Let’s face it: DreamWorks Animation has never been a marquee-topper in the same vein as Walt Disney, Pixar, or even overseas houses Studio Ghibli and Aardman. They’ve never broken a billion. They rarely win those Oscars. We don’t think of them as having any artistic integrity, or in all likelihood could even list ten of their films without struggle. Yet today we have two solid lines of argument to follow this most negative of intros through to one strange and unexpected conclusion: DreamWorks Animation could be the secret Masters of Western Animation. Got that? Recovered? Good. Let’s go.
We’ll start by addressing that last problem: which films are DreamWorks, and which are not? Unlike Pixar’s 14-film canon and Disney’s 53, the best most of us can likely remember as definitely DWA is Shrek. Which logically also means Shrek 2, Shrek the Third, Shrek Forever After, and Puss in Boots. A lot of us would then guess at something like the Ice Age franchise, but alas no: DWA never touched ’em. So what about Despicable Me? Negatory, no way. DWA did, however, produce Grok-rivalling Megamind in late 2010.
Right, so we’ve named six DWA films: five Shrek-related, one Megamind – what else? Well, a lot of us may still remember early efforts Antz, The Prince of Egypt, The Road to El Dorado and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. Then the company has two more considerable franchises in Madagascar (1 through 3) and Kung Fu Panda. 2009’s Monsters vs. Aliens was a fun, playful and parodic merch-stravaganza while last year’s The Croods was an unexpected delight; recent romp Mr. Peabody and Sherman may have been up against non-DreamWorks hit The LEGO Movie but still got very good reviews and receipts; finally, with its sequel having just hit Cannes’ croisette to excellent reception, we present the critical/commercial jewel in DWA’s crown: How to Train Your Dragon.
Some may sniff at this listing of franchises (more so when reminded that Puss and Croods have also been granted sequels), but the strange thing with DreamWorks is that, with the exception of the somewhat diminished third and fourth Shreks, their sequels do tend to be rather good. The Madagascar films have become demonstrably better each time, Kung Fu Panda 2 was nominated for the Oscar and, reaching back to the company’s first sequel, that second Shrek still remains one of the absolute gold standards for good sequel-making. A knee-jerk criticism of Hollywood these days is all about the supposed dearth of fresh ideas, but frankly when the characters are this well-drawn (or rather, modelled and rendered) and the worlds they inhabit so wonderfully imaginative, why bother complaining?
Already we can see that DWA have a considerable body of work under their belts, each film well reviewed and easily-franchisable, ensuring the company’s theoretical staying-power. The obvious question here is: just how practical is this in reality?
At this point we’ll step back two decades. It’s 1994. You’ve just stepped out of yet another completely full screening of Jeremy Irons romp The Lion King. Actually, that’s not interesting. Fast forward to mid-1995. The film’s won a bunch of Oscars, you’ve heard there might be a stage musical, and your friend’s film-nerd older brother is going on about how Lion King‘s “nearly broken a billion.” This, you will realise in later years, looking back fondly on your life in film, is the apex of the Disney Renaissance, and you were there throughout.
November 22 Toy Story opens, and you’re there for that as well, and you realise it’s the future. In Hollywood, of course, the other major players have also realised this: ex-Disney man Jeffrey Katzenberg has, after co-forming DreamWorks SKG a year earlier, already put plans in motion to produce 1998’s Antz and The Prince of Egypt. The two combined actually do fine business (more on that later), raking in a slightly higher profit for DWA than Disney manage with Mulan – that company, in fact, moving slowly into irrelevance as they finish out their Renaissance period with five films that, though making respectable profits, pale in comparison to the growing might of their Pixar cousins.
You probably already know the rest of the history: DreamWorks struggled for a little while as uncertain pretenders, 2001’s Shrek and 2004’s near-billion-taking Shrek 2 the only lights in an otherwise gloomy outlook – between these two tentpoles, in fact, 2002 and 2003 represented substantial losses with Spirit and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas doing okay-to-bad box office made even worse when totted up against their budgets.
Disney, of course, fared even worse without a Shrek-like franchise or even the incredible returns of their rivals’ Madagascar (2005; half a billion gross on a $75m budget) and Over the Hedge (2006; $336m gross on an $80m budget). Disney’s 2000s saw meagre returns (The Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis, Meet the Robinsons) and outright losses (Treasure Planet, Home on the Range), with even their profit-makers (Lilo and Stitch, Brother Bear, Chicken Little, Bolt) looking scant compared to their competitors.
Disney, in fact, continue to prove instructive in the world of film company histories; their fluctuating fortunes, if anything, prove that despite finally hitting the billion-dollar gross with Frozen after the encouraging business of Wreck-It Ralph and Tangled, we can’t necessarily expect this regrouping period to last. Which is where Pixar comes back in. Pixar, after their late-’90s rapid-rise “curio” period, had an incredible eight-film Golden Age from Monsters Inc. to Toy Story 3, that last one becoming the first animated film to make a billion dollars – as well as being hailed as a masterpiece for everything from its writing to its voice work to its rarefied statuses as both good 3D film and good threequel.
Again, as Disney have shown us: such things can’t necessarily last. It’s clear Pixar are, to put it delicately, in something of a comedown period, with the average-to-abysmal Cars 2, the average-but-a-little-better Brave, and the slightly bungled Monsters University representing their post-Golden Age crop. Let’s make this clear: Pixar have not “gone bad.” The problem here is one of marketing and expectation… which is where DreamWorks comes back in.
In the opening paragraph, the truth was stretched when we stated that DWA have never broken a billion. The truth is, they did so in 2004, 2007, 2008, and 2010-2012. All six of these are on combined totals. Therein lies the subtle ingenuity of this company: each DWA film costs a little more than half the budget of your average Pixar venture, making each year’s total expenditure just a little more than that of their rivals (in a Pixar release year, of course). Each DWA film then makes back at least a little less than each Pixar movie, which of course will still create a total much higher than Pixar’s grosses and a concurrently higher profit.
A clearer example: in 2008, Pixar unveiled their $180m Wall-E. DWA, meanwhile, released two films each made for less money: Kung Fu Panda at $130m and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa at $150m. Wall-E grossed a touch over half a billion with eventual box-office profit to the tune of about $341m. Panda and Madagascar made well over $600m. Each. Now take into account that DWA does that most years. Pixar don’t even quite make one film per year. This, people, is what the Money Gods call “efficiency”.
Big deal!, you say. Get back to your numbers, nerd! It’s about artistic integrity, which is exactly what Pixar has! – Well, quite so. But as shown earlier, it’s not as if we can accuse DWA’s films of intellectual bankruptcy. They are very, very good entertainments. Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon‘s clean-ups at the Annie Awards, in fact, would suggest that DreamWorks’ creative vision is perfectly intact, these films having bested Wall-E and Toy Story 3 respectively. But, look. The point here is not about numbers, or integrity, or some battle between the two. The numbers used here are, rather, a great illustration of why DWA are doing very well indeed: the company has better insulated itself whereas Pixar is wide open for a dramatic near-Biblical fall. What’s that mean? Here goes:
DWA is supported by its business model of reliably churning out good-quality profit-spinners aimed largely at younger markets, with very little of the major-league fanfare that its rivals deploy upon release. Sub- or even con-sequently, when an adult, be they a critic, a parent or a bored student, encounters one that happens to be half as delightful as the films usually turn out to be, the sense of wonder is if anything heightened: “Wow! This film is actually brilliant!”
Pixar, by contrast, whether by their own design or the whims of the public, have had more attention focussed on them from the start for creating and releasing genuine Event Films – events of a quirky kind, sure, but events nonetheless. With Pixar we expect to be uniformly bowled over by a boldness and cohesion of vision, artistically rigorous, yet magical… accessible, in short. But – as has happened in the past four years, and as Disney have learnt many times over – what happens when that veneer of brilliance appears to be weakening? “Oh. This film isn’t… very… oh.”
To return to release histories: if we can say that Pixar have had three distinct periods (aforementioned), and Disney have had numerous huge rises and notable falls over the years, then DWA’s rising-and-plateauing trajectory symbolises best what they’re doing right. They work just far enough under the radar that, unlike Pixar, they tend not to overly disappoint – for arguments’ and speculation’s sake, if Brave had been released by DreamWorks, the collective shrug would’ve been a more acute gasp of applauding appreciation. So DWA are essentially poised to steal the hypothetical Animation Crown by remaining safer, more consistent, with an arguably savvier (certainly more efficient) business model.
It’s worth reiterating this: the best word for DWA’s critical and commercial status is “plateau”. 2010 may have seen the release of their less-than-stellar Shrek Forever After, but its box office combined with How to Train Your Dragon – the company’s most Pixar-ish film yet – ensured the studio’s animated roster managed just as effectively as Toy Story 3, and a great deal more effectively than Tangled, to really corner all parts of the filmgoing market (and make well over the takings of the other two studios).
Finally, while this “consistency” constantly championed here may seem to some like a kind synonym for “adequacy”, in practice it ensures a relative safety – and this is the crux of the argument. While Disney continue to barrel through their ups and inevitable downs, and Pixar slowly transform from vaunted genius-factory to an object of increasing concern, DreamWorks Animation sees no sign of being cancelled out. Commercially, they’re waltzing right over their competitors; critically, they’re at the top of K2 while Pixar slip back down Everest. So let’s start giving them a bit more respect as legitimate pretenders to this animated throne.