Shrek (PDI/DreamWorks), directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, is a genuine hit. In fact, its initial box office returns for its opening weekend may put it in the same league as Pixar's Toy Story and Disney's The Lion King. Initial projections indicate it will take in some $150 million, but I wouldn't be surprised if it breaks the $200 million mark. In any case, it will certainly rank as the most successful animated film not released by Disney.

Coming as it does on the heels of the recently announced cutbacks at Disney Feature Animation, it also puts to rest any fears on the viability of animated movies. In fact, this summer's lineup, which also includes Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (Square Pictures/Columbia) and Atlantis: The Lost Empire (Disney), could prove one of the biggest in the history of animation.

What does worry the people at Disney is the studio's declining share of the feature animation market and the demise of its aura of invincibility. While tracking polls (which are not necessarily very reliable) indicate Atlantis will not do as well as Shrek, I suspect the film will do reasonably at the box office. But for Disney, which has been number one for so long, that's probably not good enough. The fact that Pixar's films — Toy Story, A Bug's Life and Toy Story 2 — have also outperformed movies from the Mouse House itself, has led some industry observers to speculate on the possibility of Pixar aligning itself with someone else besides Disney.

For DreamWorks, Shrek's success would seem to finally justify the company's original business plan, which foresaw animation as the company's major profit center. Despite massive investments, including a luxurious new campus in Glendale and escalating salaries to unheard of heights, it never seemed to be able to get its act together. The Prince of Egypt certainly did not live up to its big budget expectations and its box office returns were only fractionally better than The Rugrats Movie. The more low keyed Antz was a modest success, but The Road to El Dorado was certainly a disappointment. In addition, the company's ambitions to be a major player in TV animation were cut short by such events as Disney's takeover of ABC, which voided DreamWorks' deal to supply the network's Saturday morning programming.

For DreamWorks, and especially for cofounder Jeffrey Katzenberg, the joy comes not just from the fact Shrek is its most profitably film to date, but that it comes at the very visible expense of Disney and Michael Eisner. Based on the book by William Steig, the film tries to be a Fractured Fairy Tale, poking fun at the whole pantheon of classic Disney feature characters from Snow White to Robin Hood. It also takes special relish in ripping into Eisner in the person of the bumbling midget ruler of Duloc, Lord Farquaad; this is an obvious reference to Eisner's infamous comment about Katzenberg (“I hate the little midget”) which came out in Katzenberg's 1999 lawsuit against Disney. While such personal attacks are seen at times in movies, they remain fairly rare in feature animation — South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut being one of the few that come to mind; however, it is not uncommon in television animation.

From an industry perspective, aside from the fact Shrek is yet another blockbuster 3-D computer animated film and that it is the first to effectively uses human CGI characters, the most interesting is that it's not a self-consciously big event movie, either in scale or cost. Though the film's many delays unnecessarily inflated its budget, it is basically a rather straightforward piece of filmmaking, which is refreshing to say the least.

Meanwhile, in the New Software Department ...
Despite the downturn in Internet animation, Flash animation is certainly here to stay. Every digital ink and paint program has, or will soon have, ways of outputting directly to Flash. Also, several TV shows are actually being produced in Flash, making it easier for them to be webcast. Until now, Flash has been synonymous with cel animation, with stop motion and live-action filmmakers being forced to use Quicktime, Real or Windows Media Player formats; despite advances in these technologies, Flash animation retains a considerable advantage in quality over live-action or stop motion material.

However, Wildform has an interesting piece of software that now enables you to convert standard videos into SWF, the Macromedia Flash format. The results are still far from perfect, mostly resulting from a slow frame rate. However, it points to the time in the not too distant future when animation on the Web will lose its whatever advantage it has over live action.

—Harvey Deneroff
May 23, 2001

© 2001 by Harvey Deneroff

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