Why DreamWorks Animation deserves more credit than it’s getting

As How To Train Your Dragon’s box office numbers cause a slump in its share price, Simon wonders if DreamWorks Animation is getting a raw deal…

Yesterday, it was reported that the share price of DreamWorks Animation had taken a tumble in the wake of the weekend numbers in the US for its latest film, How To Train Your Dragon.

The figures that came back from the box office gave DreamWorks’ new film a weekend take of $43m, which is being considered as something of a disappointment. At roughly the same point last year, Monsters Vs Aliens opened to a much stronger $59.3m, on its way to nearly $200m in the US (which was matched again by overseas takings). That itself wasn’t enough to trigger a sequel automatically, and thus you’d have to suggest that it was below DreamWorks’ financial expectations for the film (in cinemas at least).

Unless we’re reading the runes incorrectly, it looks as if How To Train Your Dragon might have a job to get to $150m in the US at this rate, and that too is going to fall short of what DreamWorks would have hoped for from the film.

Appreciating over the years that there are times when DreamWorks has done itself few favours, primarily through its fetish for sequels of diminishing returns, it actually deserved a bit better than this.

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As an organisation, you can hardly blame DreamWorks for having to face off against a competitor of the strength of Pixar, to whom it’s inevitably regularly compared. I often wonder if it attracts criticism simply for taking a different route to its rival, or simply for running in second place to such a powerful opponent. You can’t really blame it for doing so – Pixar has proven to be something of a movie one-off company, and the challenge DreamWorks faces is it’s a one-off that operates in the animation sector of the market.

That doesn’t, however, mean that DreamWorks Animation should automatically be regarded as a company that doesn’t take a few gambles of its own.

Granted, in the past, it’s done itself few favours. Its desire to make sequels to films that don’t necessarily warrant them hasn’t helped – Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa was one of the most harmless, yet generally bland animated movies of recent times (save for the penguins, natch) – and its occasional insistence on selling its films off the back of the people who provided the voices doesn’t do much for its cause either.

But look a bit deeper. Antz, for instance, is a terrific film, happily working on more than one level and with eminent rewatch value. The first Shrek movie, while sullied a little by the bland Shrek The Third, is bursting with imagination and ideas. Over The Hedge is a fine little movie too, while the Dr Strangelove references in Monsters Vs Aliens were symptomatic of the little touches and details that DreamWorks puts in its films, but doesn’t always get credit for.

Furthermore, the standard of animation you get from a DreamWorks Animation film is never really less than outstanding.

The worry, though, is what lies ahead. For How To Train Your Dragon is arguably as big a gamble as DreamWorks has taken since it got into the computer animation business in the first place. Here’s a family animated film that’s packed with scary dragons, Vikings, nothing that would make a compelling cuddly toy to go and buy afterwards, and some much darker sequences than we were expecting.

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It’s also a very good movie. Our full review is here, but the gist of it was we felt that How To Train Your Dragon is as close to a full-on action blockbuster as we’ve seen in animation form in recent memory. It’s packed full of ambitious sequences, has characters you actually care about, and in one 90 minute movie, it addresses many of the criticisms that DreamWorks Animation has faced in recent years.

The irony? Fewer people went to see it. And that’s a real pity, and a far worse fate than the film deserves. Granted, $43m is hardly small change by anyone’s definition. Yet, nonetheless, this was a hugely expensive film to make (around $150m appears to be the consensus), and if it struggles to make back its cash, there’s a real fear that – just as at the point where it’s showing the world what it can do when it pushes itself out of its comfort zone – DreamWorks Animation will retreat to safer bets. You can bet someone at the firm looked at the near-$900m worldwide box office take of Ice Age: Dawn Of The Dinosaurs and wondered if it should have made that instead.

Still, DreamWorks isn’t entirely relying on those safe bets in the months ahead. Granted, a fourth Shrek film is as straightforward a commission as you’re ever likely to get. But this winter’s Megamind also looks a little off the beaten track, as the trailer for it here demonstrates.

DreamWorks Animation, you sense, is trying to tread a fine line here, between taking a few more risks, and not risking its bottom line. Knee-jerk reactions from shareholders over box office takings when there’s a Shrek movie around the corner don’t help one jot, and as the studio looks to ramp up its output to at least two animated films a year – with a third slotted in every couple of years on top – there’s real space to try a few more things, and not just belt out sequels to the properties that play better at the box office.

How To Train Your Dragon was one such attempt, and it’s a film that’s deserving of more box office reward than it’s getting. Hopefully, through international success and DVD sales, it will ultimately deliver numbers closer to what DreamWorks Animation had hoped. Because if it doesn’t, I, for one, am hardly bubbling with enthusiasm at the thought of yet more cuddly animals, yet more production line sequences, and yet more stories that cut back on the numbers of risks that DreamWorks is willing to take.

Unfortunately, that seems to be the preference of the movie-going public. And with such trigger-happy shareholders, that may, ultimately, have to be the preference of DreamWorks itself.

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Here’s hoping that’s not the case.