Thanks to the solid success of DreamWorks Animation's Home, it appears that DreamWorks may now be headed towards a financial upswing after sustaining two and a half years of write-offs. With much to look forward to from the talented filmmakers at the studio, it is also worthwhile to take a look back at some of their best films to date. It's difficult to whittle down their 20 year history to a list of their five most remarkable films as so many notable films have come out of their studio. These five films though should give any adult viewer a good idea of what DreamWorks has achieved and what more is to come.
The Prince of Egypt (1998)
As DreamWork's second feature film, The Prince of Egypt announced to audiences that DreamWorks was not an animation studio to shy away from difficult story material. The film fully incorporated the story of Moses including the much darker and mature elements of the story. The film opens with the mass killing of Hebrew babies and later illustrates all of the plagues that God rained down on Egypt, including turning all the water into blood and the occurrence of Passover wherein the first-born child of each Egyptian family passed away. These are all heavy topics for an animated film that is meant for families to enjoy together, but DreamWorks managed to pull it off and told one of the greatest stories in a beautiful and poignant manner.
It's not just the fact that DreamWorks didn't water down the tale of Moses that makes The Prince of Egypt such a wonderful film worthy of multiple re-watches. The film contains multiple scenes of artistic beauty that simply take your breath away, leaving you marvelling at the work of the many talented hands that brought this movie to life. One scene that almost always is referred to as one of the most awe-inspiring is the parting of the Red Sea by Moses. This scene was special as it utilized a mix of traditional animation and computer generated imagery in order to bring it to life. Check out this amazing animated scene below.
Furthermore the music is incredibly powerful and memorable. With a score by the incomparable Hans Zimmer and a variety of songs, this was a soundtrack that would be on replay for years to come. The music is so great that the song "When You Believe" won the Academy Award for Best Original Song that year.
Pulling a full 180 three years later, DreamWorks released Shrek (2001) which became the most successful and recognized franchise of DreamWorks. This was a film where DreamWorks showcased their wit and comedic talents in the writing department. Poking fun unabashedly at a multitude of classic fairytale creatures while delivering a powerful story on the importance of inner beauty, this film resonated with audiences worldwide and would go on to win the first ever Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film in 2002.
Rather than using a traditional film score for the entirety of the film, Shrek also made smart use of pop songs and oldie covers. The score itself, composed by Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell, was primarily an homage to traditional fairytale music. Mixing in modern age songs gave audiences something that they had never heard before in an animated film which really set Shrek apart in the medium. The film also wisely placed the songs with scenes in order to push the story forward and utilized scored music for the more serious scenes. Music played an integral part in the film as the ending was even rewritten from a traditional storybook closure on Fiona and Shrek heading off into the sunset to the ending we see today utilizing a Smash Mouth cover of "I'm a Believer" while all the characters party.
How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
From 2001-2010, DreamWorks released a slew of films with varying degrees of success. The Shrek franchise continued to be a juggernaut for the studio and another film franchise, Madagascar (2005), was established due to its success with its target audience. Then along came the story of an unusual friendship between a teenaged Viking and a dragon. When the trailer first came out, the story appeared to be nothing special in my perspective and I had no intentions of seeing it until my sister wanted to go. I thought I wasn't going to care for the film at all.
I was so wrong. How to Train Your Dragon is such a marvelous film and easily one of DreamWorks's best. It masterfully conveys the story of 14 year old Hiccup, an inventor with sarcasm to spare, who is part of a Viking tribe that has been in constant conflict with the local pests which are the dragons. All Hiccup initially wants to do is kill a dragon so he can gain the respect of his father, Chief Stoick, and maybe even get a girlfriend. After downing a Night Fury, the most feared dragon of them all, he finds that he is unable to kill it and thus his entire world is turned upside down. He learns through his friendship with Toothless the Night Fury that everything the Vikings know and believe about dragons is wrong. The film culminates in a stunning battle that not everyone escapes from unscathed.
The amazing thing about this film is the fact that it illustrates real consequences for the hero of the story. Many animated films have the hero emerge at the end without any permanent negative consequence from their journey. DreamWorks refused to follow this formula for Hiccup and the results are powerful. Furthermore, the scenes of Hiccup and Toothless flying are incredible and so beautifully rendered that you feel as though you are up in the sky with them. These are scenes that beg to be viewed in 3D so the viewer can fully appreciate their elegance. With a lovely Oscar nominated score (that totally should have won the Oscar) by John Powell, this is one film that is a must view for any animation aficionado.
Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)
If you're going to watch any DreamWorks sequel, Kung Fu Panda 2 should be your first choice. This film builds upon Po's role established in the first film as the Dragon Warrior and introduces serious plot lines involving genocide and imperialistic dictatorship. Not to mention that the villain is a peacock. You may find the idea of that funny, but this film does great work at making a peacock into a formidable and fearful adversary with great voice acting by the legendary Gary Oldman.
The film also uses a mix of 3D and 2D animation in order to differentiate between the present and Po's flashbacks. This works really well as it clearly conveys the story for the audience, not to mention is absolutely stunning art to look at. The opening prologue itself is masterful in its visuals and is a great re-introduction into the world. Check it out below.
With the release of Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016) on the horizon and the recent news that its opening has been bumped up to January 29, 2016 from March 18, now is a great time to revisit this sequel. I'd suggest tissues for this one because even the hardcore can feel.
Rise of the Guardians (2012)
No list would be complete without a mention of the much maligned Rise of the Guardians. By all accounts, this film should have been successful as it contained a great mix of characters recognizable by children with a unique story and exquisite visuals. Unfortunately this was not the case due to poor marketing and stiff competition at the box office along with a slew of other factors. Thus began a downhill ride for DreamWorks Animation. However, the failure of the film wasn't definitely not because it was poorly made. If you skipped Rise of the Guardians, it's high time you gave that movie a shot.
This film has a complex and well developed world with endless story possibilities besides the one told in the movie. It deals with difficult issues such as a traumatic and abrupt death, coping with being invisible, and the loss of childhood innocence. The blind belief of the children is challenged when Pitch Black, easily one of DreamWorks's most complex villains to date, interferes with the Guardians of Childhood's duties. He captures nearly all the tooth fairies, destroys all the Easter eggs, and even gets rid of all dreams leaving only nightmares in their wake.
Now this may all sound silly and really only appealing to kids, but it's actually quite a dark and compelling film. It's also visually stunning and highly detailed. From the ice and snow to the dream sand and Toothiana's feathers, there is no shortage of animated wonders to behold. There are also three major battle sequences in the film that are wonderfully done and the heroes ultimately end up not being who you think. Even though this movie caused many issues for DreamWorks financially, it's completely well worth the time of any animation enthusiast.