DreamWorks Animation could be called the Susan Boyle of the animation world—long considered the underdog to powerhouse Pixar, but never, never to be underestimated.
DreamWorks recently announced that it was stepping up production to five feature films every two years, including sequels to such hits as Shrek, Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda. That’s an ambitious undertaking considering that Pixar Animation Studios, a unit of The Walt Disney Co., releases only one big screen film a year.
“I think they’re up to that challenge,” says Chuck Sheetz, a professor of animation at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television.
DreamWorks has come a long way since it released its first film, Antz, in 1998, the same year Pixar released A Bug’s Life. Unlike Pixar, which has had a certifiable box office hit with every film it has released—a record unheard of in Hollywood—DreamWorks has struggled over the years.
The company had a few clunkers, including The Prince of Egypt and The Road to El Dorado. But DreamWorks, formed by film powerhouses Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, scored a home run with its computer-animated Shrek in 2001.
In 2004, DreamWorks Animation split from its parent company to concentrate solely on animation. Since then, the company has focused on building franchise properties it can milk for sequels and other productions.
That effort seems to be paying off. Shrek The Musical debuted on Broadway last year and has been nominated for eight Tony Awards. The company has produced several TV specials and is working on a Nickelodeon series based on its most recent film, Monsters vs. Aliens.
“They seem to be doing a lot better,” says Antran Manoogian, head of the International Animation Society’s Hollywood branch. “They have obviously created some successful franchises.”
DreamWorks Animation has held its own against rivals when it comes to awards. Shrek won the first ever Oscar for animated feature film in 2001. The studio has also taken home Oscars for Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit in 2005 and its films have been nominated several times.
Most recently, Kung Fu Panda swept the annual Annie Awards, a prestigious honor for animated feature films, TV shows and commercials. But it lost the Oscar to Pixar’s WALL-E.
DreamWorks announced its slate through 2012, which includes sequels to Shrek, Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda, as well as five original films. The new films include How to Train Your Dragon, based on the book by Cressida Cowell. The film, to be produced by the team behind Disney’s Lilo & Stitch, will be released next year.
Oobermind, produced by Ben Stiller and starring Robert Downey Jr. and Tina Fey, will also be released next year.
Coming in 2012 is Puss in Boots, a spin-off based on the popular character voiced by Antonio Banderas in the Shrek films. The film will co-star Salma Hayek as Kitty, Puss’s love interest.
Pixar, meanwhile, just released a teaser trailer for Toy Story 3, which reunites Tom Hanks and Tim Allen. The film will be released next year in 3D. Pixar’s latest movie, UP, is already on its way to a successful box office haul.
While Pixar will always have the honor of producing the first computer-animated film, DreamWorks clearly has hit its stride.
Disney Animation, which has struggled in recent years, is also expected to rebound when it releases its hand-drawn The Princess and the Frog in November.
“When you have two or more studios making animated features, that kind of competition raises the bar,” Sheetz said.