If you’re a regular visitor to this site, you’re probably familiar with my love for all things Disney. Even if Disney may be an evil corporate monster intent on sucking our wallets dry and brainwashing us through mind-controlling Mickey Mouse ears, their films are still a lot of fun. I grew up on all things Disney and Pixar, and maintain a fondness for their works even to this day.
But I’m occasionally prompted with a question: What about DreamWorks? In the vast field of animated cinema, no other studio has given the Disney/Pixar machine as great a run for their money and reputation as Jeffrey Katzenberg’s cartoon colossus. Sure, there’s been competition from Blue Sky, Sony, WAG, and the studio behind the Little Yellow Creatures That Must Not Be Named, but DreamWorks maintains seniority and profitability over them all.
Back in one of my very first Disney reviews, I casually mentioned that I did not consider myself a DreamWorks fan – I find that their films often care more about being “hip” than about being, y’know, good. But truthfully, there are a number of DreamWorks films I legitimately like, and a handful I even love. It’s just that there’s probably an equal number that I roll my eyes at.
It’s been 20 years since DreamWorks began regularly producing animated films (beginning with 1998’s Antz), and I’m taking the opportunity to look back at 20 of their films. This week, I’ll talk about the 10 best animated films that the studio has released. And next week (because my snark factor will need replenishing), I’ll talk about the 10 worst.
As a quick disclaimer: I’m limiting this list to one film per franchise. For example, I’m only allowing myself to put one Shrek film on the list, so as to allow for more variety. (Second disclaimer: There are no Shrek films on the “Best of” list. Sorry, Shrek.) I’ll mention other franchise films I enjoy as events warrant.
With all that out of the way, let’s count down the very best of DreamWorks Animation:
10. Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002))
Spirit is one of DreamWorks’ more traditional films, but at times, one of its most exciting as well. A 2-D animated story set in the Old West, it focuses on a free-running horse who’s captured by the US Cavalry and must find his herd. The film is heavy on action, beautifully rendered with spectacular animation.
The film’s most noteworthy aspect is its portrayal of Spirit and his fellow horses – though the animation grants them freedom of expression, they never speak. In an age when the “talking animal” cartoon cliché has been driven into the ground (most notably by… well, DreamWorks itself), it’s refreshing to see a film that can make animals compelling without anthropomorphizing them. (Well, with minor exception – Spirit’s inner monologue, supplied by Matt Damon, feels redundant and unnecessary.)
Spirit is not a particularly earth-shaking film, and it relies a bit too much on a wispy Bryan Adams soundtrack, but it’s among the more purely exciting films in the DreamWorks canon. Sadly, the film has fallen off the radar in recent years – but with a new TV series currently streaming on Netflix, perhaps animation fans will be encouraged to check out the original film anew.
9. Turbo (2013)
Few DreamWorks productions seem to be copping more from Pixar’s oeuvre than Turbo. It’s also one of the studio’s most unusual productions, focusing on a snail (Ryan Reynolds) who gains super-speed and decides to compete in the Indy 500.
It’s an absurd mix of A Bug’s Life, Cars, and The Incredibles, and there’s no way it should work. Yet I was surprised by just how much fun the film is. Turbo doesn’t waste much time with silly things like logic or exposition – it assumes the audience will just accept that a freak accident can give a bug superpowers, and then jets off to the races.
And those races! The climactic competition is terrifically staged and animated, and as thrilling as any to be found in the Cars franchise – or most live-action fare. Once it cuts past the setup, Turbo mostly reverts to formula, but it’s a successful formula that carries the film over the finish line. (And without making a lot of pit stops. Am I making too many racing puns?)
8. The Penguins of Madagascar (2014)
The Madagascar franchise is the rare animated film series that gets progressively better with each installment. The first film, released at the height of DreamWorks’ “hip talking animal” phase, was largely bland and forgettable. The second film improved on both a story and character level, but still felt forced in its humor. It was only in the third feature that directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath finally cut loose, delivering the manic energy we’d expect in a film about globetrotting zoo animals.
But even then, the franchise was still building momentum. The Penguins of Madagascar, which focuses on the series’ popular avian mascots (who had previously been spun off into a successful TV series), is the zaniest and most innovative film the series has yet produced. It sheds the main characters and the baggage of built-up continuity in favor of a lean and entertaining spy movie, as the penguins battle a villainous, megalomaniacal octopus named Dave (voiced by a delightfully hammy John Malkovich).
Spinoffs are often hit-and-miss, as they tend to throw secondary characters into outsized stories. But Penguins of Madagascar knows how to fine-tune the wackiness, only trying adults’ patience with an over-the-top climax. It’s a surprisingly good film, and one of DreamWorks’ funniest.
7. Chicken Run (2000)
The first film produced by Aardman Animations (a longtime subsidiary of DreamWorks) retells The Great Escape with poultry, as a group of English chickens hatch a plan to fly the coop. (Good lord, I’m awful.) The film boasts a lively (and, with the exception of Mel Gibson as a showboating rooster, mainly British) cast, and the stop-motion animation is top-notch.
The plot of Chicken Run is thoroughly predictable, but that proves not to be a liability. The strength of the film lies in its creative and inventive action sequences (the best taking place inside a pie-making machine), and in listening to actors like Miranda Richardson and Timothy Spall flex their vocals in animation. A fun film for kids and young-at-heart adults.
6. Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017)
As I’m writing this, the Captain Underpants movie hasn’t even aged a year. Yet I’d already place the film near the top of the DreamWorks pantheon, based both on the degree of difficulty involved in creating it and the subversive craftsmanship evident in the final product.
Based on the popular and inventive series of books by Dav Pilkey, Captain Underpants isn’t so much a sendup of the superhero genre (DreamWorks previously trafficked in that field with Megamind) as it is a playful, gleeful look at the whimsier side of childhood immaturities. Director David Soren (who previously helmed Turbo) keeps things minimalist – straight down to the budget, which stands as the lowest in the studio’s history – and Nicholas Stoller’s script finds wacky, disarming humor in the most unexpected of places.
Captain Underpants pays playful respect to its source material, and knows how to appeal to its Saturday-matinee target audience. (Do Saturday matinees still exist? Oh well, you know what I mean.) And adults may be surprised by how much of a kick they get out of the film.
5. Antz (1998)
DreamWorks’ very first feature remains one of its best, even if Woody Allen has since proven himself to be one of The Worst. It’s a smart and sophisticated commentary on caste systems and social hierarchies, all filtered through the miniature world of an anthill. (And, as I’ve noted in the past, it’s way better than A Bug’s Life.)
Antz was something fresh and different at the time it debuted – unlike the Disney-esque films that Fox Animation and Warner Premiere were debuting in the late ‘90s, DreamWorks’ debut film didn’t pander towards kids. (It was given a PG rating, a rarity for animated films in those days.) Instead, it offered up a coarse and cynical view of an ant’s world, finding deep humanity in the tiniest of crawlers. It’s a film that only gets better as its viewing audience grows older.
4. Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)
Yes, I’ve got two Aardman films on this list. But how could I bring myself to ignore the classic foibles of Wallace and Gromit? Much like the excellent short films that spawned this feature-length joyride, Curse of the Were-Rabbit isn’t overly concerned with depth or drama, but it’s never met a silly joke it doesn’t love, or a British cliché it won’t gleefully deconstruct.
I probably don’t need to give much of a pitch for this film (which took home the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, becoming the only DreamWorks film outside of Shrek to accomplish this feat). It’s structured like a classic whodunit, but with less emphasis on plot than on goofy humor and thrilling action (all of which blends together in a particularly great climax). Whether you’re already a fan of these characters, or a complete newbie to the world of Ardman, this film is worth its weight in (to use the script’s own words) 24-carrot gold.
3. How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)
The first How to Train Your Dragon film looks magnificent. Its flying sequences are spectacular, featuring some of the most sweeping visuals in all of CG animation. The film only suffers on a story level – while entertaining, and not “bad” by any stretch, the plot of the film comes off as rather generic and predictable.
But the sequel? A triumph on every level. How to Train Your Dragon 2 features a terrific story, balancing good-natured humor with tense and evocative drama. Its visuals, too, are even bolder and better than the first film, with epic aerial sequences competing with grounded character development.
Much like Toy Story 2, the sequel to How to Train Your Dragon takes an already strong concept and elevates it to true animation brilliance. I can only hope the series’ forthcoming third installment lives up to the greatness of this predecessor.
2. The Prince of Egypt (1998)
Though I admire its craft, scope, and groundbreaking effects, The Ten Commandments is among the most protracted and laborious films I’ve ever sat through. Far shorter and more compelling is The Prince of Egypt, which retells the story of Moses in rousing and visually spectacular fashion.
The film was the first in DreamWorks’ short-lived line of hand-drawn animated productions, and it’s a shame that the studio would quickly surrender all its works to CG. The animation in this film is some of the best I’ve ever seen, recreating the story’s most memorable moments (the plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea) in eye-opening detail. The excellent score, courtesy of the great Hans Zimmer, merely ices the cake.
It’s likely that young children (particularly those unfamiliar with the Bible) may be bored by this film. But The Prince of Egypt is perfectly watchable for older kids, as well as adults, and pretty much anyone who hasn’t the time or patience to sit through Cecil B. DeMille’s three-and-a-half-hour megapic.
1. Kung Fu Panda (2008)
You’ll notice that most of my picks for the cream of the DreamWorks crop avoid the lengthy gap of the 2000s (excluding Spirit and two Aardman films, which weren’t really made my DreamWorks per se). And that’s because, up until a few years ago, I was indeed quite dismissive of the studio, which I’d once dubbed “Pixar’s low-rent, chain-smoker second cousin.” (I was less inventive in those days.)
But the studio has thankfully improved over time, remembering that craft and nuance are more important to good filmmaking than wisecracking animal sidekicks. And the early signs of maturity were present in Kung Fu Panda. A well-written, well-cast, and often exciting riff on classic martial-arts filmmaking, the film quickly rose to the top of the studio’s pantheon, and has remained there ever since.
In Po (Jack Black), the film finds a delightful protagonist, a doughy cannonball thrown (literally, in the film) right in the mix of a tense and straight-arrow action film. The story is simple, but never dull, with a colorful cast (including Dustin Hoffman’s mentor and Ian McShane’s villain) and action scenes which heighten in stakes and thrills as the film progresses. It’s a thrill ride of a movie that entertains no matter how often I revisit it.
In the decade since its premiere, Kung Fu Panda has spawned two sequels (as well as a TV series and multiple short specials). I enjoy those sequels quite a bit, and they also rank among the better productions in the studio’s canon. But the first film remains at the peak – not just of the franchise, but of DreamWorks Animation as a whole.
Well, I hope you enjoyed the positive side. Tune in next week when I turn up the snark and discuss the ten worst DreamWorks films ever. Be warned: I pull no punches.