After the horrors of last week’s Shark Tale I had to give myself a gift of one of Dreamwork’s two Oscar winning films- Wallace and Gromit: the Curse of the Ware Rabbit. This film is made by Aardman Animation in partnership with Dreamworks. I don’t think of it as a true Dreamworks film but it is in the canon so I get to review it. 🙂
Wallace and Gromit are two characters created by director Nick Park as characters in a series of British stop motion shorts. Wallace is the stupid but well meaning inventor and Gromit is his genius dog. Most of the shorts are Wallace getting into trouble and Gromit finding a way to get him out of it. They are charming and full of laughs for the entire family.
Now they make their jump to the big screen, and fortunately they do it rather well. In Curse of the Ware Rabbit, Wallace (Peter Sallis) and Gromit are running a business to remove pesky rabbits from the towns gardens. There is great urgency because the rabbits are eating up all the jumbo sized prize gardens of the townsfolk.
One night Wallace sets up an experiment where he creates a Frankenstein Rabbit called the Ware Rabbit who starts terrorizing the neighborhood gardens. This includes Lady Tottington who becomes a love interest for Wallace.
Wallace and Gromit get on the case and all kinds of shenanigans occur.
This film is a complete delight. It’s funny, the animation is amazing and there is a nice heart to the relationship between Wallace and Gromit. Wallace may be stupid but they do love each other.
I also love Lady Tottington (Helena Bonham Carter) and the evil Lord Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes). It’s a comedy designed for kids but it has those British moments adults will enjoy also.
My only flaw with the film is occasionally the pacing can sag but then it picks back up again pretty quickly with a slapstick sequence or tender scene. Other than that I am glad it won the Oscar as I think it is Aardman’s best stop motion film followed by Shaun the Sheep Movie and Chicken Run. It’s definitely in the top 3 Dreamworks films if you include it in your ranking.
Honestly there is a side of me that just wants to say ‘this movie sucks and I hate it’ and be done with this review. I really have nothing nice to say about Shark Tale but for the sake of the series I will share with you my thoughts.
So here we go: Shark Tale is not really about a shark at all. It’s about a fish named Oscar who is a complete jerk and loser. You might not realize he is a fish because he stands upright and there are no bubbles or other fish-like attributes. All the fishes look more like lizards than fish and I hate that.
Oscar lives in an underwater city called Reef City where the main population is fish puns. We get such great humor as stars named Katie Current and Jessica Shrimpton. They also have a fast food restaurant called Fish King instead of Burger King- which is really kind of confusing when you think about it.
All this would be fine if the story was decent but it totally sucks. Oscar is a selfish creature who is constantly in debt and lying to all around him. Reef City is over-run with organized crime including Oscar’s boss Sykes and a group of sharks that are run like an Italian mob family.
One of these sharks is named Lenny (Jack Black) and his big shame is he is a vegetarian- a fact that is too feminine and weak for his crime boss father (Robert Deniro). They make a lot of mafia movie jokes and references. This can be funny like in Zootopia but they fall flat here. I didn’t laugh one time.
There is a groan worthy plot where Oscar gets mistaken as a mighty Sharkslayer and there is a media storm. The movie seems like it is trying to say something about media but it ends up feeling very cynical and strange.
There are also 2 female characters that are uncomfortable. Angie (Renee Zellweger) is the girl fish Oscar literally steals from and Lola (Angelina Jolie) is there to be a sexy temptation although why either would be wasting their time on Oscar I have no idea. Oscar is also a compulsive gambler and puts up Angie’s grandmother’s pearl at the track, which is a trashy thing to do (nice protagonist Dreamworks).
The only characters I remotely like are 2 jellyfish (Ziggy Marley and Doug E Doug) that are total Jamaican stereotypes but at least they are a little bit fun and they are supposed to be standing upright like that, so the animation is more pleasing.
The sentimentality between Lenny and his Dad at the end is completely unearned and tacked on and Oscar is never punished for lying and being a terrible fish.
I hate the animation in Shark Tale. I hate the humor. I hate the character designs. I hate the lack of bubbles and the fact it looks like it could be above the water. I hate the bloated celebrity voice cast. I hate the way the female characters are treated. I hate the lead protagonist Oscar. I hate the co -lead protagonist Lenny. I hate the mafia jokes and storyline. I hate all the puns and the patronizing humor for the adults.
There are a few good hip-hop songs which are fun but that’s about it.
I HATE THIS MOVIE!!!
It’s awful and is without a doubt one of the worst mainstream animated films of the last 20 years and definitely one of the worst to receive a Best Animated Movie Oscar nomination (For Shame!!).
If you have been following this Dreamworks series you probably recall I have the unpopular opinion of disliking the original Shrek movie. It’s basically a parody film and once I’ve heard the jokes they aren’t as funny to me on the rewatch. Aside from laughs the movie doesn’t have much going for it artistically or character-wise. So, what would I think about the sequel, Shrek 2? I still have some issues but it is a significant step up from the original (as Dreamworks tends to do. Their sequels are oddly often better than originals). Shrek 2 actually tells a creative story and doesn’t just make fun of the fairytale genre but subverts it in some clever ways.
To get things started, I probably have a different take on the introduction of the film than most. We get a musical montage that pokes fun at Spider-man, Little Mermaid, From Here to Eternity, Matrix, Lord of the Rings and more. These type of parody jokes where they mimic a scene from another film just aren’t funny to me. So, needless to say this movie gets off to a bad start.
However, it pretty quickly starts the story of Fiona taking Shrek to meet her parents who are sovereigns over the land of Far Far Away. I like that the kingdom is basically Hollywood and that Fairy Godmother is like a magical Oprah. These gags are funny because they actually have something to do with the narrative and aren’t just mimicking something we know and love for a joke.
Jennifer Saunders does terrific voice work as the Fairy Godmother and she is an entertaining villain- especially because we know the Fairy Godmother as a sweet rescuer in most stories. I particularly like the scene when she first appears to Fioana and sings a manic version of Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo.
The marriage dynamic between Fiona and Shrek is pretty well done. I like the idea of how much should you change to accommodate the person you love? It’s an interesting question and they explore it pretty well. I still wish Cameron Diaz was a better voice actor for Fiona but at least her dialogue is better than in the first film. The other fantastic addition to the cast is Antonio Banderas as Puss in Boots. Talk about perfect casting! He is funny. He is sweet. He is a swashbuckling knave. Also because he famously played Zorro it is easy to bring that persona to the role when you hear his voice. It is an example of celebrity voice acting paying off and adding more to the character.
Shrek is pretty unlikable in this movie, spending most of the time sulking and growling, about everything that happens. His saving grace is when he gets turned into a human and has to do some introspection on who he is and what he wants out of life.
The plot-line with Fiona’s parents and her father secretly being the Frog Prince feels a little on the nose to me. The voice acting by Julie Andrews and John Cleese is good but all the dialogue about accepting their daughter when she is ‘one of them’ can be more than a bit heavy handed. However, let’s face it the Shrek movies aren’t exactly known for their nuance and subtlety.
I also think Donkey feels a bit extraneous to me. He really isn’t needed for the story and so they end up working him in awkward ways. It makes the character more annoying than affecting when all he is there for is occasional commentary. It also doesn’t help that Puss in Boots is so much better than Donkey as a sidekick.
The pop music soundtrack also feels dated and doesn’t fit well with the story.
Overall Shrek 2 mostly works. It introduces 2 great new characters in Fairy Godmother and Puss in Boots. It actually tells a story and tries to give the characters dimension and heart. The animation is definitely a step up from the original and most of the voice acting is solid. I still don’t like the parody jokes, an unlikable Shrek and the Frog Prince story-line but the good outweigh the bad and I enjoyed watching it.
From 2003-2005 I did not see any feature films because I was on a mission for my church. There have been some films like The Incredibles (2004) that I have naturally caught up on but there are still many holes during those years. For example, the first Madagascar film I had never seen prior to this week. The only entry in the franchise I’d seen is the Penguins of Madagascar, which I enjoyed back in 2014. Unfortunately this first entry, Madagascar, isn’t as strong of a film and it left me a bit baffled at how 3 films were made.
I think what surprised me the most about this film is how horrible the animation was. Everything looked very strange and I thought it must have been released in 3D the way the heads of the characters kept flying towards the screen. I mean look at the image above. The neck on the giraffe would have to be 7 ft tall which is pushing it even for a giraffe. It looks so weird and there were many images like that.
Look at this zebra. His eyes are different sizes. His face looks strange and his mouth sticks out and is the size of his entire upper body. It looks so weird.
All of the characters are like that and the animation is also really jerky. Take a look at this clip of a birthday scene. Notice the way the characters heads jerk in front of the camera. It’s not the smooth and professional looking animation you expect from a major studio.
I also thought the story and characters were pretty pedestrian and bland. Basically Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock) is tired of the life of the zoo and he wants to break free (how many times have we seen that story?) while Alex the Lion (Ben Stiller) is fine being pampered. They eventually end up out of the zoo and have to find a way home. It’s pretty simple stuff we’ve seen a million times.
The best part of Madagascar is the voice acting which all works. It’s one of the examples where Dreamworks celebrity casting pay offs. Chris Rock is good as Marty, Ben Stiller as Alex and David Schwimmer as Melman. Most of the other characters aren’t given a ton to do but they fit well.
Also 2 groups of characters save the movie- the lemurs and penguins. The penguins are secret agent penguins that live at the zoo and are very funny. The lemurs live on the island and are ruled by King Julian voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen. They have a funny dance number and provide some unpredictability to the clunky script.
Other than that, I was pretty underwhelmed by Madagascar. The animation was bad. The story was pedestrian and boring. The characters were very predictable and bland. It certainly is shocking something so mediocre inspired 3 sequels. I’m told 2 and 3 get a lot better. Let’s hope so…
I’ll be honest I felt sad while watching today’s Dreamworks film- Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. It’s not because it is a particularly sad film; although, there are some sad sequences. It’s actually my 2nd favorite Dreamworks film and a severely underrated animated film. The reason I was sad is because it painted so clearly what we have lost in mainstream animation and will probably never get back again.
In many ways Spirit reminds me of an indie animated film like The Red Turtle last year. The stunning 2D animation let’s nature tell it’s own story without any tropes of current animation. There is no real villain. No cooky sidekick. No comic relief of any kind. It’s Black Beauty set in the old west- except even better in my opinion. Aside from narration, the characters don’t even talk to each other! There is no way such a project would be greenlit today- especially by Dreamworks and that makes me sad (need proof of that look at the terrible spin-off to Spirit on Netflix that has just aired. It’s the polar opposite of this film and its existence makes me very upset).
I mean just look at this animation! How stunning can you get? Even from Pixar I can’t think of the last time I saw such gorgeous animation from a mainstream studio. It tells so much of the story through those backgrounds and world building. We are immersed in the open wilderness and the Old West from the very beginning and it is breathtaking.
As far as the story goes, for Spirit it is pretty simple. Like Black Beauty, it is the story of a horse named Spirit. We hear a voice-over narration from Matt Damon (a more Old West voice might have been better like a Sam Eliot or someone like that but it works). We then see Spirit get separated from his family, taken by a Custer-like General who thinks he can tame the free spirit out of this horse. Oh how wrong he is! In a lesser movie he would be the villain but he really isn’t here. He’s just a general trying to tame a horse. That’s a different way of looking at the world than Spirit does but not evil.
Spirit then meets a Lakota Native named Little Creek and while he is no more successful in taming Spirit they understand and respect each other better. I really liked the chemistry the 2 had with each other. It was palatable even though it was a horse and a man.
There are other events that happen with the railroad and a female named Rain that all work and are very compelling. Whatever is going on with Spirit in the film it never gets maudlin or preachy. It is bold storytelling at its best. Some don’t care for the Bryan Adams music but I like it. They could have picked something with more of a country vibe but I think it works and the songs are nice.
When I think of The Boss Baby and how devoid of creativity that was and then think of Spirit and how ambitious and beautiful it is, it makes me sad. We have lost something in our desire to sell tickets that I don’t know if we will ever get back again. I hope so but I certainly don’t see it coming back in beautiful 2D anytime soon. It’s really quite sad.
At least we still have Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron to watch and remember the days when Dreamworks animation tried to make art not just money.
Some of these Dreamworks reviews I must own I am not looking forward to and some I’ve already reviewed on this blog. The 2000 film The Road to El Dorado would be true on both counts. Back in 2015 I reviewed the film, and I really hated it. I gave it an F, in fact, which is pretty rare for me with animation.
I have now seen it a second time and is it still the “tawdry insulting junk” of my last watch? Well, yes and no. I still hate it but it has a few more pluses than maybe I admitted on the first watch. Unfortunately, it’s just hard to give a movie a pass that I find wildly racist and misogynistic which is the case with The Road to El Dorado…
Let’s talk about the positives. First of all, the animation, particularly the backgrounds, are beautiful. Every background has a watercolor feel and is rich with layers and color. They clearly did their homework and captured the Mexican landscape and Mayan temples well.
While no Lion King, Elton John does give us some decent songs including the catchy It’s Tough to be a God
So, that’s my positives. Now for the negatives.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on Mayan culture or anything like that but it really bothers me how the native people are portrayed in this film. I get that white worship actually happened, and I get that the sacrificial tribe is a trope seen in many movies like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the original King Kong. All of that I understand. However, usually when these rituals are portrayed it is with a certain degree of reverence and solemnity. You feel afraid for the white people because the natives have their beliefs and the two groups can’t communicate anything different with each other. The natives aren’t necessarily wrong. They just have different beliefs that put our heroes in peril.
In The Road to El Dorado, they can communicate and the natives are so stupid and the rituals and culture are treated like such a joke it’s hard for me to watch. For instance, in an early scene you see the natives throwing heaps of gold into the water. Even if you buy they had this much gold there is no sense of gravitas or awe at this sacrifice. It is treated like ‘oh those stupid natives’.
The leader of the natives Tannabok is given so many opportunities to see that Tulio and Miguel are bad news and he never suspects or questions. It made him look really stupid and I felt it was demeaning. Meanwhile, the villain of the movie Tzekel-Kan figures out they aren’t Gods and is treated as a sniveling bad guy when I actually related to him the most! Never a good sign.
Part of my other problem with the portrayal of the natives is I find Miguel and Tulio to be irredeemably unlikable. This makes it super awkward when they are worshiped only because of the color of their skin. They are not friendly or kind but real jerks to all involved (they are even annoying and unlikable to each other). They have no problems stealing the natives treasure and making all kinds of demands. It makes me very uncomfortable.
You are also supposed to be invested in a female love interest for Tulio named Chel. She is supposed to be strong because she figures out the con, but she quickly becomes a puppet for whatever the boys want to do. She turns on her own people and is willing to steal without much discussion or hesitation. She also wears a pretty slinky outfit and at one point clearly has sex with Tulio, which made me very uncomfortable for a Dreamworks film. Her relationship with Tulio was one of many ways she is a flat character ruled by the whims of the male characters. This movie definitely doesn’t pass the Bechtel test that’s for sure! She was a total miss for me.
Like I said, there are some good things about this film but I find the bad to sink any enjoyment I get out of it. It is unpleasant to watch and I at least can’t get over the racism and misogyny on display. If Miguel and Tulio had been more likable maybe I could have gone along with it but they aren’t and yet they are worshiped? No thank you! Plus, they are never held to account for all the gold they steal and what they are about to do. They ride off into the sunset having had a great adventure. Never mind the chaos you left behind! Ugh
If you have been reading this blog for some time you know I am not often a fan of Dreamworks comedies. The parody style of humor just isn’t my thing. However, every once in a while they produce a Mr Peabody and Sherman that I do like, so I always go in with an open mind (why waste my time if I decide ahead of the movie I’m not going to like it?). Fortunately, their newest film Captain Underpants: the First Epic Movie is such a welcome surprise. It is not only very funny but extremely creative in the animation to boot.
One of the things that makes Captain Underpants special is it was made for a micro-budget of only $38 million! Dreamworks outsourced the film to a separate studio called Mikros Images in Canada as kind of an experiment in more manageable movie-making. This smaller budget forced the team to be creative with the animation and storytelling and it shows. They even joke about it once during an action scene where the narrator says ‘this would have been very expensive but here’s what would have happened!” LOL.
I was so impressed by the way the movie uses different types of animation to tell the story. It is of course based on the popular books by Dav Pilkey but this isn’t just made for the fans of the books. The main animation has a flat yet 3D effect similar to what we saw from Blue Sky in The Peanuts Movie (an underrated film if you ask me!), but the film doesn’t stop there. It incorporates 2D animation, both sketch and traditional styles, and even has a live action sock puppet sequence! These choices weren’t merely gimmicks but kept the movie feeling fresh and surprising.
The other strength of Captain Underpants is how funny it is. Nicholas Stoller who wrote The Muppets and Storks has upped his game making a hilarious script. It does have a lot of toilet humor and normally I hate that but for whatever reason in this film I laughed. I’ve even seen it twice and both times I’ve laughed (sometimes more than the kids around me. True story!). I think part of it is the movie goes for broke not holding back. They even have a character named Professor Poopypants and it consistently made me laugh.
I think it also helps that the two lead boys Harold and George are so likable and charming. They have big smiles and all the pranks and silliness they do is to make the kids at their terrible school happy. I loved the creativity of the boys and that they were designing their own comic books and stories. This is a good example for kids who spend too much time consuming entertainment and not creating their own art.
I loved that the two boys were effortlessly diverse- meaning you had a black and white kid and it did not matter at all. It was never mentioned or made a plot point. They were just friends as they should be. It was also very funny that the greatest trauma in their lives is getting put in separate classes. I remember as a kid anxiously waiting to find out if my friends would be in the same class as me. Harold says “long distance relationships never work out” LOL.
It’s interesting because out of all the characters Captain Underpants is probably the most forgettable part. He is part strict principal and part superhero, which is fun, but he mainly serves as a touch-point for the boys to react off of. I liked the boys so much I was kind of glad they were the main focus.
I really only have 2 small complaints about Captain Underpants. The first is I wish they had used children as the voice actors. Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch are fine (Ed Helms as Captain Underpants) but it would have been more immersive if they sounded like children.
In the next movie it would be nice to get to know some of the other kids (you do meet tattle-tale Melvin voiced by Jordan Peele). Again to use The Peanuts Movie as an example, we get to meet more than just Charlie Brown and Snoopy but the whole gang instead. Hopefully there will be a Second Epic Movie because I really enjoyed this introduction!
Captain Underpants: the First Epic Movie is made for children. It doesn’t have the winking adults-only humor that I hate in animation. It’s humor for kids but it still made me chuckle. The animation is surprising and inventive and the friendship of the boys gives the whole project heart. Check it out and support this new style of filmmaking from Dreamworks!
Today we get to look at one of the oddest entries in the Dreamworks Canon- their 1998 film Antz. This film was not only loaded with controversy but has more subplots, characters and ideas than it knows what to do with.
Let’s start with the controversy: After the success of Toy Story in 1995, Pixar began developing their next picture that would revolve around a colony of ants. This became A Bug’s Life. At the same time, executive Jeffrey Katzenberg left Disney in a feud with then CEO Michael Eisner. Then in a very fishy move Dreamworks also developed their own ant movie under Katzenberg’s leadership, Antz.
In my opinion Antz is the inferior film over A Bug’s Life but aside from being ants they are actually quite different. A Bug’s Life is more of a traditional hero narrative where Antz is a hodge-podge of story elements focusing more on the colony than on one particular ant.
The lead character in Antz is a neurotic bug named Z voiced by Woody Allen. There are a lot of jokes meant for adults in this movie, and many of these come from Allen with his deadpan style of humor. It feels like such an odd choice to have Woody Allen waxing philosophical in a kid’s ant movie. I’m used to him as more of an R rated figure and so it’s a bit jarring to hear his voice and type of ramblings in a Dreamworks movie. However, the movie does move away from him for long stretches with subplots involving a soldier named Weaver, a princess named Bala and a worker ant named Azteka.
On the other hand, the main strength of Antz is how nutty and strange it is. It combines 8 different kinds of movies into one. It’s at all times a romcom, war, dystopian, road trip, fantasy, prison escape and children’s movie all in one. This can make it unpredictable and fun to watch. I never know quite what it is going to do or what is happening next.
There are also a ton of characters in Antz. I counted 16 named characters with vocal work. And not only do they have all of these characters, but they all look the same with the brown color palate. Most I wouldn’t be able to tell apart if it wasn’t for the voice actors.
While it can be fun to have all these plot points and characters. it can also be overwhelming. It’s tonally all over the place with a massive battle scene happening one minute and playful banter at an ant landfill the next.
Some of the rules of the world building also don’t make sense. The ants are kept under strict routines and follow orders yet there is a long sequence at a bar where ants drink quite a bit including the princess (she’s sneaking but still). What kind of workers paradise is this place? I don’t know but it is just kind of all over the place.
With all the characters there are so many relationships and friendships to keep track. Because they all look the same the only way I knew who was who was the vocal work (one time when the celebrity vocal work actually helped Dreamworks). Still, for a kid it could be a very confusing film to watch.
The message also becomes muddled. Is it anti-war? Is it teamwork? Is it individualism or collectivism? Is it never give up and forgive others? Is it revolt against tyrants? All of that is in there but it feels very confusing.
A part of me wants to give Antz a smile worthy just out of shear strangeness. In a world of cookie-cutter movies at least it tries a bunch of weird stuff. It does score some laughs and is moderately entertaining but it is also a jumbled mess of a film. It’s not very rewatchable or visually appealing to me.
I am definitely much more of A Bug’s Life girl but I’m not going to give that many smiles to Dreamworks so this one is just barely entertaining enough to get one.
One of the frustrating things about reviewing Dreamworks films is many of their movies come close to being good but can’t quite pull it off. Particularly their comedies often have great casts, promising premises, inviting animation but the jokes fall flat leaving me annoyed. Over the Hedge, made in 2006, is no exception to this rule.
In fact, Over the Hedge is particularly frustrating because it starts out with such potential! I kind of wish it had just been a 30 minute short because that first 30 minutes is great. Unfortunately, it can’t hold that momentum for the 83 minutes run-time and becomes a generic at best kids movie.
The set up is a raccoon named RJ becomes indebted to a bear for stealing his food. To pay the debt he must replace the food in a weeks time. He stumbles upon a bunch of forest creatures waking up from hibernation and begins to school them on the glories of human food consumption. This sequence is the highlight of the movie:
This food glory sequence is funny because it is relevant social commentary. It still makes me laugh how it shows driving and dressing like food. From an alien perspective (or animal) we really do focus way too much on food in America. There’s no doubt about it and that is funny.
However, once this setup is over the rest of Over the Hedge becomes a Toy Story rip-off. Verne the turtle is Woody and RJ is the new hip Buzz. You have a ton of other characters voiced by famous comedians but they aren’t really given anything to do (Plus they repeat the same jokes over and over again). Bruce Willis, Garry Shandling, Steve Carell, William Shatner, and Wanda Sykes are all wasted in their roles.
The last act of the movie is the animals trying to steal food from a woman who has a heavily fortified house. Why wouldn’t they just pick another house? It’s a subdivision so they have lots to chose from. It’s clearly just to manufacture tension and a dramatic car chase scene at the end. Instead, it all feels like filling time, like they were stretching 30 minutes of an idea into over an hour, which is probably accurate.
It is very predictable and nothing really engages the viewer. We know RJ is lying to the crew and exactly when he is going to feel bad, be exposed and make up with everyone. Formula movies are fine but there needs to be more to entertain than in this.
I also think it is a little weird the characters spend the entire movie stealing from the humans and are never really punished for this. Not the greatest example for kids!
As a plus the animation is pretty decent and kids will be moderately entertained by it. It’s not awful but not very memorable either. I would say watch the first 20 minutes and then find something else to do with your day!