Pixar launched the world of computer animation with Toy Story, but DreamWorks Animation wasn't far behind. Other animation studios have come and gone, but since the beginning of the CGI feature format back in the 90s it's been DreamWorks and Pixar going head to head, and since the beginning there's been almost no question that Pixar is better. DreamWorks movies may make tons of money, yet everybody knows Pixar's the king of animation. After all, they've never made a Shrek the Third. Maybe that's true, but Pixar isn't better at everything.
This weekend you'll see some of the things DreamWorks does best showcased in their fantastic new movie How To Train Your Dragon. Pixar may continue to get all the awards, but here's a quick look at just a few of the things DreamWorks does better.
The Bigger The Better
If you take The Incredibles out of the equation, you'll see a pattern in Pixar's movies. They've made an art form out of taking something big and making it incredibly intimate. In WALL-E they took a huge, outer-space adventure and made it about one, tiny robot in one specific place. Ratatouille takes place almost entirely in one restaurant, Toy Story in one small bedroom, Cars takes a character out of the big wide world and confines him to one tiny town. DreamWorks on the other hand, thinks bigger. They take small stories and make them massive. In How To Train Your Dragon the troubles of one, nerdy boy lead to a big, wide world full of thousands of dragons and Viking warriors, sailing the seas and doing battle. In Over the Hedge the problems of one, small group of animals burst out and take over an entire neighborhood. In Kung Fu Panda mountains and villages are swept up in the battle between a master and his student. In Monsters vs. Aliens, um well, gigantic monsters fight even more gigantic aliens. DreamWorks makes epics on a massive scale, stories of size and breadth, wide-open spaces and eye-popping vistas. When they get it just right, even Pixar can't do it better.
Once Upon A Time...
Pixar has largely left the fairy godmothers and magical weddings to their older sisters at Disney. Maybe that's because it's just not their thing, or maybe it's because DreamWorks has changed the fairy tale formula forever. Ever since Shrek introduced its fractured world in 2001, DreamWorks has had its stamp on the stone castles and square-jawed princes, making it so even Disney had to play catch-up with the deliberately silly Enchanted. Even though the Shrek movies eventually fell off in quality, the recent DreamWorks gems have all used the fairy tale formula as their backbone, stories about unlikely heroes brought into greatness. There's no real magic in those movies, unless you count the crazy meteor of Monsters vs. Aliens, but they all have the same generosity and optimism that made us root for Rapunzel and The Gingerbread Man, all those original characters that Shrek made such fun of. They've built a reputation as the studio that breaks fairy tales down, but really, they're keeping the spirit alive for another generation.
Adventure Has A New Name!
Up made you cry, admit it. That's where Pixar's movies are at their best; they're built, all of them, on making an emotional connection between their characters and the audience. They're brilliant at it and the truth is DreamWorks has never, even at their best, been able to pull that off quite as well. Instead, they sell adventure. Pixar's movies may make you think, or make you cry, or make you call someone and tell them they're loved, but DreamWorks wants you to feel the wind in your hair or wow you with an incredible kung fu kick. Their films, all of them, are pure escapism. Pixar may carry you away to a different place, but DreamWorks sends you there on a rocket-powered school bus driven by an amorphous blob named B.O.B. Their movies are faster and wilder, with a devil may care attitude. They don't stop and look around, for DreamWorks it's always time to turn the page and move on to the next big adventure.
Keep Animation Weird
When you enter Pixar world, you enter a world of smoothness, of class, of originality that's been polished to a sheen. DreamWorks is a much shaggier operation, which explains why many of their films have been outright disasters, but also how they create some of the weirdest, and funniest, films out there. They had the guts over a decade ago to create a villainous character purely to make fun of former Disney head Michael Eisner, then made an entire movie about a panda who is inexplicably the son of a goose. When they decided to adapt How To Train Your Dragon, with characters named Hiccup and Snotlout and Tuffnut, it should have come as no surprise-- that kind of eccentric but sweet humor is the thing DreamWorks has been perfecting ever since Shrek reluctantly left his swamp. Surprise can be a bad thing, especially when coming from a studio with a hugely imperfect track record, but when a DreamWorks film truly works-- as so many of their recent films have-- it's a delight to realize that you really have no idea what might be coming next out of those cracked heads.
Everyone Knows Pandas Wear Pants
Talking animals, once the staple of any respectable animated film, have been pushed to the wayside by the folks over at Pixar. Sure they did a rodent for Ratatouille, but when Pixar gives an animal a voice, they do it realistically. Ratatouille may speak human, but they're careful to make him think and act rodent. DreamWorks on the other hand, takes the Hanna-Barbera approach to talking furballs and does it just for the hell of it. Why is Po a slow moving, kung fu doing panda? No reason, it's just cool. Ever thought fish should be sexy? Me either, but DreamWorks tried to do it in Shark Tale. They've flirted with animal kingdom realism too, in movies like Antz, but they're not afraid to put a pair of floppy ears and a cold wet nose a character just for the hell of it. While Pixar teaches rats to cook, DreamWorks is busy creating the next Hong Kong Phooey. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but I'm happy to live in a world where there's room for both.