Saturday, April 10, 2010

How to Train Your Dreamworks

I saw How to Train Your Dragon last night. I originally wasn't going to, as the trailers made it look like a bog-standard kiddie action-comedy of the sort Dreamworks churns out by the bucketful. But word of mouth was good, so I decided to give the movie a shot.

I'm very glad I did. It was definitely worth $15 and a couple of hours: good story, great visuals, decent voice acting, good soundtrack, and solid use of 3D. By my count, this is Dreamworks Animation's 15th movie (not counting Chicken Run, Wallace and Gromit, or Flushed Away, because those were more Aardman than Dreamworks) and their second or third good movie (Kung Fu Panda is the other good one; Antz is borderline).

Dreamworks is a weirdly schizophrenic studio. When they're good, they're really, really good -- Kung Fu Panda is better than most of the Pixar catalogue -- but most of the time, they're terrible. What is it that drags down the bad ones? Here's a partial list:
  • Pop culture references: Satirizing pop culture can be funny, though it can date a movie badly. Randomly referencing bits of pop culture and repeating memes blindly? Not funny, just stupid.
  • Toilet humor: In the context of something either really dark or really beautiful, it can still be surprising enough to be funny. In general, though, it's just obnoxious jokes I got my fill of when I was 10.
  • Eddie Murphy: Has he done anything worth seeing in the last 20 years? We all know the answer: No, because he sucks.
  • Aping Pixar: Pixar makes a great movie set in the ocean, so Dreamworks makes a terrible movie set in the ocean. Pixar makes a movie about living mechanical devices (caveat: I have not seen Cars), Dreamworks makes a terrible movie about living mechanical devices. Noticing a bit of a pattern?
  • Postmodern detachment: Badly hurts the Shrek franchise in particular. The characters are all snidely aware of fairy tales and mocking their tropes, which in the hands of better writers like Patricia Wrede or Terry Pratchett could be great. Dreamworks does not have writers that good. Instead, the viewer ends up unable to really care about the characters, because the characters don't seem to really care about much of anything; they're just going through the motions to put on the big show.
What marks the good movies, on the other hand? Dreamworks has plenty of strong points. Here's a partial list:
  • Tense father-son relationships: In particular, the internal conflict in sons desperate for the approval of their single fathers, but unwilling to follow the careers said fathers have picked out for them. This conflict was a minor but important point in Kung Fu Panda and a major driving force in the plot of How to Train Your Dragon, and it was well-done in both. (Between those two Dreamworks movies and Sony's Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, I'm starting to get the impression that a lot of animators have fathers who disapprove of their career choices.)
  • Scenery Porn: Kung Fu Panda portrayed a China so beautiful that the Chinese started wondering why they can't make movies this good. How to Train Your Dragon is loaded with breathtaking flying sequences, from gorgeous aerial views of the Viking village at night, to stunning runs through seaside cliffs, to majestic vistas of cloud.
  • Strong Women: Tigress in Kung Fu Panda especially. She is tough as nails, a great fighter, proud -- and never once is the fact that she's a woman made a big deal. Astrid is less awesome than Tigress, but that's largely because Tigress is more or less mature, while Astrid still has a lot of growing up to do. Especially cool, however, is the existence of background female warriors. Completely ahistoric, of course*, but awesome that there's big burly women fighting side by side with the big burly men against the dragons -- and it's again portrayed as not at all remarkable. Dreamworks is probably the strongest major Western animation studio on this front -- Pixar movies in particular are near-total sausage-fests.
  • Fight Sequences: How to Train Your Dragon, like Kung Fu Panda before it, has absolutely jaw-dropping action sequences. Like Panda, Dragon has brilliantly choreographed, fluidly animated, surprisingly intimate scenes of combat between single-digit numbers of characters; unlike Panda, it also has big-canvas fantasy war battle scenes, like something out of Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings.
  • Enthusiastic Protagonists: Part of what makes both Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon so much fun is the complete lack of ironic distance. The main characters of both movies are completely invested in how utterly awesome the events occurring to them actually are. After all, who wouldn't be excited and happy at the prospect of training with kung fu masters or riding a dragon? An enthusiastic main character gives the audience permission to enjoy the ride and suspend disbelief, where a sarcastic or snide character just serves to remind the audience that this is silly make-believe.
Now, admittedly, Dreamworks could easily churn out a bunch of formulaic crap that follows exactly the patterns I describe above, but on the other hand they could produce a lot of varied and interesting movies that incorporate some of the elements they're best at. It would be better than the formulaic crap they shovel out under the Shrek and Madagascar franchises, anyway. The point really isn't that Dreamworks should keep making movies with these elements; the point is that Dreamworks does do some things well, when they're not squeezing a franchise dry, and hopefully they can drop the stupid franchises and focus on creating original films that play to their strengths.

It's not likely, but we can always hope, right?

*Yes, I am aware of the Valkyrie myth. It's just a myth -- the Viking warriors were still an all-male club in real life.

Update: Based on Dreamworks' patterns and the people involved, here's some predictions:
  • Shrek Forever After, MegaMind, Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss in Boots, Madagascar 3, and The Guardians of Childhood will suck.
  • The Croods might be good.

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