The case for DreamWorks Animation to stop riding the dragon

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DreamWorks Animation’s announcement that it will produce and release a “How to Train Your Dragon” sequel within the next three years is either the smartest or the strangest move an animation company has made in a while.

First, the obvious -- the smart part. “Dragon” has been an unmitigated success for the studio, earning at least $20 million in the U.S. in each of its first four weeks of release and pocketing a total of $373 million globally, which puts it nicely in the black even for an expensive CG 3-D production. That’s also not bad for a star-less spring cartoon.

And so it makes sense that DreamWorks would try to keep the magic going, especially because the standard formula is that an animated sequel makes between one and a half and two times as much as the original (true for everything from “Shrek” to “Ice Age.”)

The studio also needs a new animation franchise after the aforementioned “Shrek,” which mercifully will be put out of its green misery after nine years and four movies once “Shrek Forever After” comes and goes in a few weeks. Enter the dragon, which offers an entire series of books -- seven more in all -- to serve as the basis for plenty of capers from Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III and his friends.
But there’s also something unsettling about a sequel. “Dragon” has been a watershed for DreamWorks. It won’t be its most lucrative movie by a long shot -- that honor belongs to movies such as “Madagascar” and “Kung Fu Panda,” each of which has grossed more than half a billion dollars worldwide.


But it has shown that the Jeffrey Katzenberg company can play with the big boys -- namely, bitter cross-California rivals John Lasseter and Pixar. For the first time possibly in its history, and at least since “Shrek” came out nearly a decade ago in a very different animation landscape, DreamWorks has showed it could produce a well-told story that is not only commercially successful but a critical breakthrough as well, a movie that will remain influential in popular culture and the animation universe for a long time. As the world changes yet again, “Dragon” helps DreamWorks stake out a position as a company that can use 3-D effectively.

All this doesn’t immediately change with the announcement of a second “Dragon” movie. But there’s a taint. Sequels suggest merchandising (as if underscoring the point, DreamWorks also announced that an online world, television series and arena show were in the works too), commerce and, by definition, a lack of uniqueness. There’s a reason the last eight Oscar winners for best animated film have been stand-alone movies, and there’s a reason Pixar is so selective about what it keeps going and what it lays to rest.

Yes, it keeps playing with a broader, merchandisey property such as “Toy Story,” but wisely stays away from over-milking its elegant character films such as “Wall-E,” “Ratatouille” and “Up.” A lesser company would make a sequel out of the latter, call it “Down” and have the two main characters explore the ocean floor in a submarine. Pixar, to its great credit, does not. It knows its team can and will pull off the trick again with an entirely new set of characters, and it knows that audiences will come out to see the film whether it has so-called brand-awareness or not.

With animation development costs so high and efforts so labor-intensive, you can’t blame DreamWorks for trying to ride the “Dragon” for all its worth. But now that it’s finally playing in Pixar’s stadium, it seems like the wrong move. Confidence in a franchise communicates a strong message, both to Hollywood and to Wall Street. Confidence that your creative team can come up with good new movies from scratch, though, communicates an even stronger one.

-- Steven Zeitchik

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