The first feature-length computer-animated film was Toy Story, produced in 1995 by the imaginative nerds at Pixar. For a while, we thought, "OK, this is it. It gets no better than this." How foolish we were. Not only did Pixar improve on its own craft with subsequent films, but the company got some competition, too, in the form of DreamWorks. The two have gone head-to-head a number of times since then, Pixar's earnestly wholesome characters battling with DreamWorks' snarky ones. Who's winning the match so far? Let us consider.
1998: A Bug's Life (Pixar) vs. Antz (DW). Both films in the first round were insect-centric, possibly by coincidence and possibly because Jeffrey Katzenberg stole Pixar's idea the day he left Disney to form DreamWorks, depending on whom you ask. I hate to admit it, especially if trickery was involved, but Antz is the better movie: funnier, smarter, more clever. A Bug's Life was Pixar's weakest offering all the way up until Cars. Winner: DreamWorks
1999/2000: Toy Story 2 (Pixar) vs. The Road to El Dorado (DW). Though they were released in different calendar years, these cartoons came out only four months apart, allowing us to compare them. Alas, there's no comparison. Toy Story 2 is one of the best animated films ever made, while The Road to El Dorado ... is that even really a movie? Is it the one with Tom Hanks and Paul Newman? (Update: No, that's Road to Perdition. No one knows what Road to El Dorado is.) Winner: Pixar
2001: Monsters, Inc. (Pixar) vs. Shrek (DW). Now HERE'S a contest! DreamWorks' first smash hit established the tone for the studio's animated offerings: sarcastic, satirical, and not necessarily very heartfelt. Shrek outscored Monsters, Inc. at the U.S. box office and won the first Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, too. Both movies are terrific, but for me the emotional content of Monsters, Inc. makes it the better film. Still, we'll call 2001 a draw. Winner: draw
2002: Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (DW). While Pixar was working on its next film, DreamWorks put out this thing, about a horse whose inner voice sounds like Matt Damon. What we mostly remember is that the soundtrack was by Bryan Adams.
2003: Finding Nemo (Pixar) vs. Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (DW). No matter what DreamWorks did in 2003, it probably wasn't going to be better than Pixar's gorgeous, thrilling, hilarious, and touching Finding Nemo. And I guess they didn't even try, because Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas -- what? That's even less of a movie than Road to El Dorado. Winner: Pixar
2004: The Incredibles (Pixar) vs. Shrek 2 and Shark Tale (DW). Now it's getting embarrassing. As good as Shrek 2 is, and as much as we'd like to give bonus points to DreamWorks for releasing two computer-animated films in one year (even if one of them was the aggressively mediocre Shark Tale), how do you compete with something as complex, funny, and exciting as The Incredibles? Winner: Pixar
2005: Madagascar (DW). Even though Pixar didn't release a film in 2005, and even though Madagascar isn't really worth talking about, we're going to give DreamWorks a point for sheer tenacity. That studio will crank out an animated film every year whether it needs to or not! Winner: DreamWorks
2006: Cars (Pixar) vs. Over the Hedge (DreamWorks). Cars is merely OK. That is a fact of science, proven in laboratories. Over the Hedge, though, is a half-hour shorter, and a whole lot peppier and funnier. It's also DreamWorks' most Pixar-ish film to date: sweet, unironic, and full of subtle commentary on deep themes. Winner: DreamWorks
2009: Up (Pixar) vs. Monsters vs. Aliens (DW). The winner is Pixar again, if only for the first 20 minutes of Up alone. But it's not a slam dunk: Monsters vs. Aliens is an outstanding piece of entertainment, hampered only by DreamWorks' insistence on avoiding substantial stories. Winner: Pixar
2010: Toy Story 3 (Pixar) vs. How to Train Your Dragon and Shrek Forever After (DW). A third franchise movie against a fourth one? As much as I love the first two Toy Storys, no thank you, and extra no thank you on another helping of Shrek. What might put DreamWorks over the top for 2010 is How to Train Your Dragon, which early reports say is astonishingly good. Could the tide be turning in DreamWorks' favor? Stay tuned.
Summary: The tally is Pixar 6, DreamWorks 3, with one draw and 2010 yet to be decided. Also, "draw" is a pun because they're cartoons, and they're made of drawings, albeit computerized ones. Get it? You're welcome.
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Eric D. Snider (website) likes to watch cartoons.