Tag Archives: Titan A.E.

Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron

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.


spirit06] Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron (24th May 2002)

Budget: $80 million

Gross: $122,563,539

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 69%

So… I won’t actually be talking about Spirit much, this week.  See, this is less down to the quality of the film and more because everything that surrounds it is vastly more important.  Spirit, you must understand, had the misfortune to be released just as traditional animated Western films where entering the last stages of their lifespan.  And, well, that whole business is just way too interesting and important to not talk about, especially if you want to know why everyone, even the House Of Mouse, decided to switch to CG.  So, a lot of this week will be devoted to looking at that whole business, especially seeing as it fits into next week with the last traditionally animated film that DreamWorks Animation has released so far.  I’ll get Spirit specifically at some point but it’s more than likely going to have to fall by the wayside, this week.  I’ll mop up the points about it that I want to/need to touch on next week if I run out of time here.  Sound good?  If not… well, sorry, I guess; you can’t really change an article that I’ve already written.  Sorry.

Right, with that being said, let’s flash back to 1999.  Again.

You’ll recall back in the entry regarding The Road To El Dorado that 1999 was a pretty terrible year for non-Disney-affiliated animated features.  You may also recall in last week’s entry on Shrek that 2001 was a much better year than both 99 and 2000.  Again, financially, not with regards to quality (1999 is pretty much untouchable and I will fight anyone who tries to claim otherwise).  However, one would be wise to pay attention to which films were the actual big successes during the period from 1999 to 2003.  Tarzan, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Dinosaur, Chicken Run, Shrek, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, Ice Age, Lilo & Stitch, Finding Nemo.  Notice that the CG successes vastly outnumber the traditionally animated ones, that said traditionally animated ones are by Disney and that those are only 2 of the 6 films they released during that time frame.

Now, initially, this doesn’t seem too significant.  A whole bunch of animated films are released every year (hell, fifteen have been released in America this year, at time of writing) and few of them are actual bona-fide hits, some will fall by the wayside (again to use this year for an example, remember how Legends Of Oz: Dorothy’s Return happened?).  The problem comes from how lopsided that equation looks.  Again, CG movies are becoming the runaway successes and audiences are primarily skipping traditionally animated features.  Imagine you’re an executive at one of these animation companies and you see these figures, the bottom lines, the only parts that matter to you.  What do you deduce?  You deduce that nobody is going to see traditionally animated films anymore and that what the public wants instead are these fancy computermabobs.

That, in case you were in any doubt, is how CG managed to push traditional animation out of the feature-length game.  Raw figures.  If there was any doubt left that traditional animation was officially a poison at the box office, 2002 killed it off mercilessly.  Hey Arnold! The Movie, The Powerpuff Girls Movie, The Wild Thornberrys Movie, Pokémon 4Ever!, Adam Sandler’s Eight Crazy Nights, and the complete and total catastrophic bomb known as Treasure Planet all dropped in those 12 months and all sank without a trace.  The year’s highest earner was Ice Age, which even outgrossed Lilo & Stitch, Disney’s only unqualified hit during the first half of the decade.  The public weren’t biting and they especially weren’t biting big screen versions of cartoons that were supposedly major hits on TV, so why not pack up shop and move where the money is?

Here’s the thing, though, and this should surprise absolutely nobody: it didn’t have to be this way.  Yes, audiences did flock to the newest and shiniest thing available to a point (I would like to remind you that Disney’s Dinosaur would not have made $137 million domestic and $349 million worldwide if didn’t have that new tech smell), but they didn’t just give up totally on traditional animation.  Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron, which we will get into if you hang on a bit longer, ended up taking a pretty good $73 million at the domestic box office, and people didn’t just suddenly decide to show up for Lilo & Stitch and then collectively make a pact to stop watching Disney films until the end of decade.  The reasons why people stopped turning up to these films are because the marketing was atrocious, the release dates were really poor and… most of them just weren’t very good.

Look, I will defend Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet to the death, but neither of them are going to be troubling anybody’s personal Top 10 Disney Films list.  Whilst one could also say the same for… for… OK, this list of films from the Disney Renaissance is ridiculously good… err… ooh!  Pocahontas!  Whilst one could also say the same for Pocahontas, that film made bucket-loads whereas Atlantis and Treasure Planet really didn’t (in fact, Treasure Planet only made $38 million in the US and failed to recoup its budget once worldwide grosses were factored in).  The difference being that Pocahontas had a strong marketing campaign and a good clear release date (a week before Apollo 13, which it held strong against) going for it, whilst Treasure Planet and Atlantis had neither of those things (the former was released the week after the one-two punch of Harry Potter & The Chamber Of Secrets and Die Another Day, whilst the latter had to battle Shrek and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) and also had to deal with the fact that the very public crashing and burning of Titan A.E. had tainted animated films with sci-fi elements for everyone else.  This could have been averted with a strong marketing campaign but… well…

(Incidentally, yes, it is rather telling that 60% of this film’s overall gross came from foreign markets.)

The complete and total failure of The Powerpuff Girls Movie, meanwhile, can be laid solely at the feet of distributor Warner Bros. (and no, I am not just saying that because I am a huge mark for that show and for Craig McCracken in general).  I mean, they put it up against Men In Black II, Like Mike and a still-going-strong Lilo & Stitch and gave people who weren’t already interested in the show absolutely no reason to care (that trailer above is literally the only one they made), what the f*ck did they think was going to happen?  The Box Office Mojo report for the weekend even noted the bizarre decision to not have any evening showings for the thing!  The Wild Thornberrys Movie opened the same weekend as Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, Hey Arnold! The Movie opened seven days after Lilo & Stitch, Pokémon 4Ever! inexplicably opened in limited release and stayed there for the duration of its run, Eight Crazy Nights had an abominable trailer (and sucked, so I don’t think anyone’s complaining in this respect), whilst we all know by now that Titan A.E. failed because nobody at Fox’s marketing department knew who they were supposed to be aiming the damn thing at (and, whisper it, it wasn’t actually a particularly good movie to begin with).

To put it bluntly, the good movies primarily failed because the studios screwed them over royally, either on purpose or just down to plain old-fashioned incompetence, whilst the bad movies primarily failed because they sucked.  By the time Home On The Range hit cinemas in 2004 and Disney openly announced that they were done with traditional animation, it was fair to say that even the House Of Mouse wasn’t hitting it out of the park like they used to.  Every year, there are a handful of great films and a nice heaping slop of complete stinking garbage and, most of the time, the good ones make all of the money whilst the bad ones sink without a trace.  The problem is that the good ones weren’t getting the attention and marketing power that they deserved as, post-Titan A.E. especially, studios had already decided that the new frontier was going to be computer animation and that traditional animation was going to drop dead sooner or later.  So they helped speed it along by not pushing the golden eggs like they should have; instead of having a few high-quality successes towering over the failing mountain of slop, everything ended up taking a financial dive together, quality be damned, because nobody was trying to sell the damn films!

You know why Lilo & Stitch was Disney’s only home run, financially and critically, for nearly 8 years?  Because everyone knew it was damn fantastic and everyone knew it was damn fantastic because this was the genius marketing campaign that got people into the cinemas in the first f*cking place to enable them to tell everyone that Lilo & Stitch was A GREAT F*CKING MOVIE WORTH SEEING!!

I’m sorry for the harsh tone of the last few paragraphs, but this whole thing really upsets me.  People did not stop going to see traditionally animated films purely on the basis of computer animated ones being shinier keys that were dangled in front of their eyes.  People stopped going because they all looked dreadful, even when they weren’t.  Computer films looked different, they looked like a break from the usual crap that was being created and sold in the traditional medium.  They were marketed better, in a way designed to capitalise on that newness (Dinosaur got butts in theatres because its main trailer was the outstanding opening five minute sequence to the film, falsely promising a much different film than the generic one we got), whilst traditionally animated films got the same marketing voice they always had and people were tired of it.  They wanted something new, and these films were often doing something new, or at least something of high quality, and these films were often of a very high quality, but they didn’t look new and they didn’t look high quality so people stayed away, and that’s when they knew the film was coming out in the first frakkin’ place.  The form was as good as ever, but the only people who knew that were the ones turning up, the devoted.

So, if you’re wondering why traditionally animated feature films made in the West all but disappeared after 2004 and why Disney’s big return to the field collapsed in a heap after only two tries (2009’s great The Princess & The Frog, which opened one week before Avatar and had a poor marketing campaign, and 2011’s exceptional Winnie-The-Pooh, which opened the exact same day as the last Harry Potter and similarly received a really poor marketing campaign), now you know why.  It’s primarily down to executives who had already pre-emptively decided that that the form was dead and decided to speed along the burial.  And it’s also partly your fault for not giving them the bird and hunting them down anyway.  Yes, I am still bitter that the failure of The Powerpuff Girls Movie has pretty much guaranteed that my Samurai Jack movie will never get made (yes, my Samurai Jack movie; I am so desperate for it that I have basically decided that Genndy Tartakovsky needs to make it to preserve what little sanity I have remaining).

Right, then, with all of that addressed, and saving me a tonne of additional words next week, let’s get on with today’s film: Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron.


Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron is both an experiment and a clear foreshadowing of the company’s far-more successful How To Train Your Dragon series.  The experiment?  Can we do what Dinosaur eventually chose not to and make a serious drama film about animals that the audience can relate to and love without them ever uttering a single word of dialogue out loud, and can we blend traditional animation and computer-aided CG and cel-shading without breaking the audience’s investment in the film’s reality?  These are bold experiments, the first more so than the second as everyone was attempting to do the second in the onset of the 21st century in an attempt to stave off the pre-determined inevitable, and I do want to sit here and tell you that they are pulled off with aplomb by the film.  See, technically, the film pulls off both splendidly and holds up majorly over a decade on from its first release; at its best moments, it is a work of pure art.  Except there are a couple of fundamental things that drag the whole enterprise down from “incredible” to “frustratingly good” and those things are so fundamental yet easy to have avoided that I am actually upset at the film almost willingly crippling itself by featuring them.

If you’ve read my thoughts on both How To Train Your Dragon movies, you can probably see why I made that comparison.  The way that Spirit handles some scenes reminded me very much of that later success; they especially came to mind in the relationship between Little Creek and Spirit, with the scene where the former first tries to gain the trust of the latter enough to be able to ride him in particular.  That dynamic is very similar to the one that plays out in the first How To Train Your Dragon only much more compressed for time (Spirit is about 72 minutes with an additional 8 for credits, but in no way does it feel like it has skimped out in any department).  The difference is that whilst I feel that the HTTYD films are a whole bunch of individually excellent scenes failing to come together as a whole (and before anyone jumps in, yes, I am perfectly aware that I am in the minority on the series, a la my thoughts on Adventure Time), Spirit is a collection of individually excellent scenes that absolutely do come together to form an amazing, heartfelt and emotional whole…  It’s just that that whole is almost irreparably ruined for me by two very definable factors.

The first of these factors…  Tell you what, I’ll give you a chance to figure it out before I tell you, because that enables me to just show you some of the film’s best scenes (which is the easiest way to get across to you just how fantastic the film is when it fires on all cylinders) and it’s also really, really obvious as to what the first of the film’s two problems is.  The following scene is the second half of a sequence in which the film’s villain, The Colonel, has tried breaking in Spirit, who had spent his prior time being held in the camp against his will desperately trying to escape and resisting attempts to domesticate him.  Just before this bit starts, it seems like The Colonel managed to successfully break Spirit.  See if you can figure out the one thing that nearly ruined this exciting, fist-pumping and heart-soaring segment for me; it’s not hard.

If you said “Err, hang on, why is Matt Damon needlessly monologuing Spirit’s thoughts?  And why does he sound bored-as-hell?” you have discovered the first of the two arrows that Spirit takes to the metaphorical knees.  Spirit technically sticks to its conceit of only having its animals, primarily horses, communicate solely through facial expressions and whinnying instead of through talking, but I’m guessing that some higher-ups at DreamWorks were dubious as to the likelihood that children would sit through long stretches of film in which there are no dialogue or nobody literally telling the audience what our characters are thinking and feeling.  Enter Matt Damon as the narrating voice of Spirit and, as you may have already gathered, he is HORRIBLE in this.  His every line is utterly dreadful anyway, the kind that explains everything that’s going on on-screen to make absolutely sure that the youngest and stupidest get it, but his delivery practically permanently screams “Can I have my paycheque now?  Can I have my paycheque now?  I am Matt Damon and I have an infinite number of better things to be doing with my time, so can I please have my paycheque now?”

There’s a scene late on in the film where Little Creek, the Native American that Spirit escapes the U.S. Military camp with, has his village raided by the U.S. Army and Spirit’s love interest, Rain, rushes in to save Little Creek only to be shot by the Colonel and get washed down river.  The scene’s existence is telegraphed from practically the first frame of Rain’s appearance, but goddamn is it still an absolute knife to the heart when it finally does arrive.  Spirit’s confused dash through the chaos to find her, the moment when the penny drops for every viewer as Little Creek sits atop Rain with the Colonel directly across from them, her collapse into the river, Spirit’s mad and desperate attempts to keep her alive, the fall from the waterfall, everything that happens on that riverbank…  Give me a sec, I am genuinely welling up just thinking about it; I was an absolute mess watching it.  Then Matt Damon’s voice pops up to tell us what we already know and could deduce from the excellent animation (seriously, you could cut the narration from the film and lose absolutely NOTHING) in such an uninterested and emotionless way that I am constantly pulled back from 100% investment and a total emotional breakdown because his presence.  Is.  Just.  Plain.  WRONG.  That scene would be a piece of goddamn art if his narration was cut, although it at least does distract from the question of why Rain doesn’t seem to actually be visually injured despite taking a bullet at near point-blank range.

As for the second thing?  Well, I’ll let you figure that out again.  It follows right on from the clip embedded above and, quite frankly, you should figure this one out in about 10 to 15 seconds.  Why do you think I have a problem with this scene, a scene that otherwise should have worked totally?

That is correct, folks.  Spirit has multiple songs by Bryan Adams and they are all absolutely godawful.  The issue isn’t so much to do with the fact that they’re lacking in hooks or anything like that, it’s because they are 100% pointless.  Much like the narration, its sole purpose is to engage any kids that may have grown restless watching a film about animals in which none of them speak human words, and to have lyrics that spell out exactly what is happening and what you should be feeling in the clumsiest and most distractingly on-the-nose way possible.  They also don’t fit the rest of the soundtrack; whilst the score goes for a sweeping historical epic with a little Western tinge, the songs are late 80s/early 90s power ballads being delivered by a Bryan Adams that I spent the entire runtime mistaking for Don Henley.  They don’t gel, especially when the songs start obviously straining for awards consideration.  Every time one started up, and there are a hell of a lot of them so this is a frequent issue, I got pulled out of the movie due to Adams’ strained wailing, or a thuddingly obvious lyric, or the deployment of instruments that do not fit the mood the film is going for.

The Internet is a place where people take seemingly innocuous things absolutely seriously, so I know that somewhere someone has edited together a version of Spirit that strips out the narration and the songs and replaces the still-not-great score with a much better one.  Someone has to have and if there is one, or even just a copy of the film with all of those things stripped out (the animation was actually completed first and the narration, score and music were added on afterwards; like everyone involved saw the Mona Lisa in front of them and decided what it needed for improvement was a hacksaw randomly applied to various parts), I want it in my inbox ASAP.  No joke, if the narration and songs were nowhere in sight, this would be one of my favourite animated movies of all-time.  It just works, folks.  It just totally works for me.  The animation is smooth, natural and stunning, the character designs are strong, the shot composition is fantastic, the characters are remarkably well-crafted and ones that I formed strong connections to despite the lack of usual aids, like dialogue, and the fact that they’re not particularly deep, the integration of CGI is often near-seamless (check out the opening a bit further down and just try and spot when the shots switch from hand-drawn to computer-aided cel-shading), the tone, mood and atmosphere are perfect, and the film’s emotional gut-punches hit like a ten-tonne truck with rocket boosters deployed.

But those two utterly boneheaded design choices sit there, sticking out like sore thumbs infected with rabies that won’t go away no matter how much you wish they would.  I’d like to think that those are the reasons why the film didn’t really catch on with the public at large.  The kids probably feel insulted by just how dumb the narration and songs think they are, and it simply wouldn’t get taken seriously as a film for older viewers because every damn time it gets locked into a groove the pre-school level narration and dreadful rejected 80s power ballads rear their heads and remind older fans like me (yes, 19 is granddad age when analysing animated films in this scenario, shut up) that the film isn’t aimed at us either.  It makes the film appear confused, even though it really isn’t.  Unsurprisingly, I am not the only person to call out the film for these creative choices, so I wouldn’t be shocked if that’s why Spirit never became a rousing box office success.  Well, that and its marketing.  Seriously, “a motion picture experience for everyone” is something your marketing department comes up with as a first-draft placeholder or when they’ve truly just stopped giving a sh*t.

I want to love Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron.  I really, really do.  That film hit me hard, worked so well and genuinely surprised me with its quality and ambition.  I just absolutely wish that everyone involved hadn’t decided to shove their dicks into the cake at the last possible moment.  Present me with a narration and soundtrack-free version, and I shall rescind everything negative I have said about the film in this article and spend the next half hour lecturing you on the many, many things it does right.  It really is a film that is within spitting distance of the gold medal, but then brains itself on the concrete metres before the line and literally leaves its brain matter spread along the track.  Goddammit, I’m disappointed now.


Next week, part 2 in our look at the fall of traditionally-animated Western features as we take a better look at the box office for Spirit and then shine a spotlight on the film that sent DreamWorks scurrying away from the hand-drawn arm of the industry for good: Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas.  Yes, in the early 2000s, the company did have a strange obsession with titles that were simply Character Name: Job Description, just go with it.

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

Callum Petch finds romance when he starts to dance.  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)!