Pixar, Dreamworks, and Laika are three film studios that each have their own distinct style when it comes to childrens entertainment. Each studio has a very distinct style which they specialize in. I will outline each studios strengths as well as their weaknesses. To clarify, this is not a declaration of the superior studio, merely outlining the characteristics that I have noticed in their movies.
Pixar is easily considered one of the best studios out there. They have had no major flops in terms of box office success and only one or two film that were critically received poorly. Ever since their debut in 1995 with Toy Story, they have rolled out hit after hit continually pushing the boundaries of CGI. All fueled by their stories. That is what Pixar focuses on, the story. To have a more in depth look at their process pick up Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull. It details the history of Pixar as well as their movie making process. What is truly unique about their process is how every person in Pixar is invested in crafting the story. From the visual artists to the directors, all participate in work shopping sessions to continually improve the story and figure out its weakness. This is what Pixar does well, they tell a great story. Take for example the movie Up, in its original incarnation it was about a king who rules over a floating kingdom. At one point, his two sons, who are constantly at odds, fall to the ground. They then must work together to get back to their father while learning a few lessons on the way. The differences between Up in its final incarnation and its original concept are many and obvious. These changes were all due to these work shopping sessions. They don’t focus on the world, in fact when you look at their films they often take place in worlds that are more familiar to us. Not only that but those that take place in unfamiliar worlds don’t do all that well. Look at Cars, and Cars 2. Both take place in a world that is truly unfamiliar to us. Sure it pretends what the world would be like if it was run by cars, but still completely different from ours.
Some might say they have had plenty of hit films about worlds unlike ours. However, even those still had some overt human element and the world was still something we had seen before. Wall-E, which didn’t even have humans enter the picture until about 30 or 45 minutes into the film was still a pretty recognizable sci-fi world. Monster Inc. had a world that was parallel to ours and almost exactly the same. A Bug’s Life also took place in the normal world, just on a smaller scale than we normally think about. Toy Story takes place within our world as well, it just tells a story that happens outside of our view. As you can see Pixar tells stories, that is what they’re good at. Their best movies take place in familiar worlds and settings where they bring out the stories that are already there.
Dreamworks on the other hand builds a great world. They can tell a pretty good story but the worlds they build are truly fantastic and often original. Even when you look at their older films, they wanted to transport the audience to a world that was different and new. Now when you look at their entire filmography you will see some that would cross into the Pixar’s realm. Antz is a perfect example, especially since it was very much a clone of A Bug’s Life. However, as the years went on, Dreamworks starts to drift away from this story style of film making. The best example is the Shrek series. They built this fairy tale world and explored it in the subsequent films. It often parodied ours while showing a different side to these conventional fairy tales. This is what Dreamworks has done well. Build a world that is enjoyable and kind of makes you want to stay. Often their story tends to suffer, but they are slowly starting to figure out a good balance, all you have to do is look at the How to Train Your Dragon movies. They don’t sacrifice the story in favor of the world but they focus on expanding on the world they have created, making you want to spend a little more time there. Lets take the Shrek series for example. The first two did a great job of balancing story and world exploration. They set everything up in the first world with a great story that flips a lot of fairy tale tropes on their heads. The second did the same thing, expanded the world while telling a story that poked fun at many fairy tale tropes. The third one on the other hand focused too much on the world and not the story. However, in the fourth film, they seemed to bring it back. Again, the story wasn’t the best but they again introduced more fairy tale characters, expanding the world and flipping more conventions on their head.
So, while their story suffers often, they still make very enjoyable movies. Sure they don’t normally have as many hits as Pixar, but they are better setup for sequels. As long as they stick to exploring the stories in the world they have created, such as the How to Train Your Dragon films, then the quality of their movies will be better.
Laika is a much smaller and newer studio. There two films to date, Coraline and Paranorman, were both incredibly successful. Scoring well amongst critics as well as audience members. Since they are still up and coming, they are still testing the waters in terms figuring out their style. However, from what I have seen in Coraline and Paranorman, they could very easily become a cinema giant. What it seems they go for is taking film genres and adapting them for children. Coraline for instance would fall squarely in the horror genre while Paranorman is easily a zombie movie. Obviously some elements are watered down, such as blood, gore, and violence. However, before you write of these films as childish versions of established genres, watch Coraline and see how you feel afterwards. What they also do in their films, is blend in very heavy themes and messages that normally would be incredibly hard to deliver in a childrens film. Paranorman alone handles mob mentality, child murder, homosexuality, bullying, and the childhood struggles of fitting in. Look at any other children’s film out their and you will be hard pressed to find another that addresses these issues as tactfully as Paranorman. Since they are still young, only time will tell if this is the direction Laika will take.
That is what they do best. Bend genres that might be reserved for more adult audiences for a younger audience while inserting incredibly important messages that would be hard cover in a normal conversation with your kid.
To summarize, Pixar is the king of story, Dreamworks is a master world-builder, and Laika is a superb genre bender. Often times films are only judged by their story. While story is important, it is unfair to try and reduce films to a single dimension. Each studio here has a specialty and while they might not be received critically the same way, they all have a place.
Peter Orrestad - Jun 24, 2014 | Film Thoughts