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: $135 – 165 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 58%
2010 DreamWorks Animation was a very different beast to 2007 DreamWorks Animation. In 2007, DreamWorks Animation were at rock bottom, their films were critically reviled, box office prospects for non-Shrek films weren’t looking so hot (and Shrek itself suffered a financial stability wobble with The Third), they’d driven away Aardman Animations, and they were basically a walking punchline for anybody with an interest in Western Animation. Plus, y’know, that long line of imitators they ended up spawning needs a lot of apologising for.
By 2010, however, the company was getting its groove back, in such a way that everybody was immensely surprised. Kung Fu Panda was a fantastic out-of-left-field “Holy hell, when on EARTH did they learn to be able to do THAT?!” treat, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa was a huge step-up from the original, Monsters vs. Aliens was a tonne of fun and a staunchly feminist breath of fresh air, and I think enough words have been written about How To Train Your Dragon by this point. Each of these were met with different levels of box office success, but they were all successes and all spawned franchises – or helped propagate, in the case of Madagascar – of their own.
DreamWorks Animation, by 2010, looked damn strong, basically. They had also grown considerably as filmmakers and storytellers. They had near-totally outgrown the kinds of films they used to make in the equivalent of their slacker-teenager phase. They had mostly ditched the pop culture references, stopped seemingly greenlighting films purely off of the back of stars and concepts that could print money, and were now making movies with real heart based on concepts and stories that everybody was fully invested in and with likeable characters instead of stars masquerading as characters.
What I am saying is that, by May of 2010, DreamWorks Animation had outgrown Shrek. Shrek was their breakthrough onto the big stage, the giant grand rebellious statement that only a young, brash scrappy up-and-comer could make and make so sincerely. It had attitude, sincerity, and a burning desire to impress those that came before it – and that it was indebted to – whilst simultaneously flipping them off in order to court a new generation of moviegoers. It’s the kind of film that an animation studio can really only make once, as the more times you trot it out when you’re successful, the less authentic it comes off as and the more its continued existence becomes a blatant business decision rather than an artistic one.
I guess what I am trying to say is that Shrek is the pop punk of animated movies. If you keep trying to make new films like it a decade on, when you’re the old big successful overlord that you spent that first statement railing against and the films keep using that exact same formula, you’re going to come off as completely un-self-aware and it’s going to look a bit sad, to be honest. From a creative stand point, therefore, there is no reason for Shrek Forever After to exist. From a business standpoint, I get why. At the time of Shrek The Third’s release, DreamWorks weren’t doing so well at launching other money making franchises, there was no guarantee that Madagascar was actually going to work a second time around, and Shrek was a guaranteed money-spinner. I don’t think anybody predicted the overall performance of DreamWorks between Shrek The Third and How To Train Your Dragon, so it makes business sense to make one more Shrek movie.
Yet, 2008 to 2010 happened, so a film that has no creative reason to exist also ends up having no real financial reason to exist, either. After all, although Megamind would underwhelm somewhat at the box office – not entirely its own fault, however, as we shall see next week – the company was still in a very healthy shape financially. And the company had just patched up its critical reputation, another Shrek film – and the backlash against any Shrek that wasn’t the first had set in by this point, so it was more than likely set to get mauled regardless of quality – was the last thing a company that could finally say “We make great films!” and not be greeted with derision needed. Plus, DreamWorks already had two films out in 2010, a third in one year risks oversaturation, especially with Dragon having dropped barely two months earlier.
But, of course, you can’t cancel a film that you’ve sunk $100 million+ and several years into just because you no longer need it, and so the world was handed Shrek Forever After. Now, as I think we’ve already discovered, the Shrek series and I do not get along. I greeted this week’s entry with a resigned sigh, and I found the original Shrek, a good four months back (holy cow, I’ve been doing this for over five months, that is strangely terrifying), to be merely decent at best. But I do see why the first film changed everything and I get why people really liked Shrek 2, even though it does not hold up at all.
My problem with the sequels is that they both lose sight of why the first film worked and do nothing but rehash it over and over again. Shrek worked not because of its “edge”, not because of its pop-culture references, not because of its Disney pot-shots, but because of its giant beating heart and strong character work. Yet all three sequels jettison that last part in favour of doubling down on everything else in that sentence, so the enterprise feels hollow. And as for the re-hashing, Forever After is yet another tale of Shrek being miserable in his current predicament, setting off on and just go re-read my piece on Shrek The Third, I’m not going to pointlessly kill time by repeating what I said there. Mind, the Obligatory Forest Battle sequence this time is actually a synchronised dance number. That’s progress, I guess?
Shrek was a bold new idea that wished to inject life into a medium that had honestly gotten rather stale and risk-averse, Shrek 2 was an extended victory lap and cementing of the new status quo, Shrek The Third was a film that at least had a couple of good ideas in it – which it proceeded to actively go and squander. All three of those films have reasons for existing that don’t just amount to “Scrooge McDuck money”. Forever After… really doesn’t. Its narrative conceit is a liberal borrowing of It’s A Wonderful Life in order to construct a version of Far, Far Away where Shrek never existed. Except that it really doesn’t do enough with the alternate universe concept, instead shoving it all into the background in order to once again tell a story about Shrek trying to end up with Fiona. Her, Donkey and Puss In Boots all very quickly revert to the dynamic they have in standard Far, Far Away anyway, so what exactly is the point?
It’s just going through the motions. There’s no real heart there anymore, ironic since this instalment aims to be a big grand goodbye to the cast and the world of Shrek. That lack of love ends up suffocating the film because nothing ends up connecting, nothing resonates. The film focusses harder than any of the other sequels on the Shrek/Fiona relationship, seeing as the whole concept of the film is that the pair must fall in love again otherwise the world is DOOOOOOOMED – which is up there with Love Potion plots in terms of set-ups that make me more than a little uncomfortably queasy – but it doesn’t connect because nobody cares. Mike Myers, who even tried to make Shrek The Third somewhat salvageable, most certainly no longer cares, failing to invest many of his lines with any real emotion and permanently ready to just be done with this whole franchise.
Shrek spends a lot of the first part of the movie wishing to go back to the old days, when he was a real ogre, when he had drive and fire and ambition, and it is very hard to not read it as meta-text as well – the cries of filmmakers and a studio that wants to go back to making films with invention and something to say rather than spending their days doing the same old song and dance. Yet that’s all this film ends up doing. It phones in what should be a rebellious clarion call, everything feels forced, there’s no imagination and nobody seems particularly interested in telling a story anymore. There was actually a point in the film where I sat and wondered aloud to myself, “What is the point of any of this? Like, why does this film exist, since nothing that happens in it is going to affect anything and it’s not doing anything with its premise to make up for that fact?”
Shrek learns his lesson – appreciate how great your life is instead of whinging all the time, you f*ckbag – within the first half an hour. His character arc is all wrapped up and done, yet the film still has an hour left to kill and fills that time by having Shrek fall back in love with Fiona again – unnecessary, he already realises what he’s lost and wants to set things right – having Fiona fall in love with Shrek – irrelevant, nothing that happens in this reality particularly matters and the romance still feels WAAAAAAY too forced to remove the icky factor of the whole set-up – and padding out the film with action sequences focussed around an Ogre revolution against Rumpelstiltskin’s dictatorial control – confusing, since it begs the question of where all of these Ogres are in the correct reality.
In fact, let me briefly talk about Rumpelstiltskin. UUUUUUUUUGGGGGHHHHHH. First of all, considering the fact that one of the backbones of the Shrek franchise is upending established fairy-tale rules and conventions like who the heroes and villains are – Robin Hood in Shrek, Fairy Godmother and Prince Charming in Shrek 2 – having them go to Rumpelstiltskin and just making him a straight villain who does that thing he’s famous for smacks of wasted opportunities and lazy disinterested work. Second, whilst I appreciate the DreamWorks tradition of having in-house production staff voicing secondary roles making a return, Walt Dohrn is honestly really poor as the villain, his chosen voice is just plain grating, very inconsistent, and frequently messing up what little actually decent material Rumpel gets. (Incidentally, there are rumours that Tom Cruise was being courted to voice the guy instead, but they were squashed almost as soon as they were brought up.)
And third, he’s one of those villains who is irritatingly inconsistent in their intelligence level. The entire dramatic tension of Forever After comes from Shrek needing to share True Love’s Kiss before the day is up, or else he and his old world will cease exist. For Rumpelstiltskin to win, all he has to do is absolutely nothing. I mean, it’s not like Shrek will figure this out on his own. Yet, Rumpel still orders his witch army to capture Shrek for him so he can gloat and basically give Shrek all the instructions he needs to fix everything, which is incredibly dumb behaviour. But he’s also a villain who hires a near-unstoppable bounty hunter, hides his escape clauses in complex origami, and can outwit the Ogre army with relative ease. He’s not a character who is outwitted by the heroes – otherwise known as the right way to make a smart villain not appear a dumbass – he is somebody who openly orchestrates his own downfall because the script has written him that poorly. He’s an utterly wasted character, is what I’m getting at.
The film’s focus on giant setpiece action scenes doesn’t help matters, either. Not only are they there to artificially prolong the movie and attempt to hide the fact that there is incredibly little real character work going on here, they’re just really dull and uninspired. Sometimes they’re framed and boarded in a way that caught my attention for a few seconds – it helps that chroma-keying isn’t particularly noticeable this go around – but then I remember that this is the first instalment made IN THREEEEEEEE-DEEEEEEEE and that a film as lifeless and uninterested in its own existence as Shrek Forever After probably only did that to justify the extra cash ticket. It’s all loud noise and pretty colours, but nothing of substance.
In a positive development, at least, the amount of pop culture references are toned down significantly for this instalment, due to the shift away from standard Far, Far Away. The downside is that Forever After flails even harder when it comes to telling jokes. It blows all of its best material during the segment at the first birthday party of Shrek and Fiona’s kids – where a perfectly paced scene constructs, arranges, boards and then milks its jokes in a way and manner that genuinely works for the entire runtime – and then struggles to get actual jokes from there. It’s like removing the pop culture references crutch, likely meant as a way to challenge themselves and stave off complaints, only revealed to the writers how little of a handle they have on any of the cast anymore.
So the attempts at character gags mostly fall flat, inexcusable given the alternate reality set-up. The one constant hit involves Puss In Boots and that’s more from Antonio Banderas’ ability to commit to any line he is fed than anything else. So, instead, we get these occasional jarring bursts of major black comedy that come off as really mean-spirited instead of actually funny – did we really have to have Fat Puss In Boots eat the still alive alternate universe version of the Gingerbread Man, especially when Shrek played his torment for drama instead of mean-spirited laughs? And who honestly thought having Donkey devolve further into a borderline racist caricature – “What you talkin’ about, cracker?” – was a good idea? Plus, the film can’t even commit to its “No Pop Culture Gags” edict. We open with a Deliverance reference, of all sodding things, and the Pied Piper’s character turns out to just be an elaborate set-up to play “Sure Shot” by Beastie Boys.
Forever After is a film that is creatively bankrupt whilst simultaneously being the best of the Shrek sequels. 2’s overreliance on pop culture references to drive proceedings has aged it incredibly poorly, The Third’s total ineptitude and active wasting of its two decent ideas makes it an abominable mess, but Forever After is more just dull than anything else. It’s competently made, but rather heartless and really dull, yet that’s still a step-up from the last two, which should be a good indication as to just how far the Shrek series ended up falling. It doesn’t justify its existence as anything other than a belated cash stimulus for DreamWorks Animation, and it doesn’t really try to dissuade that notion at any point. There’s no real send-off vibe to proceedings, even though it tries to; it just feels like a pointless epilogue to a series that wrapped with The Third.
But, hey, if it was supposed to just be a cash stimulus for DreamWorks, at least Forever After didn’t fail in that respect. The very high scoring number 1 debut, the three-peat at the top of the chart, the very decent home media sales; all par for the course. Hell, even though it only lasted 7 weeks in the Top 10 and is the lowest grossing main entry in the Shrek franchise domestically, I doubt DreamWorks were too upset, since the film is the company’s second best-overseas-performer ever behind Madagascar 3. I mean, it looks bad for a series like Shrek to erode so thoroughly between instalments, but investors can easily be calmed by waving $752 million in their faces. In fact, thanks to that stellar overseas performance, the film managed to hold off Despicable Me to become the second highest grossing animated film worldwide of a very competitive 2010.
So, from a business standpoint, Shrek Forever After had a reason to exist, even if that was just to mitigate the eventual underperformance of Megamind and to flush DreamWorks execs with even more cashola. But from a creative standpoint, did Forever After really need to exist? It’s clear that nobody here had any sustainable or substantial ideas for a film and that this is being made out of some corporate mandated necessity than any actual love. The whole production is clearly tired and fed up and uninterested in crafting new worlds or characters or jokes that are worth a damn – best exemplified by the complete lack of effort in making the new Ogres not look like the single most terrifying things I’ve seen all week. Yes, it sends off the Shrek series on a higher note than the excretable The Third did, but it also does so with an open contempt and disinterest for having to do so in the first place. Say what you like about The Third, lord knows I have, but at least there was a spark of life in there for the majority of its runtime. Forever After is practically comatose.
It’s not even a true send-off for the Shrek series! In 18 months, DreamWorks would attempt to spin-off Puss In Boots into his own prequel series, one that’s apparently still getting a sequel at some point. Katzenberg, meanwhile, keeps dropping hints about finally making that fifth instalment which, considering the state of DreamWorks Animation at the moment, could be an attempt to placate investors who would rather he keeps pumping that series dry until the money stops coming, and also a mighty tempting proposition right now. If he is smart, he’ll just leave the series to rest for good. It was was suffering from diminishing financial returns, blatantly running on creative fumes by the time of Forever After, and the original’s legacy has already been tainted by its sequels that it doesn’t need any further knocks against it.
I realise that the temptation is great, but Shrek is not a movie that the DreamWorks Animation of today can make. Not in the landscape they helped build, not when they are the ones at the head of the medium. They already tried making it again three more times and each successive one just came off as more and more desperate and forced. I would love to see them somehow pull the series out of the endless tailspin that it’s been stuck in for a decade and properly say goodbye at the top of their game, but forcing it is the wrong way to go. They need a story, they need to remember the real reason why the first Shrek worked, and everybody needs to be 100% invested in returning back for one last ride. Otherwise, the series should just be allowed to rest in peace. Forever After basically spent 90 minutes sleepwalking, anyway, it’s not much further of a stretch.
Although it was a financial success, Shrek Forever After still suffered from diminishing financial returns for the series, and was a creative black mark for a studio that had managed to near totally turn around its reputation in the public eye. Their final 2010 film would be heavily regarded as middle-of-the-road fare and failed to blow any doors off any box offices. How much of that was due to the film itself and how much of that was due to incredibly unlucky timing will more than likely be our main topic of discussion next week when we look at Megamind.
A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!