Wednesday, June 7, 2017

How DreamWorks Lost Its Way

Not too long ago, The Atlantic published a thought-provoking piece titled "How Pixar Lost Its Way." It points to Disney's purchase of Pixar as the death-knell for Pixar's unprecedented streak of high-quality films. Regardless of whether Pixar can regain the stratospheric quality that is now enjoyed by Disney Animation, no one can argue about Pixar's capability to produce high-quality films. While it remains yet to be seen whether Cars 3 will redeem the universally-panned Cars 2, Coco has delighted fans with the recent trailer, and the announcement that Pixar has no sequels planned after 2019 is also encouraging. Pixar might have lost its streak, but it hasn't quite lost its way.

However, the point that The Atlantic made was fascinating: the change that came about because of the Disney takeover also led to a change in film quality. With the recent acquisition of DreamWorks Animation by Comcast, a similar takeover has happened at DreamWorks Animation. Moreover, even the leadership change runs parallel to Pixar: Comcast also owns Illumination Entertainment, the up-and-coming studio that produced hits and franchises like Despicable Me and Secret Life of Pets, and there are rumors that the co-owner of the brand, Chris Meledandri, will also take over DreamWorks Animation.

The question is, then, are we on the brink of seeing a similar change in DreamWorks? It's possible. But there is one crucial difference between DreamWorks and Pixar, as they currently stand: DreamWorks has had a lot of duds.

But why? How did DreamWorks go from the studio of The Prince of Egypt, Shrek, and How To Train Your Dragon to the studio of "The DreamWorks Face"?

I would argue that the reason for Pixar's continued success is the same reason that DreamWorks eventually lost its power as a branding: their founding principles. And if DreamWorks is going to become a studio more defined by How to Train Your Dragon 2 than The Boss Baby, they'll need to recognize that and make a cultural readjustment alongside their new acquisition.

The founding philosophies of Pixar animation have been well documented; they rely on excellent storytelling and peer review to create great films. This has been the case since the very first release. "When [Toy Story] came out, almost all the reviews had one line saying it was computer animation, and the rest of the review was about the movie," Ed Catmull says, recalling the initial reviews of Toy Story. From the beginning, Pixar has been about great storytelling and innovation, a legacy that continues to affect their work today.

The origin story of DreamWorks animation paints a different, and more complicated, picture. It was originally intended to be an alternative to Disney; Jeffrey Katzenberg, a former Disney exec who left the company disgruntled, teamed up with Steven Spielberg to start DreamWorks SKG. The animation division of DreamWorks SKG began with two very different releases: Antz and The Prince of Egypt, released within two months of one another in 1998. Both of them were moderately successful; both of them were very different from what had come before.

But here is the key: Antz released first.

In many ways, the inaugural "hit" of an animation studio becomes something that defines it. Toy Story remains ranked by many as the best movie Pixar ever made, one that continues to shape the culture of the animation industry.

In the same way, Antz helped to shape the culture of DreamWorks Animation, for better or for worse. It was edgier, loaded with pop-culture references and knowing nods to the adults. It functioned as a forerunner to the then-groundbreaking release of Shrek, which was a scathing satire of traditional animated genres and spawned dozens of bad animated films in nearly every studio, as each tried to cash in on the success of the franchise. (Pixar remains the notable exception, while Disney ran headlong into the trap with Chicken Little.) It is clear that the legacy continues to live on—just look at any of DreamWorks's recent releases, such as The Boss Baby.

Here's the thing, though: Antz wasn't supposed to be DreamWorks's first film. In fact, The Prince of Egypt was put in production long before Antz. But the impending release of Antz and eerie similarity to Pixar's production, A Bug's Life, plunged DreamWorks into controversy. This was made worse by the fact that the release date of Antz was moved from 1999 to October 1998, before The Prince of Egypt and, more significantly, seven weeks before the release of A Bug's Life. Accusations of plagiarism ran wild, as detailed by David Price in his book The Pixar Touch. 

The end result was that the production of Antz was rushed to completion and became the focal point of DreamWorks's animation lineup, while The Prince of Egypt quietly made money and disappeared from the press. The artistic successes of films like The Prince of Egypt and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron became overshadowed by Antz and the breakout phenomenon of Shrek. 

Ever since, DreamWorks Animation has labored under the two-tier system. Historically, it has been funded by their films in the Antz genre, such as the Shrek and Madagascar franchises (which have seven massive box office hits between them), and thus it has been heavily oriented toward that genre. Indeed, after the mediocre box office performance of Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, DreamWorks went six years before producing another "artistic" and critically-acclaimed film (Shrek 2 being the arguable exception). Kung Fu Panda ushered in a new and improved form of the DreamWorks "artistic" feature: the familiar slapstick and knowing jokes of the Shrek era with a surprising dedication to good storytelling. The success of Kung Fu Panda led, even if implicitly, to the magnum opus of DreamWorks's "artistic" genre: How To Train Your Dragon, a superb story in the vein of the earlier DreamWorks dramas, told with trademark DreamWorks humor and a soundtrack that recalled the soaring notes of The Prince of Egypt and Kung Fu Panda—both of which are films composer John Powell collaborated on.

However, it was released in the same year as the critically panned but commercially boffo Shrek Ever After, and DreamWorks followed the money. Outside of two Kung Fu Panda sequels and How To Train Your Dragon 2, DreamWorks produced no significantly artistic or critically relevant films in the following seven years. But unlike the first decade of the century, the Antz films of the 2010s have, for the most part, flopped. The Croods and The Boss Baby are the only two out of the seven DreamWorks originals of this decade to crack $400 million at the worldwide box office.

In other words, the DreamWorks formula is fading. In choosing Antz over The Prince of Egypt, DreamWorks Animation slowly lost its way. However, with Comcast's recent purchase of DreamWorks, the studio can rebrand itself. Like Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender, it has the opportunity to choose between two heritages.

So far there are no indications of whether the DreamWorks ship will turn itself around. Their current release schedule includes two sequels in the Antz genre (Trolls 2 and The Boss Baby 2), a mysterious original (Everest) and the finale of the How To Train Your Dragon franchise. The success of these second-act sequels, and the success of How To Train Your Dragon 3, may determine whether or not DreamWorks will take on the storytelling-first approach championed by Pixar. If not, it may be that DreamWorks Animation will allow itself to be eaten at last by Antz.