Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.
This weekend, a small number of films release, and while I had some interesting options from which to choose, Emma Stone and Catherine Keener in The Croods: A New Age and Amy Adams and Glenn Close in Hillbilly Elegy, I ultimately chose to go with animation house DreamWorks. Their output has been inconsistent over the year, but there are just enough good films on their roster to highlight their five best.
Before we dig into my five favorites (two of which are trilogies), here are some of the films I skipped over: Antz was inferior to Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, but it was their first film and their first success. Featuring the voice of Woody Allen, the film really felt like a neurotic Allen film, which may be why it left an impression on me.
Chicken Run was the studio’s first collaboration with storied animation powerhouse Aardman animation with their hilarious stop-motion techniques. Their next collaboration made my list below. The original Shrek was a film of its time and was quite fun, but while the sequels were also engaging, it is ultimately my fourth favorite series they’ve produced.
The third favorite was the Madagascar films, which might seem like trifles, but they were fun films that kept us all laughing even if they were better geared towards kids than the more artfully impressive Pixar films. Trolls is just now beginning on a series, but the first film was an intensely fun surprise with wonderful music and some engaging vocal performances.
Now, let’s move on to my five favorites…
Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)
Aardman animation has been a steady source of entertaining children’s productions both small and large. Aardman’s claim to fame began with a series of short films done in their classic stop-motion style with clever bits like those used in the barnyard documentary Creature Comforts. However, their most indelible contribution to animation was the hilarious duo of Wallace, a typical jam-eating British man, and his emotive inventive dog Gromit. Together, the pair appeared in those early days in three brilliant short films A Grand Day Out, The Wrong Trousers, and A Close Shave. With these four animated shorts alone, the studio picked up three Oscars for their work. It might have even been four if A Grand Day Out hadn’t been competing against Creature Comforts.
While the studio’s animated feature output has run the gamut from satisfactory to excellent, their pinnacle of achievement was this haunted comedy thriller. The Curse of the Were-Rabbit pits Wallace and Gromit against a giant rabbit that plagues their town ahead of the giant vegetable competition. With all the competitors at risk, the pair must root out the nefarious bunny and stop him before the competition is ruined. It’s a hilarious film filled with Gromit’s trademark mad scientific inventions and when you finally figure out what’s going on, it makes the whole affair even more hilarious.
Over the Hedge (2006)
This one may be a trifle, but it’s a hilarious trifle. Bruce Willis, Garry Shandling, Steve Carell, Avril Lavigne, Wanda Sykes, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, and William Shatner play anthropomorphic animals who emerge from hibernation only to find their food supplies almost tapped out and it falls to Willis as a racoon to secure more while also replacing all of bear Nick Nolte’s food he lost before Nolte reawakens. The only stumbling block is the large hedge that has been erected blocking them all out from the bountiful foodstuffs in the neighboring community.
Allison Janney and Thomas Haden Church voice the only two major human characters in the film, she the leader of the homeowners association and he a vicious exterminator. The entire cast delivers hilarious voice over performances with Carell’s hyperactive squirrel, Sykes’ short-tempered skunk, and Shatner’s dramatic possum as the film’s standouts. Few films in DreamWorks’ long history of features have been this hilarious and while it’s just a bit more kid-friendly than a lot of the studio’s best output, it loads up the adult-friendly humor well enough to be entertaining to adults and children alike.
Kung Fu Panda trilogy (2008, 2011, 2016)
I have never been a fan of Jack Black or his comic stylings, but as the tubby panda in one of DreamWorks’ two seminal animated franchises, he is perfectly cast. Black’s character Po has long been an admirer of the legendary martial arts team the Furious Five, but an ancient prophecy leads him on a journey to learn beside the famous quintet and ultimately leads them against an arrogant former pupil (Ian McShane) of their Kung Fu Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) who seeks revenge against his mentor. Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, and Jackie Chan voice the five members of the squad, but it’s McShane and Black who lead the stellar voice cast with a special mention for character actor James Hong as Po’s adoptive father, a Chinese goose.
The second film, a gorgeous white peacock (Gary Oldman) is banished from his homeland after slaughtering all pandas in the area to avert a prophecy only to find that a lone survivor, Po, will ultimately be his undoing. In the third, and so far final, film, Po must stop the bull Kai (J.K. Simmons) from stripping all of the Kung Fu masters of their Chi while coming to understand his origins with his over-protective father (Bryan Cranston).
All three films are thrilling visually with interesting scenes set in different animation styles from the computer animation surrounding them. The most visually resplendent film is the second while all feature engaging characters and vocal performances. The second film is just slightly better than the other two, but together the films represent one of the studio’s two high water marks for animation.
How to Train Your Dragon trilogy (2010, 2014, 2019)
The other important series from DreamWorks is their How to Train Your Dragons trilogy which features Jay Baruchel as Hiccup, the scrawny son of the village chief (Gerard Butler) who accidentally injures a Night Fury dragon he names Toothless and together they help convince the villagers that not all dragons are bad. This complex narrative of the first film involves an attempt to eradicate all dragons to protect their village, which pits father against son. In the second film, the voice cast adds Cate Blanchett as Hiccup’s long-lost mother and together they work to stop Drago (Djimon Hounsou) from hunting dragons to extinction.
For the third and final film, a new dragon hunter (F. Murray Abraham) threatens the safety of their village wanting to capture Toothless in order to control all of dragonkind while Hiccup and his friends try to locate the Hidden World, an isolated dragon sanctuary filled with myriad types of dragons who exist in peacefulness and safety. Combined, the three films mark an interesting evolution in animated storytelling.
Most sequels feature characters that progress from one film to another, each maturing, but ultimately staying roughly the same age. How to Train Your Dragon does something a little different in that the time between films is vast and the whole trilogy is a lengthy coming of age story following Hiccup and his friends from childhood into maturity. Toss in some glorious visuals in all three films along with some wonderful humor and you have DreamWorks’ crown jewel. It’s no wonder they’ve made a success out of multiple seasons of its popular TV series as well.
The story of three teenagers escorting a captive yeti to its homeland in the Himalayas initially looked like harmless fluff. Abominable was, however, all but abominable as one of DreamWorks most recent successes. Chloe Bennett, Albert Tsai, and Tenzing Norgay Trainor voice the three children while the yeti has no speaking part. Eddie Izzard voices the megalomaniacal businessman intent on making the an epic historical discovery with the revelation of his captured yeti while Sarah Paulson plays the semi-conscientious scientist who seems appalled at Izzard’s plans for the yeti.
Filled with gorgeous animation, the film really sings when giving way to its musical message of hope, resilience, rebirth, and fate as Bennett’s Yi embarks on the journey her late father had always promised to take her on. Abominable is a delight from beginning to end with the most adorable running gag involving a collection of whooping snakes. While it might feel like it’s on the low end of their best work, it’s an engaging and affecting film that got less attention than it rightly deserved.