1998-2004 | 2005-2009 | 2010-2014
DreamWorks Animation is one of the world's most successful animated film studios. It began in 1994 as a division of DreamWorks SKG, a studio that not only made live-action films but also intended from the outset to challenge Disney's dominance of the animated film market. This goal has been achieved through the adoption of a loveable ogre as well as an early collaboration with British animated film studio Aardman.
DreamWorks SKG was founded in 1994 by three media moguls, Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen.
Perhaps the most famous American film director of the late 20th and early 21st Century, Steven Spielberg had had extensive animation experience. In the 1980s he had produced Don Bluth Studios' An American Tail (1986) and The Land Before Time (1988), both of which beat Disney films in the box office, before working with Disney on Who Framed Roger Rabbit. In the early 1990s Spielberg founded his own animation studio, Amblimation, which made An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991) and We're Back: A Dinosaur's Story (1993).
In 1984 Jeffrey Katzenberg had been the Chairman of Film Production for Walt Disney. He successfully revived their animation department. Having recently made flops like The Black Cauldron (1985), with Katzenberg's influence Disney made an unprecedented string of successes. These included Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994). He had also promoted the partnership with Pixar.
In 1994 Katzenberg felt overlooked when he was not promoted following the death of Disney's President Frank Wells. He instigated the creation of a whole new studio on the understanding that he would particularly oversee the animation department.
A media mogul with his own rags to riches story, David Geffen founded Asylum Records in 1971, discovering acts including The Eagles, and sold the company to Warner Brothers one year later for $7 million. In 1980 he formed Geffen Records, signing acts including John Lennon, Elton John and Guns 'n' Roses, selling it in 1989 for $550 million. He also founded Geffen Film Company.
Creation of the Animation Department
Having created their own film studio, DreamWorks SKG, and announced the intention to create animated films, DreamWorks needed to recruit talented animators. DreamWorks intended from the very beginning to release films in all three forms of animation: stop-motion, cel and computer-generated.
In 1996 Aardman's script for their first film, Chicken Run, was finalised. After tough negotiations, Pathé and DreamWorks beat 20th Century Fox and Warner Brothers to gain the rights to invest in the film. Pathé distributed the film in Europe while DreamWorks handled distribution across the rest of the world. Though this was the first animated film DreamWorks were involved with, as stop-motion is the slowest form of animation it became the fourth they released.
DreamWorks quickly gained an experienced cel animation department, responsible for hand-drawn or traditional animation. Spielberg's Amblimation animation studio had been closed down following Balto (1995), a cel-animated film about a dog, which had a disappointing performance at the box office when it was released at the same time as Pixar's Toy Story. Most of the animators were re-hired by DreamWorks.
The newest branch of animation is Computer Animation, also called CGI or computer-generated imagery. After the tremendous success of Pixar's Toy Story (1995), it was inevitable that DreamWorks would be interested in this also. As they had done with stop-motion and cel animation, DreamWorks looked for an established animation studio active in this field. They chose Pacific Data Images (PDI), a company founded in 1980 and mainly involved in adverts and film effects. PDI had long held ambitions to make a feature-length film. In 1995 DreamWorks purchased 40% of PDI and hired them to make their first computer animated film, Antz, credited to DreamWorks/PDI. In 2000, between the release of Antz and Shrek, PDI founder Carl Rosendahl sold his remaining 50% share of PDI to DreamWorks. DreamWorks/PDI then simply became DreamWorks Animation's CGI division, based in North California.
The mid-1990s was a time full of promise for Hollywood animation. Disney had shown how successful animation could be with films such as Aladdin and The Lion King. Pixar had met with considerable success with Toy Story. Thus many Hollywood studios decided to cash in on the act. Warner Brothers formed Warner Brothers Feature Animation and released Space Jam (1996), Quest for Camelot (1998), The Iron Giant (1999), Osmosis Jones (2001) and Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003). All these films flopped with only Space Jam making a profit. Turner Feature Animation made Cats Don't Dance (1997) which also flopped.
Twentieth Century Fox had mixed success. At first they hired Don Bluth, the animator behind The Secret of NIMH (1982), An American Tail (1986) and The Land Before Time (1988) to head their newly founded Fox Animation Studios. Only two films were made; the successful Anastasia (1997) and the flop Titan AE (2000) before the studio closed. Also in 1997 Fox purchased computer animation company Blue Sky Studios, which since 2002 has continued to release CGI films, particularly the Ice Age series, enjoying steady success.
The other animation studio that succeeded in this period was Nickelodeon, which is part of the Viacom organisation. Nickelodeon successfully specialised in making films such as The Rugrats Movie based on their established cartoon characters, with much smaller budgets than the other Hollywood studios.
The First Films
Below are listed DreamWorks' first nine films and the only feature-length direct-to-video animation. The list includes a brief look at each one.
1. Antz (1998)
|Directors||Eric Darnell & Tim Johnson|
|Plot||Worker ant Z struggles to find his place in his colony while falling in love with Princess Bala. General Mandible, however, has other plans for the ants...|
|Setting||An ant hill in New York's Central Park|
Antz was the world's second computer-animated film, after Toy Story, yet its release was overlooked by controversy. Before co-founding DreamWorks, Katzenberg had liaised with Pixar as part of his role at Disney and had been aware that Pixar were making a film about ants under the working title 'Bugs'. Pixar were taking their time over the details when creating this film as they were hoping to establish a reputation for quality. After DreamWorks announced their intention to release what was expected to be their first animated film, The Prince of Egypt, Disney announced plans to release their films at the same time, with the alleged intention of burying The Prince of Egypt at the box office.
DreamWorks responded by rushing Antz into production, quickly making it their first animated film and releasing it in cinemas before Pixar's film, now retitled A Bug's Life (1998), was finished. Both films involve a unique ant who refuses to be a thoughtless clone, falls in love with a princess and saves the day and his colony. Though Antz was the first film out, DreamWorks' reputation was tarnished as they were perceived as being a studio of copycats. A Bug's Life was by far the more successful film.
Unusually, Antz was aimed at an older audience and had a much darker theme, containing more sexual innuendo and references than you would expect in an animated film1. This resulted in it receiving a PG classification, reducing its potential audience. It does have a very impressive cast, with Woody Allen making a surprisingly successful animated ant.
2. The Prince of Egypt (1998)
|Director||Simon Wells, Brenda Chapman & Steve Hickner|
|Plot||Having survived the genocide of Hebrew boys as a baby, Moses is raised as a prince of Egypt and brother to the heir to the throne, Ramesses. Moses is unaware of his true heritage until chance encounters with two Hebrew women, Tzipporah and his sister Miriam, result in a voyage of discovery in which he finds his true family, faith and people. He then returns to Egypt to demand that Ramesses, now Pharaoh, sets free all Hebrew slaves.|
|Setting||Egypt, circa 1400 BC|
|Inspiration||The Book of Exodus|
|Music||Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
|Prequel||Joseph: King of Dreams (2000)|
|Oscar||Best Original Song: 'When You Believe'|
The first traditional animated film that DreamWorks put into production, originally intended to be the first animated film they released, was The Prince of Egypt. This was a much stronger film than Antz, with time taken over making it and it entered cinemas only two months later than Antz.
The film is directed with style by lead director Simon Wells, great-grandson of HG Wells and the experienced director of Amblimation films An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story and Balto. There are some truly spectacular scenes set in Ancient Egypt, shown in all its glory at the height of its power. Many of the filmmakers travelled to Egypt to research the look of the film.
The film is perhaps the closest to the traditional Disney animated musical style, only adapting a Biblical epic rather than a fairy tale. It is also rather refreshing to see that the first DreamWorks animated film to feature humans does not feature any Caucasian characters.
The film was a success and was briefly the most successful non-Disney animated film until being superseded by Chicken Run in 2000. It was the highest grossing non-Disney cel-animated film for almost a decade, until the release of The Simpsons Movie in 2007.
Joseph: King of Dreams (2000)
|Directors||Rob LaDuca & Robert C Ramirez|
|Plot||Joseph, firstborn son of Jacob's favourite wife Rachel, is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers|
|Setting||Ancient Canaan and Egypt circa 1650 BC|
|Inspiration||The Bible, Genesis 37|
|Music||Music and lyrics by John Bucchino:|
The Prince of Egypt was so successful it led to a direct-to-video prequel, Joseph: King of Dreams. This was perhaps an odd choice. Although direct-to-video animations had been something of a novelty when Disney's Return of Jafar was released in 1994, by the 21st Century this had definitely worn off and such films had acquired a public perception of being inferior to proper, cinema-released films. This film did nothing to dispel that perception. The story of Joseph was also an odd one to adapt into a musical considering the overwhelming success of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Simply put, the film is not in the same league.
There is not anything particularly wrong with Joseph: King of Dreams, but there is nothing that stands out about it either. The characters are all a bit bland, with nothing to distinguish between any of Joseph's brothers. Joseph gets married, but there's no character development or romance; one second he's seen playing with Potiphar's niece's pussy, the next they have two children5. The famous multi-coloured coat is a real disappointment, being blue with a bit of gold lining. The songs are fairly forgettable and after the excitement of Prince of Egypt's plagues and Red Sea parting, King of Dreams' plot revolving around storing grain for use during a drought isn't quite as captivating. That said, Joseph's dreams themselves have a surreal, van Gogh-like quality which is remarkably effective.
For a Biblical adaptation whose target audience would be people who are aware of the story in the Bible, there are a few very strange changes. For instance, Joseph's eldest brother is said to be Judah and not Reuben as the Biblical story states. What the filmmakers hoped to gain from this is unclear.
There had been plans to continue making more direct-to-video Biblical features, however Joseph: King of Dreams was not as successful as had been hoped and is the only feature-length direct-to-video film they have made to date6.
3. The Road to El Dorado (2000)
|Directors||Don Paul & Eric Bergeron|
|Setting||Spain and New World, 1519|
|Plot||Miguel and Tulio are two con artists who, after finding a map to the legendary city of gold, El Dorado, flee from ruthless conquistador Cortés with his horse, Altivo, and find the legendary city. There they are mistaken for gods and become embroiled in the rivalry between El Dorado's Chief and High Priest while they plan to flee with the city's gold, accompanied by Chel, an attractive local who is the only one to realise their true nature.|
|Music||Soundtrack: Hans Zimmer. Songs: lyrics by Tim Rice with music by Elton John unless stated.|
The Road to El Dorado was not a bad film, it just was not a new one. In the 1990s a group of films were made to celebrate the 500th anniversary of America's discovery by Christopher Columbus in 14927. The Road to El Dorado is another film in that genre, with the familiar plot line of Europeans travelling to the New World in search of gold. The baddy, in this case Cortés, wears the obligatory cape as baddies in these films always do. Witch doctor? Tick. Young, Native American girl who wears a skimpy outfit? Tick. Animal sidekick? Tick. Catchy tunes? Tick. The film ticks all the boxes, but these boxes had already been ticked several times before.
The Road to El Dorado was released around the same time as Disney's The Emperor's New Groove, which was also set in ancient Peru. The following Disney film, Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), had a similar plot in which European travellers set out to find and exploit a long lost mythical empire. Perhaps because of this, DreamWorks' film failed at the box office.
There are reports that early in the storyboard process it was planned to make the two lead characters the first openly gay couple in a mainstream child-friendly animated film. This positive step would at the very least have been something new, and would have given the film a reason to be remembered. Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh do share a chemistry envied by any other screen couple. Unfortunately the finished film has tamed a lot of this down, although the heroes do still give each other smouldering glances and share a hot tub nude.
4. Chicken Run (2000)
A co-production with Aardman Animations.
|Directors||Peter Lord & Nick Park|
|Plot||The Tweedys own a Yorkshire egg farm and keep chickens. Around the time that the Tweedys decide to stop collecting eggs and instead make their chickens into pies, a rooster named Rocky arrives over the fence. Despite his broken wing, he promises to teach all the chickens how to fly.|
|Setting||A Yorkshire egg farm.|
This British animated film about chickens became a huge box office hit. It remains the most successful stop-motion film of all time and on its release was the world's most successful non-Disney animated film then made. It was also the first animated DreamWorks film to have a female lead and predominantly female cast.
For more information, see The Ultimate Aardman Animated Film Guide.
5. Shrek (2001)
Characters and actors in Bold appear in other DreamWorks films.
|Directors||Andrew Adamson & Vicky Jenson|
|Plot||Shrek is an ogre happy living in solitude until his swamp unwittingly becomes the refuge for fairy-tale characters after he rescues a talking donkey. Hoping to regain his peace and quiet, Shrek agrees to rescue a princess for Lord Farquaad. Farquaad wishes to marry her in order to become a king, but she is in a tower guarded by a fearsome dragon.|
|Setting||Fairy tale land of Duloc|
|Inspiration||Shrek! (1990) by William Steig|
|Oscar||Best Animated Film|
Shrek is the film in which DreamWorks found its own identity and created something incredible. It even managed to beat Pixar at its own game, despite rumours that it was once again a rip off of a forthcoming Pixar film, in this case Monsters Inc. Both films featured lovable monsters, yet it was Shrek that won the Best Animated Film Oscar.
The character Shrek was named after the German and Yiddish word 'Schreck', meaning 'fear'. The original actor chosen to voice Shrek, even influencing Shrek's appearance, was Chris Farley. After he died in 1997 following a drug overdose, Mike Myers provided the voice. After initially recording all his lines, Myers felt that something was missing. He then asked if he could re-record his vocal using a 'Scottish' accent, which was accepted. Katzenberg later revealed that because lip-synchronisation had already taken place, all the scenes featuring Shrek talking had to be redone, costing the studio an extra $4 million, but it was truly worth the cost.
The film's beginning, in which a fairy tale book is ripped to pieces to make toilet paper, spoofs Disney's classic fairy tale introductions. Characters such as Pinocchio and Tinker Bell cameo, many lines of dialogue refer to Disney fairy tales, and Duloc is clearly inspired by Disneyland, complete with 'It's A Small World After All' spoof. Yet not just content with spoofing previous films, it has influenced every Disney film since. The film overturns the beauty and beast message - here the ogre marries the beast, not the 'beauty', and they live happily ever after. The traditional idea of a kiss being all it takes to fall in love with someone is also dismissed. Since Shrek, no Disney fairy tale film has had a princess in as simplified a relationship as those seen previously.
In a revolutionary move, Shrek included classic pop music into the film and ended the story with a feel good party rather than a typical happily-ever-after ending. On its release it was the best-selling DVD of all time, a record it has held to date.
6. Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002)
|Directors||Kelly Asury & Lorna Cook|
|Plot||A young horse is separated from his herd and encounters various animals, people, waterfalls and trains on his journey back home.|
|Setting||19th Century Wild West America|
|Music||Written by Bryan Adams with Gavin Greenaway, Eliot Kennedy, RJ Lange, Gretchen Peters, Steve Jablonsky and/or Hans Zimmer unless stated|
Though the story is a bit black and white, the animation is an explosion of colour and confidence. The plot anticipates Spielberg's later masterpiece, War Horse. Unusually, the central animal character remains very much a realistic horse and is not anthropomorphised, never talking except in whinnies and snorts, although the audience is given an occasional voiceover representing his thoughts.
7. Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003)
|Directors||Patrick Gilmore & Tim Johnson|
|Plot||Sinbad, a roguish pirate, is framed by Eris, goddess of discord, for the crime of stealing the Book of Peace from Syracuse, a Greek colony on Sicily. With Sinbad sentenced to death an old friend, Proteus, Prince of Syracuse, offers himself in Sinbad's place. Sinbad and his crew have ten days in which to recover the Book of Peace from the goddess' realm of Tartarus and return to Syracuse, or Proteus will die. Yet on the voyage they encounter various monsters.|
|Setting||Ancient Mediterranean and Tartarus|
|Spin Off||Cyclops Island (2003) short film|
As Katzenberg had enjoyed tremendous success at Disney with Aladdin, Sinbad was perhaps a natural choice at DreamWorks. However, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas was a major flop and almost resulted in the animation studio's closure. The film itself is a highly enjoyable fantasy, yet by 2003 films made using traditional animation methods were beginning to look old-fashioned.
There was some criticism of racism levelled against the film. Sinbad, traditionally from Baghdad, is portrayed as growing up in the Greek city of Syracuse and has a Caucasian skin colour. The truth is perhaps that the film owes less to the traditional tales of Sinbad than to the films of Ray Harryhausen, who often employed a mix-and-match mythology approach. Not only are Harryhausen's Sinbad trilogy8 a strong influence in the film, his interpretation of Greek myths9, in which gods play games with men, is echoed in the scenes with Eris. Even his dinosaur films are referred to - the character of Marina is carried away by a mythical monster in an identical way to how Raquel Welch was taken by a pterodactyl in One Million Years BC.
So why did it flop? Perhaps the reason is more cultural than any flaw in the film itself. Currently in Western culture, animated films aimed at a young, male audience have consistently done poorly at the box office, as a young, male audience is the target group least likely to go to see an animated film10.
Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas was unable to compete with Finding Nemo (2003) at the box office and lost around $125million. Following this, DreamWorks SKG spun off the animation division into a separate company, DreamWorks Animation SKG. DreamWorks Animation abandoned the cel animation format; from now on, all their films would be CGI.
8. Shrek 2 (2004)
|Directors||Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury & Conrad Vernon|
|Plot||Princess Fiona takes Shrek to her home kingdom of Far Far Away to meet her parents. However, Shrek and her father do not get on and the king employs an assassin, Puss in Boots, to eliminate Shrek. Meanwhile the Fairy Godmother plots to marry Fiona to her son, Prince Charming, so that he would inherit the kingdom.|
|Setting||Far Far Away, magical kingdom|
Three years after the release of Shrek DreamWorks Animation released their first sequel, creating a film as good as the original. Fantastic new characters were introduced, played by an amazing voice cast, while the returning characters were all allowed their moment to shine also. Shrek 2's success made up for Sinbad's poor performance and proved that in the 21st Century, well-made fairy tales were still by far the most popular animated film format.
Shrek 2 is DreamWorks Animation's most successful animated film to date and was the most successful animated film ever until Toy Story 3 was released six years later.
The film continues the trend begun in the first film by spoofing Disney fairy tale films including The Little Mermaid, as well as popular culture such as The Lord of the Rings. This is perfectly encapsulated in 'The Fairy Godmother Song' which particularly references Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. Shrek 2 has also forever changed the assumption that a charming prince is the hero, a trend even Disney have followed in their films including Enchanted (2007) and Frozen (2014).
9. Shark Tale (2004)
|Directors||Vicky Jenson, Bibo Bergeron & Rob Letterman|
|Plot||Oscar is a fish with a dead-end job - he dreams of a better life, but is indebted to loan sharks. When he witnesses a shark's death he proclaims himself a Shark Slayer to gain fame and fortune, while the only other witness, Lenny, is a vegetarian shark who wishes to be free from his father's expectations and live his own life.|
|Setting||Under the Sea|
|Spin Off||Club Oscar (2004) short film|
|Logo||The boy fishing on the moon puts a worm on the line's hook, which is cast into the water where it attracts the attention of sharks.|
A film that somehow comes across as being both extremely shallow and out of its depth, especially in comparison to Pixar's Finding Nemo (2003). Both films have a father-son relationship as one of the central themes. Finding Nemo asked what it would be like if your family was eaten by predators, or if you had no long-term memory, and then provided heart-felt answers. Shark Tale asks 'what would Robert De Niro look like if he was a shark?' and 'what if a fish looked really, really sexy?'
The character of Oscar comes across like an aquatic clone of Donkey combined with some of the selfish elements of Shrek. As Donkey's singing had been such a success, we now have a rapping fish. Most of the jokes, referring to films such as The Godfather, completely miss the target audience of young children. The film did make DreamWorks Animation the first animation studio to release two CGI animated films in the same year, although some critics felt that this was at the expense of putting quantity in front of quality.
1998-2004 | 2005-2009 | 2010-2014