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Dreamworks’ current business struggles exist because it’s too busy spreading brands instead of building them.
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.
I actually managed to post this week’s Tumblr Tuesday on the correct day! Just a week late.
Gargoyles seems to be back into the swing of things now with these two episodes. Although, at this point, I’m starting to see why fans tend to be lukewarm towards the World Tour arc. Part of the problem is that, to me, the World Tour was intended as a breather, as an excuse for the writers to take a step back from their massive mythology and world-building, so they can dole out bits and pieces of that mythology and world-building in manageable chunks. When they do that, as in “Cloud Fathers,” the result is amazing, creating a product that is both fun and rich with deep moments. When they don’t, as in “Bushido,” it results in something merely passable at best and throwaway at worst (like “The Sentinel”). The idea of the World Tour is great; whether the writers are up to it is the real question.
Gargoyles 2×40 – Bushido
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“Bushido” isn’t the strongest episode, but it’s passable enough, part of the Gargoyles run of episodes geared to be more entertaining than involving. The gang arrives in a hidden village in Japan, and they discover that the gargoyle clan here works in harmony with the humans instead of hiding. This surprises the group, but the Japanese people get away with this because they believe in the concept of Bushido. Bushido is one of those broad ideologies, like “Republicanism,” that’s less tied to specific rules and philosophies, and more to an idea that everyone inherently engages in. The wikipedia link breaks it down, but for Gargoyles, it’s used as a broad “honor” crutch, in the same way most Western takes on Asian culture do.
The episode isn’t nearly as lazy as most of those Western takes though, but there is a strangeness to it that makes it difficult to parse out. One of the Japanese gargoyles, Yama, is in league with the sketchy businessman, Taro, who sends a bunch of ninjas out to distract the town during the day so they can remove the stone gargoyles and place them inside a giant city facade so Taro can show them off, ultimately as amusement park oddities for profit, a la Jurassic Park. It’s certainly isn’t the most involved or most complex of plots, but it’s serviceable, with a few question marks up in the air.
Primarily, it’s never clear why exactly Yama is willing to betray both his clan and the humans. I get the sense that Taro was telling him a bunch of lies so Yama could try to convince the other gargoyles that living isolation was not the way, that opening up their species to the world was truly the way of Bushido (Yama seems delighted at the idea that children will be coming to see them, another Taro lie). This brings up an interesting question – how far do you extend an ideal as beautiful and honorable as Bushido? Is it a concept best kept to a peaceful village, content in their lives, away from fear and marginalization? Or should it be spread among everyone in the world? That is, should those who believe in Bushido deny their self-imposed exile and spread their idea to the world, to anyone who listens?
That, at least, is what I think Yama, and this episode, is aiming for. Once again, the idea of purpose (this time, of Bushido) is the theme here, but the core nature of Yama’s belief is left unclear. I love subtlety as much as anyone else, but that doesn’t equate to ambiguity, so without a scene outlining how Yama and Taro differ, Yama’s realization that he made a mistake comes from nowhere but from the whims of the writer. It’s a disappointing, random moment, but the show plays it well, I think. Yama agrees with Taro, at the very least, to present an idea of showcasing Bushido and their existence to the world. I think he sees this as a positive. But his agreement was based on the idea that, if the gargoyles didn’t agree, they could go home. Taro presents that option at least, even though we know he’d never let any gargoyles out, for his own selfish ends.
The episode doesn’t really get into that though. Yama’s motivation is muddled, and he only seems upset when he realizes Taro isn’t the partner he thought he was. That is, he never sees the concept that “kidnapping gargoyles against their will” is in and of itself wrong, only that it doesn’t work out in his favor. All of that makes his final fight with Yama seems unearned, particularly since he kept insisting that this was his fight alone. Still, “Bushido” is as solid of an episode as can be, with some nifty Elisa moments (I don’t know what’s better, her take down of the world’s shittiest ninjas or directing a car straight into a building), and no one does anything particularly questionable. Of course, all the gargoyles leave the amusement park before the press arrives, making Taro look foolish. Yama apparently goes on a redemption quest afterwards, and I don’t know what happens to Kai, the defacto leader of the Japanese clan. The animation is fairly good, too, so even if the motivation of many of the characters are confusing, the episode commits to its premise, which, by rule of Bushido, is fine by me.
Gargoyles 2×41 – Cloud Fathers
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With “Cloud Fathers,” however, we’re working with much stronger material, worthy of the Gargoyles mythology and world-building. This episode basically took the mediocre “Heritage” and made it into something substantial, something that involves Elisa’s family and Xanatos, who has been M.I.A. for so long. I’ve had my issues with Xanatos but it is seriously nice to have him back, even if his true endgame is unclear (as always) and even if he’s engaging in cliched villainy (his words!).
Elisa, Goliath, Angela, and Bronx arrive in Flagstaff, Arizona, where they run into Eliza’s father and sister, Peter and Beth. At this point, the Hispanic angle to Eliza’s heritage is all but gone; as it stands, the character is now part Nigerian and part Native American. The episode doesn’t specifically say what tribe Peter is from, but a bit of referential research seems to imply he’s of Hopi decent. And it’s a heritage that Peter wants to have no part of, as at the beginning, we see him leaving his father for New York after a verbal spat.
This starts off like a retread of “Heritage,” but I think this works better because it’s given a personal stake by tying it to Elisa, and by couching it in in Peter-redemption story. It’s not just about a guy who has to connect to his heritage to save the world, part of the not-at-all overdone story threads where the big city ruins people’s closeness to nature and culture. It’s about a person who his embracing his past and culture in order to understand his family and himself. “Heritage” punishes Nick for leaving his home and pursuing Western ideas. “Cloud Fathers” doesn’t judge Peter, but simply tells his story through his return to Arizona and what it means to him.
Xanatos is up to something, which is why Beth called Peter to Arizona in the first place. There’s some craziness happening at one of the mastermind’s construction sites, and a familiar-looking-but-mysterious security guard lets them in. Xanatos arrests them for trespassing, but it was really a means of getting them off the property so they could really investigate the mysterious guard while continuing with their plans interrupted.
After posting bail, Beth and Peter run into Elisa. They exchange information – Eliza fills them in on her travels and the gargoyles (beyond the info that her mother told them), Peter tells her about Xanatos’ actions. The gargoyles go to investigate but they’re captured by the new-and-improved Coyote (4.0). Tied to a sacred sand carving, Xanatos prepares to drop acid on them, hence his “cliched villainy” line. The episode cleverly undercuts this though. Xanatos is using the trapped heroes ploy as an excuse to get the “real” Coyote – the mythical being who has been masquerading as the security guard – out from hiding. Basically, Xanatos was pretending to destroy the carving tribute to him so Coyote would be lured out. It wasn’t working, though, so he has to put in a real death trap to lure him out (if it didn’t work, well… at least the gargoyles would be dead.)
Coyote is a bit of a cipher. All of Oberon’s children are, but even here, Coyote’s actions and purpose is unclear. Coyote, traditionally, is a trickster, but he’s manipulating people here to get people involved to save his carving, particularly Peter (Coyote even takes on a younger-Peter form). Trickery is one thing, since its usually self-serving, but here Coyote is being helpful, changing the odds in the Xanatos/gargoyles fight in the heroes’ favor – which is a thing he can do, as well. Coyote’s abilities to change the game in vague but distinct ways is a bit frustrating, but to its credit, the episode makes it work very well, particularly in getting the stubborn Peter to embrace the weirdness of it all and embrace his past.
It’s also a bit frustrating to see Peter deny everything that’s happening, even with giant walking winged beasts right next to him, but I think it’s less to do with his cynicism and more with his unwillingness to face his past and his father. The episode, again, cleverly implies one thing, what with Peter’s constant refusals to see his father, only to lead to another at the end, where Peter admits his faults and his lover for him, while over his grave. Michael Horse sells the powerful, vulnerable moment, which gives the episode overall a quiet, understated power.
Xanatos’ ultimate plan is to capture Coyote and “convince” him to give him immortality. I like that Xanatos is still harping on this. It fits his character so well, the confident, cool millionaire villain scared of death, always looking for the edge, what with robots and time travel and magic, and now, control over life. I also like the idea of melting down the Cauldron of Life and using its metal to rebuild Coyote 4.0. It’s a brilliant piece of information, which allows the robot to hold Coyote, but it’s not necessary a “stronger” metal, since Goliath easily can jam a metal girder into him. He’s also taken out completely with some sweet Coyote trickery, although it was so obvious what he was up to that I’m surprised Coyote 4.0 fell for it (although he did let Coyote go, which is also a odd bit of stupidity from a Xanatos creation, which even surprised Xanatos).
The episode ends not only with the aforementioned grave scene, but a bit of more myth building with Coyote mentioning that he and Peter are connected, based on the Coyote Dance that Peter did when he was young. I’m not sure how to take this. Does this mean Peter is part magic? Is that in any way related to Elisa? Why is the connection so strong with Peter, and not any other of the many Coyote Dancers that most likely took up that role? The second season is slowly beginning to end, so I’m hoping the show explores this more closely. If not, then this development comes across as forced and unnecessary. Still, “Cloud Fathers” work so well as a Peter showcase that none of the episode’s flaws can hold it back (not so much for Beth, who unfortunately did nothing but spout exposition).
“Bushido” B/”Cloud Fathers” A-