If we imagine that the acquisition of Pixar by Disney was some kind of seismic shift for the Emeryville animation house, then Dreamworks Animation, by comparison, must be living in the red-hot cradle of a hyperactive volcano.
Animated films take so long, from concept to production to release, that recent Dreamworks titles are making their eventual escape from a corporate context which bears little relation to where they were conceived.
The Croods is a particularly good example. It was, originally, going to be a stop-motion film produced at Aardman with a screenplay by John Cleese. Without it ever being cancelled outright, this project continued to evolve, as Dreamworks twisted and turned like a kaleidoscope around it, in to the final product. The plot was different. The characters were different. The medium was different. The title was different – Crood Awakening to The Croods. But the titular misspelling was the same.
Along the way, several Dreamworks projects have been cancelled outright. Others… they limp on. And some have undergone drastic rewiring. So what’s actually on the Dreamworks slate right now, in the aftermath of its corporate takeover, that now sees it as part of Universal? And what previously-announced pictures will never see the light of day?
B.O.O – The Bureau Of Otherworldly Operations
B.O.O is a film that got so close to release that the tie-in books turned up on Amazon. You can see the cover for one above.
The film’s premise was a kind of a Monsters Inc. for ghosts, with trainee spectres being taught how to scare. Perhaps it was the familiarity of this notion that gave Jeffrey Katzenberg and co. cold feet? Seth Rogen was going to star, and Melissa McCarthy had a key role too. Whether Bill Murray actually recorded the cameo Dreamworks had wanted him for was never clear. What we do know is that the release was pulled, fairly late in the day. The line was that it was going back into development.
Will we ever get to see B.O.O? I wouldn’t bet on it, though maybe it could be repurposed into some sort of hastily-finished Netflix miniseries; Dreamworks sure seems to like Netflix.
Again, I wouldn’t hold my breath. The best we can hope for, maybe, is this reel of visual development work, showing fixed-pose versions of the characters.
The Croods 2: The Groans
Until it was canned, the sequel for The Croods was to feature a new, neighbouring family called The Groans. I expect they were named this as it rhymes with Jones; the film’s plot was to hinge on the Croods keeping up with their more-evolved, technologically advanced rivals. Athletic over-provider Dug, perfect mom Candi, artsy, handsome Hunk, and emo-teen girl Coco Groan were all joining the cast of characters, alongside one Lydia Boggs who, as far as I could tell, was going to be the villain.
Why was The Croods 2 ditched? Well, Dreamworks have never told us why they’ve been scrapping their projects, but the typical Hollywood reasoning goes like this: Studio sets up film, new decision makers are appointed, new decision makers scrap old decisions because, honestly, they have nothing to gain. When you’re a new puppet master, you’ll either take the blame for failures or see the original, initiators get the credit for successes – the only way to get some glory for yourself is to wipe the table clean and start again. Maybe that’s what happened here.
For four years, Tim Minchin was writing and directing an original Dreamworks Animation called Larrikins, a musical tale about Australian critters in a touring rock band. And then, suddenly, he wasn’t. While the studio gave no coment on their decision to burn the film off without warning, Minchin stood up and spoke out.
As he posted to his website, “…a couple of days ago, the animated film to which I’ve dedicated the last 4 years of my life was shut down by the new studio execs. The only way I know how to deal with my impotent fury and sadness is to subject members of the public to the spectacle of me getting drunk and playing ballads.”
I don’t know how good a drunk Minchin is, but he’s a fine balladeer and, as I was told by people who know, he was proving to be an ambitious and witty filmmaker. I also heard that he was approaching the making of the film in an unusual way, and that there was a lot of live-action footage of scenes being performed that was not intended to either be in the movie, nor the basis for performance capture. Reference footage? A foundation for rotoscoping? An idiosyncratic way to block and stage his scenes? I guess we’ll never know what Minchin was planning.
But I think I can guess why Larrikins was nixed. You see, NBC Universal own Dreamworks now, and they didn’t when the project was initiated… and I fear it really is that simple. And by simple, I think I probably mean petty.
Here are some early character designs by Peter de Seve.
Nobody ever seemed to say, conclusively, that Mumbai Musical was cancelled, but it publicly lost its release date and that’s pretty much the same thing. At the moment, it’s hard to unpick what went down, but it seems like Dreamworks had two duelling musical monkey films in development at once, couldn’t make their mind up about which to produce, and both stalled.
Mumbai Musical was developed by Gurinder Chadha, apparently handed off to Enchanted director Kevin Lima, and had songs by A. R. Rahman. None of this would have been cheap, nor entered into lightly. Chances are, this film had so much work and passion poured into it that it would make your head spin.
But then, without explanation, the film vanished from the schedule. Lima, we understand, was off the project as far back as 2014. So that’s that.
The other monkey film was Vivo, with songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Sony are going to finish that one and release it in 2020, because they know a good thing when they see it – though, of course, I would have said the same thing about Dreamworks when they booked Miranda off the back of In The Heights in 2009.
Me And My Shadow
Announced for release in 2014, Me And My Shadow was to blend hand-drawn animation with computer graphics. Most of the film would have been rendered in the typical Dreamworks CG style – right down the smirks, I should wonder – while cel-technique would have created the living shadow characters.
We have previously featured some pieces of development animation from the film here at Den of Geek, not to mention the officially released poster. We also carried the news that Edgar Wright and David Walliams were working on a new Dreamworks animation called Shadows.
Technically speaking, Shadows is not Me And My Shadow. Except is sort of is, in the way that Frozen is The Snow Queen and The Croods is Crood Awakening. Wright and Walliams were given carte blanche, and Alessandro Carloni’s original film was designated dead.
But the core – the little fizzing, 80w bulb that casts the shadows in the first place – remains the same. Because these are two Dreamworks Animations hinging on the same, basic, pre-story concept: shadows have autonomy.
The old film was to blend CG and hand-drawn animation, while I undertsand the new one is to hybridise live action and CG. We haven’t heard much about the film since it was announced, but animation moves slowly, Wright has been busy with Baby Driver. One thing that makes me confident that Dreamworks want to push this one all the way is the mixed-media element. New president Chris deFaria has a lot of experience with hybrids – the heavily-animated Gravity being the most notable – and this particular piece of expertise was even singled out when Universal announced his appointment.
“He has excellent creative instincts, a strong business sense, deep relationships and most importantly, a proven ability to harness technology to push the boundaries of animation and innovative, hybrid filmmaking” said the studio chairman, Donna Langley.
Shadows is, as far as we know, still in development. Me And My Shadow, officially, is dead. Dreamworks, I think, have plenty more ambitions in the hybrid space in front of them, and I think the success of The Jungle Book over at Disney will only have encouraged them.
Little is known about Everest, the most recently announced Dreamworks Animation original. We do know it’s about a Yeti, called Everest, and that the animation is likely to be done almost entirely, if not entirely, in the Dreamworks Oriental facility. Their motto is “Oriental DreamWorks creates high quality content in China for China,” and so its obvious that Everest is supposed to have global appeal with an emphasis on getting a Chinese release.
Antz and Home co-director Tim Johnson is working with Todd Wilderman on this one. There’s a release date, for late 2019, but not a lot else. As the first commission of the Universal era, be very surprised if this one goes away.
Work is also afoot on another Shrek movie. Of most note, perhaps, is the role that Chris Meledandri had in pushing this forward.
Meledandri is the top dog at Illumination, Universal’s other – and lately, better – animation studio. He was given an advisory role at Dreamworks after the acquisition, and one of the first jobs he was specifically charged with was working out how to get Shrek back on screen.
A complete do-over would be my preferred approach. Shrek was ugly to start with, and its badly designed characters won’t be saved by new technological spit-and-polish. Also, a complete do-over could keep the costs low, because I can’t imagine the original cast will come back for anything modest. Why would they?
So will Dreamworks play it safe and expensive and finally wring the last drop of blood out of their sometime-flagship franchise? Or will they get the nerve to start all over and give Shrek a chance at being a film series people can actually care about?
Puss In Boots 2
Dead. But that leaves eight lives remaining, so you never know…
This film sounded like some kind of cats-and-dogs version of The Godfather, with elements of The Godfather 2. Andy Garcia was playing some kind of gangster dog, if I recall. Why was it yanked from the schedule? Who knows. But it becomes increasinly obvious, the more I write, that Dreamworks are quite prepared to get very deep into work on a film before pulling the plug entirely. I know people who say start-to-finish versions of some of these films, and even said they were ‘alright,’ or ‘just need a bit of work’.
But still they fall. Like leaves.
Here, though, are some films we actually will get to see. Probably.
How To Train Your Dragon 3
Despite long-term plans that should have seen How To Train Your Dragon make its 2017 release date – if not, once upon a time, it’s 2015 release date – we’re now expecting the film in 2019. We’re promised the big finale, and a tying-up of everything Dean DeBlois has sewn into parts 1 and 2.
Unfortunately, Dragon 2 didn’t do quite as well at the box-office as Dreamworks might have expected. On the plus side, it was a better film than the original. Still, there’s a lesson to be learned here about how long family film franchises can sit on the shelf without losing their sheen. Kids grow up… and until they’ve grown up a long, long way (cf. Disney’s Beauty And The Beast) they might not want to come back for more just yet.
It’s worth noting that Dreamworks have kept the Dragon brand alive, as best they can, with the ongoing Dreamworks TV series.
And here’s one for the pub quizzers amongst you: Dragons 1 was released by Paramount, 2 by Fox and 3, barring yet another weird left-turn, will be released by Universal.
A sequel to last year’s Trolls has been officially announced for 2020. The first film’s director, Mike Mitchell, has jumped over to take up the final leg on The Lego Movie Sequel, but he apparently made some contributions to the Trolls 2 story already. As far as we now, co-director Walter Dohrn is staying on, maybe even this time promoted to solo director.
The original Trolls movie started out tied-into Dreamworks adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s Truckers. None of the material really made it to the screen, and I can’t see it getting worked in now. Indeed, I’d be pretty sure that the opening for a Dreamworks Truckers movie has now closed.
The Boss Baby and Captain Underpants
Both are out this year. It’s too late to turn back now. Probably. I mean, we’re only a little bit past B.O.O.-o’clock with Captain Underpants, but… nah. Let’s not worry. The axe might swing a lot at Dreamworks but we shouldn’t get paranoid.
It looks like Dreamworks don’t have a film on the docket for 2018, which would make for their first skip-year since 1999. I expect they’ll end up moving one of their 2019 films forward…
Or maybe they’ve got something else, unannounced, and almost ready to enter animation? If so, the lead contender could be their Hot Stuff: The Little Devil film, a live action-animation hybrid – I told you they were going to get heavily into these – licensed from the Harvey Comics character. This is one I think we might actually see.
Also in limbo, but with less of a chance of escape, are their long-developing Blue Booby film; a toon version of the Sid and Marty Krofft ‘classic’ Lidsville – for which Alan Menken wrote songs and my beloved Audrey Wells wrote a screenplay; or maybe even Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s Flawed Dogs.
All-in-all, the future of Dreamworks is quite hard to forecast right now. I think we’ll soon be hearing of some new projects, initiated under the new watch, and those will be the ones that make or break their fortunes in the coming years.
It’s a shame that so many projects have been warmed up only to go stony cold over the years, but it’s the way of the big, cash-burning Hollywood movie studio that this is how business gets done. It’s massive-scale risk aversion, and a slap in the face of artistic endeavour. How disappointing.
And then, on the upside… well, I’m looking forward to How To Train Your Dragon 3 and Shadows. How about you?