Pixar versus Dreamworks: Shrek just got real
We all know how the Pixar-Dreamworks comparison is supposed to run. Pixar are the infallible artists behind an unprecedented run of critical hits and huge moneyspinners which has defied Hollywood logic by combining big, relentless box-office with intelligence and emotional storytelling. They make huge profits and classic movies. Dreamworks makes Shrek.
Worse than that, Dreamworks makes Antz and a Shark’s Tale, and as many Shreks as are needed in between to stop it all falling apart. Its films are smirking shadows of its rival’s, bringing a plastic proficiency to the same insect hives and underwater worlds that Pixar conjures to bustling, beautiful life.
Or at least, it used to be that way. In 2006 Pixar released Cars, a film which never sat completely right with its earlier films. Maybe because the idea of a world populated by sentient vehicles with single giant amorphous eyeball windscreens is unsettling on a low-frequency existential level (What’s inside these cars? How do they build complex machinery with tyre hands?). Or maybe because the film ditched the successful formula of small, hidden communities which have magical adventures against the backdrop of our normal world – the toys playing inanimate, the monsters coming out at night.
Ratatouille was more familiar territory, but also beset by creative difficulties – Brad Bird replaced original director Jan Pinkava when story development floundered, and the exquisite views of Paris can only distract you for so long from the fact that a rat controlling a man by pulling his hair is sinister and, in a broader sense, pretty meaningless. Wall-E was a rallying cry for Pixar’s return to soaring artistry – “There’s, like, hardly any talking!” – and it was, for 20 minutes, before becoming a patronising reminder for humanity not to devolve into bright pink beachballs. It’s harder to argue against the pleasures of Up, and the condensed life of Carl and Ellie is masterful. But the ragtag tropes which it weaves its magic are tattered and recycled – a cartoon bird, a talking dog.
Meanwhile the same year, 2009, Dreamworks was putting away its own box of tattered ideas – talking animals, thoughts Pixar has already had, fish that are Will Smith – and making How To Train Your Dragon. If Kung Fu Panda and Monsters Vs Aliens had shown an unexpected wit and taste for fresh ideas, then Dragon was the first Dreamworks film to come up with the whole package – the dazzling looks and stays-with-you emotional smarts that are traditionally Pixar’s hallmark. Made by an old Disney director that John Lasseter had thrown off what came to be Bolt, you could say it should have been a Pixar project.
Since then Dreamworks has made Megamind, Kung Fu Panda 2 and Puss In Boots, while Pixar has made an (admittedly timeless) second sequel and, crucially, Cars 2. Cars 2, which fails John Lasseter’s self-imposed rule that Pixar sequels would only happen if they had a good enough story. Cars 2, which celebrates stupidity and moronically gobbles Pixar’s impeccable record of subtlety and intelligence. Cars 2 which, most worryingly of all, seems more focused on repeating the first film’s trick of selling toys to kids ($8 billion and counting – is that why Mater switches paint jobs so frequently?) than telling a heartening story.
And the future doesn’t look much brighter. While Brave has earned good reviews, it looks like Pixar has a slate of further sequels planned, for Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo and – for reasons known only to God and Disney’s accountants – Toy Story. Maybe Pixar’s magic touch of combining big audiences with creative wow is finally fading – and maybe that’s OK, because it’s something the folk at Dreamworks are pretty good at these days.
A version of this article first appeared in Total Film #192.