The whole inception of the DreamWorks company feels like a revenge fantasy. During Disney’s tumultuous 80s, Jeffrey Katzenberg was head of the Feature Animation department, and under his management, the company eventually started generating hit after hit, ushering in what we know as the Disney Renaissance, with classics like Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King. He also helped secure deals to partner with Miramax Films and Pixar Studios. So, clearly, a pretty pivotal guy. When Frank Wells, president of the company and CEO Michael Eisner’s right-hand man, died in a helicopter accident in 1994, Eisner refused to promote Katzenberg to his position. This led to a large falling out between the two men, causing Katzenberg to leave the company.
But he’d show ’em. He’d show all of ’em…
With record executive David Geffen and directorial legend Steven Spielberg, Katzenberg co-founded DreamWorks SKG (with their initials, of course), a new film studio with Katzenberg taking the helm for their animation department. At this point, Disney’s films were without parallel in terms of dominating the market, but now a new competitor was beginning to emerge. While they churned out a few traditionally animated films in their early days, Katzenberg knew the future was in all-CG, so it wasn’t long before the company devoted all its focus toward digital. But eventually the company’s stock truly soared thanks to a big green ogre named Shrek. In 2001, Shrek was a monstrous hit, both critically and commercially. That year, the Academy Awards featured a new category: Best Animated Feature, and Shrek beat out Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, but more importantly, Disney-Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. Katzenberg truly had his F-you to his former employers.
Now, this is all just me projecting my own story onto what really happened. I’m sure none of this was that petty… but I’m sure a little of it must be true. But the fact that DreamWorks’ inception seems to be born of retaliation against Disney is very interesting to me, especially if you look at their early films. They’re darker, grittier, and a bit nastier. There’s the famous story about the early workings of Toy Story, where Katzenberg saw the early story reels and demanded the writing be more edgy, and Woody be more of a sarcastic, nasty quipster. The resulting revision was a much more vile piece, which Katzenberg criticized again, despite his notes being honored. The folks at Pixar then said screw the notes, we’re going to make the film we want to make, and the rest is just history. But now with Katzenberg running the show, these are the films that he wants to make, and you can certainly see the crassness; a sort of subversive, offball, more “adult” alternative to the squeaky-clean Disney brand.
DreamWorks has taken a lot of flack over the years for numerous reasons: supposedly stealing ideas, over-reliance on celebrity stunt-casting and pop culture references as jokes, its penchant for bathroom humor and cheap laughs… Its catalog of films are very sporadic in terms of tone, quality and level of success. And I haven’t watched a lot of these in many a moon. But at a short glance, it’s amazing how much change has happened in not even fifteen years, comparable to how much change happened with Disney over seventy years. They’ve truly evolved as movie makers, and in my opinion are really heading in the right direction. But how did we get here? Is there merit in their older, shakier work? Well, I’m here to clear all that up, hopefully. I’ll be reviewing the 22 films of the DreamWorks canon thus far, just as I did the other Disney blog. I’ll try to take each film and look at it as fairly and subjectively as possible, and hopefully have some fun in the process. So, let’s go, shall we?