Special Features – The Animation War: Pixar vs. DreamWorks

Jackson Ball thinks the tide may be turning in the animation war between Pixar and DreamWorks…

Since the release of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs way back in 1937, animation has been big business, none more so than in contemporary Hollywood. In just the last month the US and UK box-offices have been topped by not one, but two animated films: Monsters University and Despicable Me 2. So clearly, animation is an important component of the modern film industry and two studios in particular have dominated the genre in recent years.

In terms of filmmaking rivalries, there have been few bigger in recent years than that between Pixar and DreamWorks Animation. Both parties have had huge success, with Pixar claiming the most critical acclaim (12 Academy Awards) and DreamWorks having their fair share of commercial triumph (Shrek 2 made over $900,000,000 worldwide, a then record for animation record).

Both studios have been head and shoulders above their competition, but Pixar have always seemed two steps ahead of their opponents. Whenever the two studios go directly head-to-head, releasing similar films at the same time, it is usually Pixar that comes out on top. For example, in 1998 Pixar’s A Bug’s Life completely outshone DreamWorks Antz, and a few years later Finding Nemo wiped the floor with the poorly-received Shark Tale.

So it would seem that DreamWorks, no matter how hard they try, were destined to play catch-up to their bitter rivals forever. However, that may no longer be the case, as the animation tides seem to be turning.

First of all, as heart-breaking as it may be for many of us to admit, the Pixar train has finally run out of steam. The studio that for years went on an unprecedented streak of classic family films, priding itself on creative storytelling and originality, seems to have effectively ‘sold out’.

That may seem a little harsh, until you consider this quote from Pixar chief John Lasseter’s interview with The Express:

“[Steve Jobs] would say: ‘when you ask people what they want in the future, they’ll tell you what they enjoyed in the past.’ Hence when you look at Hollywood these days it’s remakes and sequels and restarts. Pixar is the one studio that year in and year out constantly keeps giving you original stuff” Read the full interview here.

There was a time when Pixar was the pinnacle of original storytelling, but in light of the studio’s recent releases, Lasseter’s quote does seem a little hypercritical. With the obvious exceptions of the two Toy Story successors, Pixar’s other sequel attempts have be very disappointing. Many people (myself included) see Cars 2 as the studio’s worse film to date, and although Monsters University has performed well in cinemas, it is a far cry from the comic genius of the original. In addition to this we’ve received the announcement of a sequel to Finding Nemo, a film so well-polished and beloved; it really never warranted a second film.

In years gone by, it was always DreamWorks that churned out endless sequels, opting to milk every last penny out of toy sales and merchandising rather than create original stories and characters. Shrek, Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda are all above-average family films that mutated into below average franchises. Now it is Pixar, who were once the very antithesis of this ideal, that have followed suit into the realm of the half-hearted sequel.

Strangely though, Pixar’s fall has coincided with a rise of quality in DreamWorks films. Of their last six films only two have been sequels, and their original stories have been some of their most successful ever. Both commercially (The Croods and Megamind were both huge financial successes) and critically successful (How to Train Your Dragon has a 98% score on rottentomatoes.com), DreamWorks Animation’s recent efforts are the closest the studio have ever come to Pixar’s early heights.

This power-shift has changed the landscape of modern animation. Perhaps Pixar had become complacent, or perhaps DreamWorks’ have finally taken notice of the importance of cohesive storytelling. Either way, the two studios have never been closer in terms of genre-domination and it appears that the animation spoils are well and truly up for grabs. Also, with the gap between the studios shrinking, it has allowed for other animation studios to take a crack at the spotlight. Illumination Entertainment, a subsidiary of Universal Studios, has had a string of great successes with the likes of The Lorax and the Despicable Me films. Walt Disney Animation Studios has also returned to form with Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph.

So it appears that the demise of Pixar’s monopoly has benefitted other animation studios, as well as audiences. We may have to suffer the disappointment of sub-par efforts from the once great studio, but if it has somehow caused its competitors to raise their game, then it’s a small price to pay. Here’s hoping that Pixar manage to turn themselves back on to the right track, because once we have all the studios firing on all cylinders, we could see the beginning of a golden age of animation.

Jackson Ball – follow me on Twitter.

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