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The Dreamworks Dilemma

Dreamworks’ current business struggles exist because it’s too busy spreading brands instead of building them.

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This NYTimes’ writeup reads like a parody of a press release of a press release. Dreamworks Animation is rolling out a “comeback campaign” of the iconic character of Lassie, pushing the canine not as a rebooted movie star, but as a merchandise icon – a face that, most likely, will be plastered on several toys and backpacks and studio backlots and canine-related goods. Lassie, who hasn’t been significantly in the public conversation since the 70s, will be forced upon us in a prepackaged mold along the line of Grumpy Cat and Doge, and of course, we all know how well corporate-backed memes work out, no matter how much money you put behind them. Time will tell if this is an effective strategy, but this pretty much a striking example of everything that Dreamworks is doing wrong.

As the article notes, Dreamworks Animation has lost money in the last two quarters, due to its underperforming films, which has also led to a wave of firings. Arguably, it forced the studio to switch the premieres of Home and The Penguins of Madagascar: the belief being that the more well-known property will do better financially than the original one, thus helping its bottom line for at least the end of the year. Beyond that though, if one were to actually look at the more specific dealings that Dreamworks have been engaging in, collectively, it reeks of desperation. No one would fault the company for its desire to put itself into as many avenues of content production as possible, producing series for broadcast networks, Netflix, and Youtube – the future of entertainment is there, somewhere, and it’s good to have a foot in the ground floor of all of them – but it makes Dreamworks seem distracted and chaotic, spreading its resources thin to produce mediocre, sub-par content.

To get into the company’s current mistakes, we should begin years ago, when the successes of Madagascar, How to Train Your Dragon, Kung Fu Panda, and even Monsters Vs. Aliens, put Dreamworks Animation up there along side Pixar as a studio that pushed the boundaries of animated cinema. Prior to that point, Dreamworks was a laughing stock, that silly company that made Shark Tale and Shrek, a franchise that is increasingly looked upon as a joke (in fairness, its declining-in-quality sequels contributed to that). The successes of those later films didn’t give Dreamworks the kind of critical consensus that Pixar had at that time, but it proved that the studio could produce enjoyable content not stewing in pop culture references, content with large worlds, rich ideas, and, most importantly, visual variety. (Madagascar brought decent Looney Tunes-esque quality to CGI, a feat almost thought impossible; How to Train Your Dragon created soaring, breath-taking flight visuals; Kung Fu Panda made incredible, thrilling fight-sequences. Monsters Vs. Aliens was just coasting: it’s a pretty terrible, forgettable film.)

Deals were put in place to create TV series out of them, which is nothing new, of course. Disney was doing that with great success in the late 90s. Penguins of Madagascar was the first one out, followed by Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness, and while the quality of these two shows varies (Penguins of Madagascar had more good than bad episodes; Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness, more bad than good), there was a tight focus of pushing these properties through the Nickelodeon partnership, and they were helmed with talented animation producers, who worked on classic shows like Kim Possible and Darkwing Duck. With Monsters Vs. Aliens and Dragons: Riders of Berk coming up the pipeline, a Nick/Dreamworks block of animated shows seemed both ideal and inevitable, like Marvel’s deal with Disney and DC’s deal with Cartoon Network. The truest form of synergy in action.

Then a lot of things broke down. Disney bought Marvel, which meant the original Marvel shows had to be cancelled and “redone,” which threw fans for a loop. CN gave up on DC’s properties so haphazardly, with only Teen Titans Go! being the only thing left. Nick was going through its own quiet mini-transition, doubling down on its live-action properties, which left Penguins languishing and Kung Fu Panda only intermittently aired. They were already committed to Monsters vs. Alien, which received a mild marking push, and only netted a single, mediocre season. It didn’t help that Monsters. Vs. Aliens is a weak film, with characters that weren’t strong or appealing enough to carry a series. But Dreamworks was committed; we could arguably say the company’s current “throw it at the wall and see what sticks” mentality when it comes to branding began here.

Curiously, Dragons: Riders of Berk was sold to CN, which should’ve been given to Nick to push for that “Dreamworks Animation Block”. The thing is, CN was going through a very rocky period, with Stu Snyder causing havoc. (His dismissal didn’t help Dragon’s cause, as the current slate of CN’s lineup and TV show pickups clearly indicate the network is going for a signature look.) That being said, Dragons: Riders of Berk is a visually nifty show, even for TV, but is lackluster and dry, lacking any sense of character development. Its emphasis on creating “new” dragons was less a way to explore the world of Berk and more an excuse to line toy stores with new dragon action figures. Add to it the network’s mild marketing push as well, and it’s a wonder anyone watched the show at all.

Dreamworks first two forays into network TV animation had quality control standards, but it’s clear that their minds were elsewhere. The company was, and still is, fascinated with spreading its brand(s) around, without meticulously improving them. In particular, the company has been investing heavily into online acquisitions, like this purchase of AwesomenessTV and its own Dreamworks TV initiative. The number of views these videos have are middling, but what strikes me is how greatly unnecessary they are. Random classic clips from old cartoons that the company acquired the rights to are sprinkled in with really strange “character chats,” where Dreamworks characters like Po and Puss in Boots and Shrek blandly talk “to the audience” about goofy topics, topics that would appeal to seven-year-olds. Indeed, it seems like Dreamworks is treating these characters like extras from Sesame Street, but at least that show was willing to talk about jail, death, and war.

The company’s flailing TV and Youtube properties are one thing, but the string of poor-performing movies after that truly hurt the company’s stocks. Dreamworks’ lack of focus has led to disappointments like Rise of the Guardians, Turbo, and Mr. Peabody and Sherman. Only The Croods did decent, which only garnered it a sequel (I assume it’s not getting a TV show because none of the major kids networks are biting into the “movie-to-TV-show” trend anymore). How to Train Your Dragon 2 only just made significant revenue (by the studio’s standard) due to global box office performances, but its weak domestic opening threw a lot of financial predictions into disarray (and Dragons: Riders of Berk’s mediocrity couldn’t have helped – but that’s the issue. Dreamworks clearly doesn’t see the property as something to build upon, collectively, like Marvel does, but more as a name brand that should just be “out there” and generate money.) It’s hard to say if the studio really cares through, since the only result was several layoffs and an even more aggressive push to spread the Dreamworks brand around. By this point, they had set their eyes on Netflix.

Agreeing to produce 300 hours of content for Netflix, Dreamworks is aiming to fill that content with series based on King Julian from Madagascar, Puss in Boots, and Veggie Tales. Add to the list Turbo FAST, based on the lackluster Turbo, which currently has fifteen episodes on Netflix right now. It’s a grand experiment. Netflix is only releasing this show five episodes at a time, partly due to kids eagerness to rewatch shows, partly due to the massive time-sink in producing the episodes. Titmouse does a fantastic job with a thoroughly mediocre property; I should also give props to the writers for dropping any pretext from the film and creating a goofier, looser show from the ground-up – a “Rescue Rangers meets Amazing World of Gumball” type of program. The most recent five, though, were more scatterbrained and felt a bit lazier, like weaker Regular Show episodes. Is this part of Dreamworks continued inability to focus on one thing at a time? Maybe.

After all, Dreamworks is now developing a film for Hot Stuff, which may be the most inexplicable idea from Dreamworks to date. The company is also reworking Felix the Cat into a marketing brand, which sounds slightly smarter but twice as cynical, similar to the Lassie “branding”. There are rumors circling though that there may be a Felix the Cat TV show in the works, which at least gives this idea some weight. Dreamworks is doubling down on its TV animation division, which makes sense for its upcoming Netflix properties, but also adds to the growing sense that studio is culling talent less to cultivate its properties and more to just create content to simply produce and release out into the aether. The company also bought the Trolls property for unknown reasons, and is completely retooling Me and My Shadow, a film that was originally supposed to be released in March of 2014 and seems to be besieged by a host of problem, most likely more so due to the company’s recent string of poor box office returns.

Which brings us back to Lassie. Reading that Times article, along with the various articles linked in this post, it’s uncomfortable to read the sheer amount of corporate advertising/marketing verbiage spouted about such properties instead of any creative insights into them. That’s Dreamworks’ current business strategy though, and it’s the studio’s current dilemma – using its growing acquisitions to create brands without little consideration of their quality or how that lackluster quality would affect the bottom line of their future output. (Pixar knows that feeling; once a name associated with quality, it now has a mark against it, with critical disappointments like Cars, Brave, and Monsters University – and for the record, I liked the first two). By focusing way too much on spreading its brands around instead of working to make a few brands actually worth following, the company is hurting itself way more than it needs to be. If Dreamworks keeps it up, creating actual good work will be nothing but a dream.

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Tumblr Tuesday – 07/29/14

 

Apologies for placing Tumblr Tuesday for the second week in a row on a Wednesday. I was visiting doctors all day on Monday, and had to play catch-up at work all day Tuesday. I assure you, I DO know my days of the week.

GIFs of Naveen from a feature of The Princess and the Frog on the DVD

— I need to support my friend and animator for my future webtoon more often. He creates a comic called Wuffle, an all-ages-appropriate treat that’s cute, funny, and adorable. This is a small off-comic he made for a reward for a donation.

[You can check out Wuffle here!]

— And some grammar tips, with pics and examples

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The Top 10 Most Underrated Songs in Animated Movies

With Frozen blowing up box offices and “Let It Go” erupting from the mouths of children (and adults) everywhere, it seems that there is small but noticeable interest in music in animation. Once considered a time-wasting trope that dotted Disney hand-drawn films, a tolerable exercise in audience patience, now seem to making a powerful resurgence, in TV shows and films alike. There were a few years where songs were on their way out – Toy Story nixed them, and Shrek actively called them out on their uselessness. Now expect to see them all over the place.

That all being said, there are a few songs out there that we ought to give more love to, whether it be the surprising craftsmanship, the entertaining performance, the perfect mood-setting, or just an overall catchiness. For this list I try to look outside of Disney’s oeuvre, although there are some of them here. I also try to focus on songs that aren’t discussed or overplayed, and have a unique quality beyond being designed for a sing-a-long. And of course, it’s personal, but I will try to explain why I like them. So, here we go:

 

10) Frozen – “Fixer-Upper”

The trolls in Frozen are somewhat problematic; even through they’re part of the original fairy tale, they really add nothing to the plot, and there is a creepy vibe to this song, a message that seems to run counter to the film’s general idea of a woman’s agency being beyond getting the guy. Yet “Fixer-Upper” works because its rhythmic quality is catchy, and its goofy lyrics keep it from becoming too forceful. It kinda reminds me of the Fraggle Rock theme song, with specific beats designed for specific lines. I personally think it’s better than “Let it Go.”

 

9) An American Tail: Fivel Goes West – “The Girl You Left Behind”

So it’s hard to really get a sense of this song since the animators decided to stage the Fivel chase sequences around the music, drowning out the Western/Country instrumentals and many of the sassy lyrics with the events of chase. Yet Tanya’s “debut” song is energetic and catchy, as the cats around her can attest to, and it’s energetic as all hell, even if the actual song has nothing to do with the film. It feels like a ol’ classic Western song by way of a full orchestra, which works better than it should. It’s a wonder more symphonies don’t channel old music and retool them for Radio City Music Hall.

 

8) The Spongebob Squarepants Movie – “The Best Day Ever”

I’m cheating here. “The Best Day Ever” is actually from an episode of Spongebob Squarepants of the same name. It was simply replayed during the movie’s end credits, yet for some reason, it works so much better there, mainly because it’s a stupidly fun denouement to a stupidly fun movie. It takes it its time with the lyrics and letting the simple guitar riff and drum beat carry it, and while Spongebob’s voice can be annoying, his words can’t help but make you smile a little bit. There’s a bit of a Beach Boys quality to it – which is obvious in retrospect. Modelling a song from a band known for its “perfect” beach music would be exactly how you’d tackle a song involving talking sea critters.

 

7) Cats Don’t Dance – “Big and Loud”

I will always look for excuses to post anything about the underrated Cats Don’t Dance. It’s such a fun, sincere, enjoyable movie that was hurt by bad marketing. That being said, I will admit that, for a movie defined by its 1950s Hollywood aesthetic, the music isn’t that good – but part of me thinks that’s by design, since it’s more about invoking a specific sensibility – the Merrie Melody short – than selling out its soundtrack. Yet “Big and Loud” is designed for the stage. Performed by Darla Dimple in a bid to manipulate Danny, “Big and Loud” is both a send up to the over-the-top performances of ridiculous set pieces as well as pointed satire calling out its superficiality, especially performed by the film’s antagonist. The reprise, which gives a more sinister edge to it, signs that satire in blood.

 

6) A Goofy Movie – “After Today”

Buzzfeed seems to have a hard-on for this film, which is fine, except they keep ignoring the film’s more important moment – the dark, confrontational hot tub scene between Goofy and Pete. Yes, Powerline’s mid-90s R&B-stylized songs work so well in the movie’s context, leaving a generation to wonder why there’s no “official” Powerline album, but it’s the opening montage “After Today” that has stood the test of time. A rallying cry for summer vacation and all the “freedom” it entails, “After Today” surges by on energy and commitment alone. And if the animated version for some reason turns you off, there’s always the, uh, live-action remake.

 

5) Anastasia – “Journey to the Past”

There’s a sad desperation to Anastasia, Fox’s attempt to muscle in on the Disney Princess market. Even though the movie is fairly flat and lifeless, there is a Frozen-esque dedication to its songs, given an otherwise forgettable film a fairly decent soundtrack. “Journey to the Past” is like a proto-“Let it Go,” what with both women singing about their fates and desires in snow-capped locales. “Journey” is typical animated music fare but it builds nicely, with those jamming violin strings giving it a unique rhythm within its heavy orchestration that gives it a pep. It’s goose-bumps inducing, particularly that final line as the full scale of the song comes in full force.

 

4) South Park – “What Would Brian Boitano Do?”

“Blame Canada” got the Oscar nomination, but “What Would Brian Boitano Do” is the best and catchiest song of a movie filled with them. South Park, particularly the movie, reminds the world that Trey Parker and Matt Stone are clever, crafty, and talented musicians, and this ridiculous non-sequitur song cue gives the four main characters their own moment of inspiration. Many people may miss the film’s overall putdown of animated films’ over-reliance on song cues, but that doesn’t mean South Park can’t relish in them. Also, it sounds remarkably similar to “The Girl You Left Behind,” which either means BLATANT PLAGIARISM or just an example of my taste in music.

 

3) Ferngully – “Toxic Love”

There’s really nothing about Ferngully worth discussing. It’s typical environment clap-trap, aggressively biased filmmaking that encourages the protection of our resources (not that this isn’t an important message, but it’s no excuse for a mediocre film). That being said, “Toxic Love” is a surprising standout, with Tim Curry’s amazing crooning skills to a bluesy soundtrack, singing a sexually-charged ode to pollution. Even Captain Planet would be taping his toes to this one, especially in the final refrain as the trumpets blare and the background vocals add to Curry’s voice. We know Curry can sing, but turning an anthropomorphic smog-guy into a one-hit wonder is another thing entirely.

 

2) The Care Bears Movie II: A New Generation – “Forever Young”

There isn’t much going on with The Care Bears, the greeting-cards-turned-children-mascots that were popular in the 80s. Overall cutsey and cuddly, the only interesting angle was their “care meter” – if too many kids stopped caring, their world was destroyed. Odd. The movies aren’t much better, but the second one ended with this remarkably powerful ballad by Carol Parks, a musician known for her marriage to Dean Parks. “Forever Young” is perfectly 80s, but rather understated, particularly for this kind of film. It’s not a movie about passing down the “Care Bears legacy,” but the song, with its simple machine-produced beats and fake-instrumentals, as paired to the surprisingly poignant montage, creates a small piece of crafty work. Carol never oversings her lines, and the addition of the kids and adult choir lets the song end nicely. The electric guitar is unnecessary, but like I said, perfectly 80s.


Song The Care Bears Movie 2 – Forever Young by moidixmois

 

1) The Brave Little Toaster – “Worthless”

Honestly, we should be talking about the music in The Brave Little Toaster more often, mainly because it’s so unique and quite unlike any animated film’s soundtrack out there. It feels experimental; its unrefined quality actually adds to the charm. And while “Cutting Edge” and “It’s A B-Movie” are specifically creepy-yet-enjoyable mood-setters, “Worthless” is by far the strongest, with aggressive piano and trumpet work, creating an angry and depressing homage to country music. The combination of multiple vocal styles gives it an everyman quality, leaving viewers contemplating their own legacy. It’s dark, it’s scary, it’s good.

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