THE BACK PAGES

BIG GREEN MONEY MACHINE

'Shrek the Third' will get the kids and parents, but the raunchy jokes are the real reason the lovable ogre's so hot

JAIME J. WEINMAN May 21 2007
THE BACK PAGES

BIG GREEN MONEY MACHINE

'Shrek the Third' will get the kids and parents, but the raunchy jokes are the real reason the lovable ogre's so hot

JAIME J. WEINMAN May 21 2007

BIG GREEN MONEY MACHINE

'Shrek the Third' will get the kids and parents, but the raunchy jokes are the real reason the lovable ogre's so hot

JAIME J. WEINMAN

THE BACK PAGES

film

Is Shrek the biggest movie franchise ever? It might be, if you take DVD sales and merchandising into account. But even if it isn't the biggest, it's the

only franchise that saved a studio. Before the computer-animated movies about a lovable green ogre voiced by Mike Myers, the studio Dreamworks was known mostly for expensive flops and prestige pictures like American Beauty. Now, as the world prepares for the opening this month of Shrek the Third, Dreamworks’ share price has jumped 10 per cent in anticipation of the latest instalment. Jeffrey Katzenberg, the Dreamworks executive who was the driving force behind the Shrek mov-

ies, has taken to portraying himself as a genius and giving cryptic interviews about the sons for his geniushood (he says he makes movies “for the adult in the child”). And because Shrek, unlike most family films, managed to pull in the most precious demographic in the movie world today: teenagers. Without the teens, Shrek would be just another ogre.

Animated movies usually attract two types of people: parents and children. The children will watch anything with cartoon characters; their parents want a movie that will entertain them as well. Those two demographics are enough for a movie to turn a profit. But make a true smash hit, you need to reach people who are between the stages of childhood and parenthood. Teenagers are to modern cinema what geriatrics are to 60Minutes: the core audience that keeps it going. Katzenberg’s insight was that if you start with that age group, all the others will follow. Tom Sito,

a veteran animator who worked on story development for the first Shrek, explains: “Once you get the teens, the kids will come because it’s a cartoon and the adults come to see what all the fuss is about.”

But teenagers aren’t usually drawn to animation (no pun intended). “To teens, no matter how good it is, it is just not hip to be seen going to a cartoon,” Sito says. Part of the trouble Katzenberg ran into at Disney was that some of the films had trouble reaching beyond children (in part because of his own reluctance to approve more adult-oriented material), which made them something less than blockbusters.

Why did Shrek catch on with teen audi-

enees when other computer-animated movies are shunned by them? In the wake of its success, animated movies tried to imitate Shrek by signing up celebrity voice casts, attempting to lure teens with their favourite stars. But while Shrek emphasizes the voices, it doesn’t have particularly huge stars on the audio track: Mike Myers and Cameron Diaz are famous, but not on the level of Will Smith in Dreamworks’ less successful Shark Tale.

Michael Barrier, author of the new biography The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney, thinks that Shrek succeeds by buttering up its teen viewers. These moviegoers “like to be flattered, to be told, in effect, that they’re smart and hip, and one way to do that is to load the film with pop-culture references.” The pop-culture reference is the essence of teen-oriented comedy today. Most cartoons don’t understand that; Shrek did, and its reward was a loyal teen following.

Katzenberg had already tried something vaguely similar at Disney, when he green-lit Aladdin. In the middle of development, he brought in two writers without animation experience, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. The finished movie combined fairy-tale splendour with pop-culture jokes and a big celebrity voice: Robin Williams as the genie. “The genie was the first feature-cartoon character I can think of whose ‘personality’ was made up mostly of imitations of celebrities,” Barrier says. Shrek was redeveloped in a similar way. “In earlier drafts,” Sito says, “there were more schmaltzy plots involving Shrek’s parents, neighbours and Shrek’s disillusionment. That stuff all fell away

eventually.” In a repeat of Aladdin, Elliott and Rossio rewrote Shrek to cut out the serious and sentimental elements.

They also upped the ante by adding not only humour, but cynicism and even raunchiness. Much of the comedy in Shrek came from sexual or satirical jokes about familiar kids’ tales: Pinocchio’s nose is an excuse for an erection joke. Whether this is a good thing or not is a matter of opinion. It makes the Shrek movies less of a familial experience than most “family” movies, because teenagers and adults are enjoying the film on a completely different level than children. But it’s important to the series’ popularity with teens. The raunchy jokes are a reassurance that these cartoons aren’t for little kids.

Shrek’s visuals also appeal to teens, though in an odd way. Though these movies are well animated (“the level of technique and skill of the artists equalled the best Pixar and Dis-

‘THE INCREDIBLES’ SPENDS

TWO HOURS TELLING US

NONCONFORMITY

IS GOOD. SHREK IS MORE

SUSPICIOUS

OF MORAL MESSAGES.

ney have to offer,” Sito maintains), they have a hard, almost flat look, without the visual splendour of a Pixar production. Some critics have found Shrek downright hard to look at. Barrier lamented the fact that all the characters, even the ones who aren’t ogres, have unsightly moles on their faces. And Keith Lango, an animator on films such as The Ant Bully, let Shrek the Third have it on his blog keithlango.com, decrying “the lack of contrast, few quiet areas in the image, jangly poses, clichéd layout, the haphazard accidental relationship of the background with the foreground. It’s almost like nobody ever saw this all together until it was too late.”

But the cobbled-together look of the Shrek films doesn’t turn off its teen audience; after all, the most popular TV cartoon with this demographic, Family Guy, is even uglier-looking. Expensive though it is, Shrek looks rough and almost amateurish, like the low-budget cartoons its target audiences watch on Cartoon Network (Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Robot Chicken). Though the Shrek movies are lavish computer animation, they remind teenagers of something they could create on their own computers. The beautiful designs and fluid animation of traditional films don’t necessarily appeal to young adults today; they find that kind of thing too sterile.

What young adults might like best of all is the lampooning of serious animated films. The Shrek movies are basically grotesque comic parodies of fairy tales, and therefore of traditional animated movies in general. Whereas Pixar stayed away from Disney territory, Katzenberg green-lit Shrek as an oftenbitter parody of the Mouse, right down to the resemblance of the villain (voiced by John

Lithgow) to the ex-Disney chief Michael Eisner. The parody element appealed to teenagers; they’d grown up watching movies like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, and they enjoyed seeing those cartoons bashed by, of all things, another cartoon. “Disney couldn’t have done Shrek f Sito says, “ft can’t lampoon itself.” And that meant Shrek filled a niche—the anti-Disney movie—that no one else had thought to fill.

And unlike a Disney movie, Shrek isn’t obsessed with telling teens how to live their lives. In the usual animated film, the moral is “written in big letters on the main storyboards,” Sito explains. “Beauty and the Beast— Beauty is only Skin Deep, Lion King—You must be True to Yourself and Face your Responsibilities.” Shrek is more cynical and suspicious of messages than, say, a Pixar movie like The Incredibles (which spends two hours telling us that nonconformity is good). Of course Shrek has some messages too, mostly the old standby about beauty and the skin depth thereof. But even that, Barrier says, is calculated to appeal to teens and tweens. “However tough their poses, most kids are too soft and vulnerable to accept a totally cold and cynical view of the world,” he explains. “And so, after enjoying the bracing chill of a smartass movie for an hour and a half, they retreat into the soothing warmth of a phony resolution in which everyone hugs.”

Ironically, Katzenberg may have turned to this formula only because of the failure of his own efforts to make totally non-cynical pictures. The first animated movies at Dreamworks were very much like the mid’90s Disney features that Katzenberg had instigated —politically correct, super-solemn epics in the vein of Katzenberg’s pet project Pocaho?itas. His inaugural Dreamworks cartoon was Prince of Egypt, a musical based on the Bible. And just in case the Bible wasn’t quite important enough, Katzenberg inflated the significance of his animation department: Sito recalls that it was Dreamworks’ slogan that “they were not making cartoons but ‘Moving Art.’ ”

But Prince of Egypt flopped, and, humiliated by the failure, Katzenberg blamed not his own judgment but the format of 2-D animated musicals—the Disney format. One movie in that style, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, was still in the pipeline when he made this decision, and after it came out, Katzenberg disowned it: “The blame—responsibility—for that belongs to me. I picked an old-fashioned idea and used an old-fashioned technique.” The blame couldn’t be with his artistic judgment; the choice of a Disney-style technique had to be the problem.

And now, after a couple of successes, Katzenberg seems to believe that he’s moved beyond

Disney, and treats his old nesting grounds with faint condescension. He recently gave John Lasseter and Pixar the ultimate in backhanded compliments, saying that Lasseter “has all of those qualities that Walt Disney had as a storyteller. He has very much a childlike perspective in terms of how he looks at the world and how he sees things.” In other words, Pixar movies are kids’ stuff; Katzenberg sees Shrek’s scatological jokes and celebrity riffs as somehow more mature.

But in trying to get away from Disney’s “childlike perspective,” Katzenberg has just managed to create a movie franchise from the perspective of slightly older children. Parents will take their grade-school kids to Shrek the Third, and they’ll enjoy it. But they don’t decide what the hits are. Teenagers do, and teenagers want the usual things: cultural references, Disney-bashing, and a Scottishaccented ogre. M