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: $160 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 40%
Do you know how absolutely fucking aggravating it is to watch a series that built its reputation on subversion, modernisation, and going against the status-quo fall back on the same tired old fucking stereotypes when it comes to its female cast of characters time after goddamn time?
Shrek The Third splits its cast into exactly the same configurations as Shrek 2 did, with Fiona stuck at the palace whilst Shrek, Donkey and Puss In Boots go off on a wild adventure. This time, however, Fiona gets an actual plotline when Prince Charming shows up with a united band of villains, intending to take over the kingdom for himself and get his Happily Ever After. For the next half hour, Fiona, her mother and the princesses that she is stuck with – Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty (Aurora, if you want to get technical) and Doris The Ugly Step-Sister – wander about the castle aimlessly before being captured. Once they’re joined by Donkey and Puss and find out the Shrek has been captured, they band together to escape and take down Charming.
Sounds all well and good, right? After all, Fiona, in both films prior to this one, has spent the finale as somebody who gets no agency of her own and is left at the mercy of the villain until Shrek and co. burst in to rescue her or fight over her. Letting her and the other ladies take charge, shape their own destinies, break out of their pre-written roles as damsels in distress – a running theme of the film with regards to the villains – is a good subversive move for a film in a landscape and genre dominated by the men saving whatever day it is supposed to be. Not to mention the feminist undercurrent of the women essentially being tired of being forced into such passive roles.
Except that it’s not. Not in the slightest. Well, technically, one could argue it to be, but to do so would be to give a pass to the most watered-down, man-skewed and man-approved version of feminism imaginable. One that still doesn’t see women as anything other than one-dimensional stereotypes to laugh at and be annoyed by, except that these ones can kick ass when the plot calls for it, but not too much ass as they still need to be shoved back into their damsel roles so’s a man can turn up and resolve everything with his man ways. Y’know, cos god forbid a group of female characters get to wrap up a story or anything.
Now, of course, this was a problem in Shrek, as well, where Fiona, who had previously been established as being somebody capable of taking out a group of 6 or 8 highly trained merry men without breaking a sweat, was left helpless due to the dreaded Wrist Grab. But the reason why I only sighed disapprovingly at it in my piece on the film, instead of what I’m about to do (which is subject you to multiple A4 pages of me getting angry at the thing), is because Fiona is a character despite that. She may still fall into traditional fairy tale and just plain film tropes – because the first film, as previously established, is a sappy romantic for that stuff at heart – but she’s always a character. A fully-formed three-dimensional character who the film asks us to like and sympathise with.
What she is not, is a one-dimensional whiny, privileged, irritating, girly-girl stereotype who we are conditioned to laugh at for being too much of a girly-girl and who we are supposed to hate for being so very, very annoying.
Yet, that is the fate that befalls the princesses who are stuck in Fiona’s company – with the notable exception of Rapunzel, who is all of those things and also gets to be evil. Also, her long hair is a wig that covers up the fact that she’s bald because, you know, parody. None of the princesses are remotely interested in anything other than the man that will come and rescue them from their predicament, that and being snippy to one another as those women folk just end up doing when more than one of them are located in the same general vicinity as each other, amiright, fellas? They are vain, shallow, materialistic, and pretty much every trope listed under “Annoying Gal Pal Friends”.
Except for Doris. Her entire character is still “she has a face like a man and is voiced by Larry King despite supposedly being a woman.” Because… it was 2007 and that gag was still funny and not-offensive to somebody?
Anyways, as you may be able to guess, the audience is not supposed to like these girls. The audience is supposed to laugh at their terrible behaviour, their bitchy asides, the time when Snow White gives Fiona a dwarf as a present at a baby shower – the gag is essentially human slavery because parody – but they’re not supposed to like them. They’re supposed to find them shallow, unlikeable, whiny, and petulant. Therefore, their characters do not go beyond the one-dimensional “shallow popular girl” stereotype. You know, the bitchy head cheerleader you see in every high school movie ever? The film doesn’t sympathise with them, the film doesn’t give them any further depth than that stereotype, and they only exist to get on the nerves of the audience watching the film or to have us laugh at their expense.
Now, I get what the intention may have been when starting out. The idea being to make the women like this in order to show what happens if you don’t take charge of your life and just wait for a man to come and whisk you away from all of your problems, and how such a lifestyle isn’t really a desirable one. And I get that. I really do. Heaven knows that films should be empowering young girls and women with a message that they can and should strive for more than what our biased patriarchal society has dictated their aspirations in life to be. If that was the end goal and that came about through character development, I would applaud the film and not be spending 3 A4 pages railing against it.
If you’ve been watching along with this series of articles then, first of all, I am so sorry for putting you through certain titles. But, more to the point, you’ll know that that is not what happens. No, instead, the princesses realise that they can beat up men and so they go and do that in a montage backed by a cover of Heart’s “Barracuda” by Fergie, the third least hated member of The Black Eyed Peas.
There is a fantastic tweet by television critic Todd VanDerWerff from a couple of years back, one that I would like framed and hung on my wall if it all possible, that goes “Just because your lead female character can kick somebody in the face, doesn’t make them a strong female character. #justagoodfacekicker.” I have long since forgotten what it’s supposed to be in relation to specifically, but it fits worryingly well into most films and TV shows’ attempts at “strong female characters,” including this one. Shrek The Third seems to believe that it’s OK to have a whole bunch of really vapid, annoying and one-dimensional female stereotypes, and to give its two actual female characters nothing to do, as long as they kick a certain amount of ass at the film’s climax. Don’t need no stinking character development when you can have Snow White ordering woodland creatures to attack by howling lyrics to “Immigrant Song”!
The problem is that the film has given the audience absolutely no reason to enjoy these characters. They still don’t seem to have learnt anything, they haven’t had any actual development, the only difference is that they do that thing they’re famous for to beat up people. That’s not character development! That’s shallow, borderline offensive stereotyping desperately trying to justify itself with the laziest attempt at female empowerment possible. Are they taking control of their destinies? In the barest possible terms, yes; but have they actually changed? Have they grown as people outside of that fact? We will never know, because they get captured as soon as they get to the finale, disappear completely after that fact, and I near-guarantee you that they won’t be turning up in the sequel.
The clearest possible indicator, though, that the film’s various writers just don’t get it, comes from the short little lock-and-load montage prior to the ass-kicking scene. Just watch the embed below (start at 1:20) and see if you can get why.
These ladies aren’t even allowed to kick ass on their own terms. They have to do so after “manning up”. Dress rips, tattoo reveals, war-paint application, and that goddamn fucking bra burning. The worst part is that absolutely none of this bit matters; the very next scene they are dressed exactly as they’ve been for the entire movie and do end up kicking ass on their own terms – by doing that thing they’re known to do but in an offensive capacity. This isn’t feminism in the truest sense, in the way that the filmmakers think they’re being. This is the male acceptable version of feminism where, to become a strong independent woman, one must first cut ties to their femininity and embrace the commonly accepted male way of doing things.
All this subtext – actually, it’s more straight text, considering how awful Shrek is at underlying themes, but whatever – is planted, then, for one. God. Damn. Fucking. Joke. A joke that has no bearing on the film itself. It is literally just there for a laugh. A really cheap fucking laugh that only serves to undermine its barely-existent message. And that 1 second shot of the fuck fucking bra burning perfectly encapsulates the thoroughly misguided and overall shitty male view of the affair. It angers me… no, it enrages me to see a film aim for something relatively noble and miss the mark so wildly and so blatantly. All in the service of a god. Damn. Fucking. JOKE.
For those keeping score; yes, I have just spent 3 A4 pages talking about one relatively minor segment of a 90 minute film. What else do you want from me? It’s another Shrek movie. In fact, it’s Shrek 2 all over again, to be precise. See, as I noted in that piece a few weeks back, critics lauded all over Shrek 2 despite it having absolutely no central reason for existing. By the time of Shrek The Third, however, the DreamWorks critical honeymoon was well and truly over. Hence the drop of a good 49 points between Shrek 2 and The Third. Many critics noted the lack of heart, the lack of intelligence in the jokes, the lack of quality material and, most damningly, the fact that the film keeps recycling prior material and hoping that nobody notices.
There’s a part of me that wants to sit here and go, “Well, duh! Where were your brains during Shrek 2?” However, the sheer blatant recycling and reusing of prior material really does deserve a dive into full-on detail, here. I counted at least two instances, there may have been more, where the score simply reuses pieces from the first film and buries them low enough in the mix to try and keep people from noticing. “Better out than in…” is used again, like there’s a quota per film to fill or something. Donkey and Puss perform a duet cover over the cast list portion of the end credits. There are not one, but two new Eels songs (and they’re uncharacteristically poor for Mark Oliver Everett’s usual standards).
And then there’s the fact that Shrek himself has gone through literally the same character arc in every single film so far. Now, admittedly, and as my friend Jackson pointed out to me after I had finished watching the thing, this is something that a lot of franchises fall victim to; after all, a character has completed their arc at the end of the first film and that can leave the writer struggling to think of where to take said character from there. Hence why most will simply just reset the character and do it all over again, but the better ones at least change the particulars of said arc so that one can at least get the illusion that they’re not just watching the first film again.
The Shrek series, as should probably surprise nobody by this point, doesn’t do that. Instead, it does the exact same beats in the exact same way and almost to the very second. Shrek starts the film as a grumpy, unhappy ogre in a situation he doesn’t want to be in, he goes on a journey to find someone to help get him out of said situation accompanied by a companion he doesn’t particularly want, despite his reluctance the pair grow closer together as the journey goes on, he has a moment of jerkiness just before the “third act” but then comes around to the situation he’s been forced into and becomes less of a jerk for the finale. Now, am I talking about Shrek, Shrek 2, or Shrek The Third?
Admittedly, with The Third, it’s a little more muddled than that. The situation that Shrek doesn’t want to be stuck in is twofold, kingly duties and the inbound threat of becoming a father, and the companion he’s stuck with doesn’t actually enter the film until just over the 50% mark, but the beats are still the same and can be nailed down to the second if you have had any previous experience with these films. The only non-cosmetic – as in, names and places, although there will apparently always be a forest battle in the middle of these things – difference is that Shrek is slightly less of a jerk at the outset of each movie than he was in the prior instalment. It’s all so lazy, and so unashamedly proud of it too.
The Third has one funny joke – the one where Pinocchio tries to avoid cracking under Prince Charming’s interrogation via double-negatives and clever sentence structures – and one brilliant thematic concept – the villains rise up because they just want their Happily Ever After – that it wastes by doing virtually nothing with. Otherwise, this is a film that has absolutely no reason to exist. The sole reason it does is because Shrek 2 was inches away from a billion dollars and DreamWorks Animation needed something to keep shareholders relatively happy. After all, nobody cuts down a lucrative franchise like Shrek at instalment number 2 when said instalment was the highest grossing film of the year bar none, and DreamWorks had only one full-on Hit since becoming publically traded, in the shape of Madagascar, so they could do with the safety blanket.
In that respect, Shrek The Third can be called a success. Compared to the last three films from the company, one of which cost them $109 million when it flopped majorly, Shrek The Third was the equivalent of a rich dead uncle leaving all of his finances to his favourite child, which in this metaphor is DreamWorks. The film opened at number 1, naturally, with a haul of $121 million making it the second biggest opening of 2007 behind Spider-Man 3 – which opened to $151 million two weeks earlier – and is currently the 15th biggest opening weekend of all-time. But then something happened. The film would fall off hard over the following weeks. Compared to Shrek 2’s 12% drop between opening weekend and Memorial Day weekend, The Third sank 45% between weekends. In fact, its weekend totals would drop by half with each week that went by until the film finally dropped out after only 6 weeks in the Top 10.
Now, in its defence, Summer 2007 was a very stuffed and competitive one. The prior mentioned Memorial Day weekend brought out the third Pirates Of The Caribbean, whilst Shrek 2 only had to hold against The Day After Tomorrow, for example. Plus, when all’s said and done, the film still finished as the second highest grossing film domestically of 2007 – behind Spider-Man 3 – and soundly beat Pixar’s Ratatouille at the box office. But despite all that, it still looks bad if your sequel ends up making less money at the box office than the film it’s following on from. Even worse if it spends less time in the Top 10 than both of your prior films. Couple that with the lack of critical success, capped off by a total snubbing in the Best Animated Feature category at the 2008 Academy Awards – Surf’s Up, of all sodding films, would take its place – and one token nomination at the 2008 Annie Awards for Direction, and one can be more than justified in putting Shrek The Third down as a failure overall.
I mean, it’s certainly a failure creatively; there is so little to talk about that my giant feminist rant over a minor segment of the film encompasses about 3/5 of the article that you are near the conclusion of. Financially… well, one can’t call The Second Highest Grossing Film of 2007 Domestically a financial failure. What one can do, however, is note the shaking of public confidence. That opening weekend fell off majorly in comparison to how well prior Shrek films did in their second weekends and over time. One can blame an overly-competitive Summer, where seemingly every other week brought about a new film that was aiming for the same sort of audience, but there’s still the underlying root cause of Shrek The Third being a boring and terrible movie. And once word gets out about that fact, no amount of brand recognition or good will can save you, especially if the overall word-of-mouth is of the “it’s not very good” variety.
Kids likely loved it. I remember going by myself to see it just as I was turning into a stupid teenager and hating it, but being stuck next to a kid of about 8 years old who spent the runtime alternating between loving every second and trying to talk to me. There’s also the fact that it did rather well on home media sales, for those who’d prefer cold hard facts to weird anecdotes, where parents would only have to pay the once for a way to keep their kids quiet for a few hours. But at the cinema, where kids are at the mercy of parents being the ones who have final say over what everyone sees, the film struggled to keep its legs. After all, those parents may want something to keep the kids quiet for a few hours, but they’re not going to keep forking out cash for repeat showings each weekend if the film is bad.
And Shrek The Third is bad. It is a bad, bad, bad film with nothing to say, nothing going on, and no reason to exist. But its worst sin, aside from that brief moment that managed to get my anger parts all riled up, is that it is unimaginably boring. There’s a part of me that feels like the Shrek movies and I just won’t ever get along, I was even lukewarm on the first Shrek remember, but when the films are this cynically made with the sole goal of maximising a company’s profits, I’m going to be perfectly fine with disliking them. At least there’s only one left! Plus the prequel spin-off. And there’s going to be a sequel to that spin-off in the future… This series is never ending, is it?
A dud with critics and with relatively short legs at the box office, Shrek The Third at least gave DreamWorks a big win in terms of pure box office gross that they certainly needed after the inconsistent two years prior to it. Their other film for 2007 would be nowhere near as much of a success, despite featuring the voice and significant creative involvement of one of the most famous and critically acclaimed voices in comedy during the 90s. The film is question was entitled Bee Movie and we shall cover that… in several weeks’ time.
Next week, the DreamWorks Retrospective takes the week off because doing these non-stop for the last 4 months (almost) is burning me out. Plus, that gives everybody time to get into the topic of our next entry, where we take a detour and look at the early days of DreamWorks Animation’s work in television via Toonsylvania, Invasion America, and the very public crashing and burning of Father Of The Pride.
The DreamWorks Retrospective will resume in a fortnight here at FailedCritics!