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The case for DreamWorks Animation to stop riding the dragon

April 29, 2010 |  7:00 am


DreamWorks Animation's announcement that it will produce and release a "How to Train Your Dragon" sequel within the next three years is either the smartest or the strangest move an animation company has made in a while.

First, the obvious -- the smart part. "Dragon" has been an unmitigated success for the studio, earning at least $20 million in the U.S. in each of its first four weeks of release and pocketing a total of $373 million globally, which puts it nicely in the black even for an expensive CG 3-D production. That's also not bad for a star-less spring cartoon.

And so it makes sense that DreamWorks would try to keep the magic going, especially because the standard formula is that an animated sequel makes between one and a half and two times as much as the original (true for everything from "Shrek" to "Ice Age.")

The studio also needs a new animation franchise after the aforementioned "Shrek,"  which mercifully will be put out of its green misery after nine years and four movies once "Shrek Forever After" comes and goes in a few weeks. Enter the dragon, which offers an entire series of books -- seven more in all -- to serve as the basis for plenty of capers from Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III and his friends.

But there's also something unsettling about a sequel. "Dragon" has been a watershed for DreamWorks. It won't be its most lucrative movie by a long shot -- that honor belongs to movies such as "Madagascar" and "Kung Fu Panda," each of which has grossed more than half a billion dollars worldwide.

But it has shown that the Jeffrey Katzenberg company can play with the big boys -- namely, bitter cross-California rivals John Lasseter and Pixar. For the first time possibly in its history, and at least since "Shrek" came out nearly a decade ago in a very different animation landscape, DreamWorks has showed it could produce a well-told story that is not only commercially successful but a critical breakthrough as well, a movie that will remain influential in popular culture and the animation universe for a long time. As the world changes yet again, "Dragon" helps DreamWorks stake out a position as a company that can use 3-D effectively.

All this doesn't immediately change with the announcement of a second "Dragon" movie. But there's a taint. Sequels suggest merchandising (as if underscoring the point, DreamWorks also announced that an online world, television series and arena show were in the works too), commerce and, by definition, a lack of uniqueness. There's a reason the last eight Oscar winners for best animated film have been stand-alone movies, and there's a reason Pixar is so selective about what it keeps going and what it lays to rest.

Yes, it keeps playing with a broader, merchandisey property such as "Toy Story," but wisely stays away from over-milking its elegant character films such as "Wall-E," "Ratatouille" and "Up." A lesser company would make a sequel out of the latter, call it "Down" and have the two main characters explore the ocean floor in a submarine. Pixar, to its great credit, does not. It knows its team can and will pull off the trick again with an entirely new set of characters, and it knows that audiences will come out to see the film whether it has so-called brand-awareness or not.

With animation development costs so high and efforts so labor-intensive, you can't blame DreamWorks for trying to ride the "Dragon" for all its worth. But now that it's finally playing in Pixar's stadium, it seems like the wrong move. Confidence in a franchise communicates a strong message, both to Hollywood and to Wall Street. Confidence that your creative team can come up with good new movies from scratch, though, communicates an even stronger one.

-- Steven Zeitchik

(Follow me on Twitter.)

Photo: A scene from "How to Train Your Dragon." Credit: DreamWorks Animation

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Comments () | Archives (10)

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This is a great article. As an animator with ambitions in directing, I am also interested in the nebulous "creative ethics" of franchise development.

My main concern with a Dragon sequel is maintaining the same creative team, specifically the directors, Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois. These two salvaged what was a mediocre film and made a huge hit with a lot of heart. If they want to do a sequel to further explore the characters and world, then they should do it. If Katzenberg wants to do a sequel so that Dreamworks stock rises by 5 points in fiscal year 2012, then I'm more concerned.

I think what Hollywood animation needs more than anything is for the people with the money to trust in directors with a proven track record and a singular vision. When I see an animated film with 5 directors and 8 writers, I hold my head in my hands. A 2 hour piece of storytelling needs a small, efficient creative helm that knows exactly what it wants and how to get it. Wes Anderson proved this with Mr. Fox, and Chris and Dean have proved it with Lilo & Stitch and Dragon.

If the marketing department of Dreamworks stood by its directors, rather than its voice casts, there could be a laundry list of household names in animation other than John Lasseter and Brad Bird. We need another Wonderful World of Disney type program where primetime TV viewers can get a perspective on the massive creative undertaking that is feature animation. I am getting sick of DVD special features that are nothing but mainstream actors talking about how crazy it is to sit in a booth and say the same lines over and over.

I'm not quite so cynical about Dragon's sequel prospects. The film was conceived as a prequel to the eight-book children's series, so there's plenty of material for them to explore going forward. DreamWorks Animation's entire strategy is to develop potential franchises, and the success of this film seems like a best-case scenario (as you say, it's stronger story-wise than anything they've done since Shrek -- and sincere to boot, which the green ogre wasn't necessarily), and I'm eager to see if they can sustain that level of quality with a follow-up, rather than demanding that they go back to the drawing board and try to create more charming one-offs (don't forget, Pixar's also in the sequel business, with Toy Story, Cars and Monsters Inc. all generating additional chapters).

So then, why are three of the next four Pixar releases sequels?

Toy Story 3 (June 18, 2010)
Cars 2 (June 24, 2011)
Brave (June 15, 2012)
Monsters, Inc. 2 (November 16, 2012)

As previously mentioned, the movie is based on a series of books, and their intention was to always build a franchise. Dreamworks isn't in the business of preserving a film's "uniqueness", it is in the business of entertainment. To believe that any studio in the business of animation (Pixar, Sony, Dreamworks, Warner) isn't looking for a franchise is extremely naive.

To Dreamworks credit, the "Dragon" books are fairly thin and the directors and story artists drifted from the original story quite a bit to provide a fully developed movie experience. This was all developed fully knowing that if the movie did well, their would be sequels. That is apparent watching this first Dragon movie.

Who cares so long as it's a good movie. Dragon was a good kids cartoon. Director Dean DuBlois did a terrific job. It's Dreamworks best cartoon, although that's NOT saying too much (after a number of flops (El Dorado, Prince of Egypt, Sinbad, and Cimmeron, anyone?) , and then a few hits based on fart jokes and irrelevant pop cultural reference).

Even though Dragon went through 20 writers and 7 directors, the the final film is their best.

Who cares so long as it's a good movie. Dragon was a good kids cartoon. Director Dean DuBlois did a terrific job. It's Dreamworks best cartoon, although that's NOT saying too much (after a number of flops (El Dorado, Prince of Egypt, Sinbad, and Cimmeron, anyone?) , and then a few hits based on fart jokes and irrelevant pop cultural reference).

Even though Dragon went through 20 writers and 7 directors, the the final film is their best.

Pixar isn't being choosy about sequels; Disney is. What do "Cars", "Monsters, Inc.", and "Toy Story" all have in common that "Wall*E", "Ratatouille", and "Up" lack? MERCHANDISING. The films Disney/Pixar are making sequels for are the ones that have the largest number of toy tie-ins.

Don't get me wrong; I think Pixar is very careful about choosing good stories for its films. But there's no doubt in my mind that the recent rash of sequels (and I don't even consider "Brave" to be a Pixar film, even if Disney does) is a result of Disney's marketing/merchandising branch giving them a nudge.

I generally agree. Even the second "Shrek" was enjoyable but unneccessary; the third was terrible, and so the fourth is likely to be. The sequels have definitely tainted the legacy "Shrek" established. However, Pixar is getting into the sequel game too. They've already been successful with "Toy Story 2", and promise to be with the third installment, but is a sequel to "Cars" really necessary? The original was by far the studio's worst and most uninteresting film, yet thanks to it's successful merchandising line, an entirely new land is being built in Disneyland California in addition to the second film! "Monsters Inc 2" is also on it's way.

"How To Train Your Dragon" is my favorite of Dreamworks' projects, at least since the traditionally animated "Prince of Egypt" was released. Perhaps selfishly, I am looking forward to the sequel. If the original creative team is brought back into developing the story, I cannot wait to see more of the characters and world that the first brought to life. A TV show might be overkill, but I'll give it a fair chance. Afterall, the television series "Jimmy Neutron" is just as entertaining as the film. And "Dragon" has the potential to be the new "Pokemon", if handled correctly.

I can understand why Dreamworks wants to make a sequel (though I'm not supportive of that). I just hope that this will be the LAST sequel they'll make. And this includes a stupid television series.

This article is stilted. I actually do not carry any reputation based trust with companies as it can lead to dangerous situations. All corporations want to make money it does not matter what business they are in it is all just for their group's financial gain.

I will always evaluate things critically and seek to eliminate bias from review sources. Disney which purchased Pixar Animation studios effectively ended the independence of the animation studio and merged it with all the synergy you can find into the Disney fold. The quality of the works produced is what they should be judge by not their record.

In the end this article has many indications of such biases even though Pixar as an independent entity no longer exists.

1) All movie studios seek to generate sequels when possible it is disgusting that people think Disney is careful and has few sequels as they continue to announce sequels for movies from long past.

2) Merchandising, for family directed movie it would not make any financial sense to not make family directed products. Almost all Disney properties have been well merchandised, re-released, attractions made, etc...

3) Lack of uniqueness, This does not even make any sense as I would not judge a group on their words more so their actions and Disney is not exactly the small scale animation studio they used to be (old 2D department long gone)

Basically this article is tainted and should be shown as an example of how not to get self absorbed by corporations. In reality these movie companies care about the bottom line as if they can't turn a profit they will cease to exist.

It is strange to watch people admire Pixar as they seem to be having increased synergy with their new owners. Just remember Toy Story 3 was not suppose to exist. (Pixar did not originally want to have anything to do with it but a couple billion dollars and some change in management can smooth things over a lot) So unlike Dreamworks Animation which is showing the ability to change their formula and allow some projects to deviate and use outside teams, Disney is forcing their will unto their previous partner Pixar.


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