Saturday, May 19, 2018

Shrek 2 - Could Use A Little Change

Three years after the success of the Academy Award-winning Shrek (2001), Dreamworks released the inevitable sequel, Shrek 2 in 2004. I had seen this in the theater when it first came out and loved it at the time, though I would later become burnt out on it due to overexposure. Having seen it again years later, shortly after re-watching the original Shrek, it seems to have held up well in some areas and aged poorly in others.

While on their honeymoon, Shrek (Mike Myers) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz), accompanied by Donkey (Eddie Murphy), are summoned to the kingdom of Far Far Away to celebrate their marriage with a royal ball. Upon arrival, however, things immediately get off to a rocky start when Fiona’s parents, King Harold (John Cleese) and Queen Lilian (Julie Andrews), have differing feelings about their daughter marrying an ogre. At the same time, Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), originally meant to marry Fiona, had arrived too late to rescue her from the dragon. As a result, he becomes part of a somewhat complex revenge scheme to make sure that he’s the one wed to Fiona instead of Shrek.

King Harold and Queen Lilian are surprised
to see that Fiona has married an ogre.

By comparison to the original film, Shrek 2 has a more complex and comparatively original plot with a larger cast of characters, more interesting villains and subplots which all contribute to the main plot. A major twist that comes near the end of the movie, and also contributes to the ultimate failure of the villain, is also set up with a surprising amount of foreshadowing and changes how the viewer looks at certain scenes. As the film explores life beyond the initial happy ending, its lesson is ultimately that you can be yourself and still make a relationship work, even a marriage. While rather simple, it’s pulled off rather effectively. Some of the humor in Shrek 2 is also still genuinely funny, though the cruder jokes seem to only exist to reinforce just how different Shrek was from its competition.

As befitting an animated sequel, the actual animation is a real improvement and has aged far better than the original Shrek. The character models are generally more detailed and the hair and liquid physics are comparatively closer to the real world. There’s also more detail in the backgrounds, along with improved lighting and a greater variety of locations.

With all of that said, however, it seems that Dreamworks truly did take a wrong lesson from the success of Shrek. Where the original had a rather minimal use of pop culture jokes and anachronistic references in its obviously medieval setting, Shrek 2 is absolutely filled to the brim with such references, so many, in fact, that it’s at times distracting. While some of the pop culture references predate the movie, including Alien (1979), The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Flashdance (1983), others were very contemporary at the time, including Spider-Man (2002), Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and The Mask of Zorro (1998). Other pop culture references, however, either come out of left field, such as the O.J. Simpson murder case of all things, or feel incredibly forced, such as one throwaway reference to Garfield’s catchphrase, “I hate Mondays.”

The anachronisms, as well, are far more numerous and harder to ignore. The most noticeable ones involve Far Far Away, as its modeled after Los Angeles and Southern California in general. The kingdom has its own equivalent to the Hollywood Sign and there are fairy tale versions of several real-world businesses, including, but not limited to, Starbucks, Burger King, Gap, Old Navy, Bob’s Big Boy and Tower Records (now defunct in the US). A particular anachronism that stretches the setting further relates to the original Shrek as well. In the first movie, the Magic Mirror could be controlled similarly to a recording, but still fit within the setting. In Shrek 2, however, television just straight-up exists, including a scene where a handful of side characters watch the show Knights (itself a parody of the show Cops) and another where Joan Rivers plays an announcer at the royal ball as though it were a live broadcast.

Notably, the home video release (not viewed for this review) contains yet another reference, an extended parody of American Idol called Far Far Away Idol which not only loosely follows the format of the show, but also literally includes Simon Cowell voicing an animated version of himself as a judge. There was even a way for viewers to vote on a winner of the competition (the official winner was Doris). Since American Idol was new at the time, it only made sense that Shrek 2 would want to reference it, but nowadays it only contributes to the “Early 2000s” vibe that permeates the film.

The home video release features an extended American Idol
parody in which Shrek (Mike Myers), Fiona (Cameron Diaz)
and Simon Cowell (Simon Cowell) are judges.

On that note, as with Shrek, Shrek 2 includes a good number of licensed songs. However, the ones performed in the movie are predominantly covers, including one for “Funkytown” by Lipps Inc. and two (yes, two) for “Holding Out for a Hero” by Bonnie Tyler. However, it does include some original material, including “Accidentally in Love” by Counting Crows, which would receive Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Best Original Song, as well as a Grammy nomination for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media.

While Shrek 2 has arguably had less of a lasting impact on internet culture compared to the original Shrek, its presence as a pop culture powerhouse for the time cannot go unstated. Due to how well it stood out compared to its contemporaries, Shrek 2 was highly successful at the box office, making about $920 million against a budget of $150 million. As Dreamworks’ most successful film to date, it was the highest-grossing animated film of all time until Toy Story 3 (2010), the highest-grossing animated film in the US until Finding Dory (2016) and was the highest-grossing film of 2004. It was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature but lost to The Incredibles (2004).

The most lasting part of this film’s legacy, however, is the introduction of Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas). His popularity eventually led to a spin-off film, Puss in Boots (2011) and the Netflix series The Adventures of Puss in Boots, which lasted for 78 episodes across six seasons between 2015 and 2018.

Shrek 2 introduces the popular Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas).

While Shrek 2 improves on its predecessor in terms of story, character and humor, the higher concentration of pop culture nods and anachronistic elements are nearly a distraction. It’s easy to see why the movie was such a juggernaut on release, but now it’s a little harder to see where the movie truly shines without consciously peeling back the outer layer of dated references that haven’t aged as well as they could’ve. After 14 years, Shrek 2 is still an enjoyable film that’s worth viewing today, partly due to its historical significance, although the original Shrek gets a slight edge for its balance of story and references.

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