tisdag 12 juli 2016

DreamWorks works – but not as well as Disney’s best

Holiday time – which should mean more time and energy for ambitious blog posts, but never does. Instead, I’ll try to turn lazy hours watching animated films on Netflix to some blogging use. Disney features are thin on the ground here, but I have had the opportunity to catch up on the DreamWorks back catalogue instead.

I have watched some animated films from DreamWorks before, but as a faithful Disney admirer, I’ve not exactly torn the DVDs of its main competitor’s films off the shelves the moment they arrive. This consumer behaviour is not quite as stupid as it sounds, as there actually is – or at least has been – bad blood between Disney and DreamWorks. The head of DreamWorks Animation, Jeffrey Katzenberg, was formerly head of the animation department at Disney but left in 1994 after a blistering row when he was passed over for promotion (google for details). This seems to have led to more hostility than was strictly necessary between the two companies, as shown in the nasty digs at Disney films in the Shrek franchise.

Still, there is no reason for a fan of animated films to take sides in this quarrel, which by now ought to be history anyway. Instead, one should be able to shamelessly take advantage of the fact that there are two big American studios (plus various challengers) churning out animated films rather than one. Here are the DreamWorks films (well, most of them) I’ve seen to date, plus some positive comparisons with Disney films just to show my goodwill:

The Prince of Egypt (1998): I know the genre has old and respectable roots, but I’ve always been slightly uncomfortable with adaptations of Biblical tales. Finding a more or less loosely Bible-based yarn boring makes me feel shallow and impious, and yet they are often on the over-solemn side. The Prince works well, though. Its main focus is on the relationship between Moses and the Pharaoh-to-be Rameses, who grow up as brothers only to find themselves at opposite sides of the mother of a conflict. This tale of brotherly love strained beyond endurance is affecting, the animation is beautiful, the songs good and the religious content sensitively handled. I’m not sure the curse of the first-born is a suitable topic for a family film, though.
As good as Disney’s: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996).

The Road to El Dorado (2000): I like this early, 2-D stuff from DreamWorks a lot: here’s a straightforward, well-animated adventure story with likeable characters, free from take-that-Disney sassiness. Kenneth Branagh makes an impression as the voice of one of the leads, but the voice talent prize goes to Armand Assante as an apocalypse-embracing high priest.
Better than Disney’s: Pocahontas (1995).

The Shrek franchise (2001-): I won’t go too far into why I’m not that into the green ogre, as I’ve addressed the subject before. Suffice to say, the animation is good and the central relationship between Shrek and Fiona often touching. But I’m put off by the knowing “we’re so not Disney” style, and the films have little of interest to say about being cast as the bad guy.
Better than Disney’s: Dinosaur (2000).

Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003): I was surprised to learn that this film was released after the first Shrek film. It is very much in the same tradition as The Road to El Dorado: a 2-D adventure yarn, rendered pleasingly unpredictable by the fact that the hero is an anti-hero who needs quite a lot of prompting to do the right thing. The vocal talent is unnecessarily starry, but they do a good job, and Michelle Pfeiffer at least is worth the extra cash as purring goddess of chaos Eris. Good, well-drawn fun that deserved to do better at the box office.
Better than Disney’s: Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001).

Madagascar (2005): It says something for my level of enthusiasm for this franchise that I’ve only seen the first film and have yet to catch up on the rest. But I will, eventually, because it was a fun caper. What bugs me here is the computer animation of the film’s animal protagonists, which I found downright ugly. I know they’re meant to be comic animals, but when you remember the beautiful animal animation in The Lion King they become hard to look at.
Better than Disney’s: Brother Bear (2003). The animals looked better but the story…       

Kung Fu Panda (2008) and Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011) Beautifully animated, with a sweet hero  in the good-natured, food-loving panda Po. I especially liked the second film, where Po is pitted against a traumatised peacock villain, and which contains the following exchange:  “How did you find peace?[…] I scarred you for life!” “See, that’s the thing, Shen. Scars heal.” “No, they don’t. Wounds heal.” “Oh, yeah. What do scars do? They fade, I guess?” The film’s message that you have to let go of old grudges to find Inner Peace seems especially relevant for this animation studio. My only problem with this franchise is I’m not really interested in Kung  Fu.
Better than Disney’s: Bolt (2008).             

Monsters vs. Aliens (2009): Again, I was surprised by relatively recent release date. This tale of female empowerment is quite endearing – why marry some self-satisfied loser when you can be a ginormous monster? – and the monster sidekicks unexpectedly un-irritating. The computer animation of the human characters lets the film down, though. Never mind the monsters and aliens: the humans are the ugliest creatures on the block.
Better than Disney’s: Chicken Little (2005).

Megamind (2010): Of all the animated films supposedly from a baddie’s perspective, which was quite the fashion for a while, this is my favourite. It had at least some insightful things to say about a bad guy’s lot (he “never gets the girl”) and highlights the extreme annoyingness of some so-called heroes. Still the premise – that a villainous mastermind would be at a loss and grow eventually bored if he actually defeated the hero – doesn’t feel as interesting as its opposite would have been. Don’t superheroes in particular need villains more than the other way around?
As good as Disney’s: Wreck-It Ralph, which had a similar theme. And way better than Illumination’s Despicable Me.

How to Train Your Dragon (2010) and How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014): I enjoyed these films: they’re not over-sophisticated, with a sweet central theme of friendship, and again the sidekicks work surprisingly well. This franchise produces nice shorts too. The whininess of the hero is a drawback, but the dragon is darling.
Better than Disney’s: Treasure Planet (2002). Yes, I know, I’m running out of useful Disney comparisons. I’ve tried not to cheat and use Pixar films, but let me just say I liked the Dragon films far better than  Monsters University (2013), which was a major disappointment.     

My overall impression of the DreamWorks films, then, is that they’re of a high quality and trump some of Disney’s lesser works: not everything The Mouse produces is solid gold. Still, they never  quite reach the dizzying heights of most of the films from the Disney Renaissance (like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King, all produced on Katzenberg’s watch by the way) or of recent Disney hits like Frozen and Zootopia. To use phraseology from Kung Fu Panda, I’m afraid there is a secret ingredient where animated films are concerned, and that Disney’s got it. But there’s no need to mope because you’re not elected Dragon Warrior: you can still be part of the Furious Five (i.e. still be bloody good).