Animation Evaluation: DreamWorks 1998-2006

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Antz (1998)

Kevin:

Is it even possible to talk about DreamWorks’ first animated film without also talking about A Bug’s Life which was released that same year?

Some part of me wants to say Antz is overrated, considering it got a fresh 95% on Rotten Tomatoes. The audience reviews were not nearly as favorable, though, giving Antz a rotten 51%. My personal grade is somewhere between fresh and rotten.

On one hand, it uses the concept of ants well, constructing an ant-like society in order to provide social commentary on human society. Woody Allen voices the main lead, Z, a somewhat charismatic and yet occasionally annoying ant who doesn’t quite fit in with his colony. The modest success of Antz probably set the template for DreamWorks’ future line-up of outcast protagonists.

With this said, the movie does manage to ostracize the adult audience, providing social commentary that promises complexion and ends in a relatively straight forward battle between good versus evil. Where the movie really loses me is in its brown, dull color scheme and the ant colony’s sudden admiration for Z after kidnapping their princess.

Still, these are relatively minor offenses, especially for a children’s film. It’s just not quite the adult film critics claimed it to be. Oh, and A Bug’s Life is better.

Verdict: Properly Rated

Favorite moment: Z tries to rescue princess Bala from the wrath of bubble gum.

Dan

Antz is okay, I guess. I don’t have any strong feelings about it.

I liked it when I was a kid. Then I saw A Bug’s Life, which I liked more. Both are good movies — inevitably compared and contrasted with each other — and Antz is the one I like slightly less. That’s about it.

Allen is funny but not particularly exceptional as a voice actor. At least he brought on a lot of his high-profile friends (which is the most interesting piece of the movie in rewatches). The story, I remember, is decent, though I couldn’t be provoked to care too much about the fate of the colony.

Ultimately the reason that the movie is fine, never great, is that it never dares to go anywhere too interesting. It fancies itself a more grown up movie than A Bug’s Life, but fails to really do anything to make it feel like it was designed for people with high school diplomas. Where’s the sass? Where’s the “therapeutic” feeling that often accompanies Allen? Where’s the sexual tension? Answer: It’s nowhere.

Instead, we’ve got a story that’s both by-the-numbers and oddly fractured between the stilted colony drama and the laid-back Bala and Z. It’s decent but entirely unremarkable.

In retrospect, the sole significance of this movie will be as the film that launched DreamWorks’ CGI empire. It’d be a definite “properly rated” if its Rotten Tomatoes score wasn’t so bizarrely high. (95%?)

Verdict: Overrated

Favorite moment: I do quite like the stuff outside of the ant colony. There should’ve been more of that, less of the colony drama.

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Shrek (2001)

Kevin:

I don’t know about you, but onions make me cry.

DreamWorks’ second attempt at computer animation in Shrek is an utter and miserable disaster. Filled with genuinely funny side characters taken from well-known fairytales, such as the three blind mice, Pinocchio, and the gingerbread man, DreamWorks decides to feature an obnoxious, irritating Eddie Murphy talking donkey instead for laughs. What fairytale is he from?!?

Shrek embodies the singular, most fundamental problem I have with the studio: they are unable to write outcast characters from an outside perspective. Shrek is a selfish, mean, ugly ogre to, well, almost everybody within the screenplay, and for DreamWorks, the only way to portray this is by having Shrek be a selfish, mean, ugly ogre. How am I ever supposed to like these characters if DreamWorks doesn’t even like their own characters?

I think anybody who agreed with this film’s 2001 Best Animated Feature Oscar award (over Monsters, Inc., no less) must ask themselves: Did you like Shrek because it was funny? Did you like Shrek because it had Fiona turn into an ogre instead of having Shrek turn into prince charming? In other words, did you like Shrek because it went places you didn’t think Beauty and the Beast went?

The problem is, Shrek doesn’t even begin to surface any of the depth Beauty and the Beast explores. The only reason why Fiona likes Shrek is because she herself is half ogre. I’m fully convinced if she was 100% human, nobody would have believed Fiona’s fast turn around for the movie’s repulsive title character (within a day and in montage form). In fact, the most touching moment occurs between Fiona and Donkey, not Fiona and Shrek. Beauty and the Beast accomplishes exactly what Shrek should have tried to accomplish. Belle is 100% outcast, 100% likeable, 100% human, 100% beautiful, and still falls in love with the Beast. And I believed it.

Comparing any movie to the masterpiece that is Beauty and the Beast is almost unfair, but Shrek demands it since it tries so darn hard to undermine the Disney formula at every opportunity it gets. But with such reckless interpretations and no regard for the genre it is parodying, it only serves to highlight everything that doesn’t work in Shrek. Shrek claims to have many layers, but I found the movie to ring shockingly hollow.

Verdict: Overrated

Favorite moment: A bird explodes trying to keep up with Fiona’s high notes. Now that was actually hilarious.

Dan:

Huh? Did we watch the same movie? Maybe THIS is the movie we should do our next podcast on, Kevin.

Because, as far as I’m concerned, Shrek is just as good as its billing, a movie that manages to be a) often hysterically funny, b) adventurous and engaging, c) well-written and emotive, and d) extremely fresh and influential. Granted, point D has faded over time as DreamWorks has refined its approach to an obvious formula, but that can’t change how new and fantastic Shrek felt when it first came out (and, at its best moments, still feels).

First, I identified quite a bit with Shrek. In a world of self-absorbed princes and fairy tales gone sour, Shrek would rather keep to himself and enjoy his unremarkable life. So many of the best jokes deal with the bitter but normal-minded Shrek battling the absurdity of the fairy tale tropes with his no-bullshit attitude.

And it’s not strictly a joke — in a world of make-believe, Shrek, Fiona, and Donkey each feel like real, fleshed-out characters with genuine arcs that play out organically over the course of the screenplay. (If only DreamWorks would routinely use THAT aspect of Shrek in its CGI franchise formula.)

The movie is also rightly famous for its sense of parody. Some of the most memorable scenes involve the writers riffing off of Disney parodies, both in a broad sense — mocking the effervescent, upbeat nature of Disney’s attitude — and in a specific sense — spoofing specific beats and lines to great effect.

If Mike Myers’ rants and Eddie Murphy’s equally engaging asides are not enough of a platform for a movie, we have the adventure that serves as the plot. The over-compensating Lord Farquad sends Shrek to go rescue a princess for him. As Shrek does so (and bonds with the princess), we see another side to his coarseness, and we cheer for him to overcome his instincts and connect with Fiona.

Sure, Fiona’s secret of being an ogre is a bit contrived. But doesn’t that ending — that moment of encouragement for all of us to embrace our inner ogres — give you the chills at least a little bit?

If your name isn’t Kevin, then it probably does.

Verdict: Properly rated

Favorite moment: Shrek’s onion rant

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Shrek 2 (2004)

Dan:

I remember seeing Shrek 2 when it was first released in 2004. It was one of the first times I felt disappointed walking out of a movie theater.

Yeah, it was funny… Yeah, the story is there… But where’s the heart of the original? Where’s the narrative tension and sense of danger that made the first movie such a multi-dimensional success? I didn’t detect it.

So while I’ll certainly respect the opinion that Shrek 2 is the best of the trilogy, it’s not where my own heart resides.

I guess I was doomed to judge any Shrek sequel harshly, because so much of the sequel comes off as parody-because-we-have-to. I’m actually not sure what type of movie I was hoping for. The constant pop culture references felt phoned in about 50% of the time, which is a much worse ratio than the original. New star Puss in Boots still seems like a character conceived in a boardroom, and the story — well-crafted though I’ve found it on repeat viewings — fails to connect with me emotionally.

One thing I did like was seeing Shrek as a beautiful human; I can appreciate the movie trying to reflect the conflict of the original film, it just never seemed to emotionally resonate the way the original — as Shrek gradually connected with Fiona and faced his own ugliness — did.

It’s an amusing movie, but in my mind, it’s a disappointment.

Verdict: Overrated

Favorite moment: Pinocchio says “I’m wearing ladies’ underwear” and his nose doesn’t grow. I laughed hard.

Kevin:

I agree with Brian Terrill. Shrek 2 is the best of the trilogy (are we trying to forget that a fourth Shrek racked up 750 million dollars?).

Now that Jeffrey Katzenberg had his stab at the Disney company (wasn’t 250 million dollars enough?) with the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Shrek, he notches down the hate and ups the jokes for a more harmless–and mindless–sequel.

Simply put, Shrek 2 has more fun with itself than its predecessor. The secondary characters who deserved more screen-time from the first movie, namely Pinocchio and Gingerbread Man, get a chance to partake in the plot, rescuing Shrek from evil Fairy Godmother. There are a plethora of new characters, including the Fairy Godmother’s douchebag son (Prince Charming), Puss in Boots, Fiona’s parents, and an impossibly monstrous gingerbread hulk. I don’t think Puss in Boots’ performance demanded his own movie, but I like how he steals some lines that would have surely gone to the ever grating Donkey had he not been added to the screenplay as another one of Shrek’s sidekicks. The cast of all these colorful characters frequently diverts our attention away from the narrative, centered around a relationship I couldn’t care less for and uncomplicated protagonists who hit all the same story beats. Will they turn human again? Nope. Still ogres.

Shrek 2 is the best of the Shrek franchise. But is that really saying anything?

Verdict: Overrated

Favorite moment: Shrek eats dinner with Fiona’s family. It isn’t as funny as Pinocchio wearing a pink thong, but I love all the passive aggressiveness DreamWorks is able to smush into a minute long dinner “conversation.”

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Shark Tale (2004)

Kevin:

Shark Tale is a winning story following a Will Smith talking fish and his quest to become the richest fish in an immersive sea city. Watch Will Smith fish face difficult conflicts, such as… choosing between his best friend and Angelina Jolie fish… choosing whether or not he should gamble his best friend’s money away… and choosing to either wash whales or fight sharks for a living (even though he really can’t fight sharks).

Have your imagination captured by the countless fish puns in this movie. Let your mind ponder important questions, such as… Why am I watching this when I could be watching Finding Nemo? Why does best friend Angie even like Will Smith fish? Why is DreamWorks condoning the pursuit of money when that is exactly what they are doing here?

My dad bought a DVD copy because of all the big names on the front cover. For all the rotten reviews it has received, Shark Tale is a triumph in marketing, bringing in $367 million dollars worldwide. I guess that’s DreamWorks magic for ya.

Verdict: Properly Rated

Favorite moment: When Angelina Jolie fish beats the crap out of Will Smith fish. May have been the only time I was happy, out of sheer hate for Will Smith fish.

Dan

I hadn’t seen Shark Tale prior to writing this article. It took me all of five minutes to realize I wasn’t going to like it. Rather than crap on it with snark — which, believe me, it deserves — I decided I may as well make the most of the 63 minutes I spent watching it (1.3x playback speed on VLC), and took some notes.

Thus, I present some constructive arguments that Shark Tale is a poor animated movie that completely lives up to its reputation as bland boardroom-conceived merchandise-hawking tripe:

  • The story of Shark Tale does not take advantage of the fact that the movie is animated. The script would require only a quick revision before being the screenplay of an equally bland PG-13 live-action crime comedy. If you run down any list of the greatest animated movies ever, practically all of them REQUIRE animation. Can you fathom The Incredibles or The Lion King possibly being shot as a live action film?
  • This movie came out a year after Finding Nemo, so the two fishy comedies begs comparison. Nemo is one of the best animated movies ever, so it’s no surprise this makes Shark Tale look even more uninspired. Remember the awe you felt the first time you saw Nemo? It’s incredible setting design, sublime sound engineering, and perfect cinematography really grip you. Shark Tale has none of that craft. It comes back to my previous point — none of Shark Tale plays to animation’s ability to defy physical reality.
  • The visuals of this movie are lame. You don’t have to be gorgeous to be a great animated movie (it helps though), but you need to design your film accordingly if your looks aren’t there. Toy Story still looks acceptable despite its plastic-y, oblong graphics… because toys are SUPPOSED to look plastic-y and oblong. 101 Dalmations has a jazzy, loose vibe that makes its sketch-like graphics feel appropriate. But Shark Tale makes no such ameliorations, putting its funky visuals front and center. The anthropomorphic fish faces are totally in the uncanny valley.
  • Kevin described “the struggle” in his discussion of Beauty and the Beast. There are other ways you can name it — conflict, stakes, non-shitty script — but, whatever you call it, it’s completely absent from Shark Tale. At no point did I feel any characters were in any true danger. There were a few problems in this regard: The movie adhered so tightly to formula that you knew no surprises were coming. The movie never convinced me that Will Smith’s life was that bad as a whale-washer, so I didn’t care whether he rich and famous or not. And Jack Black as a gay vegetarian shark was so carefree and goofy that I didn’t care whether his family embraced him (mostly because it felt like he didn’t care).
  • The jokes are sooooo bad. You can do these types of jokes well — Shrek mines plenty of comedy out of tearing down pop culture cliches, for example — but none of them worked here. The specific cultural references are the cheapest type of joke: “You are familiar with this thing… hilarious, right?” There’s no irony or defied expectations or satire. Just listing things you’ve heard of… MAYBE with a fish pun. And the “urban” style talk is clearly intended to be funny, but it’s just painful. Will Smith saying “OLLLLD SCHOOOL!” is not intrinsically hilarious, as much as I love the guy. There needs to be the framework of some other joke there. And I actually felt bad for Martin Scorsese’s bit at the end when his character puts on a pimp hat and says “yo” over and over.
  • The script… egads, is it too much to ask professional screen writers to create actual characters? The little life that’s in these caricatures comes from the charm of the voice acting. The writing gives you no nuance or depth. Zilch. There are barely even identifiable traits to most of the characters. The worst offender is Angelina Jolie’s fish, who comes right out and tells Will Smith in her first scene that “deep down, I’m really superficial.” WTF? Was somebody paid for this script?
  • The most noteworthy aspect of this movie is definitely the thinly veiled metaphor of Jack Black’s shark vegetarianism for homosexuality. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a poorly executed metaphor: It falls into the trap that many comedies with gay characters do of making the shark super flamboyant and wacky. (At least he doesn’t speak in a lisp.) But the existence of this metaphor is still interesting, I think. (And it already feels outdated; culture’s perception of LGBT issues has evolved a lot in the past decade.)
  • The one thing I really liked in this movie was the voice acting. If the script were even remotely competent, the great voice acting might have redeemed this into “watchable” status. DeNiro is the best — imbuing a non-character with legitimate pathos — and Scorsese is a delight, too. Ziggy Marley and Doug E. Doug as rastafarian jelly fish steal all their scenes. Will Smith, of course, has charm in spades. Renee Zellweger is fine, but Angelina Jolie doesn’t even pretend that this is anything other than a quick paycheck.

Okay, that’s several hundred more words than Shark Tale deserves. Here’s the short version: It sucks.

Verdit: Properly rated

Favorite moment: The moment that gave me the most joy was definitely the ending credits.

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Madagascar (2005)

Dan:

I saw Madagascar while on a first date when I was a sophomore on high school. I spilled my soda everywhere, hated the movie, and never went on another date with the girl. So, yeah, I didn’t like Madagascar.

It got pretty decent reviews, but I thought it lacked any of the narrative force or memorable bits of Shrek. This was the first movie that made me realize that DreamWorks was operating within a formula it had been gradually refining. But here, those calculations show: The celebrity voicework distracts rather than elevates the film. With maybe three exceptions, the jokes fail to land… even to a fifteen year-old.

Everybody seemed to think the penguins were absolutely HILARIOUS, but to me, they were merely an amusing diversion. And even as far as amusing diversions go, I smiled less than I did at — say — the Scrat portions of Ice Age.

Somehow, this movie got a 55% on Rotten Tomatoes. I simply cannot accept that more than half of critics gave this film a positive review. Then again, maybe I’m forever biased because I saw this movie on a bad date.

Verdict: Overrated

Favorite moment: For about fifteen minutes, I was actually intrigued by the fact that these animals had a relationship. And, in the film’s most thought-provoking moment, it considers this: Why would a lion be friends with its prey? Wouldn’t it want to eat them? The movie answers: Yes, it would.

Kevin:

I saw Jumper (2008) in theaters on my first date ever. Since the break-up, I’ve been unable to disassociate that movie from that girl. Luckily, it wasn’t a very good movie, but I don’t think I want to do first dates in a movie theater anymore.

To contrast, I saw Madagascar for my elementary school birthday party (or someone’s birthday, I think). It converted me and my rambunctious friends into “I like to move it, move it” fiends. It made for some good memories, but I think I liked almost every movie I saw when I was little. Under more critical lens, it’s quite obvious that Madagascar is hilariously unthoughtful, except for maybe the moment when Alex the lion succumbs to his predator side.

I mean, that’s actually a cool idea for the basis of a story. How many movies have had talking animals living harmoniously with one another? And when animals do hunt other animals, the prey never seems able to speak. Here, Alex hunts Marty, a zebra with fully functional human characteristics. Now that’s cool. But then one must eventually ask themselves: So what?

I didn’t like the idea of talking toys because I thought talking toys were cool. I liked the idea because the toys meant something. They were used to explore human fears stemming from jealously, abandonment, and even death. Now that’s engaging. That’s provocative. That’s thoughtful. Madagascar has a plot not worth discussing because it doesn’t care about answering the big questions. The questions that count.

This doesn’t mean Madagascar is a bad movie. I think kids will like it; I know I did. I’m actually sort of excited for a new DreamWorks penguin movie, even though I’m not proud to admit it. With that said, I do still agree with Dan–this movie isn’t as hilarious as it should be, so it doesn’t do enough to warrant a recommendation from me. It doesn’t do enough to merit its own financially successful franchise.

Verdict: Overrated

Favorite moment: An old lady beats the crap out of Alex the lion. What can I say? I love Tom and Jerry, slapstick humor.

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Over the Hedge (2006)

Dan:

I actually liked this one. It uses the DreamWorks formula and story structure, but gives it some great moments and interesting characters. And, importantly, a bunch of the jokes are really funny.

The basic story template is pretty solid, and most heavily inspired by Toy Story. RJ the raccoon plays the hotshot new toy animal and Verne the turtle plays the tenured, conservative toy animal. The duplicitous RJ receives a memorable voice-actor in Bruce Willis, and he lends the role considerable charisma. (Wanda Sykes, William Shatner, and especially Steve Carell provide some other memorable voicework.)

The quality of the gags ranges from amusing to downright hysterical — Hammy’s encounter with speed-of-light travel is one of the most bizarre and inspired moments in any DreamWorks film. And the comedy at the expense of upper middle class hits close to home in all the right ways.

If only the movie had a good soundtrack… Wait, Ben Folds wrote and recorded a bunch of kickass songs specifically for the movie?

That’s it. I’m in, I’m all in.

Verdict: Underrated

Favorite moment: Hammy breaks the speed of light by sipping an energy drink

Kevin:

Hold up. Ben Folds provided some of the songs for this movie? I’ve never been the kind to purchase albums or attend concerts (I don’t even own an iPod) but it’s easy to see how talented Folds is from just a few YouTube videos. I clearly need to listen to some of his other stuff, especially since I thought he did a good job with the songs he was in charge of. While I don’t think I share Dan’s enthusiasm for the movie’s humor, I do find it odd that this is one of the lesser-known DreamWorks movie.

I mean, Dan compared the Over the Hedge to Toy Story! Maybe the plot is a bit too similar, as he points out, but I don’t know. I felt Over the Hedge was less about the jokes and more about the story, even if they did bring in a bunch of comedians for voices. In other words, I think this is DreamWorks first attempt at a GOOD film. It’s not trying to out-do Pixar or Disney; it’s not an exercise in marketing; it’s not a mindless comedy. It’s a film that tries. And even if the end result was bland and unremarkable, this is one of the few earlier DreamWorks films that doesn’t leave me sick to my stomach.

I’m tempted to join Dan and hand DreamWorks their first “underrated” verdict, but I’m going to hold off and reserve it for DreamWorks’ better works. We’re going to visit another one of Disney’s dark ages next, but after 2007, we have some of animation’s best movies to review, including films from a much matured DreamWorks Animation Studio. Over the Hedge was just one of the first signs that better things lied ahead.

Verdict: Properly Rated

Favorite moment: When the possum plays dead and whispers, “Rosebud…”

animation-evaluation

Dan S.

Dan is the editor of Earn This. He co-founded the site in 2009.

Kevin T.

Kevin T.

Kevin is the creator of movie reviews site Taestful Reviews. He has been contributing to Earn This since 2014.

7 thoughts on “Animation Evaluation: DreamWorks 1998-2006

  1. Weirdly enough, my only movie date thus far was also “Jumper.”

    More to the point, why no “Prince of Egypt” or “The Road to El Dorado”?

  2. When we put together the list of movies we were gonna include, we agreed that if there were any movies that either of us were not interested in seeing, we’d just not include them. Kevin said he’d prefer to stick with the CGI DreamWorks movies. So we’ll have to ask him!

  3. To elaborate further on what Dan said, I personally see DreamWorks as a computer animation studio. I know we’ve reviewed the Disney renaissance and most of their hand animated movies from that time (and more upcoming), but that made sense in my mind since the Disney company has been so pivotal in pioneering the cartoon into feature-length films. Hope you aren’t too disappointed by our exclusions!

  4. Also, the thought of Will Smith yelling “OLLD SCHOOOL” in front of an audience, and being met with dead silence, just made me laugh a lot.

  5. It has been a while since I have been on this site.

    Antz is a decent film, and it has A LOT of similarities to Aladdin. For a film that is supposed to be so adult, it really isn’t, and the story is still predictable, and runs on childish tropes. People only remember it and discuss it because of A Bug’s Life.

    Shrek is very good, and when I reviewed it, I liked it a lot, but since then, the novelty has definitely worn off me. It id definitely a strong film, but it was clearly a slap in the face to WDAS (which many of this company’s first films were; just a diss).

    I still like Shrek 2, and I like that it focused more on Fiona, and developed her a lot, since she did not get that much in the first film. There is definitely a lot more jokes in this one and a fuller plot.

    Shark Tale is very uninspired, and you two said my issue with it so well.

    Madagascar is a mess, and this film fully established the common DreamWorks formula. So halfassed, and unfocused.

    • Thanks for the comment, Animated Kid. I appreciate your two cents here — sounds like we’re mostly on the same page, even if I’m higher on Shrek and you’re higher on Shrek 2 than me. Cheers!

    • Interesting that you bring up the similarity to Aladdin. Haven’t really thought about it. Low worker ant trying to win the heart of a royal princess. Not sure what other similarities you are referring to (celebrity voices?).

      I actually think Madagascar is one of DreamWorks funnier ones (not really saying much) but obviously this doesn’t make up for the fact that it is a mess, as you’ve said. I’m wondering if you are more on Dan’s point of view where Madagascar just wasn’t very funny, in which case I can understand your hatred for the movie.

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