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.
And there you have it.
I’m somewhat reminded of the first season of Marvel’s Agent of SHIELD, which also hard an extremely rocky start until things heated up with the massive [REDACTED] reveal. That immediately came to mind when I watched “Ill Met by Moonlight” and “Future Tense.” Any minor quibbles I had with these two episodes are less quibbles and more fan pondering and cliche acknowledging, but these episodes are so amazingly strong, both visually and narrative, that my criticisms are pretty much moot. It’s clear we’re starting to enter some kind of endgame, as disparaging threads are starting to come together. Kind of.
Gargoyles 2×42 – Ill Met By Moonlight
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We finally get to meet good ol’ OB! That is, Oberon, the father of, like, a million magical children. A blue-skinned Final Fantasy villain, Oberon’s story is told less as a Shakespearean homage and more like a Roman myth, with gods speaking in in lofty manners while mortals look on helplessly, and Titania and the Weird Sisters acting somewhat like a chorus, guiding the narrative beats in an observational manner. But the gist of it is simple: Oberon’s back, and he’s come claim what’s his. Avalon.
The World Tour crew discover this when they return, by Avalon’s graces, to Avalon, and while the gargoyles try to make the most of it, Elisa is obviously homesick. No chance at a respite, though, as Oberon arrives and almost damn well near kills everyone to get his home back. As the mortal creatures sink into the magic mud, Oberon and Tatiana have a little chat. The chat is interesting. We learn that Oberon forced Titania (and their children) to live among mortals for a thousand years to learn humility and garner an appreciation for them, and now Titania claims that Oberon should also be humble and at the very least give the humans and gargoyles a fighting chance. He agrees (less because he cares about his humility and more because he’ll get to be Titania’s husband again), gives a portion of his powers to Tatiana, and the game is afoot.
What stood out for me was the layers of contradictions in that conversation. Oberon sent his family out in the world to teach them a lesson, a lesson he gives little thought to when he damn near kills everyone on Avalon. Also, interesting that a thousand years prior, he lived among mortals himself! I get it, though. He sees these mortals as invaders on his home, which in and of itself a disrespectful act, and never really considers his own thousand years absence as a problem. That’s how gods are, though: arrogant and hypocritical, like so many Greek/Roman/Shakespearean tales, like so many of the tales told within Gargoyles’ lore. Add to that the fact that time is meaningless to such beings, and it makes sense that Oberon would see his progeny needing to learn about mortals but utterly dismissing them himself. We see this kind of behavior with politicians, businessmen, and leaders all time time. Multiply that by a billion for gods, and you get OB. Oh, I like calling Oberon “OB.”
So the majority of this episode is basically a Gargoyles version of The Most Dangerous Game, yet this time the gargoyles chosen – Goliath, Angela, and Gabriel – really have no chance against Oberon, even in a weakened state. It’s mostly a chase sequence – but what a chase! There’s action through forests, across mountains, and even inside an active volcano (even though, at no point, was deciding to fly through this a good idea), and the A-Team of animation is here, making the dynamics of the visuals look easy in their greatness. In particular, the layouts of the gargoyles flying through the tunnels, shot in different, striking angles, over the molten lava, are stunning. The A-Team will be there for the next episode as well, which I’ll talk about very soon.
Goliath, Gabriel, and Angela put up a heck of a fight, but they can’t even put in a dent on the guy. Oberon wins easily, and when he arrives with his prey back home, he discovers the remaining mortals have been up to no good. Specifically, they melted some magic iron and made a bell that, when rung, rendered Oberon weak and almost dying. (The iron came from Magus which he used to hold the Weird Sisters in custody. I’m not sure why iron is weak against Oberon, unless there is some classic tale I’m unaware of. It seems arbitrary.) They almost kill Oberon, but think better of it – Tom says, “I’ll kill no one on his knees,” which is a great line read from Tom’s voice actor Gerrit Graham. This act of mercy wins over Oberon, allowing the mortals to stay and granting Goliath some “super guardian” award (which goes, again, to Oberon’s constant contradictions).
The question remains: why did Titania assist the mortals? After all, it was her riddle within that earlier chat with Oberon that clued them in on the bell. Titania mentions that they have helped her in the past; the event she’s referring to isn’t clear, but we all know there are plenty of them. I think Titania has something else up her sleeve though, what with that chat o’ manipulation and her assistance. She takes Oberon as her husband and they go off together, calling forth their children to “The Gathering.” We’re an episode away from that, which looks extremely promising now the stakes are so high. “Ill Met by Moonlight” had some tiny issues – the volcano, the contradictions, the question of what Oberon’s been up to all this time – but with great action scenes and great dialogue (particularly with the voice work of Oberon’s Terrence Mann and Titania’s Kate Mulgrew), you can’t even fault them.
Also in the chat, Oberon and Titania mention Puck by name, implying that he was a particularly problematic child. This conversation prior to “Future Tense” is no coincidence.
Gargoyles 2×43 – Future Tense
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I feel foolish. I should’ve know something was off with “Future Tense.” Seeing Xanatos as a pure mustache-twirling villain, who, upon finally receiving immortality through “vague” means, turns New York into a dystopia in which he assumes full control, while culling more power to take over the world in his name, is completely against everything Xanatos is, as a character. For one thing, Xanatos has enough wealth and power; global conquest would seem silly. I suppose it follows that, after achieving immortality, that such a thing would be the next step, but keen viewers would know that’s bullshit; most likely he’d be invested in teleportation, space travel (especially after “Sentinel”), or looking into alternate universes (similar to the Avalon stuff). I finished watching Project GeeKeR, and even that show acknowledged the ridiculousness of such an idea, so of course Gargoyles couldn’t really entertain it.
Still, even with a silly idea, Gargoyles brings it. It’s a dark, deadly episode – nightmarish stuff, with Xanatos assuming all the power and sending robot/clone gargoyles to do his bidding. Goliath and his team arrive in the ruined Manhattan, some forty years into the future, where Angela and Elisa are taken by the robots while Goliath and Bronx are saved by Claw (!) and… wait for it… Matt Bluestone! Looks like the rebel alliance took all the Illuminati fight out of him. He’s still awesome though.
He takes Goliath to their home base, where he runs into Brooklyn (who decks him since he was gone for so long), Broadway (who lost his eyes, in the show’s most cruel moment, making the events in “Lighthouse in the Sea of Time” tragically ironic), and Lexington (who has become a dead-inside cyborg). It’s powerful stuff, just to see, and the A-Team animation crew make every reveal and every line count. We learn that Hudson began the rebellion and lost his life for it, that several of the mutates and human allies have died in the process, and… Brooklyn and Demona are lovers.
Demona, even with her brief lines, have perspective now, and while it’s jarring to see her speak with clarity (on the goal at hand, on her commitment to protecting her daughter), it’s amazing, amazing work. Gargoyles smartly ignores any sense of jealousy between Goliath and Brooklyn, because that would be fucking stupid. Instead the show is focused on the obviously doomed execution of an assault on Xanatos’ pyramid complex, and it is a doozy. They watch Xanatos kill his own son in some kind of cyberspace battle, then Bluestone, Bronx, and Claw are killed in the first wave on the complex, then we see Lex taken, Broadway killed (his “see the sun” speech is cliched but goddamn does Bill Fagerbakke sell it), then, in cyberspace, Demona and Brooklyn killed as well. It’s insane stuff, but every single moment is powerful and horrific and wonderful.
The episode plays very close to the chest though, because there are definitely some questionable moments. Besides Xanatos being out-of-character, there’s the “dying in cyberspace = dying in real life” concept that’s not explained, and the various characters asking for Goliath to give them the Phoenix Gate (how do some of them even know about it, and why wouldn’t they ask for Goliath to use it himself?) Goliath wisely avoids it, knowing full well that it’s pointless, since history wills itself into the future it eventually becomes. He fights Xanatos valiantly though, and even though he beats him, saves Goliath, and escapes with Elisa, it’s too late – we see that Lexington was the true mastermind of this entire global, which is both a mindfuck and a “wait, what?” moment. Goliath straight up kills him, though, but the global takeover program has begun its work.
In a weakened state, Elisa mentions that he HAS to use the Phoenix Gate now, and Goliath obliges. Placing it on the ground, he tells Elisa to grab it. But she can’t? Goliath realizes that, finally, this is some crap, and in a flash, the entire scenario disappears, only to reveal that all of this was conceived by Puck! The trouble-maker that Oberon and Titania mentioned in “Ill Met by Moonlight” put this all together just so he could get Goliath to give him the Phoenix Gate, per Oberon’s rules, basically so he could fuck around some more and not go to the Gathering. My only quibble here is that Goliath wasn’t ENRAGED by the deceit, but I can’t fault that too much. Most likely he was relieved it was all a dream, but worried that it may be a sign of things to come.
Goliath sends the Gate out into the timerift, so no one can find it, and regales his nightmare to his tour mates. I suppose we’ll learn of Puck’s fate in “The Gathering,” but for now we have a bit of a rest before then. Everything being a dream was probably the only way Disney let this episode go, but it’s also important to remember that Disney had a lot riding on the show, as the studio was apparently geared to build an entire franchise off it, which gave Gargoyles quite a bit of latitude. That latitude allowed “Future Tense” to work so well, which has me excited for “The Gathering” in ways you can’t imagine.
“Ill Met by Moonlight” A-/”Future Tense” A
I actually managed to post this week’s Tumblr Tuesday on the correct day! Just a week late.