Friday, May 18, 2018

Shrek - It Ain't The Sharpest Tool In The Shed

Originally released in 2001, the original (Academy Award-winning) Shrek came out at a time when the Disney Renaissance had recently ended (and Pixar was not yet owned by them), shaking up the animation scene and putting DreamWorks Animation on the map. Shrek, based on a book by William Steig, has since become a multimedia franchise that set the tone for many of the studio’s follow-up films until the release of Kung Fu Panda in 2008, when the Shrek style of humor was falling out of favor. Though I first saw this movie when I was a kid, I had not seen it again for several years due to an overexposure to Shrek 2 and not getting around to my desire to rewatch the original until recently. While it has held up fairly decently in spite of its age, some aspects of the movie cause it to come off as rather dated.

While trying to enjoy his life of solitude in peace, Shrek’s (Mike Myers) swamp has become overrun by various fairy tale creatures who were thrown out of their homes by the ruler Lord Farquaad. Wanting to settle things with Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow), Shrek is accompanied by Donkey (Eddie Murphy), a talking donkey who knows the way to Duloc, Lord Farquaad’s residence. Shrek ends up winning a brief tournament and making a deal with Lord Farquaad to retrieve the princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), whom Farquaad wants to marry, from a castle guarded by a dragon, in exchange for Shrek regaining the deed to his swamp.

The story of the original Shrek follows a more simplistic plotline, though this isn’t really a bad thing as it makes things easier to follow. I don’t know how much it differs from the original book, though the movie essentially takes the story beats of Disney movies at the time and places a different twist on them, with the title ogre character not exactly being your typical prince charming and yet still finding love in the end. While Shrek himself, like an onion, has a lot of layers to his character (a metaphor actually used in the movie), as does Princess Fiona, I can’t exactly say the same for Donkey or Lord Farquaad. While Donkey does have some emotional range aside from his wit, he comes off as more of an annoying chatterbox, leading characters (and possibly the viewer) to constantly want him to stay quiet for more than a few seconds. Farquaad doesn’t have much of a character either, being onscreen for less than ten minutes, though some aspects are evident through background design and visual gags and not entirely shoved in your face.

Shrek (Mike Myers; right) explains to Donkey (Eddie Murphy; left)
how ogres, like onions, have layers.

The animation hasn’t really stood the test of time, looking more or less unfinished by comparison to modern standards, however it is still watchable. This can be attributed to all-CG animation being in its infancy at the time (the last Pixar movie to come out was Toy Story 2), though it’s evident DreamWorks Animation put effort into making the animation look good for its time. That said, the liquid effects, especially mud, haven’t aged well at all.

As for the fairy-tale setting, while it is clear it’s meant to be a medieval aesthetic, there are some anachronisms such as modeling the façade of Duloc after a modern amusement park (including a parking lot, Farquaad mascot, turnstile and souvenir photo). That said, it otherwise sticks largely true to its art direction. This movie is also surprisingly minimal when it comes to pop culture references (ex. the magic mirror acts like a game show host and there’s a quip about celebrity marriages), though one that stands out is a reference to the (in)famous “bullet time” scene from The Matrix that has been parodied to hell and back. By comparison, its follow-up Shrek 2 contains even more pop culture jokes, which means to me that DreamWorks must’ve taken the wrong lesson from Shrek’s success when deciding to turn it into an ongoing franchise.

One of many anachronisms in the movie.

The voice acting is one aspect that has held up better, primarily amongst the four main characters. Mike Myers, prior to his career nosedive, gives a memorable performance as the titular Shrek character, his iconic Scottish accent allowing him to stand out from most of the other characters. Though his character can get grating, Eddie Murphy’s performance as Donkey makes sure that you won’t forget him anytime soon. Cameron Diaz and John Lithgow also do a good job with their respective roles of Princess Fiona and Lord Farquaar, Lithgow in particular being good enough to let you believe the character has more depth than he actually possesses. Though a bit character in this film, Conrad Vernon admittedly made the Gingerbread Man memorable, which may explain his (somewhat) expanded role in Shrek 2.

Unlike the Disney films it was making fun of, Shrek makes use of a number of licensed tracks, most notably the highly-memetic Smash Mouth song “All Star” during the opening credits and said band’s cover of The Monkees’ “I’m A Believer” towards the end. Rupert Holmes’ “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” is also used briefly in one scene, though the song would later receive more association with Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy. Donkey sings parts of a few other songs at different points in the movie, adding on to the aforementioned anachronistic pop culture references, though as with the other modern references they are brief and don’t really interrupt the narrative.

To say that Shrek made a splash on the internet is an understatement. In more recent years, the first film and its sequels made a resurgence in popularity via an ironic fandom that would become more unironic as time passed, including legitimate discussion on the franchise’s overall quality. Aside from various lines from the movies becoming memes on their own, a more tasteful meme for discussion is the previously-mentioned song “All Star” getting remixed and parodied into oblivion, with Shrek usually having some presence due to association. Chief among these is YouTuber Neil Cicierega creating the “Mouth” trilogy of remix albums that heavily feature “All Star” in some capacity, going so far as to include hidden references to the song that can only be found by digging into the sound files.

Rather notably, this movie takes some influence from some bad blood between DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg and former Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Once Katzenberg was booted out of Disney and went on to co-found DreamWorks SKG (of which DreamWorks Animation is a subsidiary), he would later use the Shrek adaptation as an opportunity to get back at Eisner, to the point of having Lord Farquaad act as a caricature of him. The success of Shrek and its first sequel would also indirectly contribute to Eisner being eventually let go from Disney.

Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow) is a caricature of Michael Eisner.

After 17 years, the original Shrek holds up pretty well, though the animation quality (by modern standards), crass humor and dated references bog it down a bit. That said, the story and its message are still good and its characters are memorable, which makes the film watchable even today. If anything, this film has become better known for its impact on internet culture, though it’s worth a look for its historical significance in feature animation (it won the first Academy Award for Best Animated Feature after all) and makes for a generally enjoyable viewing. If you’re looking for a Disney parody that has better stood the test of time, I would instead suggest The Emperor’s New Groove, ironically made by Disney themselves and released just five months prior to Shrek.

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