Somebody Once Told Me...


The Disney Renaissance was a golden time for animation. Not only did it see a series of hugely successful films for Disney, from The Little Mermaid through Tarzan, but it also saw the rise of Pixar, co-founded with Disney money (and, for the first few films, it gave Disney the release rights to those movies). It was also the time period that saw the ascendance of Michael Eisner as the head of Disney, ushering the company through one of its big periods, although not without a fair bit of messiness. Eisner was a dick, and a blow hard, and he ruffled many feathers along the way during his tenure.

One of the guys Eisner pissed off was Jeffrey Katzenberg, a man who thought he should have been the next CEO after Eisner but, instead, Katzenberg was eventually shown the door. Taking what he learned from Disney, and really wanting to shove it in their face, Katzenberg teamed with David Geffen and Steven Spielberg to form Dreamworks SKG. That studio some some success early on, with moderately performing releases like The Peacemaker, Oscar-bait Amistad, and family favorite Mouse Hunt. It was in animation where Dreamworks really made their mark, taking on a riotous tone to their productions that felt like the anti-Disney, and no series took that spirit on more than Shrek.

The film is very obvious an anti-Disney screed, through and through. It mocks fairy tales (the Disney bread and butter) as well as all the conventions of Disney stories. No trope is left unmocked, from the princess stuck in a tower guarded by a dragon, the singing, the dancing, and everything else. But the movie goes beyond just mocking Disney's films; it mocks Disney itself, from a kingdom clearly designed after a Disney theme park, to the lead villain, the short, angry, and very stupid Lord Farquaad (and the second you start reading, and hearing, that name as "Fuckwad" you begin to really see the hate boner Katzenberg had for Eisner). This movie wanted to tear down everything that was Disney to make their own, slacker-cool animated style. And, for a while, it worked.

The key thing that Shrek rides on, and it rides it well, is snark. This is a snarky film, filled with goofy jokes and a lot of sarcasm. The entire adventure rides by with its tongue planted firmly in its cheek, with its lead character, Shrek, played by comedian Mike Myers. His vocal performance, building on the various characters he'd played over the years (like the Scottish dad from So I Married an Axe Murderer) perfectly sets the tone for the whole movie. This is a film about fantasy creatures that doesn't give a shit about its fantasy creatures. Instead, it wants to mock and laugh at all the conventions. It's a comedy dressed up as a kids movie, and it used its bite to earn $491 Mil at the Box Office. Audiences loved the snark.

It helps that the main character, the ogre named Shrek, is actually a pretty well-written character. The movie wants to mock the genre, but like any good parody the production team (including writers Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Joe Stillman, Roger S. H. Schulman, and directors Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson) figured out that you have to tell a solid story in the middle of the parody. Without that all you have is a random collection of loose jokes. Shrek has the story to go with the humor, giving the film the narrative thrust to be come a solid adventure for the whole family.

The story of Shrek is one you've likely heard before. A princess, Fiona (Cameron Diaz) is trapped in the tallest tower of the tallest, most remote castle in the land, and a brave warrior has to fight their way to her to save the princess and bring her back to a castle to be married. The twist is, though, that the warrior sent to rescue her isn't a brave and noble knight but is, instead, Shrek (Myers), an ogre. He and his "faithful steed", the talking donkey named Donkey (Eddie Murphy), have to venture to the castle, save the girl, and get her back home. He doesn't fit her expectations, and she doesn't get true love's first kiss from him upon them meeting, but Shrek's quirks and idiosyncrasies are exactly what make him the hero for the task.

Shrek wasn't exactly looking to be the hero of the story, mind you. He's only on this journey because the lord of the land, Farquaad (John Lithgow), ruled that all fairy tale creatures had to be rounded up and kicked out of the kingdom. That would technically include ogres, but Shrek is big and scary and no one wants to mess with him. So his swamp, the place where he lives his life alone (just like he likes) is invaded by all the renegade fairy tale creatures and, to get them out of his land, he agrees to the deal: save the girl so his lordship can marry her and the swamp is him. Except while Shrek might not be what Fiona expected, the princess has a side that surprises Shrek as well. Maybe the ogre really is just the man to save not only the princess but also win her heart.

There's a smart setup to the way Shrek works its story. Yes, it's a film about an outsider that gets trapped in a fairy tale despite all his protestations. And yet at the same point, the warmth and depth the film gives to Shrek means that as the film twists its way around the fairy tale conventions it also finds ways to slot Shrek sneakily into those same tropes. An ogre that saves a princess? Silly... and yet it also is brilliantly perfect. This first film knows exactly the story it wants to tell and it does it with surprising deftness (surprising considering how awful many other Dreamworks films could be).

It helps that the voice actors are all really great in their roles. Myers, of course, had this character locked down even before he voiced Shrek. The same could be said for Lithgow who played a multitude of characters over the years, many with the same slimy, smarmy attitude, making him the perfect choice for his lordship. Before voicing Donkey Murphy voiced Mushu in Mulan and he brings that same manic energy here (I'd argue that Donkey is he better role, in fact). And Diaz came to Fiona after a string of romantic comedies, and she was perfect to take on this role as it suited her filmography nicely. The cast is, without a doubt, solid for this film.

If there's any place where the film doesn't work quite as well now its in the animation. The 3D animation seemed cutting edge at the time but it hasn't aged that well in the past two decades. The film looks fuzzy, crudely designed and not very fluid. It's all because the last twenty years have seen 3D animation constantly pushing forward, refining the animation as it gets better and better. This film looked great back in the day but it seems positively rudimentary by today's lush animation standards.

And, if I'm being honest, there are far too many modern needle drops in this film. It opens with Smash Mouth's "All Star", a song I could live without ever hearing again. Then you get tracks like "I'm a Believer" from the Monkees and "I'm on My Way" by the Proclaimers (among many others). Some of them stand out more than others, and not in a good way, and generally all the tracks are used to cover from montages that would have been better served with dialogue, or action, or just a quick cut or fade. They feel like padding, one of the few instances where the film doesn't quite handle its pace as well as it could.

Still, don't let those little flaws hold you back. If this is somehow a film you haven't seen before it's well worth watching it. While not perfect, this first Shrek is a heck of a lot of fun. Admittedly the sequel quickly wore out their welcome, but this first film had just the right anti-Disney, snarky attitude to really carry the day.