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Dreamworks Double: Madagascar 3 and Rise of the Guardians

December 16, 2012

As I believe I’ve mentioned a fair few times on Ratpatootie, I have some issues with Dreamworks Animation. These issues aren’t particularly original ones-in fact, they’re the same problems spouted by numerous critics and blogggers: too reliant on A-list voice actors, too interested in in-jokes and parodies as opposed to quality storytelling, and a blatant preoccupation with money making over serious quality. The films churned out by the studio are generally entertaining enough, with admittedly excellent production values, but they’re also entirely forgettable…probably because they feel like a small throwaway part of a very expensive production machine, rather than a product of tender love and care.

(NOTE: I’m going to go ahead and assume that you all know I’m not counting ‘How To Train Your Dragon’ in this, because that is, quite frankly, brilliant. So brilliant that I prefer to pretend that it isn’t actually a Dreamworks film at all, because it almost shatters all my long-held beliefs in one fell swoop)

It comes a surprise to me as much as anyone, then, that when I chose to introduce my two year old daughter to ‘big girl’ cinema (instead of mother/baby showings) this month, the first two films we saw were Dreamworks features.

Trust me, I didn’t plan it this way. Lily has, up to this point, had her films very carefully selected for her, in the hope that she’ll grow up appreciating ‘proper’ films and disregarding a lot of the tat that passes for children’s films. So far it’s worked a treat: every day, Lily insists on watching either Toy Story 2, My Neighbour Totoro, or Tangled. Such is her obsession with Toy Story 2, in fact, that with her limited vocabulary of 80-100 words, she could tell you pretty much the whole story in order if you asked her. Her taste in films is excellent,and happily, she’s learning a lot from her chosen favourites too. She’s been enjoying them so much that I just couldn’t wait any longer: it was time to give the cinema a go. She only turned two last month, which many might consider early for cinema trips, but her attention span is brilliant and she’s adventurous enough to always enjoy giving something new a go (not being able to remember the weekly trips in the first nine months of her life, when she was still young enough to sleep through the whole film). Strangely enough, and despite all the reasons I mentioned above, I found myself quite intrigued by the then-upcoming release of Rise of the Guardians. Must have been that ‘Avengers for tots’ line that I kept seeing everywhere; I mean, who could possibly resist that? I wasn’t sure, though, if it might be a little too intense for a toddler’s first real cinema trip, and so I decided a trial run was in order. And it just so happened that the only Lily-friendly film on release a fortnight ago was another Dreamworks one: Madagascar 3.

I’d heard a lot of positive reviews about Madagascar 3 before its release, but I’ll be honest: I didn’t believe a word of them. I’d seen the first Madagascar, and as far as I was concerned, it was everything I disliked about Dreamworks Animation in a neat little package. I dreaded to think what a nightmare the third installment might be, but I had to give something a go…and alas, the world isn’t lucky enough to have new Pixar and Ghibli films on a weekly basis with which to entertain our little ones.  I was extremely surprised to find, therefore, that the reviews were right.  Madagascar 3 is a hugely entertaining adventure that I honestly didn’t begrudge paying to see, and funnily enough, its success lay in all of the ‘problems’ listed above.  The A-list stars put in tremendously funny voice performances,  the stupid jokes and overblown set pieces were often rather hilarious, and at this point in the franchise, everyone knew the film was going to make money…something that clearly meant the makers could let loose and have some fun.  It looked gorgeous, had a wonderfully offbeat and amusing script, and ultimately was just an animated feature of great quality.  I may never get over the surprise.

Best of all, Lily loved it too.  The cinema experience as a whole seemed to be quite exciting for her, with the only real problem coming during ‘The Hobbit’ trailer: it freaked her out to such an extent that I thought we were going to have to leave, only for a well-timed Smartie to calm things down.  Phew.  And so, I had no qualms about taking her to see Rise of the Guardians this week…and if Madagascar 3 was such a treat, then I was expecting even greater things this time around.  Sadly, it was not to be.  There were just enough set-pieces to keep it interesting for Lily (though she began to grow slightly restless about fifteen minutes from the end), but the charm and wonder that I was hoping for was sorely lacking.  I’m not entirely sure what went wrong: the voice talent put in a good shift (I especially enjoyed Hugh Jackman’s wisecracking Easter Bunny), the action sequences were a lot of fun, and I feel madly in love with the silent, but oh-so-cute Sandman.  These pieces just couldn’t come together to make a cohesive whole.  Both the story and its underlying message were muddled, the villain was weak, and there was nothing to get swept up in.  It’s sad, really, because I get the sense that this was a Dreamworks film that was aiming towards ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ territory: it wanted to be a classic, heartwarming tale, but it just couldn’t quite figure out a way to get there.

It’s going to take a lot more than two films to help me overcome my Dreamworks Animation prejudices.  However, even Rise of the Guardians-despite its many issues-has helped sway me a little in the right direction.  Neither film felt quite as calculated as the likes of Shark Tale, Over the Hedge, Kung Fu Panda et al, and I honestly believe that the studio is beginning to get the knack of combining money making with quality filmmaking.  In the end, both Madagascar 3 and Rise of the Guardians were films that I felt provided positive cinema experiences for my two year old…and if that keeps her away from Tinkerbell and the like for a little while longer, that can never be a bad thing.

Madagascar 3: 4/5

Rise of the Guardians: 3/5

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