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The State of DreamWorks Animation

Jeffrey KatzenbergThe NY Times published a lengthy piece last week about how DreamWorks Animation is performing financially. None too shabby is the Times’ verdict. “This company is a flower that is just beginning to blossom,” Katzenberg tells the paper. The studio’s features are obviously popular–their last four have outgrossed Pixar’s efforts–and they’re aggressively expanding with two TV series on Nick, theme parks in Dubai and Singapore, and the Shrek Broadway musical (which has flopped, according to the article). My opinion of the company’s output hasn’t changed, but their success can’t be denied. Katzenberg has clearly found a way to generate short-term profits by tapping into the audience’s desire for celebrities, crude humor, and pop culture-fueled entertainment. At what cost though? In my opinion, Katzenberg has sacrificed long-term cultural relevance (and profits) by ignoring the need for honest storytelling, meaningful artistry, and offering a unique point of view in his films.

(Thanks, Celia Bullwinkel, for the link)

  • 2D/3D

    Even with the state of our current economy businesses like McDonalds and Walmart continue to perform in the black. I think DreamWorks has chosen to operate within a similar business model. More power to them if that’s what they want. Having worked there, the thing that hurts most is knowing that the level of the talent working there is barely represented in the product they produce.

  • Matt Pidgeon

    Although I agree with some of your statements in general about Dreamworks you have to admit that Kung Fu Panda was an exceptional film – they even resisted the usual fart gags and pop culture references.
    Surely they deserve some credit for this??

  • Yippers

    Kung Fu Panda is indeed exceptional. In fact if Pixar walks away with an oscar this year, i’ll be slightly annoyed.

  • Not to mention they have finally learned to make characters that actually look -you know- “good” and cartoony. I wasn’t a fan of Dreamworks stories and their sense of humor, but now they are getting a little better in that department and I think they have improved inmensely in the art department. Both KFP and what we have seen of Monsters vs Aliens so far have funny-looking characters instead of ugly dolls like the ones in Shrek movies.

    That said, Madagascar 2 pretty much sucked.

  • There’s a Shrek musical?!


  • Saturnome

    I never knew Dreamworks was outgrossing Pixar (Have I been living under a rock?). Is it in America or worldwide?

    I hope for more films like Kung Fu Panda. I’m not so sure about Monsters Vs. Aliens, but there’s hope.

  • Matt Pidgeon– You don’t deserve praise for NOT doing terrible jokes. You ‘get credit’ for extraordinary work, not just border-line enjoyable.

  • That last sentence criticizing a lack of honest and artistic storytelling falls a little flat in the light of Kung Fu Panda. I agree with the comment from Matt above: Panda turned out to be a great film. It will hold up very well years from now, and I only hope that someone at DreamWorks can tell the difference enough to shape future projects.

  • “In my opinion, Katzenberg has sacrificed long-term cultural relevance (and profits) by ignoring the need for honest storytelling, meaningful artistry, and offering a unique point of view in his films.”

    I’m sure his accountant would disagree…

  • There’s not much culturally relevant in “Dumbo” but we still watch it and enjoy it.

  • PJ

    I know I’m in the minority here, but I have to disagree with KFP being a “great” film. It was great looking and it was fun, but its story couldn’t have been more generic or predictable, and its secondary characters couldn’t have been any more filler. I understand the steps they made in the animation and art department, and that’s great, but a movie with a lame plot that looks pretty is still a lame movie.

    Michael said “borderline-enjoyable” a few posts up, and while that may not necessarily be what he thinks of Panda, that definitely sums up how I felt.

    As for Dreamworks in general, I pretty much agree with Amid’s assessment. Dreamworks films are a whole lot of fun now, but they don’t age well even a few years later. And their humor relies so much on pop culture that they’re really going to date themselves.

  • “There’s not much culturally relevant in “Dumbo” but we still watch it and enjoy it.”

    No, but it is culturally relevant itself, which is Amid’s point.

  • I’d rather DreamWorks ax the TV shows, since they’re too often inclined to utilize pre-existing concepts. And Nickelodeon has it bad enough coming up with their own newer shows.

  • amid

    Robcat2075: Please reread the sentence. I never said that a film has to have cultural relevance to begin with; rather I said that films with honest storytelling, meaningful artistry, and unique points of view remain culturally relevant over time. That actually supports your statement.

  • Kevin

    I watch Disney’s Aladdin nowadays, and there are sections of it that are very reliant on the current pop culture of the time. Specifically I’m thinking of the scene with the Genie at the oasis with Aladdin and he whips through all those characters. (example: Arsenio Hall).

    I really don’t think there’s anything wrong with current pop culture references in a film, animated or otherwise. I think it “can” play out as a snapshot of the current culture. But it can also detract from the overall story.

    That said, I didn’t like Madagascar 2 either.

  • I agree with PJ. I really, REALLY wanted to like KFP in light of the glowing praise it had received pretty much everywhere around here, but while the character design and the animation were truly excellent, the story felt slapped-together and the characters failed to engage me on any level.
    I didn’t care about them at all. I firmly believe Wall*E is an overall infinitely superior film.

    A friend gave a great summation of this the other night. Wall*E is a great film, while Kung Fu Panda is a great movie.

  • I’m with Michael up there, if you think KFP was a great film…. Yikes! It was good and popcorn friendly, just like Marley and Me. Just like Wedding Crashers. Seriously, relax on the word “great” already.

    I think Katz (when we hang that’s what i call him, it’s cool) is just running his studio like a studio. To make money! Once a pic is done in 3d or 2d, it has a built marketing machine (toys, games, rides, spinoffs like tv series and direct to dvd stints), and isn’t it a public entity now? He has to make that money year after year, if you’re looking for a Disney mindset, your silly and you (whether you like to admit or not) know it.

    Now, that said, I’m a working animator and I’m all about the big machine (jobs) running, let it run baby! You think every Disney animator agreed w/ the films they worked on? Probably not but their familys probably appreciated the check in the mail.

  • Chiskop

    why is amid blaming dreamworks over celebrity voices? Why don’t you point at “Revolutionary Road”s use of leonardo dicaprio and kate winslet as the leading cast? They are celebrities, right? Tarantino is the king of pop-culture fuel entertainment, is he also a lesser filmmaker?


    9 year olds love what Dreamworks produces. Period. while adults moan and groan. Dreamworks this, or that. Kids dig dreamworks stuff, boxoffice receipts prove this. Are they less of filmmakers? No they are not.

    what i love about Dreamworks is that they are not a bunch of pretentious f**** like a certain studio who’s name starts with the letter “P” for Pretentious.

    They are not any less of filmmakers. Dreamworks is good, its time to recognise their artistry.

  • In my book, I agree with Amid re: voice casting. I wouldn’t have a problem with hiring X star if that star was cast not merely for the box office appeal but also because his/her voice acting ability might add to the film. Think of the people who actually specialize in this unique craft who are left behind in the strategy of hiring A list or B list stars who have little or no clue how to use their voice as to enhance an animated performance.

  • Saturnome

    Yeah sure KFP is generic, but it’s lot of charm, it’s telling something good and that’s almost an achievement.
    The visual design DOES helps the whole thing. It does makes a difference with other films of the generic kind. “story” or “general meaning” is just a part of a film, not it’s goal.

    Boy people are bold in their opinion around here. Pixar is pretentious, Dreamworks is generic crap! Scary.

  • a reader

    The Shrek musical has not “flopped, according to the article”. Reviews were mostly positive(contrasting with many other recent musical openings on Broadway). Here’s the “flop” paragraph from the article linked here:
    “Shrek the Musical,” meanwhile, ran directly into the buzz saw of the economic downturn, with a dozen Broadway shows closing in the weeks after it opened. Ticket sales for “Shrek” have been weak: for the week ending Jan. 25, “Shrek” ranked 10th out of 22 Broadway productions in terms of box office, a poor showing for such an expensive production. Mr. Katzenberg says the company is in it for the long haul and is hopeful that a flurry of coming television promotions and the release of the cast album will improve sales. “I’m optimistic that it will still work,” he said.

    It seems Katzenberg’s optimism is not without a foundation. From this morning’s(2/10) New York Times:
    The Broadway musical “Shrek” made a substantial gain in box-office ticket sales last week, after a steady decline in its weekly grosses through the month of January. The production grossed $636,329 during the week of Feb. 2, an increase of $133,851 over its take in the previous week. That dollar gain was the largest for all Broadway shows last week. A producer of the show, Bill Damaschke, had predicted in a statement last week that “Shrek” grosses would improve, in part due to increased advance sales of tickets.

    So the reporting and the facts are more complicated than just a flat “flop” vs. “hit”.

  • Chiskop

    @Doug: i doubt that you’d say any actor who provided voices to Dreamworks’ projects did a less than stellar job. Maybe i am lost, you are more than welcome to correct me, maybe eddie murphy was not good in shrek, or chris rock’s performance fell flat in madagascar or bee movie? Did the celebrities fail any of the dreamworks’ movies?

    Uh, no.

    Even justin timberlake did his job. Celebrities can make art too Doug.

  • In general I’d agree that DWKS doesn’t work enough in the story department and even KFP is pretty generic, but really entertaining, I wouldn’t compare it to Wedding Crashers, rather to something like Iron Man. Predictable, but very well done and enjoyable.

    And yeah, Pixar is quite better in the storytelling and they take more risks.

    What I like about current DWKS, though, is that they are finally learning to make movies that are mean to be funny and a little more “edgy” than Pixar or Disney. I used to hate how they tried to do that, but now I’m starting to find it pretty interesting and actually funny. Now they are in fact getting a little more cartoony that Pixar. Presto wasn’t so cartoony. KFP had more off-model faces and “takes”. I like the human characters in Monsters Vs Aliens, they look like caricatures from MAD magazine.

    They are still a little too conservative in the humor, they don’t risk too much when it comes to satirical gags, but at least I believe they are taking an interesting direction here. A little less Disney and a little more Looney Tunes. When they were doing “edgy” stuff with ugly characters and pop culture jokes it wasn’t very enjoyable, but now that they seem to change that a little it has lots of potential.

  • Does this mean you won’t be writing a “The Art Of Dreamworks Animation” book?

  • As for celebrity voices, keep in mind that Sigourney Weaver was the voice of the computer in Wall E. Also, Wall-E had live action people in it. Can you imagine if this happened in a Dreamworks film? We would have read about it in detail here, I would think.

  • amid

    Craig: I was offered a DreamWorks ‘art of’ book a couple years ago and turned down the offer wiithout hesitation. Never say never, but I don’t see myself writing books about their films anytime soon.

  • Jorge Garrido

    Let me get this straight, Amid. You’ll write book about films like Robots but not Madagascar?

  • Rat

    There must be something wrong with me. I love BOTH Pixar and Dreamworks films.

    I guess it’s common knowledge that you can’t possibly like both, or think that both those studios are very strong artistically in different ways.

    So I must be insane.

  • Luke

    @ Chiskop “Tarantino is the king of pop-culture fuel entertainment, is he also a lesser filmmaker?”

    Um… YES. Yes he is. I’m not saying I’ve never enjoyed a Tarantino film, but basically he’s a drooling fanboy who got lucky. He may not be a hack, exactly, but he’s hardly an artist.

    “9 year olds love what Dreamworks produces. Period. while adults moan and groan. Dreamworks this, or that. Kids dig dreamworks stuff, boxoffice receipts prove this. Are they less of filmmakers? No they are not.”

    You know why 9-year-olds aren’t allowed to vote? Because kids are dumb. Don’t get me wrong, I love kids. But they like lots of things that aren’t good for them. I think Amid’s complaints about Dreamworks were more along the the lines of how Dreamworks “has sacrificed long-term cultural relevance (and profits) by ignoring the need for honest storytelling, meaningful artistryand offering a unique point of view.” I didn’t see a word up there about how Dreamworks doesn’t make enough juvenile crap that adults know better than to watch. In fact, I think you might be in *exact agreement* with Amid, aside from the part where you don’t care about this lack of quality.

    “What i love about Dreamworks is that they are not a bunch of pretentious f**** like a certain studio who’s name starts with the letter “P” for Pretentious.”

    What on earth is pretentious about ol’ Pixar? I’m not saying you have to like them, but they are some of the most genuine artists working in the field today. You can call them plenty of names, but “Pretentious” is not one of them.

    “They are not any less of filmmakers. Dreamworks is good, its time to recognise their artistry.”

    Well, are not “any less of filmmakers” in the sense that they make films. That they do. But they don’t make films that are as important as Pixar films. They make overblown Saturday morning cartoons which are meant to be consumed in mass quantities rather than treasured and loved and learned from. In fifty years, garbage like “Shark Tale” or “Shrek 2” will be so dated as to be incomprehensible to your much-touted 9-year-olds. But those same 9-year-olds will still get a kick out of Ratatouille.

  • Robert Barker

    Shrek I and II are immenently watchable and I’ll view them over and over until I die. Shrek III is unwatchable. Kung Fu Panda was fun, and had a nice design scheme. I can see a sequel where they kick the visuals up a notch. I loved Wall-E, but it hasn’t connected with everyone I know. There’s plenty of room for all kinds of animation. I didn’t care for Monsters Inc, but didn’t it make more money than almost all of them? I don’t understand bloggers who go Mark David Chapman over cartoons, but then again I don’t understand a lot of things.

  • Objective-One

    Ha ha, You guys Crack me up! Almost all of the criticism I read here (and in this whole web site), are about “Dreamworks”, the evil corporation! Not about the specifics of ONE movie. But about “Dreamworks”…as if “Prince of Egypt”, “Shrek”, “Kung fu panda” etc, are even remotely alike.

    Dreamworks uses celebrities… dreamworks makes Musicals… Dreamworks makes
    fart jokes… Dreamworks this and that…Haha.

    You all sound like Bill O’Reilly talking about “Liberals”

    God How I wish I could put you all in a screening where the movie starts without Studio titles, without half moons, jumping lamps, magic castles… and watch you squirm in your seats, not knowing whether to like the movie or not.

    Hehe, Keep it up guys!

  • Viridis

    I agree about Dreamworks. Kung Fu Panda had some decent visuals and was pretty entertaining… but Wall-E was a much better movie by a long shot. Not only did it have fantastic animation and character development/interaction (impressive when most of the movie is driven by two robots who can only say their names and a few short words), but it actually had an important message. I’m not saying that movies HAVE to have deep meaning–sometimes mindless entertainment is fun–but the movies that last tend to be the ones that say something.

    I’ve seen the trailers for Monsters vs. Aliens and it looks like trash. None of the characters look interesting and the plot seems about as predictable as ever. On the other hand, Up is something I’m really looking forward to.

    The two different companies are selling to different audiences, and that’s fine… but I really feel like Dreamworks is still coming up just a little short, even when the studios’ ideas are similar. (Anyone remember Antz vs A Bug’s Life?)

  • Pedro Nakama

    Hey DreamWorks is expanding right now. Just like in our last big ressesion in the early 90’s when ILM was expanding. When it was over ILM was the best digital vfx house in town. If this expansion works, DreamWorks will have Disney beat in 2 to 3 years.

    Disney Animation still suffers from bad management.

  • Chiskop

    Wow, Pixar makes “important” films as one commentor points out.
    that’s just pretentious, right there. Besides the behind the scenes pretention that we animators get to see and read about, Wall-E actually took it to the screen.

    While going through blogs i found this comment, “i like nothing more than to hear those pretentious pixar folk go on and on about how wonderful they are”. it wasn’t me who said that.

    Dreamworks makes nice movies and shuts the hell up. Sorry but, i have to love that. i love that. They are not self-important.

  • PJ

    I want to clarify that I don’t *hate* Dreamworks. I go and see almost all of their movies, and I own quite a few.

    Their movies are good, fluffy fun. Some of them are bad (Bee Movie) some of them are good (KFP). But IMO, they’re all essentially fluff. Good, entertaining fun that doesn’t challenge or engage me on any level, but which I enjoy. Like a good action movie or shoot em up videogame–valid, solid entertainment that doesn’t require much intellectual interaction on my part.

    However, on my standards, there must be a clear division between this sort of valid, fun, worthwhile entertainment, and greatness.

    Dreamworks makes fun, good movies. In my opinion, Pixar makes great movies. There is definitely artistic merit in Dreamworks productions, which is no doubt worth appreciating But I wouldn’t call the Dreamworks movies themselves singular works of art. To me, the Pixar films, in their finished state, stand on their own as works of art.

    That, to me, is the difference. That doesn’t in some way make Dreamworks inferior to Pixar. They satisfy me in different ways–it’d be like saying Die Hard is bad because it fails to live up to Citizen Kane. Die Hard is a good action popcorn flick, and Citizen Kane is a great film. They’re both successful in their different ventures.

    But I still maintain a division of “greatness” between them. Citizen Kane is a great film–it is haunting, requires careful attention and engages me on several levels, wheras Die Hard is chock full fun explosions and gunfire that requires little cerebral involvement. One is a timeless classic that has already proven its relevance to several generations of people. The other will eventually start to show its age.

    Likewise, KFP is great, lightweight fun, whereas WALL-E is a great film that I’ve spent MUCH time thinking about and exploring on many levels. I’ll probably rewatch KFP in the future to get some kicks–but I’ll return to WALL-E because, in my opinion, its significant.

    That doesn’t mean KFP sucks–its good at being fun and entertaining, which was obviously its intention. But to me, that doesn’t qualify it as a great film that is a piece of art by its own merit. So I don’t call it great.

    I also love dining in upscale restaurants and always cherish the experience on several levels–but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the hell out of a Big Mac every now and then.

    Maybe Amid isnt thrilled with Dreamworks because he would rather concern himself with great films that don’t just have artistic merit, but are themselves works of art. Maybe films that engage him on several different cognitive and emotional levels are more exciting to him and provide him with more material to write about. (Granted, I don’t see how Robots works into that argument, but anyway…) He’s not saying Dreamworks sucks at what they’re doing, he’s just saying he’s not interested in what they’re doing.

  • Objective-One

    Damn PJ… Did you just compare Cars, Toy Story etc… to Citizen Kane??


  • Brad Constantine

    I was recently watching some Disney “making of” segements from the 1990’s and every time Katzenberg made a suggestion or a call regarding a scene or sequence, everyone moaned and groaned about it but in the end, he was Right!! He does have an eye for what is entertaining and for what “doesn’t work”, and the films under him at Disney are reflections of that experience. He will be remembered as the guy with “Balls” who took on the Disney formula “head on” with Shrek. I don’t prefer some of the movies made through Dreamworks over some of the Pixar or Disney movies, but I do respect someone who is willing to take big risks over and over the same way Walt did in the day. The fact that the studio is still around and thriving is testament enough for me. Rock on DW!!

  • PJ

    Hell yeah, and to Die Hard, and to McDonald’s. That’s how I roll.

  • Doug Edwards

    With all the kvetching that’s gone on around this site regarding directors, producers, and studio execs with no previous animation experience releasing feature-length animated films, when this work should be left to artists who know and love their craft, I can’t help but marvel at how bizarre it is each time Amid gripes about Dreamworks (and others) actually hiring *actors* to do the voice *acting* in their films! Brad Pitt, Michelle Pheiffer, Sigourney Weaver, *Dustin Hoffman*: these artists aren’t self-styled “celebrities” like Paris Hilton and her ilk, but are folks who have proven time and time again that they can deliver what their roles require. And if you doubt that their reading of lines is a significant part of their talent, try simply *listening* to _Rain Man_ or _The Fabulous Baker Boys_ sometime.

  • Rick Ewing

    The fact that we’re even debating this is good news for animation in general. We could all be back in the bleary late 70’s-early 80’s lamenting about the fact that it would seem that animations best days are behind us…way behind us.

    I will admit to being one of those Pixar snobs but even i will admit that not every Pixar movie is perfect or even might be an enduring classic. What I respect about most Pixar movies is that they try to take chances with the medium in virtually every film. I doubt Wall-E could have survived the story boarding process in most places. Finding Nemo took what could have been a drearily predictable search and rescue film and turned it into art on so many levels, the first being great dialogue. And the only sequel they’ve done so far actually exceeded the first great film by a mile. Did everything work? No. Cars could have been a Dreamworks or PDI film (only less restrained and less beautiful). I wish Wall-E’s ending was a bit different. But in the total scope of work, it’s hard to criticize Pixar’s overall track record.

    Dreamworks takes a different path to filmmaking and I’ve accepted that. They tried and succeeded in casting themselves as the anti-Disney. They burst onto the scene with Shrek and literally created an entire genre (oft-imitated) of crass, physical humor entertainment that depended a lot on pop culture and “in” jokes. This isn’t unprecedented…Warner cartoons of the 1940’s relied on the same formula and easily surpassed many of the same Disney shorts of the era. Shrek had some of the best laughs I’ve seen in any animated film. The problem was that Dreamworks themselves tried to repeat themselves too many times rather than come up with new ideas and concepts. Story development often took a back seat. Shark Tale was unwatchable. Did there really have to be a sequel to Madacascar? (at least one that wasn’t direct to DVD) Do we really need Shrek 4, 5, ad nauseum? I haven’t seen KFP yet but from what everyone has said, it looks like DW has found a groove again with a film that can stand up on its own merits. That’s good since I want them all to succeed with quality filmmaking that advances the art and just plain entertains.

  • <>

    You might want to check out what everyone thought of the Katzenberg version of Toy Story on the Leslie Iwerks “Pixar Story” documentary.

  • re: voice acting
    If the pipes burst in your house (a phenomenon that happens in the cold cold east sometimes) would you like a plumber to fix it or a guy who does roofing? The roofing guy might have a good reputation for roofing, and he might do a decent job on the pipes, but I’ll take the plumber to do the job of the plumber. That’s all that I’m saying. And I thought Eddie Murphy was really irritating in Shrek. Sorry.

  • Daniel M.

    ‘but I don’t see myself writing books about their films anytime soon.’

    You know I doubt seeing them give you the opportunity to do so anytime soon either :)

  • Acetate

    Case in point. Does anyone ever re-watch Antz, Price of Egypt, Shark Tale, Spirit : Stallion of The Cimarron, etc. They just don’t hold up.