Friday, September 3, 2021

Green Phoenix - Let's Talk...DreamWorks Traditional Animation

 DreamWorks Animation SKG logo with fishing boy.svg

At the height of the Disney Renaissance during the mid-1990s, the company Walt built stood almost completely unopposed in the field of animation. Their only major competitor from a creative and financial standpoint was arguably Don Bluth Animations, and even they were beginning to replicate the Disney formula in order to attempt to achieve some level of equal financial success, to middling results. By the release of Beauty and the Beast, it seemed like Disney was on top of the world and absolutely unstoppable under the triumvirate leadership of Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Then came the unfortunate passing of Frank Wells in a helicopter accident. Suddenly the unifying element of the Disney triumvirate was broken and a power vacuum formed in the wake of Wells' passing. A battle raged for the soul of Disney between Disney's CEO Michael Eisner and the head of Disney animation, Jeffrey Katzenberg. As you can no doubt imagine by their positions within the company, the winner was a foregone conclusion and Katzenberg soon found himself fired and with a major chip on his shoulders.

Normally, that might be the end of the story. But Katzenberg had many friends in Hollywood and had been the largest force within the Disney triumvirate behind the Disney Renaissance. So when he made an alliance with Stephen Spielberg and David Geffen, DreamWorks Pictures was founded. For the most part, DreamWorks established a reputation as the edgier CGI counterpart to Disney, with some of their first outings like Antz and Shrek being either near rip-off of other Disney/Pixar projects or a criticism of the Disney corporation as a whole. And so was Disney's hegemony over the industry destroyed, ironically by the politics within their own rank-and-file.

However, in the early days of DreamWorks, a few traditionally animated films did pass through its halls. Nowadays, traditional animation is not very common from any of the studios. But I feel that the films that are spoken of tend to be exclusively from Disney.

And it is with that in mind, that today's Let's Talk... will discuss the short list of traditionally animated DreamWorks films. They don't make them anymore, but they were a vital part of the company's early history and represent a very unique aspect of the company's identity.

In the entirety of its existence, DreamWorks has only ever released four full-length animated motion pictures (not including direct-to-VHS films). Those four films are as follows...
  1. The Prince of Egypt, released in 1998
  2. The Road to El Dorado, released in 2000
  3. Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, released in 2002
  4. Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, released in 2003
Now I have mentioned most of these films in passing at least a few times over the course of my time here on Emerald Rangers. I know for a fact that The Prince of Egypt and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron both have been discussed in top tens and I actually have plans to review the former later this year (around Thanksgiving time, hopefully). The other two films, The Road to El Dorado and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, have not yet to my knowledge been discussed by myself. This is something I wish to correct now, if for no other reason that all four of these films are kind of incredible with the benefit of hindsight and their overall place within the history of not only DreamWorks but also traditional animated movies as a whole.

The very first animated film ever released by DreamWorks was Antz in 1998 and was shrouded in controversy. The film was caught up in the feud between Katzenberg and Disney and ended up drawing Pixar into the mix due to the films strong similarities to Pixar's A Bug's Life later that very same year. Only a few years later in 2001, Shrek would be released to near universal acclaim almost solely on its nature of mocking common elements of Disney and the Disney formula (even taking quite a few digs at Disney executives and the theme parks as well). This firmly established DreamWorks' "edgy" and "subversive" identity in the eyes of many viewers, as well as kickstarting a trend in several of the films of making films which were essentially "clones" of upcoming Disney projects; with noted visual similarities between SharkTale and Finding Nemo, Flushed Away and Ratatouille, and Madagascar and The Wild, the first decade of DreamWorks CGI was largely critiquing or satirizing the Disney formula or stealing it outright.

In many ways, this actually means that until the release of Kung Fu Panda in 2008, that most of DreamWorks more artistic and experimental projects came from their traditionally animated projects (though the company did have an arrangement with Aardman Animations to produce projects like Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit).
This also came at a time when traditional animation in the major animation studios was going into its death knells. Disney would release Home on the Range in 2004 and the film was a complete and utter disaster on just about every level and aspect. It was so terrible that Disney wouldn't produce another traditionally animated film until The Princess and the Frog in 2009, which also under-performed due to a number of various factors. (The last traditionally animated film by Disney was Winnie the Pooh in 2011). Turning back to the DreamWorks traditional animated films with this backdrop and context in mind, I'm honestly intrigued at just how unique and experimental DreamWorks (which was a very young company at this time) allowed themselves to be.
First you have The Prince of Egypt, a story based on a deeply religious and important mythological story for about 2/3's of the planet's population filled with musical numbers and celebrity voice actors that is also considered one of the greatest adaptations of that story ever created. Next you have The Road to El Dorado, a buddy musical comedy movie very very loosely inspired by Ruyard Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King that was a box office bomb which has since achieved a very notable cult following. Then you've got Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, a western starring a non-talking horse that deals with the topics of American imperialism and western expansionism using largely visual storytelling techniques and very limited moments of dialogue.

Finally, you have Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas which much like The Road to El Dorado received a mixed reception and was generally considered a box office bomb despite being based on a franchise that had a long history in cinema and was rooted in heavy mythology and a connection to its source material. Though the film wasn't really a true traditionally animated film as the film mixed a great deal of CGI in the mix as well, to middling success.

With that round-up of the four theatrically released DreamWorks films, perhaps it may come as little surprise as to why the company switched completely to computer generated films. In 2001, Shrek made over 484 million dollars on a 60 million dollar budget. Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas also had a 60 million dollar budget, but only managed to bring in 81 million. Much like Home on the Range, DreamWorks traditionally animated films were under-performing when compared to the powerhouse that was Shrek and the soon to be released Shrek 2 and Madagascar.

Though that wasn't the only reason. There was also two additional factors at play that saw the end of DreamWorks traditional animation. The first was simply that making a traditional hand-drawn animated film is incredibly labor intensive, even with the aid of computers (very few modern films are only hand-drawn anymore de to the rather prohibitive cost). CGI films are simply a great deal easier to make with comparatively less money, which means more money can be spent on big names to draw in crowds rather than the actual technical elements of the film. The second element was much more insidious and based more on business thought.

Hollywood is an environment that thrives on perceived audience reaction, despite the fact that 9 times out of 10 most people don't actually know what they want. And in the late 1990s and early 2000s, most American audiences were still obsessed with the latest high-budget CGI live-action movies. Ever since the release of Jurassic Park in 1993 and Toy Story in 1995, Hollywood was becoming heavily saturated with big budget CGI-heavy films, so much so that a strange opinion was passing through Hollywood executives. Apparently, someone got it in their head that audiences simply didn't like traditionally animated movies anymore. An attitude that got solidified when Disney's The Princess and the Frog was outperformed by Tangled in 2008 and 2010 respectively. With the films already beginning to under-perform (though how much of this was executive meddling because of a pre-conceived opinion may in my opinion only be speculated), and the easier working conditions that CGI allowed, I guess it was only natural that DreamWorks and other studios would drop traditional animation in favor of the higher performing films like Shrek and Madagascar.

Which spelled the end for DreamWorks traditional animation, right? Well, in 2018, DreamWorks did release a 5 minute short called Bird Karma that was met with critical acclaim and won several awards. I truly feel as if animation is slowly allowing itself to be more experimental once again and the opportunity for big budget traditional animation may one day return, especially as the advent of streaming and digital release makes the need to focus on "theatrical release" less necessary for studios to consider.

On the whole, the story of DreamWorks traditional animation is the story of how experimentation and a terrible feud can lead to an era of deep experimentation and the fall of an entire artistic medium. In trying to compete with Disney, DreamWorks created films to contrast and criticize the Disney formula whilst simultaneously utilizing it better than even Disney was at that point. But in their race to compete, they may have ironically played a role in eliminating the style of theatrical film that Walt Disney pioneered with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs back in 1937. These days, DreamWorks remains a powerhouse of animation, even if Disney has since recovered its place as the superpower of entertainment with its acquisition of properties like Marvel, Pixar, and 20th Century Fox.

For a brief moment, DreamWorks used the method pioneered by Walt Disney to produce films that loved and appreciated even today, whilst simultaneously producing the works that lead to that methods downfall. It's strangely poetic and in the mind of a film nut such as myself that adores traditional animation, one of the unintentional tragedies of animation.

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