Two young people take flight on a dragon, just like in Avatar, but the trip is longer and way swoopier. Ancient warriors strut their testosterone in approved Beowulf or 300 fashion. A kid befriends an otherworldly creature a flame-spuming update of the alien from E.T. and tries to hide him from adults. It's a foolproof scheme for picture making: take the plot elements of favorite movies, paint the concoction with bright colors so it looks like the zazziest customized car, set it running at NASCAR speed then add 3-D and you have How to Train Your Dragon, the new feature from DreamWorks animation.
The 3-D bit is recent, but the other items could be the recipe for any of the DreamWorks films that have entertained vast audiences over the past decade. The studio's three Shrek movies have earned $2.2 billion at the worldwide box office. Include the last seven capers made at its California headquarters Shark Tale, Madagascar and its sequel, Over the Hedge, Bee Movie, Kung Fu Panda and Monsters vs Aliens and the 10-pack has a $5.3 billion global gross. That's just a smidge under the $5.6 billion taken in by all 10 of the features produced by DreamWorks' rival, Pixar.
Awww, did we have to go and say Pixar? The very word stings the DreamWorks ego like a lighted cigar tip on a fresh wound. Jeffrey Katzenberg, DreamWorks' elfin pooh-bah, had run Disney's animation unit during its renaissance years The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King before leaving in 1994 as John Lasseter's fledgling Pixar outfit came into the Disney fold. Katzenberg's new animation unit soon out-Disneyed Disney, whose 2-D features have waned in appeal. But he hasn't been able to out-Pixar Pixar.
At least Oscar voters seem to think so. Nine years ago, when the award for Best Animated Feature was established, DreamWorks got the first one, for Shrek. Since then, Katzenberg's products have been shut out (the studio distributed one Oscar winner, Nick Park's veddy English Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit), while Pixar has taken five: Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALLE and Up. This year, DreamWorks' perky Monsters vs Aliens was not even one of the five finalists. "Each year I do one DreamWorks project," actor Jack Black told the crowd at the 2009 ceremony, "then I take all the money to the Oscars and bet it on Pixar."
That was also the case 60, 70 years ago, when Disney shorts had a monopoly on the Oscars, while the funnier, livelier cartoons from Warner Bros. which today are treasured were ignored. In that sense, Pixar's features are closer to the old, elevated Disney style, while DreamWorks' films are flat-out cartoons, proud to carry on the fast, cavorting Warner tradition.