It’s hard to believe that 15 years ago, I was into my third quarter as an animation major, and had just begun working at a local movie theater’s box-office (a step up from my previous year spent studying graphic design in Iowa, and working box-office at my hometown theater).
The Summer of 2001 was marked by a plethora of films that I had pegged as ‘must sees.’ Along with Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and Walt Disney Pictures’ Atlantis: The Lost Empire, there was another film that was on the minds of many, due to its previews and marketing campaign.
One of the most talked-about films of the summer, was Dreamworks SKG’s animated feature, Shrek. Based on the story by William Steig, Dreamworks’ version saw a re-imagining of the book’s disgusting ogre, as a grumpy ogre who is sent on a quest to rescue a Princess, along with a talking donkey.
The film would become one of the most talked-about features of the year, long after it had left movie theaters. Its release on VHS and DVD that fall would also garner big numbers, and at the next Academy Awards ceremony, the film would claim a triumph over Disney, when it ended up winning the first Best Animated Feature award given out in the newly-created awards category.
Thinking back on the film, I thought I’d create another “thoughts” column, this on probably one of the 21st century’s most influential computer-generated feature film.
Of Fairy Tales and Twists
Unlike William Steig’s book, the film’s take on Shrek became a riff on fairy tale cliches.
- Unlike a handsome prince going off to rescue a Princess, the vain and egotistical Lord Farquaad sends Shrek off to complete the task.
- Unlike the stereotypical Princess who lets others do everything for her, Princess Fiona also has some skills of her own (though where she learned “the art of bullet-time,” we’re never told).
- Unlike an ugy beast who turns into a Prince, it is a beautiful Princess who becomes the ugly beast (or so we assume)
The third item was something that I thought was a clever twist from the filmmakers, with Fiona feeling self-conscious about the spell that was placed on her, giving the film its Beauty and the Beast style twist, but in a more unconventional way, than just having an Ogre like Shrek, fall in love with a beautiful Princess.
What was very surprising in 2001, was that even though many saw Shrek, I never saw many persons or news outlets just immediately giving away the film’s secret regarding Fiona. It reminded me of the quietness that surrounded the twist ending to The Sixth Sense, 2 years before.
Beating Fairy Tale cliches senseless
I recall numerous articles about Shrek at the time, just ignoring anything about the story, and largely going on and on about how the film was Jeffrey Katzenberg’s “revenge” on The Walt Disney Company, whom he had left in 1994.
Though in truth, much of the stuff regarding the fairy tale creatures, is more secondary, as the story is largely Shrek and Donkey’s quest. But then again, the news media rarely looks for the good, and tries to focus on “the juicy.”
We see quite a bit of outside-the-box attitudes. Gepetto turns in Pinocchio to claim 5 shillings, the Gingerbread Man has his legs removed, and is dunked in milk, forced to talk (of course to the MPAA, such torture methods are okay, since Gingy’s a cookie, and not a human being).
What some viewers don’t realize, is there is a rather ‘ghastly’ fate regarding Mama Bear of the Three Bears. When we see the Fairy Tale creatures having set up residence near Shrek’s place, we see Papa Bear sadly comforting Baby Bear.
We don’t know just what happened to her, until we get a slow pan-shot across Lord Farquaad’s bed chambers later on:
Yep…that’s pretty messed up right there.
The film also played with the ‘Princess as a friend to forest creatures’ cliche, when Fiona’s singing accidentally makes a bluebird explode. The next thing we see is the camera focusing on the bluebird’s eggs, which elicited some emotional sounds from the audience:
Though with the scene that followed, there were audible gasps, and chuckling:
Pretty resourceful, that Fiona…and of course, one assumes she doesn’t tell Shrek or Donkey just where she got the eggs from.
Perfection requested from the Imperfect
Lord Farquaad is the ruler of the film’s kingdom of Duloc, though sees the fairy tale creatures in his kingdom as inferiors, and as such, rounds them up to be removed.
However, it should be noted that Farquaad’s call for perfection, is done so from someone who is imperfect. As is made clear in an early joke, the Lord is not of average height.
This often seems to be a given of many who have a dictatorial streak that they feel ‘perfection must be achieved,’ and if you look in some fictional works and history, you can see it.
Another fictional example is Lord Voldemort, who goes on about excising Muggle and mixed-blooded witches and wizards from the world…even though Voldemort himself, is the product of a Witch mother and a Muggle father.
Dreamworks Identity Change
With Shrek becoming one of 2001’s most profitable films, one would assume its parent company would make some changes given its success, and pretty soon, the writing was on the wall.
Doing things differently had seemed to be Dreamworks Animation’s mantra when they first made Prince of Egypt back in 1998. But now, it seemed almost every other film had to be passed through the pop-culture machine.
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron was released in 2002, and pretty much made it out intact (with the exception of Bryan Adams’ music, and Matt Damon voicing Spirit’s “thoughts”), but the films going forward, seemed to try and really be ‘hip and edgy,’ and it seemed to be how the viewing audience would define a Dreamworks Animation experience. In 2004, the animation division was given its own logo, and an overlay of Harry Gregson-Williams’ Shrek theme was incorporated over it.
A Game-changer, both inside and outside Dreamworks
Dreamworks Animation was all about doing things differently than their crosstown rival, and it didn’t take long before the first film’s success spawned talk of a sequel, which when it came to feature film releases, was rare (Disney had gotten into the habit of making direct-to-video sequels in the 1990’s, the majority of them made overseas).
Shrek 2 was released 3 years later, and pulled in bigger numbers than its predecessor. This would lead to a new business plan for the studio: the development of feature-animated franchises, with the expectation that if the company made enough popular new animation properties, sequels could guarantee a big return investment from sequels, and repeat viewers.
Shrek also seemed to wheedle its way into the minds of other studios, notably in films that were ‘a story you think you know…but with a pop-cultural twist.’ And usually, they ended in a big raucous song-and-dance number at the end, to something pop-cultural.
The most shocking thing to me and many others, was that soon after, even Disney followed Shrek’s example! Following the shutdown of Disney’s hand-drawn animation division following the 2004 film, Home on the Range, The Disney Studios proudly proclaimed they were going full-on computer-generated in the realms of animation. Their inaugural start? The 2005 film Chicken Little, which tried shamefully to ape Shrek’s formula, but crashed-and-burned in a number of ways.
15 years later, Shrek is mostly a memory to many of us. I will admit that I haven’t watched the film in a long time, and when it came to the sequels, I only found myself purchasing the second one.
After 4 feature films, a theme park experience, several holiday specials, and a stage musical adaptation, there’s been no additional attempts to revive the ogre…for now.
Though the film gave the studio one of its most iconic figures and seemed to cement Dreamworks Animation in the minds of many, in the last 5 years, the outlook has not been a rosy one for the studio.
Jeffrey Katzenberg’s thought that sequels and 2-3 films a year being released from the studio, would appease the public and their shareholders, put the company in a shaky position. In 2014, amid box-office takes falling short of production and marketing costs, massive layoffs were announced, and the company was forced to sell off its animation campus in Glendale, California (though they would still house most of its staff there).
One of the biggest blows, was that the company’s restructuring, would also mean the closure of PDI/Dreamworks, formerly Pacific Data Images…which is where Shrek’s production took place, all those years ago.
In the last month, it was announced that Dreamworks Animation had been purchased by NBC/Comcast to the tune of $3.8 billion, and it sounds like the new parent company may surely find some way to re-spin the company’s properties.
NBC/Comcast also holds the keys to the animation company, Illumination Entertainment, who has churned out the Despicable Me film series, to widespread acclaim and box-office returns. Word is that the head of Illumination, has also been installed as the head of Dreamworks Animation, though just what this may mean for the future of the company, is hard to say.
….though I’m sure a few out there, are envisioning the following scenario happening:
While some films have made me well-aware of their presence months or even years beforehand, every-so-often, there come a few that end up just popping up, and surprising me.
That was the case in September of 2000, as I prepared to leave my hometown of Waterloo, IA, and embark on a quest to pursue animation in the big city. My life had largely been one of animation and film fascination since a young age, and it probably made the most sense that I had found refuge and solace in my hometown’s movie theater, where I had been employed since May of 1999.
A few days before I was scheduled to leave on the next big journey of my life, we ran a print to make sure it was put together properly, for a new film by director Cameron Crowe, called Almost Famous.
The film was a pseudo-documentary of Cameron’s own life growing up. In the film, young William Miller (Patrick Fugit) has aspirations to become a Rock journalist. He gets the opportunity when Rolling Stone magazine calls, asking if he’d like to cover a band for a magazine article. Having just met up-and-coming band Stillwater at the local Sports Arena a few days before, William requests to cover them, and he’s soon on his way.
What I saw on the screen, quickly seemed to speak to me. William Miller’s journey out into the big world to be a Rock Journalist, I could almost see slightly mirroring my own journey to escape and find something that fascinated me, and along the way, make me learn a few things or two regarding life.
The film rose and fell quickly at the box-office (even international grosses couldn’t help it recoup its $50 million budget), but it quickly became an awards-season contender. Crowe was hailed in many capacities for the film’s original screenplay writing, which took home plenty of screenplay awards in a number of different awards ceremonies, and film critics circles.
The film would be released on VHS and DVD a few months after the Academy Awards, but I held out, as word came that Cameron was priming what he called, Almost Famous: The Bootleg Cut.
The Bootleg Cut added an extra 35 minutes to the theatrical release, and the DVD set had plenty of extras regarding Crowe’s career as a journalist. It even included a packed-in CD containing the original music that was recorded for the film’s made-up band, Stillwater (which featured actors Billy Crudup, and Jason Lee).
What was most intriguing to me, was that the film also contained an audio commentary track (and it even had its own subtitles!). But this isn’t just Crowe flying solo. He also brings along some friends. They include Scott Martin (from Vinyl Films), Andy Fischer (from Vinyl Films) Ivan Corona (a family friend), Mark Atkinson (from Dreamworks), and, Cameron’s mother, Alice Crowe, who is portrayed in the role of Elaine Miller in the film, as played by Frances McDormand.
At the start of the commentary, Crowe tells how he could be ‘dark and mysterious’ about the film and reveal nothing, or be ‘blatantly open’ and reveal plenty about the film. Luckily, Cameron chooses to play nice, and the 2 1/2 hours fly by, with him and his cohorts sharing memories about his past, the film’s production, and making note of some information that proves to be quite entertaining.
Sifting through the information, I thought I’d share 5 of those moments that stand out, and list them below. I find them sort of like an appetizer of what the full commentary track contains.
During the process of deciding how to make Almost Famous, Crowe often found himself trying to figure out how best to focus on the story, without having it derail too far into the standard troupes that almost every other rock-and-roll-based film seemed to go towards.
In an opening scene taking place in 1969, a young William Miller (played by Michael Angarano) finds his sister has given him her collection of records. Crowe tells how many of the records were time-accurate, but he did throw in some that set a particular ‘mood’ for the scene, and the film in general:
Cameron Crowe: Cindy (my sister) actually did do this, left me her records. And it was-the only one that is actually not ‘time-accurate,’ and it’s one of the few little obvious, purposeful mistakes was (Joni Mitchell’s album) Blue.
Blue came out a couple years later, but I love the album, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, because it’s personal, and it’s shamelessly personal, and I-it probably aches for her, and I think she’s said she doesn’t listen to it that much. And I thought, that’s a standard to hit for the movie, you know? This movie’s gotta ache, and if you pull punches in a coy or precious way, why do it?
So it was kind of hard day-to-day to just, be ‘a cop’ on yourself. And it’s funny how the movie turns out to still be, kind of a-you know, “worshipful” in the right way. Because I think to be a fan is an important thing, it’s good to protect that, and the movie, more than anything else to me, feels like a fan’s love-letter.
That is definitely the case with both cuts of the film. We get to see a lot of the highs and lows of Crowe’s life, emulated through William Miller.
From his being looked down upon for being younger than his classmates, to caring for “band-aid” Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), but seeing that she doesn’t see him as anything more than a friend, whose along for the ride.
This also carries over into the emotions that William’s Mom goes through. Her characterization captures the concern she has for her son’s emotional well-being, as well as her fears that something might happen to him out among the crazy world of Rock Stars.
Mick Jagger will turn Mom around
A major influence on Cameron’s life has been his Mom, Alice Crowe. A former teacher, Alice’s methods may have seemed a little odd to many. While most would sugar-coat some things, Alice Crowe would often give you the straight story…which caused her to freak out quite a few people.
One area of Cameron’s career that took his Mom awhile to warm up to, was Rock-and-Roll. The original career goal for Cameron, was that he would eventually become a lawyer, and that Rock Journalism would be moreso a hobby (since you couldn’t really live well as a freelance Rock writer), but those plans fell through (as can be seen by his current career as a film director). However, there were some points where Alice mellowed on her stance, and one of those moments was mentioned:
Cameron Crowe: I just want-for anybody listening-we are into the achingly-personal aspect of our audio tour-
Alice Crowe: *laughs*
Cameron Crowe: -we had a press party after the book Conversations with Wilder came out, and Mick Jagger was invited, and he showed up! And my mom actually spent more time talking to Mick Jagger, than ME that night.
Alice Crowe: *laughs*
Cameron Crowe: What was that like?
Alice Crowe: Well, he’s amazing because, I’ve seen his photographs, and I saw him in person, and he looked so young. Actually, he’s quite good-looking in person.
Cameron Crowe: Ok. You see how it happens?
Alice Crowe: Yeah.
Cameron Crowe: Rock is evil, until you meet Mick Jagger!
The book Conversations With Wilder (which Cameron wrote), came out in 1999, so the Mom-meets-Mick moment happened before the film came out.
Though he wasn’t in Almost Famous, Mick’s name did come up in one scene. As manager Dennis Hope (Jimmy Fallon) pitches his ideas to help the band make more money, he tells how they have only a finite amount of time to do so. One line he uses, is telling them that if they think Mick Jagger will still be playing in his 50’s, they are “sadly mistaken.”
Crowe said (at the time), he wasn’t sure how Mick took that line, but it was moreso a line that smacked of the times. Because at that time in 1973, who would have expected some of the Rock Stars of that time to still be touring and making money, over 2-3 decades later?
Believe it or not, the film’s name did not come easily, and there was a constant struggle to figure out just what to call it. During a scene where Russell Hammond and William Miller go to a house in Nebraska, Cameron relays how during the shoot there, there was a little contest to try and name the film:
Cameron Crowe: It was a derby. The fans (in the scene), the extras, were trying to come up with titles for us, the crew was trying to come up with titles. We had a big box that everybody would put ‘suggested titles’ in it.
Nothing was ever as good to me as Untitled, for the longest time, although I’m now used to Almost Famous. But I wanted-the movie wanted to be called Untitled, like, the fourth (Led) Zeppelin album, or a painting, that was just shaking off all notions of a title.
But, I do remember my favorite of all the submitted titles: Saving Williams’ Privates.
Watching Untitled, there are a number of moments that seem to be perfect freeze-frames, that could capture the essence of the film or its time period. I sifted through quite a few that Cameron calls out in the commentary, but one that really stood out, followed a concert where Stillwater performed in Cleveland, Ohio.
As the band is talked into hiring a new manager named Dennis Hope (played by Jimmy Fallon) in the back rooms, Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), dances and twirls around the empty auditorium’s floor (as Cat Stevens’ song, The Wind, plays over the scene). Cameron has cited this scene as his favorite in the film, and takes the time to elaborate on his feelings towards it:
Cameron Crowe: The one regret I have about the theatrical version (of the film), there’s only one, is that this scene didn’t go on longer. So we let it play (in the Bootleg Cut), as long as-well actually, I could probably still take it, for about an hour or so.
But I just love this moment, because it’s so much, what the movie is about-
Alice Crowe: Yes.
Cameron Crowe: -the spirits that remain after something magical’s happened, and how-
Alice Crowe: Yes.
Cameron Crowe: -you can go back to a place where something amazing occurred, and the feeling’s still in the air. And she, of all the characters in the movie, understood…understood music, best.
Much was made of Kate Hudson’s role as Penny Lane, who was based on several girls Crowe met over the course of his time interviewing bands. Though largely a composite of several different ones, Hudson’s Penny Lane often seemed an ethereal spirit of music. She was that wistful pixie that seemed to inspire, but was someone who could never really be tamed in her emotions or thoughts.
I’m all about atmosphere, and this scene has also been a favorite of mine. I have often found myself going to some places, and almost doing what Cameron mentions, about that lingering feeling of something you experienced, but has been covered over by the years gone by.
As well, the use of Cat Stevens’ song, The Wind, has caused me to use that song in some quieter moments of contemplation, and remembrance.
One of Crowe’s ‘mentors’ in the world of Rock Journalism, was Lester Bangs. Bangs was a freelance writer who wrote for such publications as Rolling Stone, and Creem magazine.
In the film, he is portrayed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, in what some have often felt is one of his best, lesser-known performances.
During one of the final scenes, William is struggling on how to finish his piece on the band Stillwater. With the clock ticking down before he has to submit it to Rolling Stone, he calls Lester in Michigan, to figure out just what he should do.
The scene actually became better, given what Hoffman suggested to Crowe:
Cameron Crowe: This scene is funny. This scene changed a lot. Originally, it was a scene where Lester was storming through the apartment, just, shouting advice to this guy like a warrior-king. And, through rehearsals and discussions with Phil Hoffman, who is a brilliant actor, and really did only have a few bursts of time to do this part…through conversations and rehearsals, we decided to make this scene about the two (Lester and William).
Alice Crowe: Yeah.
Cameron Crowe: The only two guys in the world still up, and they’re talking with each other, and this guy is-and this was Phil Hoffman’s note: “Lester, was lonely.”
Alice Crowe: Yes.
Cameron Crowe: And it’s funny that he channeled Lester so carefully. It’s funny that he said that, and kind of amazing, because I knew Lester, but I had forgotten the loneliness. And I had remembered him larger-than-life, maybe without some of that loneliness, but it was Phil Hoffman that said, “I want to play that loneliness.”
Because he’d studied Lester, and that’s how we came across this scene, which I’m, really proud of.
Cameron’s Mother also goes on to say that the scene is very moving, and several of the other commentators mention how it feels that Hoffman is long overdue for an Oscar win. 5 years after Almost Famous, Hoffman would win for his portrayal of author Truman Capote.
Like almost every Commentation article I write, there’s plenty of material I have to keep myself from expounding on, lest I bore you, the reader, with about 4,000 words.
The commentary was also ported over to the Blu-Ray release that came out a few years ago. However, it doesn’t contain the readable subtitles.
It’s a fun listen, because Crowe himself is just as much a fan of films as he is of music. He makes references to such films as To Kill a Mockingbird, The 400 Blows, and The Apartment. He also cites inspiration from the likes of Billy Wilder, and Francois Truffaut.
I will end by saying that in the 15 years since I’ve seen the film, I’ve found that being a fan of Almost Famous/Untitled, is a bit of an acquired taste. Of the films I love, I think a good 2% of people in my life have ever been able to sit through it, and enjoy it on the same level as me.
Then again, there is something fascinating about its time-capsule quality. Seeing the San Diego that my Mom and some of her siblings grew up in in the late 60’s/early 70’s, let alone the feel of the time period that I had just missed out on when I was born in 1980, as the fashions and styles of that world began to morph into a new realm of Rock-and-Roll.
Despite my adoration for many things Disney, all kinds of different cartoons were on display to my viewing eyes in the early 1980’s. Early Sunday mornings were one of those times where I was introduced to the works of Mr Jay Ward. Jay’s bag-of-tricks was simple animation, but containing stories with a few extra gags, and acerbic wit.
His most famous work is The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends. Each half-hour segment would not only contain segments regarding the famous “Moose and Squirrel,” but several other vignettes. These would include the likes of Fractured Fairy-Tales, Dudley Do-Right, Bullwinkle’s Corner, Mr Know-It-All, and Mr Peabody’s Improbable History.
During the 1990’s, an epidemic swept through Hollywood, in which studios suddenly felt they could make plenty of money, turning old cartoons into full-length features (most of them live-action). Unfortunately, Jay Ward and live-action films equaled box-office poison. The track records for 1999’s live-action Dudley Do-Right and 2000’s The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle pretty much speak for themselves: noone went to see them, and you can find them for around $3 at most used DVD stores.
Of all the different segments left from the Bullwinkle show to be made into features, that just left Fractured Fairy Tales, and Mr Peabody’s Improbable History. Though given Dreamworks SKG’s Shrek films were pretty much the 21st Century’s rendition of Fractured, that just left the segments regarding Mr Peabody. Almost 55 years after the characters were introduced, Mr Peabody and his “pet boy” Sherman, have made it to the big screen (in animated form, no-less).
For those of you who weren’t raised on Jay Ward’s shows, Mr Peabody’s Improbably History followed the adventures of the world’s smartest dog, and his “pet boy” Sherman. Using Peabody’s Wayback machine, the two would travel throughout history, visiting all sorts of famous historical (and a few literary) figures. They assisted Robin Hood’s merry men when the famed rogue got amnesia, helped William Tell when he broke his glasses, and helped the famed painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler complete the famed portrait of his Mother (who was a big fan of playing ‘cowboys and indians’). They’ve also popped up in numerous time-travel gags, including an episode of The Simpsons.
Of course, when it comes to the feature film naturally, some creative liberties were bound to take place.
At the start, Mr Peabody (Ty Burrell) is very much unlike other dogs, and at a young age, puts his considerable brain power to bettering himself, and mankind. However, upon finding an abandoned baby, Peabody takes it upon himself to adopt the boy, and raise him as his own.
Though unknown to the rest of the world, Peabody was also able to perfect time-travel. For much of their lives together, Peabody and Sherman (Max Charles) have used the WABAC machine to traverse across time-and-space, giving Sherman a first-person look at what has come before.
Needless to say, Sherman is quite well-versed in history at a young age, and quickly ends up impressing his History teacher on the first day of school. However, when he ends up (unknowingly) showing up a little girl named Penny Peterson (Ariel Winter), she provokes him, leading to a serious altercation. This then leads to a Social Worker named Ms Grunion (Alison Janney) “threatening” Mr Peabody to have Sherman taken away from him.
Peabody then invites Penny and her parents over for a reconciliation meeting. It is during this time that Sherman ends up letting slip about the WABAC to Penny, and…well, let’s just say that in a film involving time-travel, stuff happens.
Any former cartoon brought into the digital world is bound to be filled with bells and whistles, and that’s what is on display here. The Wabac has been transformed into a “futuristic orb,” with floating, 3-D digital touchpads, and more. The art stylings of the environments do evoke the simplicity almost reminiscent to Dreamworks’ Madagascar films, but not pushed quite as far. The characters definitely put me in mind of those from the old animated shows, and even the loose-limbed way they made Sherman walk was fun (I think because I also have exaggeratedly walked like he did when I was little).
Unlike the show, which mainly focused on Sherman tagging along on Mr Peabody’s adventures, the characterizations here are made out to be moreso a father-and-son film. As well, given that Peabody is one of the smartest beings on the planet, it seems that sending his son out into the world is not something he has been altogether prepared for, which leads to much of the conflict in the film.
As seen in the previews, there’s a rather quickly shoe-horned young-love plot between Sherman and Penny, leading to one of those ‘animosity equals attraction’ scenarios we’ve seen in many films before. Penny is probably going to be one of those ‘love her/hate her’ characters to those watching the film. At times she can be quite nasty, but others she can be quite appealing. The inclusion of Penny in the time-travel adventures is a little awkward at times, and it feels like some of these moments would have benefited from a gradual transition. Then again, the running time of the film clocks in at almost exactly one hour and thirty minutes.
One area some may be surprised at, is a few times, the story gets a little darker than one would believe. I found myself surprised that the film would go to the places it did, but it definitely helped advance some of the characters at times.
The film also serves to almost be a statement on certain family set-ups. As some saw symbolism in parts of Disney’s Frozen, it feels like one can find them here in Peabody and Sherman. While most of the people that Mr Peabody knows have no problems with a dog raising a boy, Ms Grunion seems moreso out to prove some form of personal agenda regarding how she feels Sherman is being raised. I think that theme of the film being “it’s not ‘what’ you are, but ‘who’ you are” was a great way to go, and will help those see it as more than just a slapstick comedy.
As an aficionado of the show, I was pleasantly surprised that several key moments in the film mirror or callback to the introductory episode of Peabody’s Improbable History, but with some modern-day embellishments. However, it was less intrusive than say, the mention of “a Who-Phone” in Horton Hears a Who. As well, Peabody is not without his often “lame” puns about history.
With this film, Director Rob Minkoff returns to the Animation Director’s chair for the first time in almost 20 years. A former Disney animator, he previously wrote the Roger Rabbit short Tummy Trouble, as well as co-directed The Lion King. Since then, Rob has moved into live-action, but also still kept to his animation roots, being the director of both Stuart Little films in 1999, and 2002. In 2003, Rob’s name was connected to Sony making a live-action/computer-generated feature about Peabody & Sherman, but talk of the films development quickly disappeared.
Rob is definitely a man who seems to know his comedy, but it can often be in finding a balance between comedy and drama, the line begins to falter a bit. That seems to be the case with Peabody and Sherman. It felt like there were so many extra time-related gags that they could have crammed into the film, but they had to keep reminding us about the Peabody and Sherman’s journey to finding an equilibrium regarding their familial relationship.
That’s not to say that Peabody & Sherman is bad. In fact, it’s one of the few Dreamworks films I’ll give a pass to. I recall last year how I was eager to see The Croods, but found that production to be big on some excellent design-work, but not reaching me when it came to the deeper story dramatics. Peabody & Sherman manages to get to a place at times where I think audiences will connect, but I do hope that Rob Minkoff will continue to do other projects for the company in the future. Not everyone can be a Herman Cappuccino, you know.
Book Review: The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks
Reading Nicole LaPorte’s The Men Who Would Be King, was almost like going back for a high school reunion, and remembering the old days. As I made my way through the pages, visions of my entertainment-obsessed teen years quickly came back into view.
It was big news in the fall of 1994 when Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen sat down in front of reporters, and announced they were going to be founding the first new American film studio since Hollywood’s Golden Age. I remember the Time Magazine cover with the three partners, articles about their grand plans for a 21st century studio in Playa Vista, CA, and of course, the company’s quest to break out of a monotonous studio system, and make a utopia where artists were free to express themselves based on ideas, and not marketability. Quality would be the mantra for the studios’ film, television, music, and digital media divisions. However, the dream never quite solidified, and the studio found itself struggling, before soon throwing up its hands and creating less-than-stellar product just to try and stay afloat (remember the 2003 sports drama Biker Boyz? Anyone?).
When compiling the information for her book on the rise and fall of Dreamworks SKG, LaPorte (a former editor for Variety) first attempted to get the story straight from the founders themselves. As one can expect, they didn’t give in to her requests. Of those who were willing to talk, some are mentioned by name, and many are simply titled ‘source.’ Those listed as a ‘source,’ were often very cautious about talking about the company. One meeting that LaPorte had with a ‘source,’ sounded similar to the scene in JFK where Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) met an informant named “X” (Donald Sutherland).
LaPorte quickly starts building up character archetypes with the three moguls. Spielberg is portrayed almost like a genius-level child, whose ideas and creativity are nurtured to the point where his sensitivity to bad news and negativity is shielded by everyone around him. Katzenberg is the guy who is seen as very quick and always in motion, but cross him, and he isn’t so forgiving. Geffen had always been the enigma whenever I heard the ‘SKG’ moniker. Of the three, LaPorte paints him in a more serious, business-like light. Geffen quickly becomes the person doing most of the heavy-lifting behind the scenes, and is pretty quick with the expletives.
In the first 15 pages, I started having uncertain flashbacks to Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires (the unauthorized biography on the founding of Facebook).As the journey into her book began, LaPorte would try to intricately paint scenes with words. However, her work in crafting entertainment-related articles for Variety seems to have helped her writing this book, as I soon got over my fears, and eagerly settled in to reading her story. Unlike Mezrich, LaPorte has plenty of articles and sources regarding her subject, to make the text ‘flow.’
Even so, one thing that may bog down some readers, are the endless amount of names that have played a part in the story of Dreamworks. Many of them that were showbiz names (like Cameron Crowe, Sam Mendes, & Robert Zemeckis) I already had knowledge of. But when it came to some like Paramount Pictures CEO Brad Grey, I had a little trouble comprehending. Then again, maybe it was my inner fanboy reacting negatively as LaPorte pegged Grey as one of the men who seemed disrespectful of Dreamworks.
Dreamworks SKG, as a start-up studio, found itself in a world much different than the early 20th century studios that Spielberg and his cohorts attempted to emulate. In a world where merchandising and home video catalogue titles can help fatten the bottom line of a studio, the start-up had none of these things. However, the ‘K’ and ‘G’ of the studio would often play up their wild card: The Big ‘S.’ Katzenberg and Geffen would often have Spielberg as their poster-boy, and Katzenberg could often sway people into joining the new company by giving them a few moments to chat with Steven. This led to investors showing interest in the company, and even helped Katzenberg lure away some artists from Disney, as he began to start into Dreamworks‘ animation division.
Many people were expecting the studio was going to come charging out of the gate with plenty of product shortly after the big announcement. As it stood, it would take almost 3 years before anything with the Dreamworks logo hit theaters, with only a select few being truly made by Dreamworks. Many of the films released were co-production deals with other studios, leaving much of the profits (if any) split in a way that did not leave the company with much to show for its efforts. In fact, it’d be almost 7 years before the studio would have a hit film’s grosses all to itself, in the form of 2001’s Shrek.
As the productions from the company start to enter into the book’s chapters, LaPorte picks and chooses among many of the studio’s live-action films. Naturally, she goes whole hog on some of the films being directed by Spielberg (focusing on his more dramatic directorial films like Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, & Munich). Some films are chosen for their complex productions (and cast and crew), such as The Peacemaker, Gladiator, and Dreamgirls, which in itself becomes a chapter that really envelopes David Geffen, who had wanted to make the musical into a film if it could be done right. Small shout outs are given to plenty of other film titles, usually the ones that barely made a blip on the box-office radar (such as Paulie, and Small Soldiers).
Animation fans (like myself) will most likely be drawn into the chapters and stories about Dreamworks Animation. Sources chronicle everything from Jeffrey Katzenberg’s hands-on approach during the production of Prince of Egypt, as well as some instances where when an animated film tanked (like 2000’s Road to El Dorado), Jeffrey seemed quick to blame everyone but himself for the film’s failure (on El Dorado, word was he even blamed the film’s songwriter, Elton John).
A couple chapters are also devoted to the now-defunct Dreamworks Interactive, and Dreamworks Records labels. Both of them are intriguing in how Spielberg attempted to bring his creativity to the Interactive unit, and how singer Nelly Furtado’s career was nurtured through the Records label, in the face of the changing music/radio landscape of the early 2000’s.
Reference is even made to Dreamworks Television, which found itself with one major hit on its hands, the Michael J Fox-starring Spin City. LaPorte also chronicles the rise and fall of the studio-produced Freaks and Geeks, which has since earned a cult-following on DVD.
We even learn of the studio’s struggles to go for the gold (aka The Academy Awards). In the wake of the eye-opening Oscar Race ending for 1998 (in which Dreamworks took home Best Director for Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, but Best Picture ended up going to Miramax’s film Shakespeare in Love), LaPorte structures what can best be described as a true campaign war, led by Dreamworks marketing executive Terry Press. Not wanting to be shown up by Miramax again, Press steps up her game, and ended up securing Dreamwork’s Best Picture wins at the Academy Awards for 2000-2002.
LaPorte’s experience writing for entertainment publications definitely helps move the story along, but she has a couple little quirks here and there. One of them is the occasional flinging around of Yiddish words when talk turns to Spielberg. As well, some of her facts aren’t completely infallible. At one point in discussing a spat between Dreamworks and Mike Myers, the book mistakenly says that it was Myers who starred in the 2000 film, The Grinch, not Jim Carrey.
In the end, LaPorte chronicles a start-up that with its big-name star power at the helm, could almost be considered like our current banking system: Too big to fail, or in the case of its 3 namesakes, too famous to fail. The hype was ratcheted so high, that you were either rooting for the underdog, or hoping for them to fall flat on their faces. In the end, numerous influences chipped away at the new studio. From outside influences like business models and the economy, to inner turmoil among producers, studio heads, and much more. Noone said running a studio would be easy, and LaPorte’s book never tires of leading its readers on a wild rollercoaster ride.
Up Harbor Freeway in Los Angeles, and right by the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, lies the campus of the University of Southern California. While it has plenty of your typical academic studies, one that it gained fame for over the years, was its Film School. Some of its noted alumni include George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, and Judd Apatow (just to name a few).
USC’s School for the Cinematic Arts is nestled in a small corner of its campus, and almost resembles a small movie studio itself. Its founding was done so by such early screen visionaries as Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith. Today, a statue of Fairbanks stands between the George Lucas Building, and the Steven Spielberg Building. Nearby, one can find the John Williams Scoring Stage, and the Harold Lloyd Motion Picture Sound Stage.
Needless to say, as I walked through the courtyards, I dreamed of having a time machine to go back and explain to my teenage self about the wonders of the campus.
But on the day I visited, I came to the Steven Spielberg Building to view an exhibition entitled DreamWorlds – Behind the Scenes, Production Art from DreamWorks Animation.
I was a little surprised at what I found. After having been wowed with The Art of PIXAR exhibition in Oakland, CA back in 2010, I was expecting a large gallery space for Dreamworks Animation’s material. Instead, I found myself in a small room after taking a couple turns from the main entrance.
The highlight of the exhibit for me, were some of the original concept and production materials used in Dreamworks animated features. Such highlights included:
While one wall of the exhibition was made up of original material from the studios’ archives, the adjoining walls were filled with non-original, digital prints of other artwork from the archives. Some were interesting to view, but I would have been more intrigued if they had been original art pieces as well.
In the center of the exhibition, was a screen that looped in with clips from Dreamworks’ features. It also showcased breakdowns of sequences from films like How to Train your Dragon, and also provided us with the trailer for the upcoming Rise of the Guardians. I’m hearing some decent word-of-mouth about Rise, and just might make my first return to the multiplex to see a Dreamworks animated feature since Shrek the Third. Yes, it’s been almost 5 years since I did a ‘theatrical boycott’ on Dreamworks Animation features because of that film (missed out on seeing How to Train Your Dragon on the big screen in the process).
Two video stations were also set up with headsets. One of them featured video testimony from former USC alumni who were now employed with Dreamworks. It seemed pretty persuasive (it made me want to consider working for them!). The other video station featured sets of RealD 3D glasses, and demonstrated Dreamworks’ features with 3D picture quality. I viewed a clip from Puss in Boots, and the majority of the imagery looked good, but I some areas of the image did not seem to phase properly.
For those expecting a full-on museum exhibit, you may be a little disappointed. However, if a little taste of Dreamworks Animation’s creativity on display is what you crave, the small-scale exhibition serves as a great way to view some production pieces outside of the typical Art of book releases.
However, if you do plan to visit, hurry fast. Dreamworlds will only be on display at USC’s Steven Spielberg building until September 7th, 2012.