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'Shrek,' 'The Boss Baby,' and more: The 10 best DreamWorks Animation movies
With DreamWorks Animation's The Bad Guys now in theaters, we revisit some of the studio's best movies.
For a while, it was fashionable to unfavorably compare DreamWorks Animation to Pixar. While Pixar made ambitious movies about complex topics set in unique worlds, DreamWorks just made animals do human things and make the arched-eyebrow “DreamWorks Face,” or so the criticism went. But, while it is true that several characters… do indeed make that face, dumping on DreamWorks says more about the person doing the diss than DreamWorks Animation, which has — and frankly always has — made lots of great movies.
The Bad Guys, the latest DreamWorks Animation film, is a slick kiddie crime flick featuring a gang of animal bank robbers. And it opened this weekend to generally good reviews. It’s too soon for us to say if The Bad Guys will break into the canon of DreamWorks’ best, but it’s a good chance to celebrate some of the studio’s finest films.
We’re going to attempt to mix things up a little bit here and not put more than one film from a franchise on this list for the sake of variety, otherwise certain franchises would dominate the top 10. And, that would probably bump Shrek off the list, but c’mon. Additionally, Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit are both fantastic but since they were only released by DreamWorks Animation and not produced by the studio, they’re ineligible.
10. Antz (1998)
DreamWorks Animations' first film is dated both in terms of its CGI which doesn’t look great even by 1998’s standards and because of its origins. The movie also may have been a direct, intentional rip-off of Disney’s A Bug's Life, due to the feud between DreamWorks co-founder (and former Disney guy) Jeffrey Katzenberg and then-Pixar head John Lasseter. Add to that Woody Allen in a starring voice role, with all the controversy that entails, and Antz is no picnic. If you’re able to look past that, though, you’ve got to admire Antz for being weirdly intense in how it told a story about society, socialism, and somewhat grounded insect behavior. Also, the termites are scary and that battle scene is pretty messed up for a children’s movie.
Antz is extremely weird and somewhat off-putting, especially as a start to what would become a pretty traditional studio. That doesn’t necessarily make Antz good, but it certainly makes it interesting.
9. The Croods (2013)
The Flintstones billed themselves as the modern stone-age family, but that was back in the ‘60s. In the 21st Century, it’s the Croods who really represent the modern-day family with a caveman spin. The Croods doesn’t reinvent (or should that be simply “invent”) the wheel, but a kind heart and a willingness to have fun in prehistory make for a relatable and affirming family tale.
8. Monsters vs. Aliens (2009)
Old school creature features of the ‘50s and ‘60s don’t get as much love in pop culture as they deserve, but Monsters vs. Aliens does an admirable job of bringing a modern sensibility to the genre’s aesthetic.
Riffing on Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, The Blob, The Fly, Creature From the Black Lagoon, Mothra, and any number of cheapo flying saucer invasion movies, Monsters vs. Aliens is a fun throwback to a lighter, brighter type of sci-fi.
7. The Boss Baby (2017)
Haters are going to say that The Boss Baby, a movie where Alec Baldwin plays a baby who is also the boss, is stupid. Real ones know that, actually, The Boss Baby is off-the-wall insane. In a fun way. People who haven’t seen The Boss Baby only think they know what this movie (and it's sequels) are about. This is a movie about shady corporations that make babies, a caste-like “boss baby” system, chosen ones, memory-erasing, hillbillies, and conspiracies to make puppies that never die or get old. The Boss Baby is powerful, confrontational, cinema.
6. The Road to El Dorado (2000)
At the time of its release, The Road to El Dorado was underappreciated. While past and future DreamWorks Animation films would position them as the anti-Disney, Road to El Dorado was seen as just another animated film about going on an adventure. It was more of the same. In retrospect, though, it’s easier to appreciate the 2000 film as a hidden gem at the end of an era, not unlike the lost city at the movie’s center.
Traditional, hand-drawn animation — and traditional storytelling — all but disappeared from cinemas as the new millennia went on. In that light, Road to El Dorado is a refreshingly classic sort of film, and the story of two con men who travel to the New World and are mistaken for god actually might just have a bit more bite and subtlety than a lot of the Disney movies it was compared to.
5. Shrek (2001)
It’s difficult to examine Shrek because, more than two decades later, it’s almost impossible to separate Shrek: The Movie, from Shrek: The Cultural Sensation, from Shrek: The Meme. The film — the first movie to ever win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, hilariously — was a snarky, pop-culture reference machine whose main goal was taking a big ogre-sized dump over fairytale tropes and, of course, Disney. It was overly celebrated when it came out as a breath of fresh air; in hindsight, it’s easy to see that Shrek’s was just an early sign of the irony-poisoned mass culture we’re enjoying now. It’s to Shrek’s credit, though, that, underneath the farts and The Matrix sight gags and the Smash Mouth, there’s actually a decent nugget of an earnest, emotional story at the center of this ironic onion. How fitting.
4. Megamind (2010)
The worst thing Megamind had going for it was Minions. This very entertaining 2010 film, about a supervillain who finally “defeats” the hero who had long bested him only to then have to fill the void he’s created for (and within) himself, came out the same year as Despicable Me. And, there could really only be one “supervillain-with-a-heart-of-gold” who reigned supreme, and Gru and his Minions took the win, at least at the box office.
Despicable Me might have even earned that win, but it’s a shame that Megamind is forgotten. A whip-smart spoof of superheroics and supervillainy that came out right before the genre became so big that it extinguished pretty much every other prospect at the box office, Megamind manages to feel fresh even as it trods on ground that would increasingly be done to death. The casting of Will Ferrell and Brad Pitt as the titular villain and his Superman-like rival, Metro Man, respectively, is perhaps on-the-nose but dang if it isn’t effective.
3. The Prince of Egypt (1998)
There’s really only one negative thing to say about The Prince of Egypt: If one were to make this movie today, they would not cast all-white people to voice ancient Egyptians. That aside, The Prince of Egypt is a profoundly underrated entry in the genre. It looks incredible, using what was then-advanced computer graphics to augment and enhance the hand-drawn animation. The score and sound mix are incredible, too, especially when Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston basically used the Oscar-winning “When You Believe” as an arena to one-up one another. And, perhaps most importantly, it tells a well-known tale, that of Moses, in a way that both feels classical and vitally fresh.
2. Kung Fu Panda (2008)
Kung Fu Panda could’ve gone so wrong with its seemingly one-joke premise stretched out to feature-length. Jack Black voices a panda who learns Kung Fu, even though he’s [record scratch] fat? That’s not what we got, though, not really. Jack Black, who is and always has been great, does voice a panda, and that panda does learn Kung Fu, and, yes, he is on the heavier side. But, Kung Fu Panda goes to great lengths to make Po a very dimensional character in more than just a physical way, and the animal-centric take on ancient China that he lives in feels intentional, researched, and respectful, rather than just some cheap genre exercise.
The best thing about Kung Fu Panda, though, are the fight scenes, which are astounding and better than the fights in most action movies. The scene where The Furious Five (whose ranks include a Lucy Liu-voiced viper and Jackie Chan-voiced monkey) battle Tai Lung (Ian McShane, incredible) on a long rope bridge over a sea of clouds, is a highlight. Everything about the battle — and the movie as a whole — is dynamic, and all the movies in the franchise really make the most out of animation as a medium.
1. How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)
In 2019, when Game of Thrones was coming to a disappointing and widely0hated close, another dragon-centric series also took its last bow. (Well, both would get spin-off shows, but the point remains). How to Train Your Dragon has quietly been one of the best fantasy franchises around, and while all three movies are fantastic, it’s the 2014 sequel that will be representing the series on our list.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 is about growth. The protagonist, Hiccup, was allowed to grow into a 20-year-old adult man rather than the kiddish teen he was when audiences first met him. This sequel also permits the franchise to grow past its initial premise of “Vikings versus dragons” by challenging itself to tell the story of what came next after they had made peace with their enemies and there was a new paradigm. The sequel uses some stock fantasy tropes (like a long-lost mother), but those storytelling touchstones only further cement how unique and fully realized the How to Train Your Dragon world really is. With dramatic stakes, exciting action, and a belief in the power and possibility of change baked right into its scaly DNA, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is DreamWorks’ best.