Jeffrey Katzenberg Eroded Animation with Celebrities

It’s no wonder that Jeffrey Katzenberg and the entire DreamWorks team were weary of Nicole LaPorte’s new book, The Men Who Would Be King: An almost epic tale of moguls, movies, and a company called DreamWorks, a sweeping look at the tumultuous creation of Hollywood’s wunderkind studio. Just five years earlier, Katzenberg’s meteoric rise to success at Disney was chronicled in James Stewart’s book DisneyWar. And earlier this year, moviegoers were treated to yet a further look at the one-time studio chairman of the Walt Disney Company in the insider-documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, a look back at the rebirth of Disney’s animation franchise.

Katzenberg, with the soft-spoken help of Roy Disney, injected new life into the animation arm of the studio following a drought that lasted more than 30 years — it wasn’t until the Katzenberg-led Little Mermaid took Hollywood by storm that critics paid attention to the integral part of Disney that birthed Mickey Mouse. Neither leaders Michael Eisner nor Frank Wells saw any life left in drawings, rather they hoped to boost the performance of live-action movies and expand Disney’s theme parks and hotels.

Following a bitter, and soon-to-be court contested departure from Disney, Katzenberg found himself trying to kick start animation at DreamWorks SKG, the studio he created with David Geffen and Steven Spielberg. If he could usher in a new era at Disney, certainly he could work the same magic across town. Or so he thought.

Antz, the first animated release under the DreamWorks banner, only made $90 million in the U.S., or as LaPorte reports, “about as much as it had cost, thanks to high-profile voice talents… no longer were actors always agreeing to make animated films on the cheap.” Then came the traditionally animated films The Prince of Egypt and The Road to El Dorado, both failing to find expected critical praise. Spirit, Sinbad and Shark Tale rounded out the list of less than stellar pieces under the one-time animation Midas’ oversight.

Despite Katzenberg being a cheerleader of traditional animation, he ignored the rest of his Disney schooling, opting instead to fill animated films with celebrities rather than heart — none of Disney’s classics relied on star power. It was the magic of fantastical storytelling, beautiful music, and even the Disney brand that made audiences fall in love with Snow White, Cinderella and the pantheon of animated masterpieces making up the studio’s rich library.

While still at Disney, Katzenberg’s buddy Geffen helped him discover the talents of musical lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken, a duo that crafted the hit songs responsible for much of Mermaid’s recognition. Their next project, Beauty and the Beast, proved that Katzenberg had tapped into the formula Walt Disney used to perfection during his legendary reign. Next came Aladdin, yet another animated trophy for Katzenberg’s mantle.

Katzenberg then took the king of the jungle and created a masterpiece, one that ultimately led to his demise at Disney. The Lion King evolved from an idea that Katzenberg first discussed while on a plane ride to Euro Disney. As LaPorte writes, “the film broke every record for animated films,” taking in $700 million in box office sales, but an underling should never get too powerful. “Katzenberg was beginning to look — a bit too much for some — like the king of the Disney jungle.”

Between his time at Disney and the animation launch at DreamWorks, what went wrong?

Perhaps he was tricked into believing Robin Williams’ turn in Aladdin led to the film’s success, but that was by no means the case, at least not artistically. And in a medium that is, at its core, the most artistic form of movie making, there is an onus placed on its creators to keep to higher standards than the rest of Hollywood.

Up until DreamWorks, Katzenberg seemed to understand such unspoken rules. In the end, it appears his vendetta against Eisner clouded his judgment, leading to break-neck speeds when churning out animated films and the desire to one-up his arch nemesis, rather than work towards impressing Walt Disney, a man Katzenberg once imagined looking down from above and guiding his animated work at Disney.

The Los Angeles Times wrote that Antz, a movie voiced by such A-listers as Woody Allen, Sharon Stone and Sylvester Stallone, had “no magic in the air.” Shark Tale, as LaPorte writes, was “one of the most chaotic productions to date,” thanks in large part to troubles working with Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and Will Smith.

Lion King sported a somewhat well known cast of voice actors, but they did not make the film, rather the old Disney formula of heart and magic was at work.

Were it not for the Shrek franchise, Katzenberg might have never been able to puff his chest around Hollywood again, but Shrek is a film that purposely dumps on Disney’s hallmark brand of storytelling. While it is a welcome addition to animation, it by no means stands alongside Walt’s original creations, or even Katzenberg’s earlier masterpieces. In the end, Katzenberg opted to “go Hollywood” with animation, relying on celebrities and flashy technology to sell his movies, but for a one-time believer in all things Disney, he has sadly damaged the value of an art form he once championed.

This article was also published by the Huffington Post on June 4, 2010.

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