A lot of well regarded, lasting films were released 10 years ago. No Country for Old Men, Zodiac, The Assassination of Jesse James, There Will Be Blood, Superbad, Persepolis and many others all celebrate their decade anniversary this year. Somehow I’ve ended up writing about a less fondly remembered piece from the pre- recession days; Shrek the Third. I can only hope there’s worth in looking back at something that, while huge at the time of its release, now feels so discarded it’s like sifting through a medieval dump, inspecting the detritus that people used to spend their time on.
The impact of the Shrek franchise isn’t to be sniffed at. When the first installment arrived in 2001 it had just enough irreverence to feel fresh, if not exactly clever. Pixar had settled into a formula of sorts, Disney was in a funk and Shrek literally opens on a page from a fairytale book that is then ripped out by the main character and used to wipe his arse (I’ll restate that it isn’t clever). The villain’s perfect fairytale world was a lifeless theme park in what was a clear jab at the competition. Even the use of pop music over original, musical numbers added some energy to proceedings. This wasn’t your Daddy’s cartoon fairytale.
However there are only so many times you can interrupt a song with a record scratch before you’d rather just hear the record play. After the phenomenal success of the sequel, Shrek the Third feels like an abject cash grab. At this point the franchise had descended into it’s own formula to the point where familiar characters are introduced and you half expect studio sitcom applause. Even the flat visuals come across like the equivalent of a multi camera set.
In a truly bizarre choice for a children’s film, Shrek the Third is about the title character’s reluctance to become a father. His bride, Fiona, is feeling broody but the uncouth green ogre has cold feet. This has the double problem of 1) feeling like a tired, hacky observation about men and women and 2) being hard to empathise with if you are six years old. Soon Shrek, along with Donkey and Puss in Boots (excellent, BTW) are dispatched on a voyage to seek a new heir for the Kingdom of Far Far Away. This involves Shrek bonding with the sulking, teenage sterotype and realising that, hey, maybe he might not be such a bad Pop.
Throughout, this feels like it’s created by people that think mashing two lazy clichés together is witty. It’s a magical kingdom but teens always say things such as ‘Like, totally’ amirite guys? In place of jokes it slaps ‘Ye Olde’ in front of a brand name. The urban streets are lined with palm trees, giving this an insufferable, Hollywood inside joke, humour. Time for another pop song. Like any prime time comedy there are a few effective gags such as Shrek accidentally sinking a ship by smashing it’s hull with a champagne bottle but they’re few and far between. The Scottish monster doesn’t start riffing about the deal with airline food but he might as well.
Even the film’s emotions are fake. Why make us care for a character when we can play a top forty hit showing that they’re sad? Ultimately we’re supposed to not just feel for the characters but also learn a moral from all this. It’s this thin veneer of heart that highlights the abyss of empty tropes beneath, making for strangely sad viewing if you’re one of the adults constantly being winked at.
The voice talent all try their hardest, especially Antonio Banderas who manages the task of elevating the material. For almost everyone else it’s a losing battle when given such worn out drivel to read. For all the recycled banalities the movie is at it’s best when it occasionally tries something weird. One paternal anxiety nightmare is genuinely frightening and funny in equal measure. There is also a moment where, after having his body swapped with Donkey, Puss tries to act cute to get out of trouble. The rictus that results from a donkey trying to make goo goo eyes prompts someone offscreen to shout ‘Kill it!’ You wish they’d let it all hang out a bit more and threw a few other absurd visual jokes in there rather than having teens gather beneath a banner that says ‘Just say Nay’. Get it kids? You shouldn’t.
The equation whereby ‘fairytale for the kiddies + cultural references for the parents = piles of money and cocaine for the producers’ did hold true in this case. This was a very successful cash in, making almost 800 million dollars worldwide. However the wave had broken. It didn’t match Shrek 2’s box office haul, which was just shy of a billion, and made 200 million less stateside. Dreamworks did squeeze two more films out of the property in the form of Shrek Forever After and the Puss in Boots spin off but with diminishing returns.
It might have been the beginning of the end but the series has had a lasting cultural impact. It’s mostly been bad, sure, but it’s there. If a Smurfs movie can advertise with the slogan ‘Smurf Happens’ you can chalk that up to old, cranky Shrek. Being fair, Shrek wiped away the old before demonstrating what not to do with the new. Disney did manage to rejigg the old formula but Frozen probably wouldn’t have happened without Shrek proving that you couldn’t fart your way to sucess indefinitely, nor could you stick too rigidly to the old ways.
The darker aspect of Shrek’s cultural legacy is its place in online culture as a willingly demented ‘Shrek is Love’ meme. The root cause of it’s memeification may be that teenage edgelords everywhere saw Shrek the Third as children and some part of them saw the hollow cynicism behind all the smiles. They saw it as just as worthy of mockery as all the disposable cultural dreck that fascinate Tim and Eric. So now we have a whole subculture of tediously shocking 4chan posters outdoing one another with gross out, explicit posts and videos about a cartoon ogre. Thanks, Shrek the Third.
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