I Need a Hero
The 2001 Shrek is a movie predicated on spite. Produced by Jeffery Katzenberg (of Dreamworks SKG and, before that, formerly of Disney), the movie was designed not just to tear down the tropes of Disney AnimationThe House of Mouse built on their classics, Disney Animation is considered among the premiere animation masterpieces ever since their first release, Snow White, all the way back in 1937. but also, in the process, poke as many fingers into the eyes of Katzenberg's former boss, Michael Eisner. It's weird and warped sensibilities, along with a fair bit of biting sarcasm, made it an instant hit with audiences, sending the film on to make $491 Mil against a $60 Mil budget. That's a solid return on investment in anyone's books.
Frankly it was probably too good as that kind of money absolutely guarantees a sequel. But where the original film was (very loosely) based on a the children's picture book Shrek! by William Steig, the sequel wouldn't have any source material left to work with (what concepts were in the first picture book were all used up by the end). That meant the sequel had to build on its own mythology, find its own story to tell that could lure audiences in once again. Sadly, the sequel ends up playing harder on pop-culture references and loses much of the magic of the original. There is a decent story at the core of Shrek 2, one that honors the heart of the original, but it's mired under what could increasingly be considered Dreamwork's own set of tropes that were already beginning to fossilize around their movies.
After a lovely, long honeymoon, with our two protagonists Shrek (Michael Myers) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz) enjoying being ogres while on vacation, the two return home to their swamp. Once there, though, they are greeted by an invitation from Fiona's parents, Queen Lillian (Julie Andrews) and King Harold (John Cleese) of Far, Far Away, to come back home to their kingdom for a royal ball celebrating their marriage. There's only one small hitch: the parents were expecting Fiona to be saved by Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), not some big, angry ogre. That does put a damper on the planned festivities.
There is, of course, one other issue: Shrek finds it hard to get along with King Harold, and the two butt heads more than once. This troubles Fiona, a lot, and causes a bit of a rift between her and Shrek. Meanwhile, Prince Charming's mother, the Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders), wants her son with the princess. That's why she engineered everything up to that point. She had Fiona put in the tallest tower of the most remote castle all so her son could save her and then he'd be the next king. Shrek got in the way. But she realizes she can use the rift between Fiona and Shrek to her advantage. It would be even better if Shrek were out of the picture, though, She has Harold hire someone to take out Shrek while the Prince moves in on Fiona. That assassin, Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas), ends up befriending Shrek, though, and between Shrek, Puss, and the old faithful Donkey (Eddie Murphy) maybe Shrek can prove his love and save his wife from an enchanted fate worse than death.
If we're being absolutely fair, the main plot line of Shrek 2 is actually pretty good. Fiona was seemingly set up for her own kind of "happily ever after", one that involved her being an ogre instead of a human girl and living with an ogre who was surprisingly sweet and tender. The sequel wisely asked, "okay, but what next? Let's think through just what that really means for not just Fiona but her whole family." There's pretty solid drama, and comedy, to be mined from the concept of a princess bringing home an ogre to meet the parents, and the film does spend some time on that. That's when the film works best.
Frankly, any time the film stays focused on Shrek and Fiona is pretty watchable. There's heart to these scenes that keeps the audience engaged. You are already primed to like these two because you watched the first film so you want to see them work out their differences and get back to their happily ever after. The writers knew this is the main thrust of the film and they try to bring the film back to it time and again. This main plot is about half the film and it works; it's just everything around the main story that falls apart.
The first Shrek mined its humor from two sources. One was the natural chemistry of the performers and how they could riff and deliver funny lines. Shrek is very much Mike Myers in animated form, and he can be a very funny guy. Same goes for Murphy, and Diaz as well. They bring live and liveliness to these characters. The other side for that first movie was all the riffing on fairy tale tropes, most specifically those of Disney. It toes the line on pop-cultural referencing, but it does it with a very laser-like focus. It works there, but the second film goes broader and that ruins much of the humor.
Shrek 2 buys in hard on the concept that a pop-culture reference is the same as a joke. Where the first film mined humor by being the anti-Disney, Shrek 2 thinks what worked was just nodding at other films. That's why we get scenes of characters reenacting the forging of the One Ring from The Fellowship of the Ring, Fiona and Shrek reproducing the upside-down kiss from Spider-man 2, the heroes riding into Far, Far Away as if they were Axel Foley from Beverly Hills Cop, Joan Rivers presenting the various royals as they walked down the carpet and so much more.
Did I laugh at these references back in the day when Shrek 2 was released? Oh, probably. But those "jokes" have all aged poorly over the years in no small part because so many different works have referenced them now that these kinds of jokes are tired and old. Plus, will kids even think these "jokes" are funny now? Will they care, or just get bored? I'm inclined to think the latter because these were references aimed at an entirely different generation with a different set of movies and shows they grew up on. The humor of the film has aged poorly because it was predicated not on actual jokes but on dated references that become even more dated with each passing year.
There is a way to do this kind of pop-culture referencing right, mind you. You need look no further than Disney's own animated Aladdin with Robin William's performance as Genie. That big, blue, magical being does a lot of impressions referencing other stars, but even after those stars have faded and the kids have moved on, we still have Genie being manic, doing funny jokes, and being funny and silly. It works because the jokes are based on Genie, not just the references, and they have aged well. Shrek 2 doesn't have the smarts to do more than just reference in these moments and that causes these jokes to fail all these years later.
There is one character in Shrek 2 that actually is built around the idea of being both a reference and a character in his won right: Puss in Boots. The character, voiced by Banderas, is a play on the characters he played in The Mask of Zorro and Desperado and Banderas both brings the life of those characters to Puss while the film finds ways to mines jokes from the fact that he's also a cat. it's a perfect blend, with well done voice work, that transcends Puss just being a reference. The film needed more of this.
I was entertained by stretches of Shrek 2. When it's focused on the main cast (including the newly-added Puss) and their problems it works really well. When it wanders and gets absorbed in just being a pop-culture spewing machine it fails. There's half of a good film in here and that's almost enough to carry it, especially on a first viewing. Just don't be surprised if at the end (and especially on second viewings and beyond) you're left feeling a little more hollow and empty by this sequel. It could have been great but the comedy just wasn't there.