An Animated Dissection: Thoughts on Shrek, 15 years later
It’s hard to believe that 15 years ago, I was into my third quarter as an animation major, and had just begun working at a local movie theater’s box-office (a step up from my previous year spent studying graphic design in Iowa, and working box-office at my hometown theater).
The Summer of 2001 was marked by a plethora of films that I had pegged as ‘must sees.’ Along with Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and Walt Disney Pictures’ Atlantis: The Lost Empire, there was another film that was on the minds of many, due to its previews and marketing campaign.
One of the most talked-about films of the summer, was Dreamworks SKG’s animated feature, Shrek. Based on the story by William Steig, Dreamworks’ version saw a re-imagining of the book’s disgusting ogre, as a grumpy ogre who is sent on a quest to rescue a Princess, along with a talking donkey.
The film would become one of the most talked-about features of the year, long after it had left movie theaters. Its release on VHS and DVD that fall would also garner big numbers, and at the next Academy Awards ceremony, the film would claim a triumph over Disney, when it ended up winning the first Best Animated Feature award given out in the newly-created awards category.
Thinking back on the film, I thought I’d create another “thoughts” column, this on probably one of the 21st century’s most influential computer-generated feature film.
Of Fairy Tales and Twists
Unlike William Steig’s book, the film’s take on Shrek became a riff on fairy tale cliches.
- Unlike a handsome prince going off to rescue a Princess, the vain and egotistical Lord Farquaad sends Shrek off to complete the task.
- Unlike the stereotypical Princess who lets others do everything for her, Princess Fiona also has some skills of her own (though where she learned “the art of bullet-time,” we’re never told).
- Unlike an ugy beast who turns into a Prince, it is a beautiful Princess who becomes the ugly beast (or so we assume)
The third item was something that I thought was a clever twist from the filmmakers, with Fiona feeling self-conscious about the spell that was placed on her, giving the film its Beauty and the Beast style twist, but in a more unconventional way, than just having an Ogre like Shrek, fall in love with a beautiful Princess.
What was very surprising in 2001, was that even though many saw Shrek, I never saw many persons or news outlets just immediately giving away the film’s secret regarding Fiona. It reminded me of the quietness that surrounded the twist ending to The Sixth Sense, 2 years before.
Beating Fairy Tale cliches senseless
I recall numerous articles about Shrek at the time, just ignoring anything about the story, and largely going on and on about how the film was Jeffrey Katzenberg’s “revenge” on The Walt Disney Company, whom he had left in 1994.
Though in truth, much of the stuff regarding the fairy tale creatures, is more secondary, as the story is largely Shrek and Donkey’s quest. But then again, the news media rarely looks for the good, and tries to focus on “the juicy.”
We see quite a bit of outside-the-box attitudes. Gepetto turns in Pinocchio to claim 5 shillings, the Gingerbread Man has his legs removed, and is dunked in milk, forced to talk (of course to the MPAA, such torture methods are okay, since Gingy’s a cookie, and not a human being).
What some viewers don’t realize, is there is a rather ‘ghastly’ fate regarding Mama Bear of the Three Bears. When we see the Fairy Tale creatures having set up residence near Shrek’s place, we see Papa Bear sadly comforting Baby Bear.
We don’t know just what happened to her, until we get a slow pan-shot across Lord Farquaad’s bed chambers later on:
Yep…that’s pretty messed up right there.
The film also played with the ‘Princess as a friend to forest creatures’ cliche, when Fiona’s singing accidentally makes a bluebird explode. The next thing we see is the camera focusing on the bluebird’s eggs, which elicited some emotional sounds from the audience:
Though with the scene that followed, there were audible gasps, and chuckling:
Pretty resourceful, that Fiona…and of course, one assumes she doesn’t tell Shrek or Donkey just where she got the eggs from.
Perfection requested from the Imperfect
Lord Farquaad is the ruler of the film’s kingdom of Duloc, though sees the fairy tale creatures in his kingdom as inferiors, and as such, rounds them up to be removed.
However, it should be noted that Farquaad’s call for perfection, is done so from someone who is imperfect. As is made clear in an early joke, the Lord is not of average height.
This often seems to be a given of many who have a dictatorial streak that they feel ‘perfection must be achieved,’ and if you look in some fictional works and history, you can see it.
Another fictional example is Lord Voldemort, who goes on about excising Muggle and mixed-blooded witches and wizards from the world…even though Voldemort himself, is the product of a Witch mother and a Muggle father.
Dreamworks Identity Change
With Shrek becoming one of 2001’s most profitable films, one would assume its parent company would make some changes given its success, and pretty soon, the writing was on the wall.
Doing things differently had seemed to be Dreamworks Animation’s mantra when they first made Prince of Egypt back in 1998. But now, it seemed almost every other film had to be passed through the pop-culture machine.
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron was released in 2002, and pretty much made it out intact (with the exception of Bryan Adams’ music, and Matt Damon voicing Spirit’s “thoughts”), but the films going forward, seemed to try and really be ‘hip and edgy,’ and it seemed to be how the viewing audience would define a Dreamworks Animation experience. In 2004, the animation division was given its own logo, and an overlay of Harry Gregson-Williams’ Shrek theme was incorporated over it.
A Game-changer, both inside and outside Dreamworks
Dreamworks Animation was all about doing things differently than their crosstown rival, and it didn’t take long before the first film’s success spawned talk of a sequel, which when it came to feature film releases, was rare (Disney had gotten into the habit of making direct-to-video sequels in the 1990’s, the majority of them made overseas).
Shrek 2 was released 3 years later, and pulled in bigger numbers than its predecessor. This would lead to a new business plan for the studio: the development of feature-animated franchises, with the expectation that if the company made enough popular new animation properties, sequels could guarantee a big return investment from sequels, and repeat viewers.
Shrek also seemed to wheedle its way into the minds of other studios, notably in films that were ‘a story you think you know…but with a pop-cultural twist.’ And usually, they ended in a big raucous song-and-dance number at the end, to something pop-cultural.
The most shocking thing to me and many others, was that soon after, even Disney followed Shrek’s example! Following the shutdown of Disney’s hand-drawn animation division following the 2004 film, Home on the Range, The Disney Studios proudly proclaimed they were going full-on computer-generated in the realms of animation. Their inaugural start? The 2005 film Chicken Little, which tried shamefully to ape Shrek’s formula, but crashed-and-burned in a number of ways.
15 years later, Shrek is mostly a memory to many of us. I will admit that I haven’t watched the film in a long time, and when it came to the sequels, I only found myself purchasing the second one.
After 4 feature films, a theme park experience, several holiday specials, and a stage musical adaptation, there’s been no additional attempts to revive the ogre…for now.
Though the film gave the studio one of its most iconic figures and seemed to cement Dreamworks Animation in the minds of many, in the last 5 years, the outlook has not been a rosy one for the studio.
Jeffrey Katzenberg’s thought that sequels and 2-3 films a year being released from the studio, would appease the public and their shareholders, put the company in a shaky position. In 2014, amid box-office takes falling short of production and marketing costs, massive layoffs were announced, and the company was forced to sell off its animation campus in Glendale, California (though they would still house most of its staff there).
One of the biggest blows, was that the company’s restructuring, would also mean the closure of PDI/Dreamworks, formerly Pacific Data Images…which is where Shrek’s production took place, all those years ago.
In the last month, it was announced that Dreamworks Animation had been purchased by NBC/Comcast to the tune of $3.8 billion, and it sounds like the new parent company may surely find some way to re-spin the company’s properties.
NBC/Comcast also holds the keys to the animation company, Illumination Entertainment, who has churned out the Despicable Me film series, to widespread acclaim and box-office returns. Word is that the head of Illumination, has also been installed as the head of Dreamworks Animation, though just what this may mean for the future of the company, is hard to say.
….though I’m sure a few out there, are envisioning the following scenario happening: