by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary. To mark the occasion, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full on retrospective treatment. Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.
Budget: $150 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 89%
Shrek 2 is a film of excess. If the original Shrek was a tight, lean, and meticulously calculated and planned film (the kind of tight, lean, meticulously calculated and planned film that could throw out $4 million worth of animation because its star figured out a better way of voicing the lead character late into production, but nonetheless), Shrek 2 is the gloriously bloated victory celebration that follows the breakthrough into the big time. It’s like when an Indie auteur who made a name for themselves for making tight, character-focussed stories and making the most of their miniscule budgets gets picked up by a major film studio, is given A Major Film Studio Budget and then goes mad from the power that’s been thrust upon them. The kind of film where nobody ever said no to anything he cooked up with it because he made it work before and surely they won’t let the power go their head, right? To put it in a more tortured and poorly-thought-out way, if Shrek was Thunderbolt And Lightfoot, then Shrek 2 was Heaven’s Gate, if you drop The Deer Hunter from this scenario and can get on this bizarre wavelength that I am currently operating on.
Shrek had a modest budget of $60 million, in the same ball-park as what-would-have-been-safe-bets-until-outside-circumstances-screwed-them-over Sinbad and Spirit. Shrek 2 had a budget of $150 million which, though it looks pretty standard today, was pretty frickin’ extravagant back then. Shrek had a star-studded lead cast but had its supporting characters mostly played production members. Shrek 2 has stars populating every single new and supporting role that wasn’t brought back from the last film. Shrek kept its focus laser-targeted to 3 characters (plus an under-developed villain only made interesting by John Lithgow’s performance) and gave each of them a tonne of development that felt natural and well-paced. Shrek 2 has at least 8 main characters and integrates its supporting cast into the plot as more than just one-appearance cameos, giving each of them some development but short-changing some of its cast (primarily the female side) for other members of its cast (primarily for the male side).
Shrek kept proceedings reserved to a handful of small locations, reflecting the relative small-scale of the story. Shrek 2 similarly has few locations but all of them are much, much bigger than before (Far, Far Away is a very unsubtle expy of Hollywood), reflecting the wider-scale of the story. Shrek featured pop culture references and parodies but derived most of its humour from character work and character interactions, the “satire” (in the thinnest definition of the word) and toilet humour aging poorly but not being the primary source of comedy. Shrek 2 is 80% pop culture references. Not parodies, references. And that’s not 80% of the jokes when I say “80%”, that’s 80% of the film. Shrek had a DVD bonus feature that was just a three minute extension of the Dance Party Ending from the film. Shrek 2’s DVD bonus feature is a mini-epic, a six-minute take-off of American Idol complete with a requisite flat appearance by Simon Cowell himself (during that sweet spot of the 00s where people still gave a sh*t about what he did on a daily basis) and the urging of the viewers to actually go online, for the first three days after it was released into the wild, and vote for which they thought was the best performance. Doris won, by the way.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that Shrek 2 has aged poorly. Shrek 2 has aged really poorly. Shrek 2 has actually aged so poorly that I finished watching it and immediately questioned how on earth anyone found it any good in the first place. Considering the fact that this one is widely seen as DreamWorks’ creative high-point until Kung Fu Panda rolled around, I am baffled as to how bad this one is. But, like most things that are bafflingly poor, it went on to great success. In fact, “great” is probably understating it. Shrek 2 was a monumental success. Critically, it surpassed the original in terms of rave reviews, many even throwing around the phrase “a rare example of a sequel that’s better than the original.” Financially, it was the highest grossing film of 2004. Not “highest grossing animated film”, although it was that as well, not “highest grossing film domestically”, although it was also that too; Shrek 2 was 2004’s highest grossing film worldwide. Although it’s been displaced in terms of being the highest grossing animated film of all-time worldwide (by films with 3D premiums or re-releases or both, whereas Shrek 2 has neither), it’s still the highest grossing animated film of all-time domestically. The DVD and VHS releases have brought in, according to Wikipedia, $800 million for the company (although a miscalculation when reporting initial figures to investors led to DreamWorks Animation being sued by said investors cos, y’know, that’s the kind of world we live in), and the film was nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar at the 77th Academy Awards, although it lost to The Incredibles (thank Christ).
So, as you can see, Shrek 2 is a major, major success story. The kind of success story that will go down in history as a great movie deservedly making all of the money, earning the respect it deserves from the normally snobby critical class, and remaining as a classic in the animation genre. No matter what I write about it, I will not be able to convince anybody, much less history, that we got it all horribly wrong and that this was where the decline of Western animated features and DreamWorks Animation as a whole began, not next week’s film (oh, Christ, I have to do Shark Tale next week…). Nevertheless, Shrek 2 is a bad film and the problem that it has, the biggest one of them all, is that everybody involved at DreamWorks seems to have learned the wrong lessons from the first Shrek’s success (and I get the very strong feeling that this will not be the last time I use that phrase). Back when we addressed the first Shrek, I noted that the thing that everyone latched onto as the reason why the film worked, the most quantifiable element, was its edge, its satire, its pop culture references. You may also recall that such a claim was emphatically shot down by myself (although I don’t purport myself to be an expert with these things, so feel free to tell me that I’m talking out of my arse) and that instead the reason the film connected was due to strong character work, an undercurrent of sadness and the same sappy romantic mentality that it spends most of its time pretending to dismiss with a dissatisfied mouth raspberry.
But, again, nobody realised that fact and everybody gravitated towards the quantifiable thing, the edge. So, rather than risk alienating audiences by giving them more of what they didn’t know made the first film work, that’s what DreamWorks doubled down on. I can understand why they’d want to play it safe. Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas had failed spectacularly, and between that and the DVD release of Shrek 2, DreamWorks itself had been sold to Paramount and the animation division had been spun off into a publically traded company (hence the suing over DVD sales). In fact, this can very much explain why DreamWorks Animation spent the rest of the decade playing it safe. See, unlike, say, Pixar, DreamWorks Animation can’t afford a giant bomb, as one enormous failure is enough to pull stockholder support from the company. Plus, why drastically change a formula that worked, eh? Why not take a victory lap and give the people what they want?
As you can probably guess, there are several good reasons why this shouldn’t be the case. But chief amongst them is the substitution of character for pop culture references. These are no longer three-dimensional characters that feel real and have genuine depth and multiple sides, these are simplistic one-dimensional caricatures designed to feed the plot and jokes through. Fiona, especially, is dumbed down and marginalised to hell and back. In the original, she was a well-drawn character whose overly-romanticised notions of fairy tale endings and how her story is “supposed” to go are built into the fact that she wants to become “normal” and to be freed from the curse placed on her, but over time she defrosts from these notions as she accepts her true self and finds love in unexpected Ogre-like places. In this film, she has all agency removed from her and simply becomes a thing that Shrek and the villains fight over, occasionally getting to complain about how the two men in her life aren’t getting along. Puss In Boots’ character arc, meanwhile, is zipped through in one three-minute scene, Donkey has had the sadness inherent to his character instead changed into a simple “he’s a petulant child” routine, and the villains remain villains because, well, they’re evil and stuff.
And that’s when they’re not just blatantly recycling material from the first film. The basic message of the first film, never deny your true self as you are special no matter how non-“normal” you may seem, is back and in full effect, but the genders are reversed this time so it’s completely different(!) True love comes in all shapes and sizes and it’s amazing no matter how it looks. Am I referring to Shrek 1’s moral or Shrek 2’s? Meanwhile, the “people who aren’t for your true love due to it not being ‘normal’ are meany-boo-beenies” message at least gets a boost due to the Fairy Godmother getting more screen-time and being a more interesting villain than Lord Farquad ever was, but the film doesn’t do anything with the villain set-up (she’s supposed to be this mega-famous, beloved fixer for Far, Far Away’s denizens, but the film only takes full advantage of this for one song during the climax) and the overall message is muddied by the fact that she has personal manipulative scheming stakes in the equation. After all, why tackle a giant concept and place the villainy on all of society when you can just have one “I’m evil because EVIL” mega-villain, eh?
Look, I wouldn’t have a problem with this, these are all morals that people today can do with being bludgeoned over the head repeatedly with, if the film found new beats to explore these themes with, or was at least entertaining enough to make it not an issue. But themes aren’t the only things that the film ends up recycling. Many jokes from the first film make a return in both an example of the writers misunderstanding how you do call-backs, and giving off the idea that everyone involved had just discovered what global warming was and decided to do their bit by wasting absolutely no resources from the first instalment. As an example, remember the “better out than in” gag? That’s back and there is basically no difference. Fiona burps, Shrek says his requisite line, and the rest of the participants of the scene are shocked because, “A LADY? Burping like A MAN?! Why I never!” Oh, sure, the order of the gag has been switched around, but the principles are the same; instead of being a cute little nod to how close Shrek and Fiona are as a married couple, like I imagine the intention was, it just becomes the same joke from the first film with the intention shoved so far into the background as to become unnoticeable because, again, IT’S THE SAME DAMN JOKE!
And then there are the pop culture references. Earlier in this article, I stated my belief that Shrek 2 is 80% pop culture references, but upon reflection and the further writing of this article I find that statistic to be a bit harsh. Let me rescind that and rephrase. Shrek 2 is about 75% pop culture references. There, forgot just how much recycling the film did! But, yes, barely a minute goes by without a pop culture reference bursting in through some window and dating the film immeasurably. And, no, I don’t mean “parodies” or “jokes”, I do mean “references”. A “joke” or “parody” would use the pop culture reference for genuinely subversive means, or at least have something to say or a reason for bringing it up. For example, Character A might remark that Character B is so fat that they could pass themselves off as one of Jabba The Hutt’s fat rolls. OK, that’s a bad example, because you may have gathered by now that I cannot write a funny joke to save anyone’s life, but hopefully you get where I’m coming from.
Shrek 2 does not have pop culture jokes or pop culture parodies. It has pop culture references. Things that were popular at some point or another, be they in celebrity culture or film or television or music or something, are presented to you and you’re supposed to laugh because that is a thing you recognise. This approach kind of works for the opening montage of Shrek and Fiona’s honeymoon, even if I did audibly eye-roll at the Lord Of The Rings “parody”, because the idea is to put both of these atypical characters into your typical sappy romantic lovey-dovey montage and let them be themselves for comic effect, but it’s the only time that the film actually places a meaning behind its references. In Shrek and Fiona’s room at the palace, there is a poster of Justin Timberlake on the ceiling because he was a total teen-girl crush at the time. OH, THE GUFFAWS I HAD! Puss In Boots is a take-off of the Zorro films, so it at least makes sense to do those requisite gags even if they don’t amount to anything more than, “Hey! That actor you know from that movie you liked is here in our film playing a character like that one!” But what is the point of the chest-burster reference in his first scene with Shrek other than to go “Alien was a thing! Laugh!” There’s a section where Shrek’s thwarted attempt to get back to Fiona is shown in an extended Cops reference, in an instance that feels more like the plot cramming itself into the reference than the reference coming organically from the plot. Joan Rivers (R.I.P.) shows up to do that thing she does, the Far, Far Away sign is done in the style of the giant Hollywood sign, the Fairy Godmother sings a godawful Eurodisco cover of “I Need A Hero” (a situation everyone could have avoided if they remembered that Bis once made an entire song deriding that type of genre, but I digress)…
Rarely do they actually help fill out the world of Far, Far Away or act as anything more than a glowing neon arrow pointing out just how much they are a thing that is a reference to a real thing you may quite possibly know. It’s all dated really, really poorly, playing now like a time-capsule of the year that it was released in and a really cringeworthy one at that. The rest of the jokes are aimed at kids; so you have fart jokes, chase scenes, characters spouting playground-ready catchphrases that act like they have been meticulously calculated in a factory somewhere for maximum parental-annoyance, and fairy tale characters doing stuff they’re known to do! You know: The Gingerbread Man goes on about The Muffin Man, The Big Bad Wolf lays in people’s beds, Pinocchio’s nose grows because he is a terrible liar, The Little Mermaid shows up kissing someone before being tossed back into the sea because “we’re to kewl for your sappy Disney fairy crap; now, to prove how hip we are, here’s a Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds song coming out of Captain Hook’s mouth!” I laughed at one of these, the arrival of Sleeping Beauty at the red carpet (it’s an easy joke but, goddammit, it’s executed with the perfect rapid-fire timing that pretty much nothing else in this film gets), and found only one other of these, the run-down bad guy bar populated by most of the land’s villains, to actually fit the world of Shrek. The ceaseless “look! It’s fairy tale characters in Hollywoodland!” schtick makes the world of the film feel unreal, too constructed, too much like a joke-machine than anything real and anything to get invested in.
To put it another way, the jokes drive the film and not the other way around. Again, unless that’s the point of the film, the comedy needs to come from the characters. You can’t force jokes into characters or situations that don’t fit it or don’t need it, it just makes everything come off as too constructed and too unnatural. You need the jokes to fit the situation or the character, and if they don’t then you need to drop them, regardless of how good they might have been. Shrek 2 too often lets the jokes drive the film and that, coupled with the pop culture reference well being the primary source of said jokes, creates a film that feels unnatural and lacking near-totally in heart and emotional investment. For example, straight after the prior-mentioned Cops segment, there’s a Mission: Impossible reference that then leads into a Kaiju movie parody (with said big dumb slow monster being named “’Mongo” because nobody was paid to think during the writing of this movie) and it feels completely unnatural and unnecessary, like the film is bending over backwards to fit these bits in somewhere because everybody involved thought they sounded really cool and couldn’t bear to just admit to cutting them as they don’t fit the story.
Oh, also, and normally I wouldn’t point this out but it’s indicative of a larger point, there’s this weird undercurrent of Transphobia running throughout the whole thing. I count at least 10 instances where the film pulls a “That man looks a lot like/dresses like a woman! EW!” joke from its arse and there is never once any change, never once any other tone, no overall subversion or message to make. Just “EW! That man looks like a butch woman! How different and wrong!” I don’t think that there was any malicious intent behind them, just overall laziness, a desire to just reach for the easiest jokes that require practically no skill or effort in telling and then knocking off for lunch. But it’s that laziness that permeates the entire venture known as Shrek 2, a safe bet made because “look at the extravagant piles of money that we can (and kinda need to) make” rather than any artistic reason for existing, and it just ends up drowning out the things the film does well. The voice acting is a noticeable improvement from pretty much everyone (even notable-Shrek 1-weak-link Cameron Diaz), pacing is still tight and fast, it touches on themes that highlight a better film underneath the muck, and animation is a vast improvement with extensive detail and smoother character movements… well, until Shrek’s human form took over the back third of the movie and my eyeballs involuntarily removed themselves from my skull and made a run for the Scottish border to get away from the hideous Uncanny Valley his face falls into.
But, again, what exactly do I gain by systematically pulling this film to shreds a decade on from its release? Shrek 2 is, according to the history books, a bona-fide success story. It debuted in the $100+ mil range, it stayed in the Top 10 for 10 weeks, it sold a fortune of DVDs, received giant critical acclaim, won a Grammy for “Accidentally In Love” (which is a good pop song but, let’s get real, is no “All Star”), proved that this is the template that animated films needed to take to be able to survive the decade, was held up as DreamWorks Animation’s creative peak until How To Train Your Dragon and the Kung Fu Panda series, and sufficiently enraptured 10 year-old me enough to see it in cinemas and watch it on DVD a whole bunch of times. It did its damage and nothing I write about it can change that fact. It won. Shrek 2 won. So this entire article is going to end up making me look like the kind of person who rags on about something that’s popular for no other reason than to prove my hipster credentials. It’s like when people crack jokes about U2, except that U2 haven’t written a good song in a decade and Shrek 2 is a bad film. It gave the people what they thought they wanted, the edgy kids’ film, and everybody was too in awe of that fact to realise that what they wanted was not what they thought they did. Unfortunately, people didn’t realise this until far too late.
It’s what’s going to make the next two months (barring one certain week) absolutely painful.
Next week: Shark Tale.
A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!