Rant: Why DreamWorks ISN’T More Progressive than Disney

I was about to do a “Best and Worst of DreamWorks Animation” post, but I realized THAT was boring too. I think it’s just another review format for me. I guess I hate LISTING the positives and negatives of things.

While they have produced some great works of art, I hate, hate, HATE the mentality of a lot of their fans. A lot of DWA fans like to put down Disney, claiming the latter is regressive and boring and sexist and racist blah blah blah while acting like DWA is more progressive than it actually is.

Here’s a (very negative) post (I originally had drafted a long time ago on another site, now with a few edits) on why I don’t like DreamWorks Animation as much anymore, and why I refuse to put it on a pedestal as being more progressive than Disney. Here we go.

In a world where Disney and Pixar are the most prominent faces of American animation (and other studios are only just starting to become household names) a large number of people like to turn to DreamWorks Animation as an alternative. In their eyes, DreamWorks is a smaller company that needs time to carve their niche (this is a lie, especially since it’s younger than Pixar but has made far more movies and has proven very successful before), and is generally bolder and takes more risks than its main rival (sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t) and is the more progressive company, doing what Disney won’t dare do (this is mostly subjective). Therefore, they must be offered all our support.

To that, I must call hogwash. And apparently, so do the executives of DreamWorks Animation themselves.

First of all, I am not saying the entire company is full of shit. There are films of theirs I heavily enjoy. The Prince of Egypt is a masterpiece and I cry over it despite being an atheist. The Kung Fu Panda films are never a dull moment that features a plus-sized protagonist that was allowed to be a full fledged character with his own tragedy and triumph (and was funny as hell) and a very beautiful (and I think accurate) depiction of Chinese culture. Megamind is a fantastic film with a q*eer-coded protagonist who at first feels like he HAS to be the bad guy but then goes ‘screw that’, and kicks the ass of the epitome of toxic masculinity/Nice Guy TM syndrome. And of course the first How To Train Your Dragon film is a classic and some of their other films are a lot of fun. So when I see those genuinely good films with genuinely progressive moments, it really hurts when I see DWA make a film that is either a piece of crap that’s intended to be nothing more than a quick buck or has a lot of uncomfortably regressive aspects. And what hurts me even more is how fans just unquestionably accept it.

Disney has been guilty of whitewashing characters and sexist character design and cultural misrepresentation. So has DreamWorks! As much as I enjoy Rise of the Guardians, it whitewashed Toothianna, kept the Easter Bunny Australian (even though rabbits are a product of Australian colonialism) and erased certain important female characters to make room for Jack Frost (who the Internet fell in love with enough to evidently gloss over the aforementioned flaws apparently). Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas whitewashed the titular character and reinforces the tired old ‘if a man and a woman bicker and argue and generally treat each other badly at first, that means they’ll get together in the end, it’s true love!’ formula (it’s made more egregious here since Sinbad is really unsympathetic for most of the movie and the love interest was originally engaged to a man who was honestly loving and kind to her and isn’t revealed to have ulterior motives; it’s no wonder a lot of people only watch this film for the villain). The Croods started off really wonderfully, with a kickass female character with a unique, not-conventionally-beautiful design, but then conveniently began to focus less on her and more on her father and her boyfriend. A lot of their films in general are focused on male/male-coded and/or white characters, and do we even need to talk about what exactly is wrong with The Road to El Dorado?

But the worst offender, in my opinion? How To Train Your Dragon 2. Oh yes, we’re going here. If you worship that movie (or the HTTYD franchise in general) I suggest you leave now because I’m going to say some not-so-nice things about an otherwise beloved movie.

I admit, when I first watched it, I loved it. And who didn’t when they first saw it? It’s definitely a spectacle of a movie. But after seeing how much it got praised to high heaven despite all the glaring flaws for it, my love quickly turned to hatred.

While I will give it credit for having a disabled character in the form of Hiccup (though, do you think Hiccup would be as well received as he is now if he wasn’t white or conventionally attractive?) and the scenes between Valka and Stoick are heartwarming/heartbreaking, it still has a lot of negative shit that the fandom has either glossed over or went ‘eh, that sucks, but at least it’s better than Disney!’.

For starters, the entire cast is white. The one character who could possibly be seen as/coded to be a person of colour is the thuggish villain, Drago. Even if you don’t see him as a person of colour, they still call him a ‘foreigner’ or a ‘stranger from a faraway land’, which is still xenophobic and offensive as fuck. Why not make Eret Son of Eret a person of colour/an explicitly coded foreigner as well? Is that too much? And when Hiccup offers to defeat the villain in a peaceful way, he’s constantly told that he’s wrong. While I do understand that there are some people in the world who are irredeemably awful and can’t be changed, it’s still kind of disrespectful when your first major human character in the series who is this awful is a foreigner and when the hero is made to look naive/foolish for thinking that they can change. At least in some other films I’ve seen, when the heroes learn that the villain is irredeemable, it’s framed so that the VILLAIN is the fool for not choosing the right path/blowing the chance to change, not the HERO for thinking so. That borders dangerously close to victim-blaming in my opinion.

Then you have a cliched story. It’s really your basic ‘white boy needs to seek his destiny and rise to it/become the leader even though he doesn’t really want to’ story, complete with a parental figure being killed off (this might make sense for people who have seen all the supplemental TV series, but would’ve felt totally cheap for those who only go by the movies) so he can conveniently rise to become king/chief and beat up the bad guy. It’s not a BAD story necessarily, but not exactly a daring or progressive one.

And while I do like how Hiccup is disabled, I find it irritating on how Hiccup and Gobber (who are white) are good, attractive (at least in Hiccup’s case), and sympathetic, the villain (who is not white) is disabled but seen as ugly and monstrous. I wouldn’t mind if, again, the villain was clearly NOT foreign, but this kind of negatively reinforces how some disabled people are more worthy of respect that nothers.

What grinds my gears the most is the female characters. “They don’t have the same face, that’s awesome! Disney, take notes!” I heard countless people cry. Too bad none of these ladies have any role in the story beyond the male characters!

Valka started off great, but once her husband was killed, all she did was support her son so he could rise to greatness. She doesn’t bother to work WITH her son to free their beloved dragons and defeat the villain right at the climax; that job is for the boys. She waits till Hiccup and Toothless are finished so she can go up to him and go ‘well done, son’. Ruffnut has no role in the story beyond “ooh that guy is hot!”, and while Astrid does have a little bit of a bigger role, she still mostly exists in relationship to the men. (And I swear to god, her face became even more infantalised when she got older than when she was a teenager).

I’m sorry, giving your female characters unique faces doesn’t mean SHIT if you’re not going to allow them to do anything substantial in the story. I hate that I have to CHOOSE between female characters who look more like me but barely get to do anything important/get pushed to the side for the men or female characters who look like idealized forms of me but are allowed to be the center of attention!

Those are my frustrations with the movie. It’s not a total piece of crap by any means, but it’s no perfect masterpiece of storytelling that some people have made it out to be. So, to see it put on such a pedestal literally everywhere I went (to the point where it was pitted against other films I loved and/or was looking forward to) and win almost every major award, gave me a bitter taste in my mouth. I was also not pleased when it completely dominated the Annie Awards, a ceremony that’s supposed to treat animation with respect and reverence; it’s a good movie, but the fact that it won SIX awards while its major competitors only got ONE Annie each was unfair and unbalanced, and it sure as hell should not have beat The Tale of Princess Kaguya for Best Animated Feature! (Though the fact that Kaguya didn’t get any Annie Awards AT ALL were also huge red flags; and they say the Oscars are biased!) It all just reeks of “DreamWorks is in seriously financial shit and just had to lay off hundreds of employees, so let’s just give them all the awards!” You can understand my bitterness when people complained on HTTYD2 ultimately losing the Oscar.

And that’s where I return to my thesis statement.

See, it’s no secret that DreamWorks hasn’t been doing very well recently. While Home (which I also seriously dislike; it has an asinine plot with an unlikable alien lead and a black female lead that is sorely underdeveloped) was a modest success, their previous films (The Penguins of Madagascar, Turbo, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, Rise of the Guardians, and to a certain point How To Train Your Dragon 2) all underperfomed. Why? Several reasons, one of which being that the company is spending so much money on 2 to 3 individual movies a year, another reason being Pixar is not it’s only major competition anymore. That, and it’s a little hard to expect people to treat you seriously when you’ve garnered a reputation for making an individual masterpiece in a sea of lackluster films. (THIS article gives a better look; I’m not sure if it’s entirely accurate, but it does seem reasonable enough.)

That’s not what DreamWorks executives think. No, no, according to them, the reason why they’re no longer as popular or successful as they were before is because…their films were too adult. Older kids don’t like animation anymore. And now, they need to start pandering to much younger children. Wow. Just wow. So much for being riskier and bolder and more progressive than Disney, huh? So much for doing stuff that Disney (a company which is making it explicitly clear that they want to make films for EVERYONE) won’t dare do. No, no. Time to pander to the lowest common denominator and reinforce the stereotype that animation is a genre (when it is in fact a MEDIUM) squarely for children. Now that it has been bought by Comcast, only time will tell if they’ll stick with this mentality or not. All we know for now is they’ve released a defanged Kung Fu Panda 3 and they’re set to release the ridiculous looking Trolls. Thus, I lost all respect I had for DreamWorks Animation.

I’m tired. I’m tired of trying to support a company that’s supposedly better than Disney but really isn’t. I’m tired of supporting an animation company that has made it clear it no longer respects the medium. I’m just tired.

So, until DreamWorks realizes that their problem lies between how their managing the studio and not because ‘our films are too adult’, I don’t care.

Until DreamWorks allows female characters with various facial (and body) designs and ethnicities to be the lead characters in more of their films WITHOUT being saddled to white/nonhuman male characters, I don’t care.

Until DreamWorks is committed to making ALL of their films unique and complex and radically different from mainstream Western animation, I don’t care.

Until DreamWorks can give POC/foreign disabled characters the same respect they give their white disabled characters, I don’t care.

And most importantly, until DreamWorks makes more main characters that are neurodivergent, autistic and/or mentally ill that genuinely empower and represent me as one, I don’t goddamn care. At least Disney has been TRYING to be more inclusive in that regard.

And there you have it. This has been bottled up inside me for awhile, but now, I’ve had enough. Take it for what you will, but I no longer subscribe to the mentality that I have to support a given animation company just because it’s not Disney or Pixar.


Author: Laura Alexander

My name is Laura, I use they/them pronouns, and I'm a college student with Asperger's currently enrolled at the Social Service Worker Program at Sheridan College. I have a passion for film and animation, social issues, and helping others, all of which will be featured on The Flying Red Robot blog. Please read the about page before commenting or following. "Big Hero 6" is my favourite movie.