These are dark times for DreamWorks Animation.
The underperformance of films like Turbo, Mr Peabody & Sherman, Penguins of Madagascar and Rise of the Guardians has wiped almost 40% from the studio’s share value, leading to 500 layoffs, a change of management and a heavily reduced release slate.
This, you suspect, was a long time coming. Almost since its inception, DreamWorks Animation has been seen as Pixar’s poor cousin, with the majority of its films adhering to the same joyless blueprint (anthropomorphise an animal, crowbar in a few immediately-dated pop culture references where the jokes should be, make a poster where the animal pulls exactly the same raised-eyebrow expression as all the other animals in all the other DreamWorks Animation film posters). First the formula became rote, then it became rictus, and the people lost interest.
But DreamWorks Animation can still pull things back. In fact, I’ve got some suggestions on how it could be resurrected.
Stop making sequels
You can guarantee that, right at this moment, someone at DreamWorks is planning to double down on its successful properties, proposing endless spin-offs and sequels for The Croods, Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon. But this, arguably, would be an error. Look at Pixar. The moment it lost some of its enormous clout was roughly the moment it started fixating on sequels.
Even if Inside Out is a great film, it’ll still be a great film by the people who thought that Cars 2 was a good idea. Investing in sequels for short-term financial gain will only ruin DreamWorks’ reputation in the longer term.
...Unless it’s a Madagascar sequel that Noah Baumbach wrote
Madagascar 3 is one of the best animated films of the last 20 years. This might be down to the unlikely involvement of Noah Baumbach as a scriptwriter, or it might be down to its boldly impressionistic direction. Then again, it might be because I watched it with a hangover on New Year’s Day when most of my faculties were impaired. Nevertheless, DreamWorks should greenlight Madagascar 4 today.
Do not resuscitate Shrek
That person at DreamWorks who’s pitching all the non-Madagascar sequels? I guarantee he’s already made a green moodboard with ‘SHREK 5!’ scrawled all over it. This man must be fired immediately, for he is nothing but trouble. Admittedly a new Shrek film would be a guaranteed success – combined, the existing Shrek films and Puss in Boots have grossed three and a half billion dollars – but could you look at yourself in the mirror after paying to see another overlong, formless collection of sub-Airplane cultural references distractedly acted out by a donkey as a direct precursor to an aimless dancing montage? No. You could not.
Do not listen to marketing executives
Part of the reason why DreamWorks Animation is in such trouble, according to Deadline, was that Mr Peabody & Sherman wasn’t stupid enough for women: “When the film was being tested, a constant comment from mothers ... was that Mr. Peabody was too sophisticated. Moms don’t go to the movies to think, but to escape.” This isn’t just abhorrently sexist, but also incorrect. Mr Peabody & Sherman is exactly the sort of tender, confident, whip-smart movie that DreamWorks should be making more of. Plus, in its trailer, Mr Peabody and Sherman literally get farted out of the Sphinx. If that counts as sophisticated comedy, we’re all doomed.
This article was written by Stuart Heritage, for theguardian.com on Friday 23rd January 2015 14.50 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010