Battle of the Animation Studios: Disney vs DreamWorks

23 March 2020

Animated films are an integral part of the movie industry, regularly topping the box office and working as a reflection of society. Almost everyone has a soft spot for animated movies, regardless of age. Being lost in a child’s world allows adult worries to disappear, if only for a moment. 

Growing up in Tokyo, I took frequent trips to Disneyland and DisneySea with my friends, so Disney has had a big presence in my life. These short getaways really felt magical to me as I was growing up. I didn’t have a care in the world when I was at a Disney Resort. Its stunning visuals, heartwarming and emotional stories and likeable characters were enough to take me back to simpler times, when I didn’t have to worry about #adulting or school. These memories inspire me to frequently binge-watch Disney films.

Both Disney and DreamWorks Studios have produced some of the most beloved animated films of our generation. Disney’s ‘classics’ like Sleeping Beauty and Beauty and the Beast are as memorable as meme-worthy and iconic DreamWorks hits like Shrek and Bee Movie. While I am biased towards Disney, both studios receive competitive praise and commentary, so a good-natured battle between the two seems called for!

Disney’s stories have travelled from China, to France, to Africa, but have been subject to controversy due to racially insensitive characterisation. Considering its widespread global audience, Disney only started featuring non-white characters in feature films in the last three decades, with the exception of The Jungle Book in 1967. Young children from many diverse backgrounds idolise Disney princesses, yet only a handful have been non-white. The few POC characters are portrayed at best, comically, and at worst, with primitive associations. In Moana, the Polynesian demigod Maui is obese and naive. In Pocahontas, tribal people are labelled as “savages”, undermining and invalidating the culture and history of Native American communities. Racial stereotypes have also been imposed on the characterisation of Lady and the Tramp’s Siamese cats, with their slanted eyes and thick accents. 

DreamWorks has never encountered the amount of criticism that Disney has because its films are generally racially sensitive. However, their most recent film, Abominable, became the centre of an ongoing controversy involving a Southeast Asian territorial dispute. One scene depicted the Nine-Dash Line, an undefined demarcation line used by China over a large proportion of the South China Sea. DreamWorks has adapted bible stories in an appropriate manner, and movies like Kung Fu Panda that are set in non-Western countries even have culturally sensitive jokes. Their movies also don’t sugar-coat bad things that happen, such as when Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon loses his leg. They approach it in a realistic and sophisticated manner instead of immediately providing a happy ending.

Where Disney often fails to place many of their films in our culturally diverse societies, DreamWorks films convey a strong message about how we connect with each other and respect differences. Bee Movie highlights the value of insects in the environment, while Shrek is about not conforming to society’s beauty standards. DreamWorks features unconventional characters, like a green ogre, an adorable dragon or an infant boss, and global settings, such as China (Kung Fu Panda) and Scandinavia (How to Train Your Dragon). 

Also, Disney has consistently promoted the idea that all princesses need a prince in their life to save them. It has only been in recent years that films emphasised the importance of family and friends, instead of a relationship, to succeed. I really like how DreamWorks portrays romantic relationships. Unconventional couples in healthy relationships, like the donkey and dragon having a family of little flying donkeys, sends out a more diverse message to children about love. 

However, DreamWorks struggles to build an emotional bond with audiences. While Disney can easily make a person tear up during its climax, in a DreamWorks movie, viewers will more likely be focused on the hilarious jokes, intense storyline or the thrill of action and adventure. I personally don’t find DreamWorks’ animated characters as visually appealing and attractive as Disney, but that makes the character more “real”. In terms of craft, Disney’s use of nostalgia and ability to transport you to a magical world in every new film has successfully garnered a large and loyal fanbase. The vivid colours, gorgeous settings and emotional, catchy music depict a wondrous world in each film’s inevitable happy ending. 

While Disney has a magical air around its films, DreamWorks’ films are more mature, appealing to both children and adults, and even their stories focus on more serious themes. The bizarre situations, settings and hilarious, original jokes present in their films will attract audiences of all ages. Nevertheless, I love the works of both animation studios, even in my 20s. Animation is a unique genre because of its ability to appeal to children and adults. Watching animated movies makes you feel nostalgic and yearn to be a kid again, and it’s a great feeling.

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