The Unheralded Imagination of Early DreamWorks Animation

Remembering the genuine creative risks of DreamWorks’ early repertoire, and the heat death of traditional animation.
By  · Published on May 18th, 2017

Remembering the genuine creative risks of DreamWorks Animation’s early repertoire, and the heat death of traditional animation.

When DreamWorks was founded in the fall of 1994, Jeffrey Katzenberg had the most to lose. Unlike his co-conspirators Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, Katzenberg was out of a job. He’d just been unceremoniously ousted by Michael Eisner, the man with whom he’d masterminded the Disney Renaissance. Katzenberg devoted himself to DreamWorks Animation. Back then it was comprised of defected Disney staff, Pacific Data Images, and employees from Amblimation, Spielberg’s short-lived animation branch. It was a gutsy and audacious vision: to launch Hollywood’s first new studio in decades; to create an environment reminiscent of the early days of United Artists; to compete with the industry elite and push for more innovative and emotionally mature storytelling.

Depending on which Boss Babies you ask, DreamWorks hasn’t exactly kept to this ideological path. In 2004, Geffen acknowledged that “[their] eyes were bigger than [their] stomachs,” and that the dream of an independent studio free from conglomerates had failed. Of course, the disparaging remarks volleyed at DreamWorks rarely have to do with its corporate structure. DreamWorks is regularly accused of creative stagnation and brand dilution; of being saturated with sequels and redefining (for the worse) what is “safe and conformist about mainstream theatrical animated films.” Are these allegations fair? Yes and no. But to whatever degree DreamWorks’ bad rap is justified, they’re still losing an image battle with Disney. When a Pixar film underperforms it’s “DreamWorks good,” when a DreamWorks film succeeds, it’s an anomaly.

At some point, DreamWorks stopped producing animated films and started producing cartoons. And while there is certainly a defense in categorically fantastic films like Kung Fu Panda 2 and How to Train Your Dragon, I rarely see an appreciation for DreamWorks’ early canon. When I do, the praise tends to focus on and anatomize one particular film. On the rare occasions when it is considered holistically, it’s as a curious historical footnote to DreamWorks’ embrace of CGI. There is, I think, an unsung boldness to DreamWorks’ early repertoire; an earnest and fiercely imaginative filmography that is worth remembering.

Antz (1998)

Dir. Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson

Antz was the edgier bug cartoon of 1998. A reputation garnered through the mistaken assumption that all animation is for young kids, as well as through comparisons to Pixar’s A Bug’s Life. While the films don’t actually have that much in common, Antz does a better (if less subtle) job of leaning into themes of individualism, community, and where to draw the line. The animation is more darkly-toned and grounded; fitting for a story flush with existential wit and glumly funny political commentary. I’d also be remiss not to mention that Antz features a surprisingly striking anti-war scene when queen-sympathizing soldiers are unglamorously massacred by the neighboring termite colony. With a distinctive design and a then-fresh tone, Antz’ unflinching commitment to its deeply weird world is praiseworthy.

Prince of Egypt (1998)

Dir. Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, and Simon Wells

Prince of Egypt is, simply put, “one of the best-looking animated films ever made.” Employing CGI as an aid rather than a substitute, the sense of scale is outlandishly gorgeous as well narratively resonant. The parting of the Red Sea, in particular, seems expressly made for animation. Coupled with dazzling music and lyrics by Hans Zimmer and Stephen Schwartz respectfully, it’s a spectacle in every sense of the word. More than anything, PoE triumphs by choosing to make its story more human, focusing on the strains and cracks in Moses and Ramses’ relationship as their responsibilities come into conflict. Prince of Egypt is rife with old Hollywood ambition, endowing its religious subject matter with respect and accessibility. Its scope, both emotional and aesthetic, takes full advantage of the medium.

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Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).