Shrek and sequels – the entire ogrilogy reviewed
Shrek is on telly. Seems as good a time as any to dust off my reviews of the four films. Shrek 2, Shrek The Third and Shrek Forever After were written on release; I revisited the original last year on its tenth anniversary.
(Andrew Adamson / Vicky Jenson, 2001)
Once upon a time, Dreamworks chucked a pop-culture Molotov cocktail at Disney, and put the mirth back in myth.
It is the fate of all rebels and revolutionaries to become accepted as part of the status quo. Even so, it’s shocking to realise that it’s take a mere 10 years for Shrek, the court jester who tried to usurp Disney’s crown, to become a king amongst movie fairytales. With three sequels, an imminent spin-off and a hit stage musical, it is one of the most enduring pop-culture brands of the past decade…and yet, revisit the film that started it all and Shrek still straddles that fine line between the trad and rad.
It is still pretty much the only Dreamworks animation to become a classic in the way that Pixar films are. That’s because, unlike the studio’s subsequent output (Madagascar, Shark Tale), neither the casting nor the pop-culture satire has dated. Yes, it’s a rude, two-fingered assault on Disney’s domination of family-friendly animation, but Adamson and Jenson are astute enough to subtly conflate movie references with the original fairytale sources that Walt himself pilfered in the building of the Mouse House. Unless you’re aware of the near-slanderous in-joke that Lord Farquaad (say it slowly) is a dead ringer for Disney exec Michael Eisner, the only joke with any specificity is the Disneyland-spoofing theme park stylings of Duloc. Otherwise, gags about Pinocchio and Snow White date back centuries.
Likewise, the voice casting lacks the usual star persona trap because the stars chosen by Adamson are masters at ventriloquism. Yes, Donkey is unmistakably Eddie Murphy, but it’s worth remembering that Murphy’s wise-cracking performance never undermines the character but meshes perfectly with Donkey’s unflagging optimism. This is a far cry from, say, Will Smith’s “Fresh Prince” fish in Shark Tale. And you don’t cast chameleonic Mike Myers to play Mike Myers at the best of times, and he certainly isn’t opting for easy recognition with that unrecognisable Scottish brogue. Arguably, Myers isn’t even fishing for laughs; by letting Murphy steal the film, the nominal star gives an admirably dramatic, even moving performance.
That bedrock of great characterisation gives the film enormous flexibility to rip up the rulebook. Shrek tramples gleefully over the Disneyfication of the fairytale by reinstating the genre’s historical cruelty, albeit to the extent that events are only as gory and vulgar as a U certificate will allow. Cue much burping, farting and turning of animals into balloons – exactly the level of malice a child responds to. But, crucially, it’s not just a laugh-making machine, with a deft narrative structure that inverts quest logic to reinforce the difference between normal movie heroes and Shrek’s misanthropic ogre. For most movies of this type, fighting the dragon would be the climax; here, rescuing the princess isn’t anywhere near as difficult as forging a relationship with her on the homeward trip.
Add to that the triumphant, ambitious visuals (especially whenever the dragon is involved) and the only real fault is the distracting reliance on jukebox pop songs. Admittedly, even here Shrek remains true to its counter-cultural remit by favouring Leonard Cohen songs over flavour-of-the-month pop, but it feels like an opportunity missed. How much more satisfying would it have been to pen some original, satirical songs a la South Park to hammer the final nails into Disney’s coffin? No wonder Shrek ended up on stage. It feels like closure.
(Andrew Adamson / Kelly Asbury, 2004)
The Tristram Shandy of animated movies, a shaggy-donkey story of wit and satirical insight. The nearest anyone has yet come to eclipsing Pixar
As a self-avowed Pixar freak, I was initially underwhelmed by the rambling storytelling and rough visuals of Shrek, funny though it was. It’s taken the sequel for Andrew Adamson’s intentions to click and, though Pixar remains my true love, my enjoyment of Dreamworks’ ogre has increased considerably.
Basically, what I’ve finally realised is that the Shrek movies are the Rolling Stones to Pixar’s Beatles. In contrast to the structural sophistication of John Lasseter and his acolytes, Adamson favours an aesthetic vision and a humour that are rougher and rowdier in conception. The ‘rock and roll’ comparison even extends to the soundtracks – it’s difficult to see Pixar including a Buzzcocks cover in one of its films.
With a plot that’s often little more than an excuse to string together comedic characters and set pieces, the film has the feel of a revue show in pantomime drag. What’s important here are the surreal gags (like Shrek’s neighbours piling into his house to throw a disco), the movie parodies and musical numbers, and the broad performances of Eddie Murphy, Antonio Banderas and Jennifer Saunders (a more enjoyably hissable villain than John Lithgow). Curiously, as in the first film, the weak link is humourless grouch Shrek himself, saddled with the film’s perfunctory narrative arc and played bafflingly straight by a muted Mike Myers.
Not that the film is shallow: there’s a wickedly satirical bent to proceedings. If Shrek never got beyond its muckraking pop at Disney, Adamson and his writers have moved on to a more ambitious critique of Hollywood as a whole. There are endless riches in the positioning of Far, Far Away as a Tinseltown clone, but a lesser film would simply deliver its make-believe slant on Hollywood conventions (like the red carpet sequence) and leave it at that. Yet here the conflation of fairytale and entertainment also suggests an implicit criticism of the commodification of imagination in Hollywood – highlighted in the bleak vision of the Fairy Godmother’s potion factory belching fumes in the traditional fairytale glade. Consider that you might almost call this factory a Dreamworks and the film’s hand-biting subversion becomes clear.
In fact, all that Shrek 2 lacks is the luxurious, vibrant colours and compositional beauty of a John Lasseter or a Hayao Miyazaki. Whilst there’s a stunning cinematic imagination at work, particularly in the exhilarating use of match cuts and ellipses to push the action forward, visually it’s as stolid and grubby as its hero. I have no doubt the technological accomplishment is worthy of praise, but for me there’s something unsatisfying about Adamson’s perverse decision to steer his fantastical world into near-naturalism.
Shrek the Third
(Chris Miller, 2007)
Slick but weightless, this proves that not even CGI animation is exempt from the threequel’s law of diminishing returns
CGI animated films have avoided so many of the obstacles that plague their live-action counterparts that I’d hoped Shrek the Third – the first of the medium’s threequels out of the blocks, ahead of Toy Story 3 – would continue to buck the trend. Alas, despite the usual advantage of having to get the script right before a single pixel has been rendered, and the franchise’s previous form, the film fails… and, somewhat dispiritingly, it fails for much the same reason as so many other threequels.
For starters, Andrew Adamson, the series’ guiding force until now, has jumped ship for fresh challenges: apart from suggesting the story here, he isn’t creatively involved. That’s always a bad sign, but perhaps Adamson recognised that there’s nowhere left for these characters to go. Superficially, Shrek the Third is a similarly tasty confection of smart and silly gags to the previous films, but what it lacks is substance.
That Shrek 2 was a great sequel had to less to do with maintaining the first film’s panache than the way it expertly expanded on the story and subtext. Where Shrek was an outsider’s love story, the second film made the outcast face his wider fear of society. And where Shrek railed at Disney, the second film turned Far, Far Away into a surrogate Hollywood in order to achieve a biting satire of the whole movie business. It’s difficult to see where a third trip could take the character and, disappointingly, the writers haven’t tried. Instead they’ve committed the cardinal sin of turning inward.
Shrek is at heart a misanthrope, and the first two films had already proven what a dull, morose hero he’d be when left to his own devices. The character needs external threats – be it a screwball heroine or the hostility of others – to bring out his humour. In Shrek the Third, the central dilemmas are more abstract: Shrek’s dual fears of becoming a king and a father. Ingmar Bergman, perhaps, could make great drama out of this, but it’s not really the best subject matter for a family comedy. One refreshingly warped dream sequence aside, it’s difficult to see how this glum material could hold a child’s interest.
Debutant director Miller, in a vain attempt to provide an external threat, bolts on a plot about Far, Far Away being overrun by the bitter and misunderstood villains of the fairtytale world, but even this fails because as a joke it’s too insular. Where the first two films worked as sly allegories, this film takes its distorted fairytale world at face value and renders it as a simple pastiche. This isn’t to say that the comedy of recognition isn’t funny – the characterisation of the various spoilt princesses of legend is particularly well realised – but it isn’t not funny enough. Compared to its predecessors, the jokes are weightless, and it doesn’t help that Rupert Everett’s preening Prince Charming, promoted from Shrek 2’s second-string villain to key baddie, lacks the true boo-hiss value of John Lithgow or Jennifer Saunders.
The absence of a central focus leaves the film untethered and it struggles to generate much in the way of momentum, with the accumulated cast of three films spread too thinly across the various subplots. Princess Fiona’s role is little more than an extended cameo and, with the emphasis on Shrek, even the great Donkey/Puss double-act is horribly muted. The idea of bodyswapping them is a desperate attempt to give them something to do, and only really delivers one truly great gag, as Puss attempting his trademark sad eyes from a not-cute body. The only silver lining is that, with the leads hampered by the paucity of the material, there’s room for more peripheral characters to shine, and the Gingerbread Man grasps every moment going: his life-flashing-before-his-eyes montage is the film’s undisputed highlight.
Shrek Forever After
(Mike Mitchell, 2010)
A ‘fourthquel’ with atonement and rejuvenation on its mind, selling its own greatest hits by way of meta-textual trickery
Throughout the Noughties, trilogies ruled. They only needed the one ring to bind them, but that didn’t stop The Lord of The Rings being followed in swift succession by Bourne, X-Men, Spider-man, Pirates of the Caribbean and many others. Of course, it didn’t really “end” there for any of them – Bourne and Spider-man are in the process of being ‘rebooted’ with new stars, Pirates has set sail on a new adventure, Tolkien helpfully wrote a prequel (before he even wrote the sequel!) and the X-Men simply started cranking out spin-offs from its considerable universe. With the exception of Rings and Bourne, there’s another reason for providing fourth or fifth instalments: their common denominator is a maligned threequel, as if Hollywood couldn’t bear to accept that critics no longer loved their films and are setting out to prove the bods wrong.
Enter Shrek, a franchise with a similiarly troubled third instalment. Even kids’ genres these days are subject to the same high expectations, especially when the first two films were so good. To its credit, Dreamworks hasn’t sacked Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy and replaced them with (for example) Brian Cox and Chris Rock, but decided to atone for poor form with a return to past glories. Quite literally – using the age-old parallel universe scenario, Shrek Forever After resets the story and characters to base zero.
It’s a cunning ploy, one whose subtext is ‘ you used to like us, so let’s have more of that.’ The opening act is a self-parodic recognition that franchises get old and stale, as Shrek suffers the Groundhog Day of middle age conformity and decides to break out of the rut by signing a deal with Rumplestiltskin. It’s a very canny move; Shrek was always about subverting old fairytale characters and here Mr Stiltskin is a very modern predator, a lawyer with some devilish small print. And, of course, because this is a fairytale it means that Shrek can play the whole George Bailey fantasy of never having been born with less suspension of disbelief required than any It’s A Wonderful Life clone since Back To The Future 2.
It’s remarkable how quickly the film regains its mojo once Shrek blasts into his past. Shrek – the character and the brand – is dangerously unpredictable again, and the film takes flight in knowing movie in-jokes (water-fearing witches straight out of Oz), leftfield pleasures on the soundtrack (the Beastie Boys) and more sight gags than even Pixar does these days. Best of all, while much of the film relies on the standard ‘parallel’ trope of twisting established characters – so Puss in Boots is now fat and pampered – the premise allows a complete genre-shift into a Braveheart/Gladiator-style epic of resistance, with Fiona recast as a Boudicca-style warrior queen.
That, of course, is all about the film’s inherently conservative premise that ‘true love’ would have saved Fiona from such masculine foolishness – which is entirely in keeping with It’s a Wonderful Life, where Mrs Bailey ends up a spinster in Pottersville. Indeed, if you consider that alt-Fiona is literally a different woman, the subtext here is a warning against adultery, as Shrek finds that lusting after a bit of rough is not the same as courting a good gal. It’s pretty reactionary, really – a sign that, while an improvement on Shrek The Third, the gleeful edge of the earlier films hasn’t quite been restored to its full grubby lustre. Yet in an era where producers have settled on a rhythm of serialising characters to death and then resurrecting them, it’s worth applauding a film finds a way of atoning for franchise rot without explicitly hitting the reboot switch – forever after, indeed.
See also: Puss In Boots (2011)