on that one, telling an explicitly feminist story where the heroine rejected her would-be prince charming because he wanted her to conform to gender stereotypes. It also was Dreamworks first experiment with 3D animation, and it was proved that Dreamworks was second-to-none when it came to high-quality 3D presentations for animated features. I wish it were a slightly more serious film, but the scale is impressive and it's a visual delight.
2010 saw three animated features, including a high-water mark, a flawed but interesting sequel, and a shockingly thoughtful comedy. The first 2010 entry is one of Dreamworks' best films, and arguably the go-to film for those wanting to give Dreamworks Animation a 'back-handed compliment' by naming a good one. How To Train Your Dragon is a soaring, moving, exciting, funny, and politically relevant fable that does almost everything right. The film looks dazzling and still contains some of the best 3D yet released and it takes its story absolutely seriously without a pop-culture reference in sight. It's not only among Dreamworks' best films, it will likely end up among the best animated films released this decade. Shrek: Forever After is better than the third film, although I take issue with an entire feature film spent in an alternate timeline (an episodic television show can do that since there are 13-24 episodes a year). Still, the film earns major kudos by fearlessly acknowledging the less pleasant side of parenting and how it changes you as a person for better or worse (Shrek the Third is retroactively improved because everything that Shrek feared has come true). The last 2010 entry is Megamind, and its relative quality is a testiment to Dreamworks' unwillingness to do anything half-assed. It could have been a cheap, snarky, and pop-culture-reference-filled superhero comedy that relied entirely on the comedic talents of Will Ferrell. Instead it's a thoughtful mediation on the nature of heroism and whether or not evil is required in the presence of heroism. It features the kind of big-scale superhero action largely absent from live-action comic book films (even Pixar's superb The Incredibles was mostly superhero vs. humans) and contains compelling performances from Ferrell, Tina Fey, Brad Pitt, and Jonah Hill. It's not a great film, but it's an awfully good one that didn't have to be.
2011 saw another terrific year, with the release of its best film yet and the release of a stunningly successful franchise spin-off. If you've read me for any amount of time, you know how much I adore Kung Fu Panda 2. It's the best Dreamworks film yet, the best 'set up a universe' sequel since X2: X-Men United, and my favorite film of 2011. It's action-packed, moving as hell, visually gorgeous, and incredibly smart about its characters and its somber story. Like Megamind, Puss In Boots was a film that didn't have to be any good. It seemed on paper and in marketing like a cash-in quickie based on a supporting character from the Shrek franchise. But Dreamworks took the Zorro-as-cat character and crafted a lovingly detailed fantasy/western-hybrid that took itself and its world absolutely seriously. Filled with cat-centric humor, intense action, and some glorious visuals, Puss In Boots is a wonderfully entertaining adventure film. Kung Fu Panda 2 and Puss In Boots combined are a testament to Dreamworks' commitment to technical craft and an increasing commitment to story and character that defines the best Pixar films. Madagascar 3 succeeds as a visual marvel and a light comedic treat (with a terrific chase scene in the first act), but its a worthy continuation of an amusing franchise. And, minor spoilers, despite being a third entry in a sure-to-be-continued franchise, it contains more closure than a number of would-be franchise-starters of late (cough-Prometheus-cough).
I'm not saying that Dreamworks is on the same quality plane as Pixar. They aren't, at least not yet. But their 24 animated features offer a surprisingly amount of variety in terms of stories being told and how those stories get told. Of the 24 films, just over a third of them of them (Chicken Run, Shrek, Shrek 2, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Over the Hedge, Kung Fu Panda, How To Train Your Dragon, Kung Fu Panda 2, and Puss In Boots) are great or near-great. A third of them (The Road to El Dorado, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, A Shark Tale, Shrek the Third, Madagascar, A Bee Movie, Shrek Forever After, and Monsters Vs. Aliens) qualify as mediocre-to-bad. That leaves the middle seven (Antz, Prince of Egypt, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Flushed Away, Madagascar 2, Megamind, Madagascar 3), as 'okay-to-very good'. More importantly the stereotypical meme regarding Dreamworks films leaves out somewhat daring experiments like Spirit, misses the romantic comedy heart of the Shrek films, and ignores the arch-typical western themes in the Madagascar series. More importantly, it dismisses outright masterpieces like Kung Fu Panda 2 and How to Train Your Dragon while writing off the potent myth-making found in Megamind and Puss In Boots. Dreamworks may not be Pixar, but they are ahead of Disney at this point in time and miles ahead of any other theoretical animation studio. The word on the street is that Pixar's Brave is 'Dreamworks-good'. I can only hope so.