Shrek (2001) & Shrek 2 (2004)

Posted by on Dec 30, 2011 in Fantasy/Adventure | 0 comments

Shrek1

Disclaimer: Some adult references (sex jokes), mild language (loose use of the term “ass”), and comic violence.

Shrek opens (like so many Disney romance features) with a storybook accompanied by the typical story of a princess trapped in a tower awaiting her prince. Before he can kiss her and live happily ever after, however, this movie’s title character tears out a page to use as toilet paper. This opening sets the tone for the ultimate fractured fairy tale (like those featured on Rocky and Bullwinkle), where nothing is as it seems and everything is fair game.

This DreamWorks creation was the first real challenge to Pixar’s hugely successful computer-animated style, and even goes out of its way to bash the Disney franchise that immortalized the tales (co-producer Jeffrey Katzenberg, who formerly worked with Disney, may have had something to do with it).

Based on the story by William Steig, shrek2we follow a flatulent green ogre (Mike Myers, replacing recently deceased Chris Farley), who lives in a swamp, bathes in mud, eats eyeballs, makes candles of his own earwax, and fights off pitchfork-toting townspeople. We fall in love with this Scottish creature, who keeps to himself, not by choice, but because society casts him out. The plot unfolds as loads of fairy tale creatures infiltrate Shrek’s home because, as one of the Three Little Pigs says, “Lord Farquaad huffed and he puffed and he … signed an eviction notice.” With the help of his annoying and neurotic sidekick, the constantly jabbering Donkey (Eddie Murphy), Shrek goes on a quest to return the creatures to their homes.

Farquaad (John Lithgow) is desperately seeking a princess so he can become a king, and chooses Fiona (Cameron Diaz), who needs to be rescued from a dragon-guarded tower. When he agrees to give back the swamp, Farquaad sends Shrek, who wrestles dozens of knights (in a scene kids will likely enjoy) to prove his worth. The movie takes the simple plot, mostly resembling Beauty and the Beast, and turns the elements on their head (the knight, noble steed, and princess) leading to an ending that resembles The Graduate.

Farquaad’s empire of Duloc clearly resembles Disney Land with its turnstiles, gift shops, and hilarious parody of It’s a Small World. Plus it features loads of Disney creations including Snow White and her Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Tinkerbell, Peter Pan, Cinderella, Robin Hood, and the Magic Mirror. The best moment with such characters comes when the vertically challenged Lord interrogates the Gingerbread Man by dunking him in milk. Another such moment comes when the karate-chopping Fiona sings to a bird (like Mary Poppins or Cinderella), hits a high note – making it explode – and eats its eggs. The movie also contains loads of pop-culture references (The Matrix, Babe, and Indiana Jones among them) and in-jokes that will likely fly right over kids’ heads.

While the original enjoyed its theatrical run, animators were already hard at work on the sequel. In it, Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) goes to rescue Fiona, but is shocked to find the gender-confused Big Bad Wolf in her bed, since she’s on her honeymoon. Fiona’s parents – the King (John Cleese) and Queen (Julie Andrews) of Far, Far Away – invite her to a royal ball to celebrate her new marriage. But Shrek has some problems adjusting to high society and her parents are a tad intolerant of her new beau.

When the Queen tells her angry husband that Fiona chose a prince, he responds, “Yes, but she was supposed to choose the prince we picked out for her.” Delightfully, she retorts, “Stop being such a drama king.” Still insecure about his appearance, Shrek sets out to better his aesthetic appeal with a potion, thus making everyone involved happier. Instead of another poke at Disney, the sequel presents a kingdom that resembles Beverly Hills with palm trees, stretch carriages, and shops like Versarchery and Farbucks.

It boasts loads of new fairy tale shrek3characters (The Little Mermaid, Ugly Stepsister, Sleeping Beauty, et al), the best of which is a serenading Captain Hook (who alternates vocal tracks with Tom Waits and Nick Cave), but goes a tad overboard when Joan Rivers and Larry King arrive. The other notables include the evil Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas), a ruthless killer for hire that we meet in an excellent, though a bit cliché, scene marked by darkness, shadows, and eye silhouettes. It gets a bit bogged down with movie references as well, from Ghostbusters and Spider-Man to Lord of the Rings and Alien, the best of which is a spoof of COPS (called Knights) as they chase down a white bronco (a la O.J.). Once again, it has a pop soundtrack that includes Oscar-nominated Accidentally in Love by Counting Crows.

Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, two of the Oscar-nominated screenwriters from the original, opted out of the sequel for disagreeing with the story, which resembles Meet the Parents and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner instead of a fairy tale. I’d have to agree with their decision, as someone seemed to think the charm of the first was pop-culture references and tertiary characters. That, certainly, was part of the charm for adults, but they took it further than needed. Audiences didn’t seem to mind, however, as it raked in $437 million in the U.S. alone, compared to $270 million for the original. The third installment followed a trend of disappointing threequels in 2007 (Spider-Man and Pirates of the Caribbean among them), and the fourth in 2010 was barely better. The following year presented a spin-off with Puss in Boots, and we can only hope it ends there.

The movies have their flaws, but the direction seems to suggest it may have been purposely. With noticeable spots on the “lens” from the sun and limited planes of focus, the film seems to position the computer-invented characters as “real.” It took nearly five years to complete Shrek, but paid off by earning the best animated feature Oscar (the sequel was nominated but didn’t win). The majority of that time fell on the animators and while the animation is excellent, it’s not quite as visually compelling as some Pixar features. Instead, and probably for the best, they spent time creating a timeless fantasy land known for its flaws instead of its strengths.

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