Thursday, September 18, 2014

Dubious Days for Dreamworks

Two years ago, Dreamworks Animation got ambitious, releasing a schedule of their upcoming animated features through 2016. Three films were scheduled for every year, more than any other studio has attempted. Two years later, we're about halfway through the original list, and I thought I would take a look at how Dreamworks has done so far. Before we get started, I want to point out that nobody ever manages to meet projected schedules like this exactly. Release dates get moved, projects get cancelled, and titles change. PIXAR, for example, only releases one animated film a year on average, but recently had to bump back "The Good Dinosaur" from 2014 to 2015, pushing "Finding Dory" to 2016.

So while the rearranging of the Dreamworks slate might look dramatic at first glance, the moves have been pretty typical. From the list linked above, the biggest changes that have occurred with the films released so far is that "Me and My Shadow" was sent back to development, and "Peabody and Sherman" pushed back from November 2013 to March 2014. Now here's the future slate as projected in 2012:

Happy Smekday! (Nov. 26, 2014)
The Penguins of Madagascar (March 27, 2015)
Trolls (June 5, 2015)
B.O.O: Bureau of Otherwordly Operations (Nov. 6, 2015)
Mumbai Musical (Dec. 19, 2015)
Kung Fu Panda 3 (March 18, 2016)
How to Train Your Dragon 3 (June 18, 2016)

And here's the slate now:

Penguins of Madagascar (Nov. 26, 2014)
Home, formerly Happy Smekday! (March 27, 2015)
B.O.O.: Bureau of Otherworldly Operations (June 5, 2015)
Kung Fu Panda 3 (Dec. 23, 2015)
Boss Baby (March 18, 2016)
Trolls (Nov. 4, 2016)
Captain Underpants (January 13, 2017)
Mumbai Musical (March 10, 2017)
How to Train Your Dragon 3 (June 9, 2017)
The Croods 2 (Dec. 22, 2017)
Larrikins (Feb. 16, 2018)
Madagascar 4 (May 18, 2018)
Puss in Boots 2: Nine Lives & 40 Thieves (Dec. 21, 2018)

Note that "How to Train Your Dragon 3" was recently moved back from 2016 to 2017, which is why the schedule is currently lopsided with two films in 2016 and four in 2017. Expect one or more of the 2017 titles to get moved eventually. Looking at the new list compared ot the old one, you can tell which projects have been going well and which ones haven't. "B.O.O." is now in a plum spot in summer, 2015 while "Mumbai Musical" has been delayed over a year. There's also been a shift in scheduling priorities, so now the original projects are more likely to be in spring slots, and the sequels positioned for summer and holiday release dates. The ratio of original projects to sequels has turned in favor of the sequels, sadly. Of the six new titles on the slate, half are sequels, including "Madagascar 4" and "Puss in Boots 2," the latest installments of long-running franchises that I had hoped were finally done for good.

My biggest concern, however, is with the quality of the movies, and frankly, Dreamworks' output over these last two years has been underwhelming. "Rise of the Guardians," "The Croods," "Turbo," "Peabody and Sherman," and "How to Train Your Dragon 2" have all been decent films, but nothing particularly interesting. "The Croods," directed by Chris Sanders, is easily the best of them, a stone-age comedy with good design work, strong character fundamentals, and a unique take on the concept. "Guardians," "Turbo," and "Peabody" were all middling, forgettable features. "How To Train Your Dragon 2" is the one that worries me the most, though. I saw it over the summer and found it adequate enough as a film, but couldn't shake the sense of how unnecessary it was. The first "How to Train Your Dragon" is one of Dreamworks Animation's best films, and turning into this massive franchise with multiple sequels and television shows has really strained the goodwill I originally had for it. Aging up the heroes and introducing larger scale conflicts for the sequel just seems to be trying to make the story conform to a blockbuster template that doesn't suit it. I had a similar reaction to the second "Kung Fu Panda." To date, "Madagascar 3" is the only Dreamworks sequel I that's matched up to the first movie. I much prefer what Disney has been doing lately - creating new shorts to follow up to their massive hits like "Tangled" and "Frozen," but refraining from feature-length sequels. Well, at least for the time being.

Among the other new projects, "Larrikins" is an Australian outback themed musical, "Captain Underpants" is based on the popular children's book series, and nobody knows anything about "Boss Baby," except that "Madagascar" helmer Tom McGrath is directing it. Though all of these films have as much of a chance at greatness as anything else being developed by any other animation outfit, it's harder to get excited about them than it was two years ago. Dreamworks hasn't done a very good job with the source material it's tackled recently, including the "Guardians of Childhood" books and Jay Sherman's "Peabody and Sherman" cartoons. I'm not happy to see that they're sticking with their plans to release three features a year for the foreseeable future, because the time crunch looks to be one reason for the falling quality of their output.

The next film up on the schedule is "Penguins of Madagascar," a spinoff which should do well. However, the "Dragons" sequel underperformed this summer in spite of fairly minimal competition for the younger audience, so it's not a sure thing. What will be more interesting is what happens in 2015, where Dreamworks is putting two original films and the third "Kung Fu Panda" in the midst of one of the most competitive movie years we've ever seen. PIXAR will be back, also with two original films. My guess is that the Dreamworks films are going to make money, but won't be real competition for PIXAR and Disney - and that's a shame.

Dreamworks Animation continues to display lots of potential, but it's been a while since they've released a truly impressive film, and they're only been consistent in being very hit-or-miss.

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