The creation of Dreamworks, much like the merger between Disney and Pixar, was all thanks to Michael Eisner, then-Chairman and CEO of Disney. Jeffrey Katzenberg had been Chairman of Disney Studios since 1984, and was a big reason that Disney had a renaissance in animation. An opening as President of the company came up in 1994, and instead of giving it to Katzenberg as he had promised, Eisner instead filled the position himself. Katzenberg’s relationship with Eisner, Roy Disney, and Disney in general had diminished and he was forced to put in his resignation. Later that year Katzenberg recovered by joining up with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen to form an animation studio that would rival Disney. Dreamworks SKG (Spielberg, Katzenberg, Geffen, if you were ever curious), or just Dreamworks was created under the agreement that they would make less than nine pictures a year, would let their workers be contracted out if they wanted, and workers would be allowed to make it home for dinner. Once Amblimation’s last film, Balto, was finished the animators came to work at Dreamworks. On top of this they bought part of Pacific Data Images, which specialized in visual effects (CG). The studio did not just come out with animated pictures, as some of their first films were live-action, including Amistad and Mouse Hunt. They would hit their zenith in the late 90’s and early 00’s for live action when they won three straight Best Picture Academy Awards for American Beauty, Gladiator, and A Beautiful Mind. For the most part the studio has had smooth sailing, save for two times brought to light by David Geffen. Under Katzenberg’s watch, the studio lost an estimated $125 million from Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, and they sorely overestimated the demand for DVD’s of Shrek 2. Both instances brought Dreamworks to the brink of closing down.
Dreamworks Animation partnered with Aardman Animation, a British claymation studio, in 1996 to develop Chicken Run. This went well and the studios agreed to make four more films together. This was not to be as the studios ended up only making three total films together, citing creative differences. In 2004, Dreamworks Animation spun off from Dreamworks and became a publicly traded company. Katzenberg became the head of this department, with Spielberg and Geffen serving as investors and consultants. Fast forward to 2016, when Dreamworks was officially bought by Universal Pictures, AKA Comcast. Funny thing is, Universal already owns an animation studio, Illumination, but as of this writing, both studios have remained separate. I know I skimmed a little over some of Dreamworks, but nothing really huge happened out of the ordinary for them for quite awhile, save for maybe a distributing deal with Paramount and 20th Century Fox.
Dreamworks has come out with a lot of movies in its short existence. It has come out with at least one movie, sometimes two, every year since 1998, save for 1999. Dreamworks didn’t go the same route as Pixar and completely focus on computer animation, though that had varying levels of success for them. They started with 1998’s Antz, a story about ants that just happened to come out the same year as Pixar’s A Bug’s Life. These two movies caused a huge fight between Pixar and Dreamworks, as you can imagine, with both claiming that the other stole their idea. Katzenberg had looked into developing a story called Army Ants when he was at Disney, and eventually took that with him to Dreamworks, along with a story about Sinbad, and an adaption of The Ten Commandments. Lasseter felt betrayed by Katzenberg, whom he had told about A Bug’s Life a few years back. Dreamworks had initially wanted Prince of Egypt to come out in late 1998, but Disney too announced that A Bug’s Life would come out at the same time. Though Dreamworks tried to negotiate with Disney, Disney wouldn’t budge. In the end, the two films were released and though they have some similarities, have completely different tones. Antz was geared more toward older kids and teens and A Bug’s Life was more of a family film. Both films were well received and both made a hefty profit, with Antz having a much lower budget than Bugs. The feud between the two companies would last for quite some time, though many of the animators at Pixar and PDI (Pacific Data Images) remained friends from when they had worked together at earlier times.
Their next film, The Prince of Egypt, had been in production before Antz, but came out two months later and was traditionally animated. With a team of 350 artists, Dreamworks created one of the most visually stunning animated movies ever. Seriously, the animation is amazing. Extra care was taken by the producers to make sure that the story would be as accurate as possible. They visited sites in the Middle East, spoke with religious leaders and received their input, and designed the characters around what people actually look like from that area. If you are looking for the most faithful adaption of The Ten Commandments, this isn’t it. There are definitely some liberties taken with the story, but that doesn’t take away from the enjoyment of the film. While it doesn’t have the highest scores of Dreamworks’ canon, I think this is their best film, and it just happened to be the first they ever started developing. Prince of Egypt was a hit, grossing $218.6 million against a $70 million budget. Dreamworks went on to make a straight-to-video sequel, Joseph: King of Dreams, which is just OK. Dreamworks, outside of working with Aardman, had terrible luck with traditional animation. Toy Story had ruined it for everyone. All audiences wanted to see was CG films. Dreamworks lost money on The Road To El Dorado, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas. These weren’t exactly stellar movies, either, so I’m not really surprised they did poorly. Chicken Run, their first film with Aardman, was a huge success, but I’ll talk about Aardman at a later time. Things really started going well for Dreamworks with their next CG film.
John H. Williams was introduced to a book called Shrek! By his children, who thought the book hilarious. He took the book to Jeffrey Katzenberg who knew he had something special on his hands so he quickly bought the rights to the book in 1995. Casting the title character is probably the most interesting part of the development. At first they wanted none other than Nicolas Cage to voice Shrek, but he didn’t want to look like an ogre. He felt people would connect the character too much with his real life look and it would interfere. OK, then. Chris Farley was then hired to voice Shrek and actually almost completed all of his dialogue before his untimely death. The role was then re-cast with Mike Myers, though he demanded a completely different script, as he didn’t was the sames lines as Farley. Half-way through Farley asked if he could re-do his lines with a Scottish accent, something his mother would do when telling him bedtime stories. Katzenberg loved it and that’s the version that we have today. Shrek came at the perfect time for Dreamworks, as Disney had effectively left its renaissance and wouldn’t get its groove back for almost a decade. Released in May, 2001, the film’s raunchier and self-referential tone was a huge hit with audiences and it ended up grossing $484.4 million against a $60 million budget. Reviews for the film were also better than Dreamworks could have hoped. They finally had a film they could build a series on. And build one they did. Shrek 2 would use a much larger budget, $150 million, but it paid off. Shrek 2 grossed a gaudy $919.8 million becoming their biggest hit ever. At the time it was the highest grossing animated film, when not adjusted for inflation, until Toy Story 3 came out in 2010. Grosses for its other two sequels were equally good, with the critical reception dropping off a bit.
Dreamworks’ next big hit was Madagascar in 2005. That film would go on to spawn two direct sequels and a spin-off movie. All are just OK, with Madagascar 3 being the best out of the bunch in my opinion. Kung-Fu Panda became their next franchise, coming out with two sequels. Their best franchise, though, is How To Train Your Dragon. The first movie came out in 2010 and was based on the book series of the same name by Cressida Cowell. The original treatment of the film was very close to the book, but after Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois came on as co-directors (they had done Lilo & Stitch) the story changed to make it less whimsical and geared toward a younger audience. The story changes paid off and How To Train Your Dragon was a huge hit, earning $495.8 million against a $165 million budget. The film is also the highest rated film Dreamworks has come out with. A second film came out a couple years later and was equally great. A third is coming out in 2019.
With Dreamworks under the Universal umbrella, it’s hard to say what will happen to the animation company. They’ve successfully competed with Disney for many years, though it seems like most of the animation studios still going have a pretty strong foothold. What I’m trying to say is that there is actually room for more than one or two animation studios. Dreamworks may not have the same storied history as Disney, but they have come out with some real hits and crowd-pleasers. That being said, they have also come out with some serious duds over the years. I can honestly say that I have seen a little over half of Dreamworks’ films. For me, it isn’t an event the way seeing Disney, Pixar, or even Laika films are. Dreamworks is in the same wheelhouse as Blue Sky and Illumination, capable to some good and not so good movies, but they’ll undoubtedly make a profit.