Should I Watch..? 'Shrek'
What's the big deal?
Shrek is an animated fantasy adventure movie released in 2001 and is loosely based on the 1990 picture book of the same name by William Steig. The film is a parody of fairy-tale films and specifically Disney productions and sees an anti-social ogre team up with a talking donkey to rescue a princess. The film stars Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz and John Lithgow and was co-directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, the first time either had directed a film before. The film helped establish DreamWorks Animation as a competitor to CG animation pioneers Pixar and led to the creation of a franchise, followed by three sequels (a fifth film is rumoured to be in production) and a spin-off as well as a Broadway adaptation. Released to a positive reaction from critics, the film would go on to earn more than $484 million globally as well as winning the first ever Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2001, beating Pixar's Monsters, Inc. in the process.
What's it about?
In a fantasy land populated by creatures large and small, a grotesque and mean-spirited ogre named Shrek lives a peaceful life in the relative tranquillity of his swamp. However, he finds himself overrun by creatures fleeing the forces of Lord Farquaad of Duloc who is purging the land of all fantasy creatures. Determined to put a stop to this, Shrek teams up with an extremely talkative donkey (the only creature willing to show Shrek the way to Farquaad's castle) and decides to head off to speak to Farquaad directly.
Meanwhile, Farquaad discovers that he has to marry a princess to declare himself king and decides to rescue Princess Fiona who is trapped in a tower by a fire-breathing dragon. Of course, the vertically-challenged and cowardly Farquaad isn't going to rescue her himself so he makes a deal with Shrek: rescue the princess and Farquaad will relocate the refugees from Shrek's swamp. Together with Donkey, Shrek heads off to rescue Fiona - unaware that she hides a terrible secret...
Lord Maximus Farquaad
Magic Mirror / Geppetto
Andrew Adamson & Vicky Jenson
Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio, Joe Stillman & Roger S.H. Schulman*
Release Date (UK)
29th June, 2001
Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Fantasy
Best Animated Feature
Academy Award Nominations
Best Adapted Screenplay
What's to like?
The real strength of Shrek is that it gleefully pokes fun at countless animated movies that feature a plethora of talking animals, singing birds and other aspects that have long fallen into cliché. Set in an instantly recognisable world, the movie isn't afraid to play with expectations and tweak the nose of Disney films of yore. Led by a resurgent Myers and Murphy on top form, the lead character and his sidekick provide an enjoyable alternative to handsome princes and brave knights as well as reinforcing the film's message of accepting your true self. Diaz and especially Lithgow also give the cast a real boost as Fiona and Farquaad, a name that underscores the film's ability to entertain kids and adults alike.
The film is chock-full of energy and activity, filling the screen with life that can't help but keep your attention. Another trick that Pixar have largely perfected is creating films that appeal to the whole family and not just younger viewers and Shrek happily follows their lead. Even the soundtrack, led by Smash Mouth and featuring covers of classic pop songs, remains as upbeat and enjoyable as ever and ultimately integrates with the film far better than one supposes. There is very little to dislike about the film - it's just a huge amount of fun and one that remains so even after being diluted by so many sequels.
- The role of Shrek was originally filled by Chris Farley who had recorded nearly all of the dialogue before he tragically died in 1997. After Myers replaced him, he suggested using a Scottish accent for the role which meant some scenes needed reshooting. According to producer Jeffrey Katzenberg, this cost an additional $4 million although Myers disputes this.
- Computer animation on the film started in October 1996 and took more than four years to complete. It took so long, in fact, that they included references to films that weren't released at the start of production like The Matrix, for example.
- Janeane Garofalo was initially cast as Fiona but was subsequently fired after the death of Chris Farley during production. To this day, she has no idea why and no explanation has ever been given.
- Farquaad's logo has been noted as looking very similar to Facebook's. However, this is a coincidence as Facebook didn't launch until 2004.
What's not to like?
As amazing as CG animation is, there is an inherent issue with it that doesn't trouble traditional hand-drawn animation. As time passes, technology improves which means the processing power of the computers behind the visuals get ever better at animating complex sequences. By contrast, the films released at the dawn of the medium look much more basic than the films of today and Shrek falls into that trap as well. Even compared to its sequels, the film looks almost crude in its design and visual appeal. While the original Toy Story also suffers from technological fatigue, I felt it does a better job of making you forget about such things. I couldn't escape Shrek's age.
The other problem with its age is that some of the in-jokes have dated as well. While the fight sequence imitating The Matrix raises a smile with viewers familiar with it, younger viewers will be confused as to why the action suddenly stops. It's the same with the endless jabs at Disney's theme parks - fine if you've experienced them first-hand but possibly perplexing for children yet to visit the so-called Magic Kingdom. These may seem like minor points against an otherwise excellent film but I have never recognised this film at being at Pixar's level. It is, however, among the best of the rest so it shouldn't get too down-hearted.
Should I watch it?
Technical limitations aside, this is a fantastic slice of fantasy spoofery led by performances from Myers and Murphy that remind you of their comic timing and skill. Bright and breezy, the film is an impressive riposte to Disney's blanketing monopoly of fairy-tale filmmaking and still remains an essential watch for young families today - not least because of the endless sequels...
Great For: kids and adults alike, challenging Pixar's dominance, generating money for the studio
Not So Great For: Disney's image, anyone annoyed by Myers' Scottish accent
What else should I watch?
To my shame, I haven't made much of an effort to watch any of the sequels bar Shrek 2 which offers much of the same but feels more ambitious with additional characters and even busier animation. But like most franchises, the Law Of Diminishing Returns applies and both Shrek The Third and Shrek Forever After didn't carry much favour with critics. After his debut in the second film, Antonio Banderas' character Puss In Boots received a spin-off film of the same name which bucked the trend but the film series has been largely dormant during the success of the stage version. The future seems uncertain as a possible reboot has been mooted as late as November 2018 with the producer of Despicable Me - Chris Meledandri - seemingly on board.
To say that Pixar have dominated the computer animated market since 1995 might seem like hyperbole but the studio has amassed a staggering 19 Academy Awards and global takings in excess of $13 billion as of August 2018. Kickstarting the genre with Toy Story, some of their best work includes The Incredibles, Inside Out, Up and my personal favourite WALL•E which I never get tired of banging on about. Not only are Pixar's huge amounts of fun but the best ones engage with you on an emotional level that nobody else has come close to duplicating just yet. I defy anyone to watch Toy Story 3 and not have a lump in their throat at the end...
© 2019 Benjamin Cox