Having served as a consultant on the original Kung Fu Panda, I’ve been able to observe the rise and fall of DreamWorks SKG Animation from both sides. It’s done remarkably well, considering that it started with an ax to grind. Jeffrey Katzenberg (the “K” in SKG), having felt underappreciated during his time at Walt Disney Productions, first used DreamWorks both as an attack vehicle (rushing out Antz hoping to damage A Bug’s Life box office) and a lampoon (Shrek was designed to poke fun at all things Disney).
As the years progressed, not much changed in the company’s motivations. In fact, Kung Fu Panda was the first wholly original film they made that wasn’t created to destabilize a Disney film (that I know of). Then, when How to Train Your Dragon (still one of my favorite cartoon movies) appeared, I thought DreamWorks had finally turned the corner. They could now be their own force for good movies, and leave their anti-mouse pettiness behind.
Then some strange things happened. At the time I wondered why most of How to Train Your Dragon’s major Viking characters spoke in thick Scottish accents, then Pixar’s Brave appeared, having suffered a major upheaval (the original director replaced with a direct-to-video veteran and a late-in-the-film plot twist copied from a minor Disney film [Brother Bear] of a few years prior) … at about the time How to Train Your Dragon premiered.
Worse, however, was that the Panda and Dragon sequels were pale plagiarisms — as if the filmmakers had been instructed to turn striking into stereotypical. To my dismay, the subsequent DreamWorks Animations followed suit, with a vengeance. It truly came to a head with Peabody and Sherman, based on a beloved cartoon in which an educated, erudite, canine continually points out the absurdity of human behavior. The DreamWorks version, however, spade Sherman and neutered Peabody.
The box office followed suit, as the uninspired animations continued, until DreamWorks was recently sold to NBCUniversal, with Katzenberg ceding control of the Animation department. Which finally brings us to Trolls, the final official release of the original DreamWorks Animation company. Is this the happy ending? Is this the triumphant return to form? After all, it showcases quirky toys created by a Danish designer in the 1930s and features the talents of Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick, among many others.
In a word: no. In another word: sad. In a third word: disappointing. Without a Disney/Pixar film to play off of, the brightly colored, nicely designed fairy tale about ogres who find a drug-high-like happiness by ingesting the singing, dancing title characters plays out flat, unfocused, unimaginative, illogical, and dull – with every intriguing or good idea suggested by the story left unexplored. Even one of the main selling points, the music, is handled in a predictable, uninspiring, even generic way.
DreamWorks Animation is dead. Long live a new, improved, return to Kung Fu Panda 3-form, DreamWorks.