DreamWorks Are About Much More Than Their Features

Scott Mendelson is quite prolific on the animation front this weather. First he qualified his statement that American feature animation is, for all intents and purposes, a genre. Secondly, he’s written a rather substantive piece (again for Forbes) on DreamWorks Animation and their “complicated legacy”. Is he right though? Here’s a look at why DreamWorks legacy is actually about much more than their films.

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While Mendelson does a great job of analysing the studio’s films, he seems to neglect much that goes on outside of them. Yes. DreamWorks films have become substantially stymied by an adherence to the very faults that Mendelson himself discusses in his other piece, yet the studio is striving to be much more than the films.

DreamWorks is Distinct from Disney

Disney was, for a long time, the be all and end all of theatrical animation. A few pretenders to the throne would occasionally appear, but would always either be beaten off (Amblin), pounded into the ground (Fleischer Bros.) or simply left to wither and die on their own (Don Bluth’s original studio).

DreamWorks has managed to not only hang in there, but also thrive. Now granted, they’ve done so at the right time, but even then it’s  tough business and fifteen years is a long time to survive in it.

The Films are Similar, but the real Change in the Background

I agree that DreamWork’s films have languished critically. Shrek was a breakout hit because it was so different. Similarly, How to Train Your Dragon was the sleeper hit because it was distinctive and had a strong cast of characters. Other films have felt merely adequate. While Mendelson laments this (and he’s right), the studio is innovating with their theatrical films; you just can’t tell from watching.

Over the past few years, DWA has made significant efforts to be at the forefront of CGI animation technology. While they may not have, say, the cache of Pixar’s Renderman software, they’ve nonetheless managed to forge ahead with efforts related to feature film production. The same goes for other technological efforts such as apps. Disney has struggled to move into the digital era somwehat but DWA has embraced it wholeheartedly and have to some extent, done a better job than Disney of evolving along with technology.

Living and Dying by Features, But Not for Much Longer

Yes, it’s true that DreamWorks is incredibly dependent on features, but that is also changing. TV series production has grown, theme parks have been announced and with the purchase of AwesomenessTV, the studio has a presence online too.

That said, features are the engine that drives all of this, and Jeffrey Katzenberg has surely realised that a library of films is by far the best way to build upon. Hence the heightened level of production over the past few years. To give him additional credit, he’s resolutely stuck with animation. Even Walt Disney expanded through live-action.

At some point in the foreseeable future, features will start to take a lower burden in regards to DreamWorks performance.

Cultural Significance Counts For A Lot Less These Days

Lastly, Mendelson makes this point:

The Disney advantage, partially due to its monopoly on feature animation for much of its first seventy-five years, is that Disney films aren’t just considered quality family entertainment but cultural milestones, even for films like Pinocchio or Fantasia that were not initially hits. A kid’s first viewing of The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, or Finding Nemo  are considered major would-be moments in a child’s entertainment development while a trip to Disneyland or Disney World is considered the ultimate family vacation. DreamWorks needs to at least approach that same level of cultural dominance, where even its flops are eventually considered touchstones of children’s entertainment, if it ever wants to get out of Disney’s shadow.

While this is technically correct, it tends to assume that Disney’s contemporary films will similarly achieve milestone status as their previous efforts. Anything post-Hercules, it can be argued, has not (Pixar excepted). Indeed, Disney’s performance over the last 15 years relative to DreamWorks has been markedly mediocre compared to the former in the cultural sense. OK, maybe Shark Tale wasn’t a critical success, but it was popular with audiences. Disney’s Home on the Range released the same year barely made a blip then, and certainly doesn’t register now.

So it isn’t really fair to say that DreamWorks lacks the same cultural significance as Disney because they’ve had a [very long] running start. Instead, we would have to consider both studios from the same starting point. In that respect, DreamWorks may already enjoy a comparable level of cultural recognition with people born after the mid 90s than Disney has (again, Pixar-excepted.)

In the end, both studios have abandoned any pretence at making films with long lives. Contemporary output from both is targeted at audiences in the hope of making a quick hit. Neither studio is making films that could be said to have much chance at cultural significance thirty of forty years from now. The jokes and cultural references will be irrelevent by then anyway.

  • Alex Dudley

    I’m really looking forward to what Dreamworks has in store. Despite what anyone says, I admire Katzenberg and his company because of their ambition.

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