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Failed Critics Podcast: The Intern, The Martian & Sicario

sicario 1Hello and welcome to this week’s Failed Critics Podcast, released slightly earlier than usual to try and push it out just before the end of International Podcast today (that’s today for the next couple of minutes, anyway!) As such, we recommend you check out our fellow podcast comrades Wikishuffle, Black Hole Cinema and Diamond & Human; all of whom are deserving of your time during your commute or whilst peeling the spuds, or whatever you do whilst you’re listening to us.

Joining Mexican assassin Steve Norman and intergalactic failed critic Owen Hughes for this week’s episode is Andrew Brooker, undertaking his unpaid work placement, as they review three new releases. They’re so new, in fact, that they are not even out in the UK yet! First up, Owen reviews new Ridley Scott sci-fi The Martian (which doesn’t feature any aliens – xenomorphs or otherwise) before Brooker seethes over the new Anne Hathaway / Robert De Niro comedy The Intern. There’s even room for a review of the much anticipated crime-thriller Sicario, starring Emily Blunt as an FBI agent working with Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro on the trail of the Cartel in Mexico.

Before any of that though we have our quiz (which Steve helpfully explains in detail) and news section where the team react to Sam Smith’s Bond theme replete with improv poetry, The Simpsons opening Smithers closet, and the Prometheus sequel details. This is followed by our usual what we’ve been watching section, which sees: Owen review cult 80’s horror From Beyond as he pleads for your HP Lovecraft recommendations; Steve runs through three first watches of Beverly Hills Cop, Cooties and Cop Car; and Brooker reminds himself of a time when De Niro could do comedy well with Analyze This.

Join us again next week as we review ‘the Scottish play’, Macbeth, and have a very special guest in tow for our Scottish triple bill: It’s the acclaimed author of the Three Realistic Holes trilogy of novels, Escobar Walker!

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Shrek 2

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.


shrek 2 208] Shrek 2 (19th May 2004)

Budget: $150 million

Gross: $919,838,758

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 SpiritShrek 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.

Goddammit.

A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!

Callum Petch is flyer than a piece of paper bearing his name.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Shrek

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

shrek 2This 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.


05] Shrek (18th May 2001)

Budget: $60 million

Gross: $484,409,218

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 88%

What can I say about Shrek that hasn’t already been said and that won’t just dissolve into hyperbole?  See, everybody knows Shrek.  Everybody knows the impact that it had on Western Feature-Length Animation for almost a full decade, everybody knows just how much to the forefront it brought stunt casting to the medium, everybody knows how it signalled the switch to an all CG format for these films, everybody knows the lyrics to “All Star” by Smash Mouth.  Shrek is one of those films that everybody knows, and that makes it rather difficult for me to talk about.  I don’t want to just sit here and regurgitate facts at you, but I don’t want to resort to hyperbole and overstate the film’s importance like, let’s face it, it is very easy to do.  So, instead, I am going to have to go the dull route this time and explain the joke, explain why Shrek works and why it was seen as a major breath of fresh air at the time.  I know, that means I have to turn into That Guy, but a nice bit of perspective is good every once in a while.  Plus, it may be able to help contextualise why the next two DreamWorks films didn’t do so well and why everybody, including the company itself, would spend the following decade making shallow rip-offs of the winning formula.

First, however, a clarification, Shrek is not the saviour of Western Feature-Length Animation.  1999 may have been a dreadful year for animation, as we already discussed, and 2000 honestly wasn’t much better, but 2001 was not too bad, most likely down to the relative lack of releases.  Yes, there were bombs, most notoriously the live-action/animation hybrid Osmosis Jones and the photo-realistic CG spectacle known as Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, but there were several unqualified successes.  Recess: School’s Out quadrupled its budget thanks to the large popularity of the show at the time, Atlantis: The Lost Empire significantly underperformed but still managed to turn an OK profit, Richard Linklater’s experimental Waking Life somehow managed to take $2.5 million, Monsters, Inc. became one of the year’s highest grossing films, and Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius was so successful that Nickelodeon were able to spin a full-fledged franchise out of the thing.  Shrek was not an anomaly, is what I’m getting at.

It was, however, and this cannot be overstated, a full-on box-office phenomenon.  It opened to $42 million, a ridiculous opening for an animated film that didn’t have a company with the kind of marketable goodwill that Pixar had with Toy Story.  It did not stay at the top for Week 2, due to Pearl Harbor, but it did something far better than Pearl Harbor: it gained money.  Not a lot over the three day weekend, 0.3%, but the full-on four day Memorial Day weekend saw a 30% increase over the opening weekend takings.  No, this simply does not happen to films that open that big; that’s the power that Shrek held at the time.  It only started making serious slides down the chart when Atlantis showed up and, even then, it gave as good as it got, actually beating Atlantis on the pair’s last appearance in the top 10.  Domestically, it actually beat Monsters, Inc. overall for the year.  You can overstate its importance in the animated landscape, you cannot overstate its box office dominance.

So, why?  Why was Shrek such a major success?  Why did it connect with audiences in a way that most non-Pixar films weren’t?  Well, honestly, it’s due to a multitude of factors but only one of them was taken away by people, both viewers and executives who noted the film’s success, who saw the film, the most tangible element: its edge.

Now, to say that Disney films are toothless and aimed at the youngest is a major misnomer.  You want an animated film that’s toothless and aimed at only the youngest, go and watch The Quest For Camelot.  However, Disney films are sentimental, very much so, and are prone to trying to water down the darker or more adult elements of their stories with comic relief sidekicks for the kids, primarily of the talking animal variety.  Mushu, Terk, Timon & Pumbaa, all the way back to the seven dwarves.  Regardless of whether you like them or not (and they are often some of the best parts of their movies in the best instances), their mere existence can scream to most people, “Look!  Funny cartoon for kids!”  And Disney films are romantic to a fault, especially their early work, with tales as old as time of brave, dashing princes saving fair, kind-hearted young maidens from whatever evil befalls them, of true love at first sight, magic and all that fancy, wonderful stuff.  They were on their way of at least toning down the overtness of this formula, and this obviously wasn’t the formula for everything they did, but it still wasn’t really enough.  Their films were still a bit too sentimental, too younger-skewing, too “safe”.  The fact that most other competitors were more focussed on attempting to emulate Disney’s style than come up with a voice of their own probably didn’t help matters.  Times had changed and the public needed something different.  Something with edge.

Cue the opening of Shrek.

I mean, sure, it looks tame and childish and petulant and toilet-humour and, well, that’s because it is, but for the time this was quite revelatory.  This was DreamWorks Animation throwing down the gauntlet.  “This is our film!  We’re not like those Disney films!  We’re not going to romanticise anything!  Here’s a real protagonist, he’s ugly and he farts and he’s as far removed from your typical clean-cut hero as we can get!”  Again, edge.  Sledgehammer-subtle satire and open digs at Jeffrey Katzenberg’s old company.  The film is littered with these: the Duloc welcome machine, the design of Duloc looking like it was rejected from Disneyland, Princess Fiona’s continued assertions that her rescue is all wrong, the Robin Hood song being rather disturbing in content and quickly cut off because we are a film in the 21st century and musicals are sooo last century man, waterboarding the Gingerbread Man, there’s an extended Matrix reference because this was 2001 and we were just close enough to the end of Spaced’s second series (the cut-off point for this stuff) to not be completely sick of Matrix references yet…   Most of these achieve the desired effect of “parody” and “satire” barely, the best instances coming up with actual jokes or character work (you get no surprises for guessing what one element of Fiona’s character arc is) instead of just pointing at them and going “That’s a dumb thing for poo-poo heads!”  There are a lot more of the former than I was expecting, it’s just that a lot of it has aged really poorly; satire that curiously and possibly ironically carries the same toothless easy safeness that its target applies to telling actual stories.

Yet, at the time, it worked, possibly due to that broadness and occasional childishness, because that allowed everybody to get it and have everyone feel like they were part of this big taboo thing.  Although the film wasn’t really doing anything particularly edgy and risky, toilet humour and digs at Disney aren’t exactly hard to come by nowadays and I suspect they weren’t back then either, people lapped it up because it looked risky, it looked edgy.  They were insulting Disney and making a whole bunch of fart, burp and poop gags!  You simply didn’t openly insult that sacred cow on film or show that stuff in feature-length animation because, well, nobody else has done those things before to our knowledge so it must not be OK!  It’s like when you first watch an escapologist on a stage show in a locked water tank.  He’s not really in any danger cos he’s done this trick a million times before and there’s a highly trained rescue crew all set in case anything does go wrong, but you’ve never seen the trick before and the sheer audacity has you on the edge of your seat wondering if they can get away with it.

Plus, the constant piss-taking of the nature of fairy tales and especially their sappiness seems rather hypocritical when the film, in its final third, turns into a straight fairy tale, just with non-conventionally attractive characters.  I mean, it was obviously coming from frame one, but it’s the way that it mocks certain tropes (ones that it’s not using for character development, like Shrek’s belief that fairy tales are a bunch of bullcrap) but then goes ahead and plays them straight in the finale anyway.  A lot is made out of Fiona’s agency in the first two-thirds, how she may be overly attached to the romantic storybook nature of fairy tales but is still strong, capable, more of a tomboy than she first appears and frequently acts like a woman willing to take charge and drive proceedings, but then the plot entirely hangs around whether she’ll be saved from the evil man by her true love, Shrek.  She even spends the finale being easily restrained by the villains despite having previously had an entire sequence that showed her effortlessly wiping the floor with a group of the exact same size.

So, edge is predominately seen as the reason why Shrek was a runaway mega-success.  You may claim different, but it’s what countless lesser imitations took from it and it’s why Donkey became the thing that practically every kid was quoting on every playground for a good while after.  Like it or not, toilet humour connects with kids and jokes aimed squarely at parents, often around mocking how terrible the kind of dreck they’re often forced to sit through is, connects with them too.  It was the tangible “something different” that audiences could latch onto, the edge.  So, naturally, that’s what everybody ran with, the fact that it had an attitude.  Except that, well, that’s not the reason why Shrek works or, in fact, the reason why it was so successful.  See, edge on its own, with nothing to back it up or off-set it, is just off-putting; an entire film of just Shrek pointing at fairy tale tropes and sugarcoating and the like and smugly going “Heh!  Look at those squares with their baby stories!  We’re too cool and grown-up for that sh*t!  Now here’s a fart joke!  *fart*!” would be insufferable and likely have turned away the mass public it ended up courting.  In that case, what’s the real reason why Shrek succeeded to the extent that it did?

Well, let’s look at a few more surface-level and tangible things before we ensnare the real reason in our grasp.  For one, you cannot fault the marketing.  You’ve seen the trailer that was embedded earlier in this piece.  Hell, you’ve seen the trailers for the films in every one of these articles so far.  Regardless of what you think of the film it’s advertising, you have to admit, from an objective standpoint, it’s a fantastic trailer.  It’s got laughs, it sells the premise easily, the cast is clearly marketed because apparently such a thing really does drag people who wouldn’t normally see this stuff into the cinema, and it has a clear target audience in mind.  Allow me to put it to you this way: compare that with the trailer for Titan A.E., or the trailer for Atlantis: The Lost Empire, or hell even the trailer for The Emperor’s New Groove.  Again, we’re not rating the films, we’re rating the effectiveness of their marketing campaigns.  Also, and yes it really must be said, the fact that Shrek was CG probably helped get a lot of initial butts in seats.  You may scoff, but do you think anybody would have seen Dinosaur or Jimmy Neutron without that New Technological Advancement Smell (see also: films that inexplicably made a bucketful more of money post-Avatar than they would have because they too came with alternative 3D viewing modes) coming off of them?  Plus, Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz were at the top of their box office games when this was released, for whatever that’s all worth.

But this is all getting away from the real reason why Shrek was such a runaway success and why it still, to a degree, works today.  Of course, the film itself wouldn’t admit to it if you showed it to it, it’d probably derisively laugh and snidely quip about how that’s so yesterday daddy-o or something.  And, perhaps surprising no-one, it’s the element that all of the desperate imitators that cropped up in Shrek’s aftermath (you have no idea how much my soul cried upon seeing Disney’s Chicken Little when I was younger, you really don’t) chose to ignore.  Nonetheless, it’s the reason why the film works and it’s really quite a basic one.  See, strip away the CGI, the well-done marketing campaign, the stunt casting, the toilet humour, the Dance Party Ending and the “satirical” and “edgy” humour, and you find filmmaking basics: great character work and a tonne of heart.  That’s it.  That’s the secret ingredient.

I’m not kidding.  This film is at its best when it wears its heart on its sleeve and feeds its humour through character work or genuine heart instead of just “for-the-hell-of-it”.  For all of the opening’s pomp and circumstance, the edgy-but-not-too-edgy Smash Mouth soundtrack and the extensive sequence of Shrek showering himself in muck, the little character beat that best sells the character of Shrek is a blink-and-you’ll-miss it little cue near the end when he spots the villagers coming to hunt him and he just sighs and shakes his head before heading off to do his ogre thing.  In that one little action, likely missed by most people, the personal conflict that appears in Shrek’s arc, his preference for being alone but in actuality craving some kind of acceptance, is conveyed.  It’s why the onion thing works, too.  It’s not just an easily quotable scene that’s rendered funny by the rapport and delivery of Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers, it gets across Shrek’s desire to be looked upon as more than just an ogre in his jerkier form; note how the stargazing scene that he and Donkey share later on basically touches upon the same things but in a softer way, more reflective of how he’s warmed to Donkey even if he won’t admit to it.

The character work is why the fact that our four lead characters are played by major and recognisable Hollywood actors isn’t an issue.  See, unlike, say, Shark Tale (we will get to that thing, believe me), everyone in Shrek is playing a character instead of themselves.  Donkey may be a very Eddie Murphy character, but he has his own identifiable character, arc and traits that are obviously distinguishable from Murphy.  He delivers his lines in a way that is unmistakably Eddie Murphy, but he’s still playing Donkey, if that makes sense.  The same is true of Mike Myers, the same is true of Cameron Diaz, the same is true of John Lithgow.  It’s not just stunt casting because they’re big name stars (although, considering the fact that she is by far the weakest of the bunch, one could still level that complaint at Cameron Diaz), it feels like they were picked because they honestly were the best for the job.  Mike Myers, especially, commits 100% to making Shrek a character instead of a thinly-disguised Mike Myers self-insert or something; the decision to have the character speak in a Scottish accent came from him and, according to Kaztenberg, caused $4 million worth of animation to be thrown away in order to fix the lip-syncing caused by the change.  Of course, seeing as that Scottish accent so perfectly embodies the character of Shrek in this film, I have a feeling that few people minded in the end.

Shrek, though, is always at its best when it wears its heart on its sleeve.  Because it does have a heart, a great big mushy one not unlike the fairy tales it spends a lot of its runtime openly flipping metaphorical birds at.  See, when you get right down to it, this is a film about sad lonely characters outcast by society for their various physical deformities and eccentricities forming friendships and relationships with one another based on that shared lack of acceptance.  It’s why the film’s turn in the last third into a straight fairy tale, whilst admittedly a bit hypocritical seeing as it spent the prior 60 minutes snobbily scoffing at their continued existence, works, because it believes in the characters.  It loves the characters, it wants to give them that fairy tale ending because it truly cares for them, and we sit there and go, “Yep, story checks out,” because it let that heart break through early on and its total taking over of the picture doesn’t feel false.  That middle 30 minute stretch with Fiona, and most specifically the montage set to an admittedly on-the-nose choice of Eels song (in fact, let’s not beat around the bush, all of the film’s song choices, whilst mostly great, are so on-the-nose it makes The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty’s sound cues look subtle by comparison), is what makes the curse twist and what makes an otherwise super on-the-nose “Hallelujah”-backed montage carry genuine emotional resonance instead of ringing false.

But the heart isn’t just limited to the obvious moments and arcs, it informs some of the film’s best gags and scenes.  For every Matrix reference just because, for every open mockery of Disney (which, again, really has not aged well at all), there are gags and scenes that have had heart and effort put into them.  Think of the Magic Mirror The Dating Game riff.  On the one hand, yeah, it comes out of nowhere and is a clear reference to dating game shows.  But, on the other hand, it’s a different spin on the exposition dump that princess back-stories in these types of films are usually saddled with.  It dresses up the trope in fancy new clothing, making what once was rote, boring and obvious now fast, funny and interesting.  There’s a genuine reason for it being here and, barring one awfully-misguided gag about Snow White (and, no, this is not the last time that I will call out a Shrek film for going too far joke-wise), it retains a respect for the characters it ensnares.  The fight scene in Duloc’s palace is funny for its wrestling references and there is something basely funny about an old woman screaming for someone to “Give him the chair!” but, again, it works on character and heart-based levels.  It’s not just a wrestling scene just because, like Fiona’s Matrix sequence ends up, it helps foster Shrek and Donkey’s relationship and gives Shrek his first taste of public acceptance, igniting the need he didn’t think he had.  Likewise, the plight of the fairy tale creatures, their persecution and occasional torture, is nearly always portrayed sympathetically.  Yes, there is something inherently funny on seeing a legless Gingerbread Man begging to keep his gumdrop buttons, but the film is always on his side and isn’t just doing it for the laughs and cruelty.

That is why Shrek works.  Strip away the still pretty-decent CG (the strong character designs are what carry it through comparatively stiff animation), the all-star cast, the pop song soundtrack, the double-coding of gags (incidentally, the recurring “Do you think he’s compensating for something?” line in relation for Farquad’s castle is an example of double-coding done right), the “satire” and the “edge”, and what you have left are strong characters and a tonne of heart, the cornerstone of most great films worth their salt and what Disney were still putting out at the time of Shrek’s release.  But, of course, most people take those things for granted and look for the more obvious and tangible elements to praise instead.  Admittedly, they’re not totally wrong, the attitude, “edginess” and CGI are what made Shrek unique and are likely a large reason for its success, we do like to have our classic stories and tropes dressed-up in newer clothing after all.  But they’re not the reason why the film works, they’re not the reason why people kept coming back to the cinema for eight full weeks, they’re not the reason why the film won the 2001 Annie Award for Best Film and the first ever Best Animated Feature Oscar, and they’re not the reason why the film still works 13 years on and well after viewing #30 (yes, I was a kid and mainlined the VHS and DVD at the time).  Shrek works because it remembered that edge does not equal a substitute for strong characters and a giant beating heart at its centre.

Unfortunately for most of the 2000s, it’s a shame that nobody else really seemed to figure that out.


Shrek changed pretty much everything, but it would take a while for its effects to be fully felt and for anyone to be able to capitalise on the major impression that Shrek made on the pop culture and Western Feature-Length Animation landscapes (animation lead times, and all).  In the meanwhile, DreamWorks Animation still had two traditionally-animated films to burn through… unfortunately, they ended up being released in the worst possible time for that form of the medium.  Over the next two weeks, we’ll chart the fall of traditional animation in Western Feature-Length Animation, beginning with 2002’s Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron.

A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!

Callum Petch ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!