Note: Only the theatrical traditionally animated films are taken into account so Joseph: King of Dreams is not included.
When DreamWorks Animation released their first two films in 1998, Antz and The Prince of Egypt, the animation industry was suffering some changes. Pixar released Toy Story in 1995 to great acclaim and introduced CG animation to the industry. In 1998 they were releasing their second outing, A Bug's Life, which was in direct competition with Antz. Meanwhile, hand-drawn animation was starting on a period of decline, something that affected Disney Animation for the majority of the next decade, as well as DreamWorks' nascent hand-drawn division. Less than stellar stories, decreasing revenue and not so favourable critical reception hit hand-drawn animation very hard, while CG flourished with Pixar at the head of the pack. But, upon re-evaluating some films from that era, many Disney films from the time have acquired some cult status and are looked upon more fondly by the general public. Not so much with the DreamWorks ones unfortunately, which undoubtedly have some following, but not many people remember them. Now, let's see how these films have fared and if they deserve a second chance.
The Prince of Egypt (1998)
The Prince of Egypt was DreamWorks second film, released the same year as their first effort, Antz. It's also their first hand-drawn film and easily their best. Released in December 1998, The Prince of Egypt is a retelling of Moses's story as recounted in the book of Exodus. The story is a mostly faithful account of its source material and tells the story of how Moses freed the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The great thing about this film is that it's a complete drama, something that's not usually seen in American animated films. Sure, there are some jokes here and there, but it's a mostly serious and dark story. It's a film that doesn't shy away from the cruelty of slavery and there are many elements that you don't see very often in mainstream animated films, such as murder, revenge and torture, and it may prove a little intense for children. However, the film packs beautiful messages that the whole family can learn from, like love, equality, faith, forgiveness and more. The animation is beautiful and the songs and score are truly remarkable, elevating the film to glorious heights. The true heart of the film, though, is the sibling relationship between Moses and Ramses. Whereas in Frozen the story is about reconciliation, in the Prince of Egypt it's about drifting apart from each other and although you can understand why that's happening, it's still a painful thing to see. To the filmmakers' credit, they took a religious story full of supernatural elements and made it very human, so, when the fantastical things happen, they still feel part of the story. The action sequences are also great and the last part, when the famous "Parting of the Red Sea" happens, is simply breathtaking. It's full of action, tension and gorgeous images and provides the film with a great climax before the bittersweet finale. The Prince of Egypt is a bold film, and considering it was just the second film from a new studio, it feels extraordinarily bold. The filmmakers weren't afraid of making a film with a serious theme, devoid of jokes and funny sidekicks. If only the studio had continued this trend, maybe we wouldn't have films like Shark Tale or Bee Movie. The Prince of Egypt is DreamWorks' most serious film and it's also one of their best, even if it's not usually mentioned or remembered by the general public. The film is the only DWA hand-drawn film that actually made money, and won an Oscar for best song.
1998 was a good year in animation. WDAS released Mulan, Pixar released A Bug's Life and DreamWorks released Antz and The Prince of Egypt. Antz is easily the weakest of the bunch but The Prince of Egypt can easily stand tall alongside Mulan and A Bug's Life. It's just a shame it's not as well remembered as those two.
The Road to El Dorado (2000)
After a great start with The Prince of Egypt, everything went downhill with their next hand-drawn instalment. The Road to El Dorado is a breezy and harmless film, but it doesn't offer anything in terms of excitement, story or character development. A revisionist take on the colonial period, The Road to El Dorado tries to be a comedy, but it barely comes off as passable entertainment. The main problem is that the characters are completely plain. There is no depth to them and there is absolutely no arc for them to complete. Sure, they save the city at the end, but their sudden heroism is just a ploy to advance the story, rather than an authentic growth in the characters - especially Tulio, who is the most problematic character of all. He and Miguel are greedy and want money so they can live a good life, but while Miguel shows some hint of change, Miguel is absolutely straightforward. Even when he falls in love with Chel, his objetive of leaving El Dorado with all the money never changes. There are some inspired sequences such as when Tseke-Kan attacks the city with that demonic monster. But, overall, the film lacks any climax as Hernan Cortez is never a real threat and the final act is resolved very quickly and abruptly.
Let's compare El Dorado to another comedy that was released that year and also set in the Incan period: The Emperor's New Groove. Emperor is a much better realized story because it completely embraces comedy, but manages to give the main character an arc. I'm not saying it has to be a huge arc, but at least Kuzco changes from a selfish jerk to a more caring and giving character, something that the characters in El Dorado never do, resulting in plain characters that are never interesting to watch.
Compared to Emperor and another film released the same year, Aardman's delightful comedy Chicken Run, El Dorado does not fare well at all. It's harmless entertainment, but when you see how good The Prince of Egypt was, you can't help but wonder what ever happened with this film.
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002)
When Spirit was released, DreamWorks was no longer the struggling studio that it was when The Prince of Egypt and El Dorado were released. The year before, they released Shrek to great acclaim and box office revenue. The film was the first film to win an Oscar in the just launched Best Animated Feature category. This gave the studio much more confidence than before, and it all of a sudden became a legitimate competitor to other big studios. So Spirit was released amidst all this success and was expected to replicate the success of its immediate predecessor. Unfortunately, that was not the case, and even if Spirit didn't fare as badly as El Dorado, it also didn't push the studio forward.
Spirit seems like a departure from the usual "animal film" because it's completely devoid of dialogue and the main character (a horse) communicates with only sounds and movement, just like real horses do. His inner thoughts are narrated by Matt Damon, and, while the non-talking element makes the film seems more pure and authentic, the constant narration also takes away from that. Some inner dialogue is clever, but others are just too expository, because we can actually see what he's thinking without needing to be told. Story-wise, the film has a nice tale but, in the end, something is missing. Spirit is a good lead and he actually has an arc; his fight against oppression is something we can all relate to. However, just like in El Dorado, there's not a true climax in the film and everything gets resolved abruptly. Still, it's not a bad film, but it also doesn't strive to be much more than not bad. The score is a highlight though, making some of the more pedestrian moments seem better than they truly are.
In a so-so year, Spirit really could've fared better with audiences, but unfortunately 2002 was one of the most competitive years in animation history. Even with Pixar not releasing a movie that year, Spirit had to compete with Disney's Lilo & Stitch and Treasure Planet, Blue Sky's Ice Age (which I think is their only truly good film to date) and Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away (arguably Miyazaki's best film). Against very powerful contenders, Spirit didn't have a chance of flourishing and, face to face with much more ambitious stories like Spirited and Lilo, its chances didn't look very bright. While, it didn't bomb at the box office, it also didn't made a good case for traditional animation at the studio.
Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003)
The last traditionally-animation film from the studio didn't stand a chance against Pixar's epic Finding Nemo. Released in a very competitive summer, Sinbad was a complete box-office bomb and was the last straw for Jeffrey Katezenberg with traditionally-animated films. After this, the studio quit the technique and never looked back. And yet, even if it doesn't reach the same heights as The Prince of Egypt, I prefer Sinbad to the other traditionally animated outings.
There's a genuine sense of fun in Sinbad and, unlike in El Dorado, there are clever jokes and more witty dialogue. The animation is also very good, with an inspired design and great use of CGI for some of the creatures (even if it looks a little dated by today's standards), and the characters feel real and have nice arcs. Sinbad is a greedy, selfish man, but good in his heart, and he demonstrates that at the end of the film. However, the film does have some flaws, such as its pacing which is a little bizarre. It has an episodic nature as Sinbad and Company go from one obstacle to another, and sometimes it doesn't flow very well. Also, as with Spirit and El Dorado, the ending feels anticlimactic, as it seems that something big is going to happen, but everything just gets resolved very quickly. Still, it's easier to forgive these flaws than with the other films, because the film has nice characters that feel real and have depth. The story is more layered than its predecessors and it engages the audience in a meaningful way.
As I mentioned before, any animated film released in 2003 was obliterated by Finding Nemo, but Sinbad is not a bad film all the same, and it's quite on par with Disney's middling effort released that year, Brother Bear.
As you can see, out of the four traditionally-animated films released by DreamWorks, only The Prince of Egypt is truly great, while Sinbad is imperfect but somewhat underrated. El Dorado is the worst of the bunch and Spirit is missing something to achieve greatness. Still, you also have to take into account the circumstances in which these films were released. The first part of the last decade was brutal for traditional animation, as CG took over and both Disney Animation and DreamWorks suffered from this. True, most of the films released in those years were problematic to say the least and, with Pixar releasing excellent CG films, it's no wonder the technique didn't flourish at the studio. Decreasing quality, tepid reception and substantial money-loss were obviously a recipe for disaster, and if Disney, which was the oldest traditional animation studio in the world, closed their hand-drawn division, it was no wonder that a newer studio would do the same in order to survive.
Still, watching The Prince of Egypt and the boldness and fearlessness of its story and themes, I can't help but wonder if traditionally-animated films would've survived if they had continued on that track of making more mature films, rather than giving in and settling for harmless and mediocre stories. It's very unlikely that DreamWorks will released a new traditionally-animated film ever (Me and My Shadow, a mixture of CG and traditional animation was recently "returned to development," which may mean it's been shelved) but their existing ones should at least be taken out of obscurity and discussed, dissected and, in the case of The Prince of Egypt, celebrated.
What do you think of DreamWorks traditionally animated films? And which one do you prefer?