Review: DreamWorks Animation: The Exhibition

12 February 2020

Sizzling asphalt, bleached fields and many a squeal of “HoRseY!” by my 20-year old self marked the eight-hour drive from Melbourne to Canberra. The aircon was blasted periodically in such that the car never reached uncomfortable temperatures, and I wasn’t doing any of the driving, so I really shouldn’t complain. But I will.

It was hot and dry. Coming off a month of devastating bushfires, a road trip through farmland to the country’s capital seemed questionable. Granted, we picked a weekend that was forecasted favourably and ultimately never encountered anything more than clear, blue skies and 35°C heat. But the question remained: who would ever plan a trip to Canberra, of all places, during the month from hell that is January 2020?

It was me. I forced my family of four to pack their bags and get in the car. And the icing on the cake? The exhibition, the very reason we were making this journey, was one I’d already seen. So yeah, I guess you could say I’m a fan of DreamWorks Animation.

DreamWorks Animation: The Exhibition has been touring Australasia and the Americas since 2014. Curated by ACMI, the 400-plus works of concept art, character models and exclusive crew interviews have graced locations including ACMI in 2014 (#firsttaste), the Seoul Museum of Art in 2016, the Montreal Science Centre in 2018 and the National Museum of Australia in 2020 (#backforseconds). Beginning as a celebration of the studio’s 20th anniversary, the collection of creative works on display has grown with each new film released in the late 2010’s, culminating in a behind-the-scenes peak at 37 animated features. Unlike a theme-park or premiere event, where the emphasis is placed upon the visitor and their interactions with film characters, DreamWorks Animation: The Exhibition is very much a celebration of the filmmakers and creative processes behind each film.  

The National Museum of Australia put out all the stops for hosting this exhibit. Upon stepping foot through the museum’s entrance, sized-to-scale models of the penguins from Madagascar (2005) greeted us and a large, animatronic Toothless from How To Train Your Dragon (2010) was suspended above the bustling foyer as we headed for the exhibit. It was clear from the sheer amount of DreamWorks iconography surrounding usitems that an Aussie fan would be hard-pressed to encounter without a trip to the United Statesthat we were in for a treat.

The exhibit was structured as a long, blackened hall separated into sections of varying sizes. The lack of a defined direction to traverse and the nature of stumbling across new nooks and crannies at every turn meant that the experience felt like an adventure. I wasn’t being guided on a tour. I was being encouraged to embrace the child-like curiosity in me and explore. With the sweet violin of John Powell’s ‘Romantic Flight’ in the background, I weaved around glass cases holding 3D busts of  characters like Moses, Shrek and Spirit. Storyboards and concept art splashed the walls in colour. The exhibit ran the risk of feeling repetitive as most of the content throughout the sections was printed art. However, every so often I discovered something that renewed my wonder, be it a simulated production designer’s desk or fabric scrolls inspired by Ancient China depicting scenes from Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016).

For those like myself, who could spend hours gazing intently at concept art, this exhibit would be a delight from start to end. For everyone else though, the spectacle could lose its lustre due to lacking interactivity. One of the best features of this exhibition were the interactive screens set up to let visitors simulate animating for DreamWorks. By fiddling around on these screens, I could make Hiccup smile, change the colour of pop-corn fireworks, or even turn a still ocean to large, rolling waves. But these kinds of tactile activities were few and far between. I believe this exhibition would be enjoyed primarily by fans of DreamWorks who are interested in the creative and technical process behind the studio’s films, and secondarily by art-enthusiasts and cinephiles. And of these two groups, few would be the young kids you’d expect at an animation studio’s event. In fact, there was a distinct lack of young children aged at around 5-12, the target audience of DreamWorks’ films, present at the exhibition. The majority of those milling about was composed of teenagers, young adults and middle-aged couples.

Judging by the turnout, one positive to be taken from this is that animation truly isn’t just for kids. And DreamWorks has been a major player in showcasing mature, intelligent storylines for viewers of all ages to enjoy. Yes, there was the bizarre Bee Movie (2007) and oft forgotten Over the Hedge (2006), but even these underwhelming features taught us about industrialisation and humanity’s effects on the natural world. As for the studio’s bigger and better-received hits, they gave us a physically disabled protagonist in Hiccup (How To Train Your Dragon [2010]) and explicit representation of triggers and PTSD (Kung Fu Panda 2 [2011]). If there’s one thing that I took away from this exhibition, it’s the thought, care and innovation that births each DreamWorks picture, even the misses. After all, without filmmakers who dared to subvert society’s expectations and dominant ideologies, you wouldn’t have unconventional heroes like Shrek teaching kids that beauty is found within, or Sherman proving that kids raised by single-parents are normal and can grow up to be heroes. You wouldn’t have Astrid, Chel or Eep teaching girls that females come in all shapes, sizes and personalities, nor would you have Yi and Tip representing people of colour front and centre.

Even as a huge fan of DreamWorks Animation, I can’t deny that there are some clunkers in the studio’s filmography. Some films that I’m not particularly interested in rewatching. And yet, walking through a maze of artwork and audio-visual expression, physical manifestations of passion and imagination, I was reminded that behind each film are real people. Real people who just want to tell stories. And when you look at it in that regard, it’s not hard to celebrate the history of a studio that is bringing to life the stuff of dreams. 

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