Dreamworks started releasing animated films around the time the Disney Renaissance was dying down and Pixar had only begun finding their footing. With The Prince of Egypt, Antz, The Road to El Dorado, and a contract with Aardman which allowed them to release Chicken Run they seemed like a good alternative to the House of Mouse which was beginning another era of weakness. With the success of Shrek in 2001, with critics and at the box office, they showed they were a force to be reckoned with. But after that success, instead of focusing on making better and more timeless films, they instead began to focus on making films that would make a lot of money and would spawn franchises. And so, rather that continue to be a formidable rival to Disney’s ever growing Pixar, Dreamworks became a kind of joke to animation fans.
Now, not every film since Shrek has been bad. In fact, they have made some near-classics that may in fact be considered classics by future generations. So, with the release of Rise of the Guardians approaching, I thought it would be fun to look at the films they studio has made and rank their ten best. This proved to be rather difficult as there really are only five films of their that really deserve to be in a “Best of” list, so I had to pad the rest of the list with films that are between “slightly mediocre” and “quite good.”
So, here are my picks for the top 10 Dreaworks Animation films:
10. Puss in Boots
Although it is light on story, and the little story it does have is nothing we haven’t seen before done many times before in better films, Puss in Boots manages to rise above other similarly-slight Dreamworks films due to its beautiful animation and designs. Despite being a Shrek spin-off, this film looks like it takes place in a completely different world with incredibly detailed and gorgeous designs that were clearly inspired by the involvement of Guillermo Del Toro as a producer. That alone makes it worth a watch. Oh, and the cat that says “oooh” is the best throw-away character in any Dreamworks film.
Time has not been kind to this film. What at first was a refreshing and hilarious spoof of various fairy tale tropes, is now tired and dated, mainly because of the brand of humor the success of this film made common place in most other animated features. Yet, I can’t help but think fondly of it due to the many hours of fun it provided me back when it first came out on DVD. I would go as far as watching it three times in a row. In fact, back then I could recite every line of dialogue.
8. Shrek 2
Much like the first film in the franchise, Shrek 2 has not aged well and for the same reasons. But overall, it is a better film with better animation, better story, and a better villain, and a better climax. Also, it did introduce Puss in Boots, one of the best animated characters (shame he couldn’t get a great film of his own).
7. Over the Hedge
Truth be told, I don’t remember much from this particular film and I’m basing the placement based on my enjoyment of it back when it came out. However, even then I knew it was better than the first two Shrek films that had been released so far because although it suffered from the low-brow humor of most post-Shrek animation, it was still a ton of fun because it didn’t take its self too seriously, and the performances were universally great. I do wish to revisit this one day once it gets an HD release, but it seems Dreamworks considers it the black sheep of the family.
6. Kung Fu Panda
The problem with this problem (which is a problem the sequel managed to fix) is that the filmmakers were clearly aware of the criticisms its studio had faced and they were trying to stray off that path but they just couldn’t walk the line between commerce and art. But thankfully they tried they darnedest to still make it the best film that the studio had released and they almost succeeded thanks to the great designs, the awesome set pieces (especially the one with Tai Lung and a bridge), and the perfect casting of Jack Black as Po.
5. The Prince of Egypt
At last, we are getting the the films that actually deserve to be in a “Best of” list. The story of Moses is one of my favorite biblical stories, they do right by it in this animated take on it. Sure, it’s not as cruel as it could be, but it’s still pretty dark, or at least as dark as animated movies at the time when the Disney renaissance was ruling the Box Office could be. Also, the music was great. But the reason it manages to rise above and beyond other offerings by the studio is the greatness of the animation. The image of the parting of the red sea is simply unforgettable, and some images that we see when the people are walking through the sea floor are burned into my brain, such as the one above. These, combined with the story and the music make for one of the best animated films of all time.
4. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted
The Madagascar franchise was always supposed to serve as an homage to the creations of Chuck Jones and other animators of his ilk, which were zany cartoons with tons of visual gags to entertain people of every age. The first one sort of succeeded, but there was too much story. The second one had too much story and too much crazy. But in the third one they got right by striking the right balance between the amount of story it should have the amount of comedy. Also, they came up with some downright awe-inspiring visual set pieces that remind us that with animation you can do some amazing things that live-action director can only dream of having in their films. I have watched it three times within the last month, and it just keeps getting better and better
3. How to Train Your Dragon
What can I say that hasn’t already been said about this film in recent years? It has fantastic animation and visuals clearly inspired by Roger Deakins, who was a visual consultant for the film, good voice work, exciting set pieces, and a great story about tolerance that was ever so resonant the year it came out, and even more now given the political climate in this country. It really is unlike any film Dreamworks animation has ever made, and it showed that if they wanted to, they could be a force to be reckoned with in the world of animation.
2. Kung Fu Panda 2
For this one I’m just gonna copy what I said about in on my Best of 2011 article, as my feelings remain unchanged:
Kung Fu Panda 2, much like many other films from Dreamworks Animation, suffers a bit from unnecessary comedic, but like How to Train Your Dragon, it succeeds thanks to what its director brought to it. Asian-born director Jennifer Yuh, in her directorial debut brings a freshness and energy to it that no other Dreamworks film has ever had. The fight scenes not only have awesome choreography but they also have an exhilarating and breathtaking musicality . She also handles the emotional scenes about Po’s past and his relationship with his dad really well, and she doesn’t have to shamelessly pull at the heartstrings. And finally, despite my previous comment on some superfluous comedy, it’s actually quite hilarious. I was lukewarm on the first Panda, but this one blew me away.
I always liked this film, but it wasn’t until a recent accidental viewing that I appreciated how genius it is, mainly because it is pretty much an animated, and epic Woody Allen film. It’s all there, really: there’s the neurotic and nerdy Woody Allen archetype, played by Woody Allen, no less, the seemingly unattainable girl, and lots of talk about existentialism. Where it differs is in it’s scope as it is about an average ant trying come come to terms with his life by exploring the outside world and doing things he’s been told he would never be able to do, and this involves adventure and big battle scenes. Not only that, there’s a big evil plot that he must stop for the sake of his community, and it all culminates in an awesome set piece where our Woody Allen ant has to get the entire ant colony to work together. It’s really an amazing piece of cinema, and it’s something Dreamworks has not been able to match and likely won’t any time soon. In the meantime, here’s a reminder of the potential the studio has of crafting unique animated films that stack up against the best cinema has to offer.