Earlier this week I wrote about the whole of DreamWorks Animation, which came after I – no joke – revisited all 28 features released by the studio so far and attended a screening of the studio's latest, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” (hitting theaters next week). That hotly anticipated sequel, which bowed at the Cannes Film Festival last month, comfortably took the top spot, with the 2010 original firmly at #2. Because these, to me, are the crowning achievements of DreamWorks so far.
I imagine the campaigns behind such competitors as “The LEGO Movie” (Warner Bros.) and the still unseen “Boxtrolls” (Focus Features) would cringe at reading something like what I'm about to write, but I'm going to write it anyway: the Best Animated Feature Film Oscar race seems all but over, and I really have to say, I think “Dragon 2” deserves to be in the Best Picture conversation later this year as well. It's that good.
But let's go back in time a bit. In 2010, DWA started this whole journey with the first “How to Train Your Dragon.” And it was a significant milestone for the company, critically acclaimed, a success at the box office, the start of a new franchise that, refreshingly, wasn't dependent on fluff, wasn't afraid to be a bit dark, wasn't, in short, like anything in the DreamWorks canon. Naturally, it was a Best Animated Feature Film Oscar nominee, and it was just the luck of the draw that one of Pixar's most accomplished films to date, “Toy Story 3,” was in the mix that year.
This time around, Pixar is sitting it out. DWA's own “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” won't figure in much. Warner Bros. has plenty of champions for its “LEGO Movie” cause, but it could be hard to keep a February release alive long enough during the season. Disney has a Marvel property on the way in the form of “Big Hero 6,” but who knows how it will register? (It does look fun.) Then there is the aforementioned “Boxtrolls,” which could be DreamWorks' stiffest competition. But while the Focus/Laika partnership always yields wonderfully creative work, “Coraline” and “ParaNorman” have both fallen to more emotional fare in recent years.
For the most part, that appears to be the race. Yes, there are others. The Oscar-nominated filmmaker behind “The Secret of Kells,” for instance, will be back with “Song of the Sea.” And more will come as we get closer to, and then deeper into, the season. But from my perch here, “Dragon 2” is looking pretty darn strong.
Forget all that, though. So far (save for the history-making “Beauty and the Beast”), only Pixar efforts have broken into the Best Picture race at the Oscars. It's time to change all of that, and “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is absolutely worthy of such a tier. It's one of the year's best films and is likely to remain as much for the next seven months. As Drew McWeeny shrewdly noted in his HitFix review, it's a sequel concerned with progressing its characters and narrative, not simply folding back into the status quo by the time the credits roll. It's exciting, emotional, gorgeous and full of thematic integrity.
This, in so many words, is the identity I wish DreamWorks was interested in having. This is the kind of product I'd like to see them chase. But this is a corporate world and certain brands are successful. Not only certain brands, but certain product. Katzenberg almost made it sound like the “Dragon” series was an anomaly when we talked to him in Cannes last month (bold mine):
“Our North Star is 'Shrek.' 'Shrek' is a big, boisterous, subversive comedy. That's what I think distinguishes us from our competitors. Not that they don't from time to time come into our space and not that we don't from time to time go into theirs. It's OK. None of us own these spaces. We walk in and out of them. I would say the next group of things coming from us are more at our core. So 'The Penguins of Mad[agascar]' I think, in some respects, is one of the funniest movies we've ever made. It's outrageous and it's just hysterical. 'Home' is really an adventure comedy as opposed to a comedy adventure. And 'B.O.O.: Bureau of Otherworldly Objects' is our ghost movie next summer with Seth Rogen, Melissa McCarthy and Bill Murray. Just a flat-out, pedal-to-the-metal, hysterical comedy. 'Kung Fu Panda 3,' the next story, is actually more broadly comedic. It's actually closer to the first movie than the second movie; the second was dealing with Po's past and had dark elements to it.”
That almost sounds like shareholder placating or something. “Don't worry, we're going to get back to the bright, glossy money machines soon enough.” And I get it. Three “Shrek” movies, three “Madagascar” movies, two “Kung Fu Panda” movies, a “Shrek” spin-off and “The Croods” comprise the top 10 DreamWorks box office grossers to date. But the “Dragon” series is on another level, and I have to imagine someone as smart as Katzenberg realizes that and what it could mean for the perception of his company. Yes, the pop culture stuff sells, but so does prestige when it's done right. Just look at Pixar.
Of course, maybe “How to Train Your Dragon 2” will come out and be a monster $700 million hit worldwide. I imagine that would do a lot to alter this apparent notion that DWA's identity should be lower-brow. But even if it doesn't, I feel very strongly that DreamWorks would be smart to nurture this kind of material, which isn't the result of a screenplay-by-committee and/or a cadre of directors. It's a very unified writer/director vision. It doesn't just entertain, it has something to say. And it doesn't trip over itself to say it. It's elegant.
I don't mean to beat up on anyone here. I'm just reading what I am into a quote, rightly or wrongly. Obviously Katzenberg has taken risks. There are those close to him who will tell you that when he believes in someone, as he obviously does with “Dragon” steward Dean DeBlois, he'll support him or her through and through. Meanwhile, the studio has gotten serious about its aesthetic growth, bringing in cinematographers like Roger Deakins and Wally Pfister and directors like Guillermo Del Toro to consult and even produce. And that's fantastic. I'm also not saying that the company should be any one thing, because obviously variety is crucial. But films like “How to Train Your Dragon 2” should not be the anomaly. They should be the standard. They should be the “core.” They should be the “North Star.”
In a nutshell: More of this, please, Mr. Katzenberg.
“How to Train Your Dragon 2” opens nationwide June 13. You're gonna love it.