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Shrek’s lazy example defined a studio and changed animation

With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

Shrek was not the first film to be released by Dreamworks Animation, but it was the one that set the tone for the studio, establishing a blueprint that would be copied, in one form or another, for most of its subsequent features. It was both its Snow White and, given its bizarro-world Disney worldview, an anti-Snow White.

Previous titles had included a pair of overt Mouse House rip-offs (The Prince Of Egypt and The Road To El Dorado, both cel-animated adventures with original music), a stab at claymation (Chicken Run), and Antz, a dialogue-heavy title that skewed a bit more adult and played like a trial run for its overall capabilities, given how relatively primitive the visuals were. All of those have their defenders, but none broke out the way Shrek did, ensuring that what had felt fresh would soon turn rote and tedious as Dreamworks went back to the well.

Here’s what Shrek brought to the animation ecosystem, which is best viewed in contrast to traditional Disney: it foregrounded its celebrity voices, to the point of building characters around their personas (among Dreamworks’ subsequent titles, Shark Tale did this most explicitly); it eschewed original music in favor of Top 40 hits and covers (establishing the now-inescapable dance-party ending); its visuals and character designs were often flat, which suggested corner-cutting as much as a house style (The Croods, Kung Fu Panda, and especially the Madagascar films took this further); and it dove head-first into reference-based and juvenile humor. Here be dragons, but they’re kissing bare asses, and where Pumba’s flatulence was merely implied in song, Shrek’s titular ogre farts in a pond and kills a school of fish, and that’s in the opening credits.

It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate introduction to this fractured fairy tale than the ones directors Vicky Jenson and Andrew Adamson cook up. The traditional Disney opener, where an animated book opens to tell the story we’re about to see, is abruptly interrupted by the lead character, who tears the page out and literally uses it to wipe his ass (the first glimpse we see of him is his busting out of an outhouse, to the immortal notes of Smash Mouth’s “All Star”).

In a sense, it isn’t surprising that audiences took to Shrek the way they did; compared with Disney—which was at the time being overshadowed by Pixar and experimenting with the relatively off-brand Dinosaur, The Emperor’s New Groove, and Atlantis—this was confident storytelling, even a bit subversive. After decades of fairy tales pushing perfection with beautiful leads and black-and-white morality, here was a more relaxed fable, the kids-movie equivalent of a candidate you could have a beer with.

That quality wouldn’t last. By the end of this series (franchising animation was another thing it helped popularize; Disney had sent its own sequels direct to video), Shrek would be synonymous with lazy cash-in sequels, but for its first entry or two it managed to have it both ways, working simultaneously as a fairy tale and a spoof of the genre.

Shrek is mostly set in the kingdom of Far Far Away, a fairy tale-equivalent of Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s Toonsville. It’s a land where famous characters live in disharmony, though the leads are originals (to pop culture at least, it’s based on a children’s book by William Steig). The kingdom is populated with the familiar faces of the Brothers Grimm and Mother Goose, along with the various princesses, Pinocchios, Peter Pans, and Robin Hoods you may remember starring in films by a certain rival studio.

Shrek (voiced with a Scottish accent by Mike Myers) is a loner in this world, reasoning that if all the townspeople hate him (as seen by their regular “kill the beast” pitchfork mobs), he’ll hate them right back. He’s an outcast, like Quasimodo and the Beast before him, but happily so. Disney has no such protagonist who isn’t also a tragic figure.

The story proper starts when Shrek’s solitude is interrupted by a band of fairy-tale squatters, public-domain refugees from the evil Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow), whose defining feature is that he is short. The musical adaptation (a filmed version of which is available on Netflix) cleverly posits that he’s acting out against his withholding father, the dwarf Grumpy, but in the movie he’s motivated by a desire to promote himself to king. To do this, however, he needs a princess, and as such agrees to clear Shrek’s swamp if he rescues his chosen bride-to-be from a dragon-guarded tower.

The ogre is joined on this quest by Donkey (Eddie Murphy), an easily wounded, easily forgiving sidekick who feels like another sly dig at Disney—if you find wacky supporting animals more irritating than delightful, then you’ll be sympathetic to Shrek’s mounting frustration at this literal ass. At Donkey’s best, the character is a reminder of Murphy’s skills as a fast-talking virtuoso, but it doesn’t take much for the character to become actually annoying, and not just in Shrek’s eyes. Like a lot of elements of the series, Donkey becomes so grating by the final film that it downgrades the way he comes off in the first, the seeds of his eventual laziness as a character becoming obvious in retrospect.

The story turns on the reveal that the rescued Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) is cursed so that she turns into an ogre after sundown, one of those “only true love’s kiss can break the spell” kind of things. The story follows expected beats—she and Shrek fall in love, they live “happily” ever after—but formula or not it still feels like a rebuke to Disney. The story isn’t that challenging, but its take on inner and outer beauty feels a bit more inclusive, and satisfyingly so. Shrek won the inaugural Oscar for animated films, which feels weird given the shadow Disney casts over the format, but it wasn’t completely undeserved. (It beat out Monsters, Inc. and Jimmy Neutron)

A curious fact of the fairy-tale world is that while all the supporting characters are familiar, few have the kind of strong personalities that can be easily played against for laughs. Remove breadcrumbs from Hansel and Gretel’s appearance, and you just have a pair of interchangeable kids. Cameos therefore come off as reference humor instead of funnily insightful, something that can be said about the series overall. There are nods to The Matrix, Alien, Flashdance, even the O.J. Simpson car chase, jokes that are the humor equivalent to its Top 40 soundtrack, getting its charge from recognition rather than skill. It’s hard to think of a worthier target for satire than Disney’s princess empire, but only one modest hit is landed against it in the series (rather than fending for herself, a jailed Sleeping Beauty seeks help by faking a snooze, counting on this to draw a rescuer).

Compared with the witty way familiar products are used in Toy Story, only two recurring Shrek supporting characters make an impression: Pinocchio, with his barometer nose, and the Gingerbread Man, because of the incongruity of the cookie’s big personality. The big exceptions to this comes in Shrek 2, with the introduction of Puss In Boots (Antonio Banderas, riffing off his Zorro performance), an almost stupidly cute swashbuckler who becomes a mischievous ally, and Fairy Godmother (Absolutely Fabulous’ Jennifer Saunders), looking to install her dopey Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) son as king.

Puss almost singlehandedly elevates Shrek 2 near Pixar levels (at least mid-tier Pixar), giving it a welcome streak of personality and energy. The premise, a body-switching plot where Shrek debates the idea of being human, is fleeter and funnier than the original, while it also avoids the plodding themes of the subsequent entries. Still, it’s not the kind of classic that holds up to repeat viewings; the thinness of Fiona’s character in particular becomes apparent. Surely there’s some drama in her decision to leave her human form behind?

This issue reaches its nadir in Shrek The Third, where Fiona barely even figures into the proceedings, despite it being preoccupied with Shrek’s ambivalence toward starting a family. Needless to say, this isn’t the kind of family-friendly excitement that fighting a dragon is; parents likely found Shrek’s fatherhood nightmare to be a mighty peculiar thing to explain to the young ones in tow.

The film’s more mature themes are theoretically the kind of thing that should be encouraged in family entertainment. But tedious is tedious; the story isn’t deep, exciting, or funny, and its questioning of “happily ever after” isn’t exactly on the level of, say, Into The Woods. This is particularly disappointing as it has a couple of ideas—the dynamics of a fairy tale high school, famous villains like Captain Hook feeling underappreciated—with a lot of potential. The more of the world it suggests, the more annoying Shrek is for doing nothing with it.

Part three saw a steep drop in box office from the first sequel, which makes it even more perplexing that Shrek Forever After doubled down on its theme of the ogre feeling constrained by adult responsibilities.

The film starts with Shrek freaking out in a fairy tale Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant, maddened by annoying strangers and nagging kids, as though it was made especially for the divorced dad looking for ways to kill time on their weekend with the kids. Desperate to again scream at strangers in his swamp, he trades a day of his life to Rumpelstiltskin, who uses it to create an alternative universe where he’s a dystopian ruler. Shrek’s attempt to overthrow him (with Donkey and Fiona, who in this timeline is the leader of a rebel ogre army) returns the series to something of an adventure tilt, but the plot-mandated reset (neither Fiona nor Donkey know him in this world) means it can’t build on whatever relationship dynamics had been established. It takes Shrek five minutes to regret his decision, meaning that’s how long the It’s A Wonderful Life premise generates any dramatic tension.

As through realizing Shrek’s mid-life crisis had exhausted its dramatic potential, the final entry in this world to date took a completely different tact, a Puss In Boots spin-off. While the film is more plainly made for kids, featuring more action and a theme of friends reconciling, it’s oddly complex in its story and bizarrely adult (Puss rides off into the sunset musing how he’s “a lover of beautiful women. A great, great lover. Really, it is crazy.”). Even when the series course-corrects, it does so incorrectly.

There have been rumors of a Shrek 5, but dire though that idea is (he’ll no doubt be grappling with empty-nest syndrome), the franchise has already found a way to exist more comfortably, with a group of holiday-themed TV specials (Shrek The Halls and Spooky Stories among them). They’re nothing extraordinary, but Shrek’s colorful world and endless adventure possibilities are better-suited to TV, especially since the episode format means it doesn’t have to force the number of incidents or kind of character growth the films had so much difficulty creating toward the end.

Still, Shrek’s legacy is not completely spoiled. While Dreamworks Animation failed to become the kind of reliable brand that Disney Animation or Pixar are, some of its points did seem to rub off on its major rival. Without Shrek tweaking the fairy tale formula, would Disney have been inspired to make the superior Tangled, Frozen, or Moana, all of which function as correctives of a sort? If Shrek deserves blame for the bad movies it spawned, it also deserves some credit for the good ones.

Final ranking:
1. Shrek 2 (2004)
2. Shrek (2001)
3. Puss In Boots (2011)
4. Shrek Ever After (2010)
5. Shrek The Third (2007)