Signature Entertainment and their production arm Signature Films always provide some of the best alternative work out there. There is a clear focus on properties that share a unique balance between the independent scene and commercial potential. Although not every film delivers, even Signature's releases show huge promise and are more than often the types of films that should be watched in our efforts to support and nurture independent talent.
Animation is a difficult medium to accept in film and unless you are Dreamworks or a Disney/Pixar production then it is rare any other animated film outside of these performs well commercially. In terms of storytelling, if you deviate too far from 'universal appeal' and crystal clarity in your delivery, then the ship has already sunk. Some of these independent animations fly under the radar — often finding a niche audience — such as the wonderful French Canadian Ballerina (2016) that easily holds up alongside anything Disney has produced in recent years. Then there's The Little Prince (2015) — a multinational production that disappeared without a trace until Netflix picked it up — a prime example of not knowing how to market a story that ultimately had more to say than people realised and was perhaps a mix of animated styles audiences were not quite ready for.
Dreambuilders from Danish directors Kim Hagen Jensen and Tonni Zinck falls into the latter category yet, despite its subject matter, unfortunately, lacks any real craft and imagination. The story sees a young girl, Minna (voiced by Emilie Kroyer Koppel) who begins to take advantage of her dreamstate — one of which has become more of a theatrical backdrop — in order to bring back some control to her life. In misusing her own dreams she also discovers she is able to influence other peoples'; which is a huge advantage now her troublesome stepsister Jenny (Caroline Vedel) has moved in with her.
There is a natural melancholy to Jensen and Zinck's film, from the promising opening that introduces Minna's deep-set anxiety and the beautiful use of Scandi-pop. Moments like this feel fresh, yet the plot goes nowhere, despite its intentions. There are echoes of Winsor McCay's original Little Nemo strip and even some of the troubles inherent from the 1980s adaptation that also struggled with its plot and direction. Characters are friendly and have a genuine heart but behind their Pixar inspired exterior, they feel like they are aching to express themselves more through some rather stilted and stiff animation.
Once stepsister Jenny turns up it lends a lot more to the plot and character interaction as we see a character who is the direct opposite to Minna, locked in her own social media bubble, "Jenny has more than a thousand followers" and hating everything around her, including the hamster, Viggo Mortensen. How can you hate a hamster with that name?! This is where some of the charm lies in its little quirks but, alas, there simply isn't enough.
Dreambuilders is clearly for children and there are elements for adults to relate to but they have perhaps missed out the most important part — the child in us all that often makes the most successful animated films so universal in appeal. Although with good intent, the film perhaps plays too much like a drama and under another studio would have contrasted this more with a larger, more infinite world. Disney loves to terrify as much as it lends you a hug — this is crucial in the storytelling — Minna's dreams would have more anxiety even in the House of Mouse; more foreboding and the dreambuilders' world grander and more tangible; those rickety old train carts and inspectors barking their orders with increased theatricality. There is a moment when a dreambuilder shouts "From now on stick to the script," showing us those moments behind the dream curtain; a concept that feels somewhat squandered.
We all know that subject matter + drama in animation is more than able to be achieved commercially and this film has a great deal to live up to alongside Inside Out (2015) — a film it will no doubt be compared to. This handmade world of hammers and nails, popups and set pieces shows masses of potential and, of course, is perfect in building on the fabrication of what dreams are. The film celebrates imagination but in doing so sets itself an almost impossible task of living up to those expectations. The short answer would be to make a short film, because there is an excellent one in here somewhere.
Signature Entertainment presents Dreambuilders in Cinemas nationwide July 17th