DreamWorks: An Animated Countdown

So, there I was, perusing my archive, trying to draw a little inspiration for the future from my blog’s past, and I noticed something.

I have done a favorite movie countdown for Disney’s animated movies. And I did one for Pixar. And I did one for Studio Ghibli, too! Heck, I even did one for Scooby-Doo! But apparently I had yet to do one for DreamWorks! Considering how many animated titles they’ve contributed to my personal library – almost as many as Pixar or Ghibli – this tragic oversight clearly needed to be remedied!

Thus, I present: my top twelve favorite animated movies from DreamWorks Animation!

And if I may just say, as I take a look at most of my picks below, there is a definite trend in these movies about growing, becoming, finding oneself and becoming more certain and comfortable with one’s own identity and one’s place in the world, as well as with one’s family. I find myself very much appreciating that.

12) The Prince of Egypt

Moses the Musical? That’s certainly an interesting direction to go in!

I  remember watching this as a kid. I knew it was altered and sensationalized, much as The Ten Commandments had been, but I still enjoyed it. It was inspiring, uplifting, and dedicated to the spirit of the faith which the Hebrew people had needed at such a low point in their history. And the music was pretty good, too!

However, I’m still a little miffed at what they did with the character of Moses’ brother, Aaron. The man was his spokesperson, for crying out loud! And they made him a muttering semi-antagonist instead? Sheesh! I never did like that.

But I did always love how they crafted a fun little tale of faith, freedom, and self-realization. That was the major difference between Moses and Ramses: Moses found who he truly was and willingly accepted his calling in life, while Ramses’ character was defined by a driving need, to the point of madness, to be what his father dictated that he be. Thus, this one is squarely at the bottom of this countdown, but still had to be included in it.

11) Joseph: King of Dreams

While this depiction of Joseph’s story also departs from the true source material a little, it does not do so nearly as badly as Prince of Egypt. I can forgive most of the deviations, though, not only because it’s simply impossible to stay perfectly aligned, but also because it tells a story that can still resonate with us today. It’s a story of family and forgiveness, and learning to have a little faith.

I suppose this one is so low because it slightly overdid a few well-intentioned things, like the whole thing with the growing tree in the prison set to a song about trusting God. And the entire Egyptian community, noblewomen included, rallying together to plant seeds. That wasn’t exactly necessary. Little things like that made the movie feel a little long and campy, ya know?

Perhaps I am a little demanding of my Bible-based stories?

10) Shark Tale

A twist of fate permits an ambitious, big-mouthed dreamer to get all the things he ever wanted, but he needs to learn that happiness does not come from stuff, but from meaningful, selfless love.

A gentle giant just wants the chance to live a quiet, peaceful life, but his family, especially his overbearing father, does not approve, and when it’s literally a family of sharks, disapproval can be very dangerous.

Skipping over, as movies usually do, the part where predators must eat their prey in order to survive, Shark Tale is a star-studded story about embracing who we are, and who our loved ones are, without shame. I think that’s what I like most about it. A boisterous youth gets humbled and realizes what is most important in life, while a father and son come to understand and acknowledge each other. It’s presented in a fairly silly way, perhaps, but, still, it’s nice.

9) The Croods

Following a family of cavemen, it starts out looking like a story that has become fairly typical: the adventurous, young woman is right and her father is repressive and wrong. But it soon becomes more than that. It is the father, actually, who is the real main character. It is simply that his daughter is the one telling his story.

Again, it’s a story of self-actualization. In this instance, it’s about a man who loves his family and has always done his very best for them. When what he’s always done is no longer good enough, he must slowly learn and become stronger and smarter, a more capable protector and provider for his loved ones.

That’s not bad at all!

8) Flushed Away

A refined, upper class rat finds his home invaded by some grungy, riffraff rat. Being so posh, he can’t simply throw the interloper out on his ear, and when his attempt at deception backfires, he ends up flushed away, down the toilet, all the way to the sewers beneath London! Getting back home is a journey filled with unexpected dangers, enemies, and friends who show him the meaning of courage and nerve, and how lonely he’s really been in his comfort and solitude.

At the end of the day, this is a hilarious hero’s journey which transforms the hero in a meaningful way. He becomes more upfront and honest, with the spine to take and keep what is his and let no one take it away, and, above all, he gains the greatest treasures of love, family, and self-confidence. All of this to the beat of happy rats, amusing slugs, and hilariously villainous frogs.

Favorite moment: when the French frogs are to go into battle. “WE SURRENDER!”

7) Shrek

The prince isn’t charming! And the ogre is the hero! (…I’m fairly certain there was something about the damsel in there, but it’s been twenty years since I last saw that particular teaser trailer)

This was the original movie that turned fairy tales on their heads, and leading was the charmingly unsophisticated ogre himself. He was never ashamed of himself, but he did still wish that people wouldn’t judge him at first glance. As his happy solitude is shattered by the arrival of the unwanted fairy tale creatures, he reluctantly teams up with a mouthy donkey to save a princess with whom he has a surprising amount in common. Along the way, he has to deal with dragons, merry robbers, and a nasty little prince. Emphasis on the “nasty,” and emphasis on the “little.”

It’s a touching, hilarious classic, a pioneer in the art of twisting our fail tales all around, and one of the earlier CGI features, which, it was part of a noticeable push forward in visual quality, but still prioritized a good story.

6) Shrek 2

It was really difficult to place this in relation to the first Shrek. What ultimately nudged the second in above the first is, quite simply, how real it is. It tells us what happens after the first “happily ever after” so to speak, and it’s not all smooth sailing. There’s a lot of work to be done after happiness is gained, and it requires a bit of sacrifice from both husband and wife. Not to mention finding some peaceful coexistence with the in-laws!

I also love how it doesn’t just turn fairy tales on their heads, it outright shows how twisted the whole “love potion” thing is once you think about it. How good can fairy godmothers really be if they’re regularly forcing people to feel love through magical means? That’s something that gets overlooked a lot, how love cannot, should not, and must not be forced, not by any means. It’s a great moment when Shrek dismisses his own insecurities about whether or not he can make Fiona happy the right way, in favor of fighting to protect her free will, to keep her from being made to be “happy” in the wrong way.

And I adore the introduction of Puss in Boots! Absolutely fantastic! 😀

5) Rise of the Guardians

Jack Frost must team up with the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman, and a sword-swinging Santa Claus to stop the Boogie Man and save the hopes and dreams of all the children around the world. I remember being on the fence about that idea in general, no matter the star-studded cast, but it turned out to be quite an enchanting magical adventure!

There is a respectable amount of skill, and a surprising amount of grace, in the weaving of the story and its characters. We see each of these legendary figures explored in turn, to show what they mean, what they value, and what they guard. We see who each of them is, and, in turn, we see Jack learn who he, himself, really is, as he discovers his forgotten past. This, as both the guardians and the children they protect rediscover their own strength after being brought low before the encroaching darkness.

It is, simply put, a well-told story with a lot of heart in it.

4) Megamind

We seem to have developed a keen interest in the villains lately. Sometimes we see what makes them evil, and other times we turn them into heroes. Albeit heroes who are even more unorthodox than the usual unorthodox hero. And this one begins with the question… what if the supervillain won?

In the wake of the apparent death of his superhero archenemy, Metro Man, the genius supervillain Megamind must come to grips to with his sudden lack of purpose. Hoping to reclaim the thrill of his previous adventures, he embarks on a plan to create a new enemy, a plan which backfires entirely, even while he grows unexpectedly close to the reporter Roxanne Ritchi. When the woman he loves is threatened by the evil he unleashed, and with no hero in sight, the villain must become the hero he truly is.

Megamind realizes his best self as a hero, while Metro Man secretly retires to live in peace, and the only one left unhappy is the villain, Titan, who looked outwards, to fame, power, and women, for his own self-worth. There’s something deeply meaningful about that which I just can’t help but love watching play out.

3) Kung Fu Panda 2

There is something to be said for finding inner peace. It doesn’t mean that the past did not happen, but it does mean letting go of the stubborn, bitter pain which accompanies it. Of course, first they had to go through the rigmarole of giving Po a painful past that haunts him even when he can’t recall too much of it. But with that accomplished, it sets him up perfectly in opposition to Lord Shen, the peacock who refuses to deal with his pain, choosing to burn the world around him instead.

Adding to this is the question of how a martial artist, even a very powerful one, can remain relevant in a rising new age of guns and industry. That, too, is answered with the power of inner peace. Guns or no, the warrior who is at peace with himself is stronger than the  killer who is not.

And I love how they started developing a relationship between Po and Tigress, the two strongest warriors, albeit strong in different ways.

2) Kung Fu Panda

It was tough judging the two Kung Fu Panda movies which made this countdown, but the first one edges in just a little bit ahead of the second in my opinion. Why? Because the second one is little too much “just because,” and I love how the first one tells everyone, especially that fat guy who everyone digs on, “You have worth. You have something special because you are you.”

Deep down, I think we all crave to be special. To be unique and powerful and worth something. There’s nothing wrong with that desire itself, I think, but as with all desires, they must be held in check, in balance. Po the panda wants it so much that he strives to be his best, most excellent self, even in the face of what he and those around him perceive as his tremendous inadequacies. Contrast that to the villain Tai Lung, who strove not to be his best self, but to be someone else’s definition of special. But the truth is that there is no secret ingredient to being great. It’s just you, and what you choose to be.

I would say that DreamWorks has produced more quality films than most people might realize, but they’ve only produced a two or maybe three masterpieces, of which Kung Fu Panda was the first. Though, it was followed soon enough by another, even better, my number one pick.

1) How to Train Your Dragon

Where can I even begin with this one? The dragons, which aren’t all cute and cuddly creatures, but which are capable of being friends and partners with humans? The father and son relationship which so reminds my father and I of our own, each one doing their best but not quite getting things right for so long? The coming of age story, where a boy becomes greater than anyone, especially himself, truly thought possible? The blossoming coupling with an idolized rival? The menace that threatens man and dragon both, and the epic showdown that makes perfect sense because they set up everything we need to know throughout the movie? The music?!

This might seem like a bit much to say, but I truly feel that How to Train Your Dragon is one of the best masterpieces of animated storytelling ever, bordering on something absolutely transcendent.

I love it!

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