Just forget the words and sing along

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Fishing in the Discount Bin - Shrek

Here we go again on Fishing in the Discount Bin, my weekly blog about a movie I own.  Time to take a look at what started one of the biggest animated movie franchises of all time, Shrek.  This is in my notes at May 21, 2017.

Ah, Shrek.  The Oscar-winning Shrek.  Winner of the first Oscar for Best Animated Film.  I still think Monsters Inc was robbed. 

As much as I enjoyed Shrek, I always had problems with it.  Almost immediately, it was heralded as this clever, satirical take on fairy tales.  And all I can say is no, it's not satirical.  You have a main character who loathes many of the cliches and conventions of fairy tales, and goes around pointing them out and mocking them.  That's not satire.  That's sarcasm.  That's self-referential, especially when we get near the end and we start getting the "true love is on the inside" message. 

And watching it again tonight, I can see that it's not so much sarcasm as it is a giant middle finger to Disney.  Coming off the 1990s, and that period of animation known as the Disney Renaissance, it was ripe for spoofing.  I'm sure we've all heard by now how our villainous Lord Farquaad is a caricature of former Disney CEO Michael Eisner.  And how the reason why Farquaad is really, really short is because Eisner is a really tall guy, and whenever he had disputes with Jeffrey Katzenberg -- the former Disney board member who eventually quit Disney and went off to found DreamWorks, the makers of Shrek -- Eisner would call Katzenberg a midget.  In fact, several other commentators have pointed out that most of DreamWorks' early 2000s output in the wake of Shrek just simply tried too hard to be the anti-Disney. 

That being said, Shrek does have a long an interesting history of how it came to be.  Loosely based on the 1990 children's book by William Steig.  Steven Spielberg liked the book and bought it turn into a traditionally animated movie.  Spielberg's dream cast at the time was Bill Murray as Shrek and Steve Martin as Donkey.  Eventually, Spielberg let the rights lapse, and it was acquired by Katzenberg for the newly formed DreamWorks and their animation division.  In the beginning, they wanted to do it kind of like Disney's Dinosaur.  All of the backgrounds would be live-action photographs, and the animation done with motion capture.  Now, in the mid-1990s, motion capture was very new and highly experimental.  And when the test footage wasn't up to snuff, DreamWorks decided to go with computer animation, which was still new but, in the wake of Toy Story, a proven technology. 

And then they were thrown for a loop when they lost their lead.  In one of those "What if?" casting scenarios, the original voice of Shrek was Chris Farley.  But, Farley passed away before the film was completed.  Reports vary as to how much Farley had voiced before his passing.  Some say the entire film, some say he had only started.  But the decision was made to re-cast it.  Mike Myers got the call.  Now, it's interesting here, because Mike Myers did it twice.  Mike Myers did the voice of Shrek, but when the finished animation came back, Myers went to Katzenberg and said, "I want to redo it.  Now that I've seen the finished animation and what you're going for, I've got a better take on the character."  Katzenberg relented, and let Myers redo it.  Katzenberg said that it increased the budget by $4 million for all the animation they had to redo, but Myers disputes that. 

I remember reading some reports at the time.  Apparently, Myers original voice for Shrek was a lot more harsh...more like his Fat Bastard voice.  But after seeing some of the finished film, he decided to soften it up a little.  In an interview I read with Myers at the time, Myers said he actually based Shrek's voice on his mother's voice...the voice that would read him fairy tales when he was a kid. 

The finished film finally made it to theaters in May of 2001, and went on to become one of the biggest films of the year.  Honestly, I loved it so much in 2001 that it holds one of the rare distinctions of being a movie I saw in the theatre twice.  I saw it when it first came out in May, and then that fall when it was in the loonie theatre...back when loonie theatres were still a thing.  Don't get me wrong, it did have some clever twists and jokes.  Seeing it that second time, a friend of mine singled out the gag where Princess Fiona makes a bird explode with her singing voice, sees the three now-orphaned eggs in the bird's nest, and then, fade to the eggs being fried up over the campfire by Fiona for breakfast.  Said my friend, "I loved that.  I thought for sure she was going to adopt the eggs and raise them, because shit like that always happens."

Which is why Shrek kind of falls apart in the third act.  We start falling back on what's widely been embraced as the animated film formula.  There's a big misunderstanding, Shrek and Fiona part ways, only for the truth to be revealed and Shrek come charging back to the rescue.  I remember reading an interview with the co-director, Andrew Adamson, at the time, who totally copped to it.  He said something along the lines of, "We found we'd painted ourselves into a corner, and we wound up having to use the cliches we were mocking to bring our story to a satisfying end."  I've watched a few other films that have fallen into that trap...I call it "The Shrek Conundrum." 

We also see the origins of DreamWorks' heavy reliance on pop culture reference humour.  Matrix bullet time jokes, the Macarena, All Star...hell, these things were already dated by the time the film came out in 2001. 

I did like the soundtrack, though.  I do own it, along with the spectacular score.  Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell collaborated one last time, following their successful collaboration on the Chicken Run score.  It's a score so memorable that the opening bars have become the DreamWorks Animation fanfare. 

But yeah.  That's Shrek.  Even though it hasn't really stood the test of time, it won the first Best Animated Film Oscar and turned DreamWorks Animation into the powerhouse it is today.  Quite the legacy

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