Thursday, January 28, 2016

Theory Thursday: Dreamworks Movies are More Enjoyable Than Pixar

Scene from Kung Fu Panda 3
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Kung Fu Panda 3 is released in theaters nationwide.
Theory: Dreamworks Animation movies are a lot more enjoyable than Pixar.

Scene from How to Train Your Dragon 2

Ever since the late 90's, there has been one ongoing war for fans of the future of animation: Was Pixar better than Dreamworks Animation? The latter formed in the wake of Pixar's success with one of their first big hits (Shrek) arguably being an attack on Disney's precociousness. For the most part, Pixar has had the winning streak in its advantage. Its movies have been consistently great and Oscar-nominated and winning (though Dreamworks Animation does hold an advantage as the first winner, with Shrek beating Monsters Inc.). In fact, it is impossible to argue against the unprecedented run of success that Pixar had in the 2000's decade alone.  Between Monsters Inc. and Up, one could argue that there was only one dud: Cars. In fact, its only fault since is that Pixar hasn't made too many films (save for Inside Out) that could compare in terms of execution.

Then you look at Dreamworks, who take arguably the opposite approach. Where Pixar was making original stories most of the time, Dreamworks believed in banking on a good thing. Shrek was immediately followed by Shrek 2. Then came two more sequels, one spin-off (Puss in Boots), and several TV spin-off specials. That is the norm for Dreamworks nowadays and has been since Shrek 2 became one of the highest grossing animated films in history. You can look at their later franchises, such as this weekend's entry into the Kung Fu Panda franchise, and see that nothing is too radically different. They're still churning out films that range from pedestrian to subpar Pixar. The output is also radically different, as Pixar has 17 films in 21 years where Dreamworks almost doubles the list with 33 films in 18 years. So of course the hit and miss ratio is a tad higher.

It seems easy to call Dreamworks as the lesser of two CG giants in animation. There hasn't been a film as ambitious as WALL-E, or a trilogy as heartbreaking as the Toy Story series. There's very little to argue that Dreamworks is treating animation as an art form, barely doing better than Pixar knock-off Disney Animation. Some of Dreamworks' worst films (Penguins of Madagascar)  definitely keep that reputation in check. However, I want to make the argument today that Dreamworks is actually the more enjoyable of the two heavyweights. For my money, there is a better sense of action and adventure that compliments that family film genre that Pixar, even at its most engaging, could not achieve. In fairness, Pixar is going for a higher brow audience, but stick with me on this argument.

To give context, I love Pixar as much as everyone else. I think that on average, they deliver great film after great film. Inside Out was among my favorite films of last year. Their films are what one would call "thought provoking." I turn to them for a sentimentality that Disney has always done rather well. However, there's something that I feel is distracting if you're looking for entertainment value. Yes, the characters are endearing, but there's a deeper sense that Pixar wants to be prestigious art. You go to the films to feel emotions, have existential debates, and see the narrative format challenged at every turn. The films can be edgy, but mostly in doing traumatic character moments. Pixar is high art for kids who want to develop a conscience. Dreamworks is for kids who want to just enjoy themselves.

Okay, this argument already seems strange. Why would I condone a company whose biggest series, Shrek, opens with toilet humor and would proceed to exploit it for the next 15 years? It is difficult to defend the juvenile side of the coin, but I guess that it's necessary to understand the general appeal of Dreamworks. The studio has always been a fan of crass humor, picking easy laughs for the younger viewers. However, it also provides a disarming sense that they're not as pretentious as Pixar. While this all comes down to a matter of opinion, I think that this speaks volumes about what works. At their core, they were a studio who needed to be more than the kiddie, b-level competitor to Pixar. Their road has been rockier and less successful, but I want to shift to where things work in the world of less pretentious animation.

Pixar has a formula, by which it isn't allowed to escape. Dreamworks has a mold, but is allowed to do anything it wants. Shrek was allowed to knock on fairy tales. Kung Fu Panda was allowed to be a slapstick action movie. For the most part, Dreamworks thrives in the world of talking animals, and makes an impressive killing on it every year. The concept is itself very juvenile and would be scoffed at (save for Babe) in public discourse. However, its lack of expectations means that it can get away with so much more. Shrek could be subversive and Bee Movie could be a pseudo-political environmentalist commentary disguised under bad bee puns. The integration wasn't always smooth, but it was allowed to embrace kinetic energy and follow the formula of action films, if geared towards children. Yes, there were more fart jokes. But, one cannot help but admire how unapologetic and silly they are. Pixar has had silly concepts, but there's always been a need to be empathetic. Dreamworks allows you to embrace a world without consequence, for better or worse.

For the most part, this remains true of every one of their hits. If you look at Shrek, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda, or Over the Hedge; you will find films that constantly have a certain hostility that Pixar dropped after Toy Story. These are the type of adventure films that most people certain would like to see more often. There are chase sequences in Puss in Boots that recapture the magic of old Looney Tunes cartoons, embracing the madcap peril with a winking eye and a feeling of sporadic ingenuity. Even if it doesn't look quite as great in CG animation, it still manages to feel lively, pulling the viewer in, forcing them to just go along with the ride. What results is something powerful. It's the sense of being a kid and going on adventures. Even if Pixar does action visuals better, there's always a sense that guilt is not too far off. Someone will die, and audiences will cry. People rarely die in Dreamworks movies.

Here is where things will likely go a little bit more divided. I acknowledge that Pixar's animation may be more cutting edge on a regular basis. However, I think that Dreamworks does more with what they have. To watch Monsters vs. Aliens is to see a creative genius at work, throwing in B-Movie icons in new situations while moving around the playing field. When a pivotal scene of a monster attacking San Francisco happens, we get treated to a mix of great jokes ranging from slapstick to clever uses of cars as roller skates. The film itself attempts to be a feminist treatment disguised as a sci-fi invasion movie, and I argue it does it better than Brave and minus any tacked on sentimentality. Monsters vs. Aliens shows a shift away from banality of crude jokes and shows the studio developing a heart and a small fraction of a brain. They just happen to be respectful of old monster movies, too.

However, if you want to see where the studio actually rivals Pixar wholesale, look no further than the How to Train Your Dragon franchise. For starters, it should be noted that legendary cinematographer Roger Deakens added his skills to the film - which is unprecedented for an animated film. In a world full of stock animation, How to Train Your Dragon took things to another level with thankless attention to detail. It also happened to feature the studio's love for the fantastical as a boy bonded with a dragon and saved the community in an awe-inspiring finale. Same could be said for its sequel, which managed to match its aesthetic and energy. More than that, the franchise was willing to have a heart, showing a complicated relationship between father and son; man and nature. There's a lot going on that if anything proved that Dreamworks was more than just some B-Level production company. They could compete with legitimacy. Granted, they still haven't churned out as many hits, but they definitely know how to just have fun.

In a time where animation has very interesting varieties (see also: LAIKA Studios, Studio Ghibli), it is hard to really argue against Pixar being the definitive model for CG animation. I wouldn't fault them. If anything, their craft is far more consistent in competence. However, I think that where Pixar is a work of art, Dreamworks is a comic strip that's passed around to kids in the lobby. They may not have as much value, but the pulpy nature can be rather entertaining and appeal to the base impulse of its audience. While this is a very apples to oranges debate, I think that Dreamworks deserves some credit for at least making movies that are more enjoyable and can get away with a lot more, even if the nonsense is just that. As a whole, Dreamworks is more flawed and embarrassing, but their misses are not without a fascinating turn into bafflement. For that and many more reasons, it's hard to fully dismiss Dreamworks for appealing to their target audience (family) better than Pixar's somewhat more adult approach.

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