Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Editorial: The Next Phase for DreamWorks

Trolls is the third movie in DreamWorks' current phase. What phase is that?

After the big fallout in January 2015, DreamWorks had laid off over 500 staff members, dismantled sister studio Pacific Data Images, and whittled down a gargantuan slate that had - at the time - around ten different features crammed between 2015 and 2018. Former CEO and founder Jeffrey Katzenberg made it his mission to be more involved with the feature film production end of things, and his focus was: Make comedies for "kids and their parents". This was perhaps in direct response to the darker likes of Rise of the Guardians, and the confused entries like Turbo.

This sharply contrasts with the state DreamWorks was in the mid-1990s, as Katzenberg wanted to make PG films that skewed older. The 2D films took themselves very seriously and avoided the 90s Disney-isms (that Katzenberg himself helped foster in the first place) like the plague, and only one of them - The Prince of Egypt - succeeded at the box office. Steve Hulett himself recalls an animator or two telling him that the 2D flicks were like "Masterpiece Theater". Katzenberg, in recent times, came to regret going such a direction. Too bad he doesn't regret sounding the death bell for traditional animation.

After Shrek, the CG films on the other hand were loose, more comedic, less formal. Their 2D films failed to connect with audiences both young and old, whereas the CG ones - notably Shrek 2 and Shark Tale - gave audiences what they wanted. I bet if you were to release Shark Tale today, it would flop hard. In 2004, CG and overt pop cultural references were in. These were movies (and believe me, I was there) that "cool" and "edgy" preteens could go to without feeling weird, they avoided The Incredibles. I was like one of the only seventh graders at the time who was so gung-ho about Pixar's superhero epic. My peers preferred Pinocchio wearing a thong.

DreamWorks scored with this formula for a little while, but things like the Aardman co-production Flushed Away and Bee Movie kind of bit them in the rear. Kung Fu Panda began an exciting new era of strong adventure stories, balanced out with fun comedies that didn't try way too hard to be edgy. Even the Shrek installment made during this era feels like an adult, and not some 12-year-old trying to impress. Rise of the Guardians, had that not been so badly marketed, would've started a gutsier era for the moon boy studio. We would've seen pictures with a darker tone, pictures that would challenge the young audiences, and those would be accompanied by lighter comedies.

One of the first things that happened after Rise of the Guardians' implosion at the box office was the shelving of the 2D/CG hybrid feature Me and My Shadow. They kept it alive for a little while after that, before stopping it and restarting it from scratch Emperor's New Groove-style. But then they realized that the comedies weren't always a surefire thing, either. Especially when they cost over $120 million. Turbo, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, and Penguins of Madagascar all bombed, which lead to the collapse in January 2015.

DreamWorks execs chalked that up to "oh, we were aiming at preteens. We saw this one statistic that said they were seeing more animated movies!"

So Katzenberg and crew said to aim for kids and their parents. Kung Fu Panda 3 was the first picture of this era, as it was still inching towards production when all of this went down. Kung Fu Panda 3 doesn't have the bite of its predecessor, nor does it have the balance. There's way too much comedy in the film, it feels like Katzenberg going back to his Renaissance Disney roots, forcing levity into moments where it simply didn't belong. Trolls is the second, which I have still yet to see, but the consensus on that one is that it definitely skews the young while being tolerable for adults.

Next year's The Boss Baby and Captain Underpants look to continue this. This, to me, is not what DreamWorks should be settling for. Harmless comedies that parents can enjoy with their kids is aiming low, honestly... And that's also not a surefire strategy. I think they got a little lucky with Trolls, because that one could've gone south. Fox's marketing for the film looked sucky to us, but somehow, some way it worked on family audiences...

(Side note. I worked the box office on Election Day. No school for everyone. Trolls was sold out all day, from 10am to 10pm. My co-workers and I had to tell many customers, because our theater does reserved seating, it was going to be a no-go.)

Kung Fu Panda and Kung Fu Panda 2 to me represent DreamWorks at their peak, as does How To Train Your Dragon 2 and Rise of the Guardians. These are films that have good and sometimes thoughtful stories, feel pretty balanced for the most part, and have great characters. To me, films like The Croods and Turbo and whatnot are quite forgettable. Those are more for younger audiences, while the pandas, dragons, and whatnot feel like genuine family films. Mom and dad can enjoy it, the kids can enjoy it, their "hip" older brothers and sisters can get something out of it, the grannies and gramps can like 'em too!

Of course, that's not always a guaranteed win at the box office. But neither is a lighthearted, more kid-friendly romp like Trolls or Home. This is why I suggested over on my brother blog that DreamWorks seriously needs to rethink budgets now that they're under the Comcast umbrella. Something like Trolls did not need to cost over $120 million. I'm sorry, something like that just doesn't. Animation is a gamble, even for a seemingly foolproof studio like Pixar. You never know what will happen, if the public will show up for your little movie or not. Some analysts thought Trolls would bomb hard, it's doing fine. Some analysts thought The Good Dinosaur would do fine, it bombed.

Warner Animation Group was smart to outsource Storks and their other features, Storks cost $70 million and it's slowly making it back with just a $165+ million worldwide take. Sony Animation themselves try to keep it under $90 million, Blue Sky hovers a little higher. Illumination has it all done in France, the results cost less than $80 million. Reel FX goes even lower, and they plan to experiment more. Just watch The Book of Life! Stop-motion houses? LAIKA's fine for various reasons, regardless of how Kubo and the Two Strings performed. Aardman's fine, too.

I'm sure there are several contributing factors, not just too much overhead (which has been cleared out recently during a big management shift), but their location and other things. DreamWorks operates out of California, alongside Disney Animation and Pixar. Their budgets are super-high. Blue Sky's from my home state in little New England, Sony's up North, Reel FX operates in the state where everything is bigger, and the rest outsource. It must be a California thing, but I don't see DreamWorks moving anytime soon despite having units in Shanghai and Bangalore. (Update, the India facility is apparently being shuttered.) Either way, they ought to work on something. Again, animated features - no matter what audience they may go after - are more and more of a gamble these days. It's not 2004 anymore, when people would show up for each new CG flick on the block just because.

Hard to compare to 2D, because when animated features became a widespread thing, only one studio competed with Disney on that front. Two years after the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Fleischer studio - the innovative masterminds behind the Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons - released Gulliver's Travels to great success. Their second feature - 1942's Mr. Bug Goes to Town - was a victim of various complications and Paramount's negligence, plus the Fleischer studio was pretty much dead by the time the movie was released. Outside of Walt Disney, there were imports here and there from the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, alongside scattered titles. They didn't make much of a mark. After Walt's death you had a few things from time to time, your Bakshis, your Watership Downs, what have you. The long-form animated feature didn't become the big thing it is now until the late 1980s, when Don Bluth was riding high and Disney was slowly beginning a resurgence.

Since traditional animation wasn't exactly new in the early 1990s, audiences saw the films they wanted to see - namely Disney's Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King - and opted to avoid the rest.

Computer animation was different.

When Toy Story took the world by storm in 1995, the studios were smart. They jumped right into it, and by the beginning of the 2000s, you saw more CG features. Pixar was now joined by DreamWorks/PDI, and Blue Sky. It was truly a novelty for audiences, which makes one wonder how things would've played out in the early 1940s if the Fleischers kept going, and if World War II never happened. Imagine Walt Disney Productions competing in the features department with Fleischer, WB, MGM, et al. The other big studios didn't touch features, the closest they got to were hybrids like Anchors Aweigh. The UPA took a shot at it when the Golden Age was coming to its slow, bitter end.

I'd argue by the end of 2002, computer animated features were a mania. It didn't matter that Shark Tale wasn't good and was pretty much for middle schoolers, it made serious bank. It didn't matter that Chicken Little was a low point for Disney Animation, the film collected a domestic gross that put the grosses of The Emperor's New Groove, Atlantis, Treasure Planet, Brother Bear, and Home on the Range to shame. 2005 was when the cracks came... The Disney-distributed UK feature Valiant went belly-up at the box office, grosses were generally down, nothing cracked $200 million domestically. 2006 was when the rug was pulled right out... The only survivors were movies people wanted to see, and films that didn't need too much to double their budgets.

Ten years later, the situation is still the same. Quality rarely ever matters in the grand scheme of things, if the audience wants to go, they'll go on opening weekend and then the word-of-mouth does the work from there. With that all said, yes, The Boss Baby is a gamble. Captain Underpants is a little less of a gamble, as DreamWorks outsourced that film to Mikros Image, so it'll probably arrive on a significantly lower budget. Since each film is a gamble, what really is there to lose?

Larrikins was okayed when DreamWorks restructured in early 2015, but since Katzenberg stepped down, there's still time to get the film right just in case Katzenberg's little "kids and their moms!" rule has vanished. Larrikins has the potential to be this very eccentric, very out-there comedy. The director-songwriter behind it suggests this, along with the premise. Let's be honest, do we want this thing to be another Home or Trolls? Probably not, I assume. Me? I want it to be what it aims to be, without any need to tone it down, or to make it more of a sell. I don't mean visually (Trolls is one of the most psychedelic, unique-looking CG films in a while), but in terms of the writing! In other words... Don't aim at just the kids, while hoping to get the parents in.

You're capable of more, DreamWorks.

The other scheduled film on the horizon is How To Train Your Dragon 3, which also kind of worries me to some extent. Like Kung Fu Panda 2, Dragon's sequel doubled the scope, the danger, and the bite. Dragon 2 has some genuinely rough moments, and I admire its darker turn. That, perhaps, was one of its undoings. The first film in the series was just right to most audiences, it seems, while the sequel had much weaker legs. The complaints about the harsher stuff was pretty audible, as if animation can't do the rather gutsy things the movie did. To be fair, a certain character's demise is something you haven't seen quite often in animated family films these days, but still...

Kung Fu Panda 3, like I said, was almost a complete 180 turn from Kung Fu Panda 2. While some drama is intact and quite heartfelt, the bite is not there, the villain isn't all that menacing (far from the terrifying baddie exec producer Guillermo del Toro promised us a while ago), and it seems like every sequence had to have some gag shoehorned into it. One particularly annoying example was a quiet moment with Po and his father, and then the hugger panda shows up out of nowhere to break the mood. Things like that, there was too much of it. I get that Kung Fu Panda as a series is a comedy at heart, but even then, the third one overdoses. I worry this might happen to Dragon 3, especially after a great sequel that didn't pull its punches. With these two films being less than 2 years away, I don't worry as much. The Boss Baby was pretty much in the can by the time Katzenberg stepped down, as was Captain Underpants.

What's on the docket? DreamWorks' future is mostly something they know, not us. Shadows and Shrek 5 are lowkey set for 2019, and while several various projects were and are in development there, we have no idea what they'll put on their slate. DreamWorks has now firmly positioned themselves as a family-friendly outlet, they're not the bad boy class clown studio they were in the early 2000s, nor are they the studio that was ready to go down some shadowy paths earlier in the decade. While Disney Animation and Pixar are established family brands, both studios don't mess around. Illumination, perhaps another animation studio that is a recognizable brand, is content with yellow tictacs and cutesy fluff. Maybe Sing will signal a new direction for them? Who knows.

All I know is, DreamWorks has a big library and their history speaks for itself. The studio has re-invented itself many times, but should be able to try a bit of everything. The worst thing an animated family feature can be at this point is bland and forgettable, a passable Sunday matinee or Redbox rental. DreamWorks has some made films that are just this, but has also made a lot of great films. I think now is the time to really try again, and make a mark like they almost did years ago. For me, personally, their little "Renaissance" of sorts began with Kung Fu Panda and ended with Rise of the Guardians. Right now I think it's just a few higher points mixed with business-as-usual fare.

It's hard to tell which way things will head. The studio is probably still in the process of setting a new course, a new game plan, now that the management is different. Will the successes of their new, lighter weight stuff influence the upcoming stuff? Or will risks be taken? Will we see cool new things? Will we see a new phase DreamWorks?

1 comment:

  1. Boss baby has become into a viral hit on YouTube. Like the Illumination films