Sunday, July 27, 2008

The evolution of Dreamworks storytelling...

Before you get your flamethrowers warmed up, I'm here to say I like where things are going over at DW land.

At first DW tried to do the Disney thing. They had limited success. They found that 900lb. gorilla really difficult to unseat. But with Shrek we saw DW's first big breakout hit. The general idea was to spoof two things- fairy tales and Disney. It did a servicable job of both, and raked in a ton of cash to boot. One of the core techniques in the film was the use of the 'pop culture reference'. Similar to TV shows like Family Guy or Disney's earlier Alladin, the idea is to make some obscure (or obvious) and subtle (or blatant) reference to some aspect of current (or relatively recent) popular culture. DW developed a real love for this idea. It was evident in just about every film following Shrek. The zenith of this approach was Bee Movie, a film that was really hard for me to sit through. It was a goofy patchwork narrative that filled the few cracks between a littany of pop-culture gags. But with Kung Fu Panda I noticed a switch in tack. As I see the premise and approach for the upcoming Monsters vs. Aliens I see that maybe they are taking this pop-culture idea to the next logical level. They seem to be evolving from using pop culture reference as disparate gags in a film to using the film as one big pop culture reference. KFP spoofed the 1970's Kung Fu film genre, and did a pretty good (and fun!) job of it. Monsters vs. Aliens looks to spoof the 1950/1960's B-movie monster flicks. If it handles the subject as well as KFP handled its subject I think they may be on to something. In the end I think their efforts with the pop culutre reference spoof movies may be a more palatable and successful venture than just sprinkling in pop culture references in an otherwise non-pop movie. The biggest complaint about pop-cult references in a film is that they seemed forced- jammed in by unimaginative execs to get cheap laughs. It's a pretty fair assessment, I think. They often just break the flow of the narrative, resulting in a jangly effect that sounds just a little bit off. It's like jingling a pocket full of real coins mixed with a few Chuck-E-Cheese tokens. It jingles, but there are some notes in there that are most definitely off key. However by making the entire film one big pop culture reference they seem to be onto something that works better. The key appears to be keeping any pop culture references in these newer films germaine to the genre being spoofed. In other words, if KFP had some kind of gag revolving around a Chinese Kung Fu version of Wal-Mart or American Idol or something similarly indicative of the decline of civilization, then that would have sucked majorly. But if they remain sly and clever and true to the genre and period spoofed they stand a great chance of maintaining a cohesion between their films and gags that they haven't yet truly enjoyed. Some may argue that the effect is like jingling a pocket full of Chuck-E-Cheese tokens, but you gotta give them marks for at least getting all the notes to sound cohesive.  I, for one, am looking forward to seeing if they can keep the ball rolling with Monsters vs. Aliens. If nothing else you have to give props to DW for striking and and trying different things, every bit as much as (maybe even more than) Pixar/Disney.


sunny kharbanda said...

Sounds interesting.

I love a good spoof, but as you mentioned, there's always the danger of getting carried away with the jokes and losing track of the story. The first Shrek movie had a great balance of the two, and a huge part of the credit goes to the way Elliot/Rossio adapted the original William Steig book (and the book itself). Shrek 2 had none of these story pillars, and while watching it I really felt they were cramming jokes into a hollow plot line. And that's why I didn't watch Shrek the third. Obviously, the audiences didn't share my opinion, and both the sequels were smash hits!

I'm hoping they handle the spoof in Monsters vs. Aliens well. If they do, they'll have secured a great and enduring niche, to complement the Disney/Pixar approach. And what's more, they'll get me to part with my $8.50 :)

Anonymous said...

That's a good analysis Keith. I hadn't thought about KFP that way, but it makes sense. I too hope that Monsters and Aliens works out for DW the way KFP worked out. Here's hoping!

Josh Bowman said...

That's some good observation Keith, I hadn't thought about it that way and it's probably bang on why I enjoyed KFP when almost every other DW movie since Antz has left me running screaming to the street.

So to sum up, jokes that work within the context of the movie make for a better movie.

Lucas Martell said...

Right on. I'd also like to toss Over the Hedge into the discussion. It was no KFP, but because the movie was about suburbia and our consumer culture, the pop-culture jokes fit in a lot better and didn't distract nearly as much from the storytelling.

The Original Dangster said...

What about Madagascar? If that movie was any suh-weeter it woulda given sugar a toothache!

Still best animated movie EVAH has to be Animalympics!


Keith Lango said...

Madagascar had a lot of cult-pop gags. Stuff from Planet of the Apes, Castaway, etc. They were sorta well integrated, but still kinda stuck out at times. I thought if they had a decent third act that film would have been pretty good. The animation was hyper-kinetic though. Too many poses in each shot, I thought. Good poses, but too many of them.

Anonymous said...

Sorry - pop culture gags will NEVER be better than a story with heart.

Pixar are the only ones doing CG stories right.

Everyone else is imitating - badly