Last week Dreamworks Animation announced their upcoming slate and to call it busy is something of an understatement. They’ve been increasingly prolific with their output in recent years, but they have kicked it up a notch as they plan to release twelve films in four years, mostly originals with a couple of sequels and spin offs. It’s part of a new distribution deal with Fox, and whilst cynics may dismiss this as a cash grab, the variety of titles and ideas suggests that Dreamworks’ recent creative surge looks set to continue.
The future of Dreamworks Animation looks a little like this (all dates apply to the US): The Croods (March 2013); Turbo (July 2013); Mr Peabody and Sherman (November 2013); Me and My Shadow(March 2014); How To Train Your Dragon 2 (June 2014); Happy Smekday! (November 2014); The Penguins of Madagascar (March 2015); Trolls [working title] (June 2015); B.O.O.: Bureau of Otherworldly Operations (November 2015); Mumbai Musical [working title] (December 2015); Kung Fu Panda 3 (March 2016); How To Train Your Dragon 3 (June 2016)
The Chief Creative Officer for Dreamworks, Bill Damaschke, describes the announcement as “the result of the amazing work and devotion from DreamWorks Animation’s vast roster of directors, producers and artistic talent over many years.” The cast and crews they have assembled for these projects certainly look as promising as Damaschke’s enthusiasm suggests. The Croods is directed by one half of the Dragons directing team Chris Sanders, and stars Nic Cage, Ryan Reynolds and Emma Stone. Reynolds is also set to appear in Turbo, alongside Paul Giamatti and Richard Jenkins as well as many others (the newly named Snoop Lion will make an appearance). They’ll be voicing a script co-written by Robert Siegel, who wrote The Wrestler. Elsewhere, they’ve drafted in Lion King director Rob Minkoff, and voice talent as varied as Stephen Colbert and Alison Janney. These do not look like the efforts of a half-hearted studio merely wanting to rake in the cash. Snoop Lion (and perhaps Ryan Reynolds) aside, these are quality names assembled just for the first two of their long list of upcoming films. Having the names of Giamatti, Jenkins and Siegel behind your film are enough to make critics round the world uncomfortably excited.
It’s not just the talent behind them that ramp up anticipation for these films, but the ideas, too. Admittedly, there are the usual themes coming through of ‘discovering the meaning of friendship’, and more than one ‘odd couple’ scenario, but both Pixar and Dreamworks have been doing these for years and often with great success. Not only that, but there appears to be a freshness to some of the ideas that means they will hopefully rise above more standard blockbuster animations.
Most intriguing is the distant prospect of Mumbai Musical, which the Dreamworks site describes as “the studio’s first ever Bollywood-style animated musical adventure inspired by the great Indian epic tale of the Ramayana but told from the point of view of the monkeys.” It’s a premise so out-there for a mainstream animation studio, I’ll be surprised if it does actually get made.
But there’s more of interest. Me and My Shadow will combine traditional and CG animation (already something to get excited by) to tell the story of a shadow who is more adventurous than the timid boy he is attached to. There’ll undoubtedly be a standard resolution of boy and shadow working together and becoming true friends, but it sounds promising at least. The Croods will be about cavemen, and Turbo will be about a snail who dreams of racing in the Indy 500 (sounds like a premise Pixar would have once come up with). Not only that but their sequels are also part of their two best franchises, How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda. Both have displayed the studio’s capacity for stunning animation and, in Dragons in particular, telling stories with real heart. Whether The Penguins of Madagascar is entirely necessary, however, remains to be seen.
Right at the beginning of the studio, Dreamworks made a bold choice with The Prince of Egypt; for a fledgling outfit to release a children’s film about a vengeful God who, at one point, kills lots of children, was an incredibly daring move. Their second traditionally animated film covered Spanish colonialism in central America, also not an especially easy topic. This innovation seriously petered off after a while, lost in a mass of talking animals with annoying smirks, and for a long time their films made very little impact. But recently the studio has undergone something of a renaissance, as Dragons, Pandas 1 & 2 and even Madagascar 3 have received critical plaudits, and they have returned to making story and character driven films that look amazing.
With the upcoming Rise of the Guardians, which looks set to be their best yet, it is perhaps time to reassess the position of Dreamworks on the rostrum of great animation studios. They may not be the most consistent, and their tendency towards cheap pop-culture gags so frequently lets them down, but they are definitely able to make top tier animated films, and with this latest batch of films on the horizon, it seems as though things are only going to improve.