Alex is a School of Visual Arts graduate with a passion for media, writing and animation. He writes reviews for film, television and games.
Once upon a time, there was a magical kingdom called Walt Disney Feature Animation. It was considered the most beloved animation studio for creating timeless and well-adapted movies based on classic fairy tales. In fact, they reached new heights in quality from the late 1980s to early 1990s called the Disney Renaissance.
Around that same time, a film chairman named Jeffrey Katzenberg desperately plotted to take over the kingdom after the tragic death of then-president Frank Wells. However, shortly after, he was fired and created his own kingdom, with help from filmmaker Steven Spielberg and businessman David Geffen, called DreamWorks SKG.
The two kingdoms soon went to war with releasing their own movies, whether their concepts are similar and/or on the same weekend. Disney had a decent run with mixed results while DreamWorks created new films under the revolutionary use of computer animation. For the latter, it was an evolving trend during the early 2000s since Pixar's Toy Story and the Disney kingdom was gradually losing the war.
Meanwhile, after the kingdom was built, DreamWorks bought the rights of a children's book by William Steig named Shrek!, and they began creating the film immediately. Originally, a comedic warrior known as Chris Farley was casted as the green ogre, but he was slain before he could finish recording his voice. Newcomer Mike Myers stepped in record dialogue for Shrek...twice. Simultaneously, the fairy tale planned from being a hand-drawn feature to eventually fully computer-animated.
After seven years of production, the new non-Disney fairy tale opened its pages to the world and became a beloved classic. It became the fourth-highest grossing film of 2001 and created a huge franchise with sequels, spin-offs, merchandise, and so on. Most recently, it was selected to be preserved at the National Film Registry in 2020. It has been 20 years and this animated feature is still considered a phenomenon in computer animation history. How so?
An ogre and a donkey (voiced by Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy respectively) must embark on a quest to rescue a princess (voiced by Cameron Diaz) while saving the land from a tyrannical ruler (voiced by John Lithgow).
A Humorous Non-Disney Fairy Tale
As an adaptation based on a children's book, it sticks true to the core element of the original story while being its own thing at the same time. Immediately as the movie begins, it clearly establishes the setting and tone that audiences would expect out of an animated fairy tale movie, yet it plays with their expectations afterwards. Like the book, the movie emphasizes a satirical take on traditional fairy tales where the story focuses on less-likely or monstrous characters. For this story's case, it is a green ogre who peacefully lives in a swamp and performs daily routines that anyone find either funny, gross or all the above. The movie would be also considered character-driven since it gives depth onto Shrek and his arc on his journey, which will be discussed later. It heavily benefits and executes the story on the classic expression, "don't judge a book by a cover" where it teaches its audiences the true meaning of love, especially with the relationship between Shrek and Princess Fiona. The only flaw that the story would have is that romance angle can be predictable including with its cliches thrown in. But, given the fairy tale context, it is surprisingly effective.
What else to expect out of an animated fairy tale movie? A lighthearted tone? Timeless musical numbers? The answer is NONE of the above. The comedic tone in Shrek not only parodies the fairy tale genre, but Disney as well. Some believed this movie would be considered an "anti-Disney movie" since DreamWorks was co-founded by Katzenberg as an act of revenge. But, to its credit, it doesn't go that far and prevailed its tone that no other animated film did around that decade. First off, we have the typical low-brow like farting and swearing like "ass", which is quite fitting for the titular character to act and say. Second, there is occasional dark humor whether a character was killed off or cooking eggs from a mother bird after she blew up. Thirdly, whenever someone is about to break into song, other characters are immediately annoyed, giving the film a self-aware nature. Instead, we have a soundtrack of catchy pop songs such as "Bad Reputation" by Jona Jett, "Hallelujah" by Rufus Wainwright and, of course, "I'm a Believer" and "All Star" performed by Smash Mouth. The last aforementioned songs are the crowning moments for both starting and capping the film individually. Outside of the pop songs, the score by John Powell is also noteworthy where the music perfectly executes the atmosphere and mood of certain scenes. My personal favorite music is when Shrek, Donkey and Fiona escape from the Dragon where the scene balances both intensity and humor. It is a prime example that having content like this gives the movie its own identity.
Revolutionary Computer Animation
As their second official computer animated feature, DreamWorks decided to consult Pacific Data Images, the same animation production company that worked on the animation for Antz. When comparing the animation quality between these two films, Shrek displayed that the studio had upped their game more than with Antz. A notable upgrade was the use of dynamic cloth, hair and fur textures onto their characters. True, computer animation still continues to evolve and the animation quality has aged after twenty years. Then again, with the concept being a fairy tale parody, the execution of the visuals and animation are still impressive for its time and hold up.
Since the movie is a loose adaptation, the familiar characters were given creative liberties in their designs while adding in new characters to help them visually stand out from another. The titular character, for instance, maintains his grotesque and threatening presence yet mellowed out quite senemential similarly to The Beast from Beauty and the Beast. Animal characters, like Donkey, have a look between realistic and cartoony to make their appearances more fitting in the fairy tale setting. The human characters are depicted more in the realms of realism, along with a couple caricatured. The villain Lord Farquaad is believed to be based on the former Disney CEO Michael Eisner whom Katzenberg disputed with at his employment. The character animation is smooth where the humans move more practical while the fantasy characters act more animated in a subtle manner, similarly to how Disney usually animate its characters.
Speaking of which, the visuals alone are highly evidential enough that Shrek gives a "hidden slam" on Disney. There are many familiar fantastical characters that were adapted by Disney and their designs are given a surreal yet charming appeal without copying much from its competitor. Even the kingdom of Duloc visually highlights itself as a Disneyland knockoff. You can tell what the intentions were.
Even the simplest of backgrounds like a swamp or a castle are executed with a creative use of atmosphere, color and set-ups for action sequences. Shrek's swamp is characterized as an organic and quiet habitat full of inventive tools that help Shrek with his daily routines. Outside of looking like Disneyland, Duloc is viewed more as a dictatorship under white buildings. The Dragon's Keep is a location truly full of thrill and peril where it is a run-down castle surrounded by a lava lake, with a rickety bridge, dead knights, and guarded by a fire-breathing dragon. The action does kick up whether Shrek fight knights in a horse stable-turned-wrestling ring or outrunning a dragon through wit and risk. It was quite an ambition and the animation, though dated, still gave DreamWorks its visual identity.
A Book Full of Timeless Characters
When one reads a fairy tale, the characters are always the focal point of the story and these characters in Shrek are no exception. As mentioned before, the story is more character-driven which helps factor into the fairy tale parody aspect. Our main character Shrek is introduced as anyone in these type of stories would expect: an intimidating ogre who scares off anyone that intrudes his property. But, upon deeper analysis, he is actually a lonesome individual that feels mistreated by others where he is judged by his appearance before knowing him, thus motivating him to keep living alone. That all changes when he meets our deuteragonist Donkey. At first glance, he seems to act like the typical Disney comic relief sidekick. Despite being talkative and unintentionally annoying others, he is a loyal and genuine character that teaches Shrek about the values of friendship. Our princess in this tale and most interesting character is Princess Fiona. Initially, she is viewed as the standard damsel-in-distress in waiting for her true love. As the movie goes on, without giving way too much, she is capable of handling herself, enjoys things that no princess would do and the chemistry between her and Shrek is believable, which is predictable but effective for the film's message. And then, we have our villain, Lord Farquaad. As the ruler of Duloc, he desperately seeks "perfection" in his kingdom by plotting to marry Fiona in order to become king. He shows no mercy or remorse for his actions enslaving or evicting the fairy tale characters throughout the land.
Speaking of the fairy tale characters, most of them have a minor role as the deported outcasts that were forced to live in Shrek's home till he reluctantly sets things right. The stand-out characters among these creatures are the legless Gingerbread Man, the all-knowing Magic Mirror, a cross-dressing Big Bad Wolf, the fierce yet feminine Dragon whom is Donkey's love interest, and the charismatic Monsieur Hood and his singing Merry Men.
If the parody genre isn't enough to make you laugh, the actors’ performances definitely bring out the big laughs, thanks to their comedic delivery and memorable dialogue. Mike Myers uses his Scottish accent from his Austin Powers fame to help give Shrek an alarming yet snide personality. Eddie Murphy always provides his fast-paced energy onto Donkey's happy-go-lucky and friendly attitude. Cameron Diaz cleverly transitions from talking traditional to modern when fleshing out her character. John Lithgow channels in his over-the-top nature while maintaining a strict, authoritative stature. No pun intended: You'll be reading these characters like a book and will never forget how authentic and funny they are.
In conclusion, Shrek continues to be fondly remembered as an unique animated feature of the decade. It succeeded in spoofing both fairy tales and Disney, subverted comedy, distinctive animation, timeless characters, selective pop songs and soundtrack, and laugh-out-loud performances. For anyone new, this is highly recommended for anyone who wants a twisted yet genuine take and have a barrel of laughs. Audiences young and old will never forget how a movie loosely based on a children's book would enchant the world and revolutionize computer animation similarly how Toy Story did. The legacy lives up and everyone all lived happily ever after.