Animation Companies and Identity

Ah, Illumination Entertainment. Well known for films such as Despicable Me, The Lorax, The Secret Life of Pets, The Minions and Sing.

What’s that? You don’t particularly care for any of those movies? You think they’re cheap knockoffs of DreamWorks style movies? Well Illumination doesn’t care because after only 7 films they have made a combined total of $1.9 BILLION. (x)

Holy crap! How did a low budget animation studio become a recognizable brand name in almost no time at all?

The biggest reason, of course, is marketing. Illumination makes sure their films are very well advertised (just look at the Minions marketing blitzkrieg). But the reason why their films have consistently remained successful is because they have a clear identity. They all have simple animation and character designs, they all have pop culture references, they all have their own brand of humor, and they’re all fun family films that don’t require a whole lot of thinking for. Basically, all Illumination films have a similar theme and tone.

By contrast, look at DreamWorks Animation (their current sibling company now that NBC Universal has bought them both). DWA’s profits have always flip-flopped, and by the time they were purchased by NBC they were in serious financial trouble, having to lay off hundreds of employees. Why? Because they’ve never been truly consistent. DreamWorks can range from beautiful works of art (How To Train Your Dragon) to generic kids stuff (Monsters vs. Aliens) to “WTF am I watching” (Bee Movie). When most people think of DWA they think of snarky, in-your-face movies with pop culture references, so when they’re faced with a How To Train Your Dragon or Kung Fu Panda, it’s enough to cause whiplash. And while Illumination movies tend to be generic, they also tend to be cute, harmless, and safe. DreamWorks can just come across as bizarre. You can watch more on how DreamWorks has an identity problem HERE.

By contrast, Pixar has a clear identity of making high quality, heartwarming, clever and original content that has given them massive success. They do get some backlash for making more generic or lower-quality films (The Good Dinosaur is their lowest grossing effort) and for making too many sequels, but not too much to the point where they get into financial trouble.

Laika also has a clear identity: unconventional, artsy stop motion flicks. This has won them massive critical acclaim, but not a wide audience appeal. Warner Bros. Animation, which has always struggled to find its audience and rake in money at the box office (their only theatrical feature length original film to win any prestige is The Iron Giant), has mostly settled on making LEGO movies, which has proven to be a hit.

I think identity is also a huge indicator of how Disney has gone through peaks and valleys during its 90 year reign. At their core, they’re a company that retells classic stories for a modern audience, and when the audience would change with time, so would they. One of the reason the early 2000’s was a bad decade for Disney was because, in addition to being overshadowed by Pixar, their movies were all over the place. Different animation styles, tones, and themes, and weird premises. Now, the animation is cleaner, softer, and more detailed, their genres and premises are simpler, and they deal with themes that are relevant to today’s society, such as female empowerment, mental health concerns, and prejudice.

In today’s age, animation companies are brands, and the audience comes to expect something specific from them; if they don’t get what they asked for, they won’t support it. It sucks that animation companies aren’t allowed to explore and have a wider range like live action companies, but until animation gets more respect as a medium, that’s going to happen for awhile. Identity can make or break an animation studio, because you can end up as a reigning champ like Pixar, or wind up being bought out and STILL end up in trouble like DreamWorks.

Advertisements

How Megamind Can Help Us With Pride

A lot of animated family movies teach the message of “Be yourself and proud of who you are”. For a lot of kids of any age, they need to be reminded not to let bullies or peer pressure get to them. But for some kids who are attracted to the same gender or present themselves outside of the masculine/feminine binary, simple “be proud of who you are” messages aren’t enough.

In 2013, Frozen came out and for a lot of people, “Let It Go” became a coming out anthem. But while the movie (mainly Elsa) does resonate with the LGBT community, it was actually meant to be about mental illness. Is there an animated family film that can be read explicitly as one for LGBT youth?

I think there might be. And that movie is none other than DreamWorks’ 2010 film Megamind.

Image result for megamind

This movie wasn’t a huge hit (Disney’s Tangled, which also came out that year, made more money) but it does have a following. It’s a superhero movie with a twist: what if the villain won? And once the villain does win, what happens next? In Megamind’s case, he becomes bored and lonely. He doesn’t really want power, he just wants people to appreciate and acknowledge him. Eventually he becomes a real hero and gets the girl. But I think a queer narrative plays a huge role in that story as well.

For starters, I think you can tell from the poster that he’s queer-coded like a lot of villains tend to be. Skintight, spiky, over-the-top outfits (and some makeup!) and a thin, waifish built. He also has some, ahem, foppish mannerisms, lives with a male best friend who wears a pink apron and raises robot children, can be really emotionally expressive (but not macho or manly), and gazes longingly at Metro Man (the male opponent) just as he does with Roxanne (the female love interest).

And you know what? He’s never demonized for any of this. He isn’t made to be the butt of a joke or gross, that’s just how he is. He’s FABULOUS, and isn’t forced to change, even after he becomes a hero.

What makes me think this is a queer narrative, beyond just how Megamind presents himself, is how his story of discrimination is eerily reminiscent of LGBT youth.

His parents had to send him away, and he spent his childhood growing up (raised by other men) in a prison. When he goes to school he is immediately seen othered by the teacher and the other children, getting no gold stars, put in the corner, and not picked to be on teams. So he has to be independent. Eventually, he decides “if they think I’m a villain, I guess that’s what I’ll be!”

That definitely sounds like a kid from a marginalized identity facing prejudice, and internalizing it. There are unfortunately cases of young kids with internalized homophobia who become aggressive and unhappy. This is a definite parallel to Megamind leading a life of villainy, but eventually realizing that it is depressing and meaningless.

After donning a disguise of a white straight man, Megamind gets closer to Roxanne. He falls in love with her (but still shows a yearning for Metro Man) and even ends up kissing her. When his disguise fades, everyone stops and stares at them with shock and horror. That can definitely be reminiscent of how LGBT couples expressing affection in public are viewed and treated.

Frustrated, Megamind tries to return to being a villain by battling Hal aka Tighten, a ‘hero’ he created. But it turns out the ubermasculine Hal is the real villain, who takes delight in hurting others and is creepily obsessed with Roxanne, feeling entitled to her. Megamind, in all his FABULOUS glory, defeats him and saves the day, becoming the new city hero and Roxanne’s boyfriend.

I think it’s pretty obvious that the blue alien Megamind is meant to be a metaphor for a person of a marginalized identity taking pride in who they are and becoming loved for it. And given his mannerisms, attire, his contrast to the villain, and how he idolizes a male AND a female character, I think it’s safe to say that a bisexual, gender-noncomforming Megamind fits very well. And he can still find love, he can still be a hero, that he doesn’t have to conform, and that he is AWESOME. I think this is something that all LGBT youth can remember when they feel like the world is getting them down.

Happy Pride Month!

 

 

 

Under New Management for DreamWorks

As many of you have probably heard, the independent animation studio DreamWorks Animation has been bought by Comcast (specifically NBCUniversal).

A lot of people are pretty nervous about this. Comcast isn’t a very popular company, and a lot of fans are worried on how this will effect future films. While I don’t think DWA is AS progressive as a lot of fans say it is, and they have released some pretty ridiculous movies, they do take some pretty bold risks a lot (my personal faves are Megamind being obviously q*eer coded without being demonized, Po being fat, and Hiccup being disabled) and can release great works of art (I want another Prince of Egypt style movie), and I would hate to see all that go away.

Right now, we’re not sure what’s going to happen. When I read THIS post (not a CB fan but this has good info) saying that DreamWorks was going to end up making only films for the small fry, I was pissed, and a lot a lot of respect for DreamWorks Animation because of that (and while I did enjoy Kung Fu Panda 3, I sometimes think it may have suffered from that; I noticed it was comparatively tame to the second movie). So my main concern right now is whether the new deal will reinforce this or encourage DreamWorks to continue to make more progressive films for all ages (not just toddlers).

But you know one thing that I’m absolutely, positively happy about with the new change?

That Chris Meledandri is taking over Jeffrey Katzenberg’s place.

Whether or not you’re a fan of anything Chris Meledandri produces, you have to admit, he’s always managed to make a hit. He gives his films modest budgets but lots of marketing and sets a clear target demographic, making sure people see the films his company (Illumination) makes. When I read THIS post (I know, another CB post, but hey, good info is good!) I was blown away utterly. This man is a genius. I get the impression that he genuinely loves and encourages creativity and doesn’t JUST care about making money. With him in charge of DWA, I can definitely see new life being breathed into the studio. I can definitely see their financial troubles diminishing for sure.

I’m not going to go on about Jeffrey Katzenberg (there’s a lot of info online that explains why he’s unpopular among the animation community), but I get the impression that he’s not very good at marketing/budgeting (at one point, he donated $10 million to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures along with Steven Spielberg, even though that money could’ve been used for his studio), and is more interested in franchises rather than original content. He’ll milk any film that is a good hit to death, even when the content created for it isn’t very good. In the span of 21 years, DWA has released 32 (!!) films, which gives me the impression that he’s more interested in rushing out films to make a quick buck than taking their time to create something that’s good and market it properly.

In short, while I do think Katzenberg cares, I don’t think he entirely knows HOW to care. Under his reign, his studio went from biggest animation company in the world next to Pixar to something that a lot of people don’t really care about. A lot of their franchises are better known for making money than being household names that people genuinely love (beyond the How To Train Your Dragon films) and as a whole the company has garnered a bad reputation of being crass and self-indulgent. That’s my theory, at least, as to why a lot of their films have been so unsuccessful and unpopular recently.

So I think with Chris Meledandri in charge, DWA can get a fresh start. My hope is that DWA will be allowed to make films with beautiful animation, clever stories, and progressive elements (not just for little babies) with better marketing, budgeting, and management, which in turn should lead to DWA becoming truly successful.

Only time will tell if the new deal and management will truly help DreamWorks Animation. But considering the looming threat of bankruptcy in the near future for the studio, this is probably going to better than their current state at any rate.

The Shrek Effect

You all remember DreamWorks Animation’s Shrek, right?

Of course you do. It was HUGE hit back in 2001, raking in $484 million at the box office (which may seem like a more modest hit nowadays but was a big deal back in the early 2000s), winning the the very first Oscar for Best Animated Feature (this was before Pixar took over the world for awhile), and spawning an abundance of merchandise and (to date) three sequels.

So why is that today, nobody seems to talk about it besides making fun of it?

Seriously, this movie has sparked a lot of Internet memes, some of them rather disturbing (don’t Google “Shrek is Love Shrek is Life”, and I might avoid looking up Shrek on Google Images as well), jokes about how it has an infinite number of sequels, cheap shots at all the merch it spawned, and questions as to whether or not any love for this film is genuine or ironic. A lot of posts in general on Shrek are sarcastic or, well, weird.

While most people can agree that the second film is actually good (thanks in large part to the “I Need a Hero” cover) and the last two films are bad, nobody can really seem to agree on whether the first film is a true classic or a parody onto itself.

I think I can call what happened to Shrek (and DreamWorks in General) the Shrek Effect.

When Shrek first came out, it was rather unique. You had a main hero who was ugly and crude and pretty much the opposite of Prince Charming and proud of it. You had a Princess who knew martial arts and could also be pretty crude and turned out to be happy with her ogre form. You had the two of them getting married and remaining ugly and living happily ever after in the swamp. You also had a lot of pop culture references, scathing parodies of Disney, a snarky overtone and lots and lots and LOTS of crude/rude/sexual humour that wouldn’t let up. In short, it was different, and people, at the time, loved it. So much so, that DreamwWorks decided to copy the formula for almost all their other films (mainly their CGI films, as their more original 2D films weren’t very successful), and other companies followed suit.

What happened was an oversaturation of crude, snarky, and almost bitter films that tried to be edgy and in-your-face. Whereas Pixar stuck with making heartfelt, down-to-earth movies, DreamWorks would create cynical counterparts (or rather, ripoffs) that would try to convey a positive message while being weird and sometimes gross. Walt Disney Animation Studios, which had been struggling to keep up in the 2000s after having ruled the animation roost during the 1990s, tried to ride DreamWorks’s coattails with films like Home on the Range and Chicken Little, which ended up hurting the company even more until they bought Pixar.

While DreamWorks did enjoy some success during this time, now they’re in serious financial trouble and their reputation has been forever tarnished. While Disney has managed to recover from their Shrek-inspired days (thank you, John Lasseter), and other companies have gained a new life, DreamWorks is still widely seen as a crude company that cribs inspiration from Pixar and makes too many sequels and merchandise to films that weren’t that great. The only franchise DreamWorks has that seems to be universally loved is How To Train Your Dragon, and even that series isn’t making enough. And, of course, the film that started it all is now ridiculed.

I think what a lot of people fail to realize is that, where other films failed, Shrek actually WORKED.

Shrek wasn’t just an asshole misanthrope for no reason; you understood how he felt he had to shut himself off because no one liked him. Fiona wasn’t just a princess who knew kung fu; she also had some hidden depth (mainly she thought she had to be beautiful, but realized it was better to be ugly and loved). Donkey wasn’t just a comic relief sidekick, he was Shrek’s truest friend and companion. And the movie has an important message of how looks don’t matter as much as what you are inside. But because of the neck-deep crassness, dated pop cultural references, constant middle finger to Disney, the excess of sequels and merchandise and other weird moments (mainly the fact that the Donkey had an intimate relationship with a dragon much bigger and less sentient than him), and how a lot of other DreamWorks films did almost the same thing, nobody really remembers Shrek that fondly anymore. It does have some loyal fans, but generally speaking, Shrek has become nothing more than a collective joke for a lot of people.

It’s kind of sad that while Shrek only hurt other companies for a brief period of time, it’s still hurting its parent company. While I do have some problems with DreamWorks Animation (I’ll probably get to that in another post), I don’t think it’s fair for them to be suffering just because they’re not allowed to move on for their early days. What’s really upsetting is that they feel like they have to make all their films squarely for young children now just to make a profit (though there is no excuse for them to do this because they feel only children are watching their films; Disney has proven people of all ages are flocking to see their animated works).

I refuse to see Shrek as nothing  more than meme fodder, but I will unfortunately remember it as the film that helped and harmed the animation industry, especially DreamWorks. As it stands, Shrek will likely not be remembered the way DreamWorks would like it to be in animation history.