May 16, 2010

My Life with Shrek

In honor of everyone's favorite green ogre, this blog will be written in GREEN! (A cheap gimmick, but it's better than a million blue posts).

With Shrek: The Final Chapter set for a Friday release, I thought I would take some time to look back at not only what makes this franchise so bankable, but how endearing the movies are for me.
I remember one of the first times I became aware of Shrek. It was 2000 and I was in a St. Cornelius classroom getting ready to watch The Road to El Dorado. Anyone who owns a VHS player will be aware that the only way people actually watch the previews is to stick them before the movie. Well, Shrek was one of them. It didn't phase me then, but I remember this girl Courtney starting a chain of "I want to see that".

I probably was interested in the movie, but I just don't remember. However, I do remember the marketing. I can still recall the "My half/Your half" ads on Radio Disney for Baskin Robins ice cream Shrek flavors.
While I can't remember seeing Toy Story on the big screen (the first time, in 2D), this was one of the few I could remember (the other being Mulan, another highly influential movie in my life). I remember going with my Aunt Mary to a theater and sitting there watching it. I can't remember it having an impact on me then, but I am very sure I liked it.
Why? Because the day it came out, I dragged my grandma to Target to pick it up and we watched it at home, almost in the same awe. There was even a brand new ending, a simple gimmick at that, but there was a karaoke ending that was downright hilarious as it managed to reference songs in childish and perverse ways simultaneously without feeling crass. Of course, I wouldn't get the entire set up until later in life.

Looking back on the first one especially, I feel this weird connection to it. It's not so much that it's the "beauty is skin deep" concept, but I really think one of my earliest exposures to satire was this movie. Whether it was parodying Robin Hood or Disneyland, I was captivated by how ridiculous they all came out.
I must have seen the movie at least 20 times by now (if that) and can remember still being so intrigued that I would sit around trying to memorize the dialogue and getting the first 10 minutes down pat. I must have seen it on almost every format imaginable. I can remember not only watching it on VHS, but cable, NBC (with additional special features), and even in art class. To quote my Aunt Mary: "Who hasn't seen Shrek?"
It's really one of those classics along with Toy Story that most people familiar with culture will recognize. The simplicity, the characters, everything seemed magical to me as a young child and it never grew old as I turned 20 and just named it my second favorite animated movie of all time (I stand by my Top 5).
I can even remember watching the Oscars that year. It was the first time they would give out an award for Best Animated Pictures. I can't remember who presented, but I do remember them telling the animated figured to stay in their seats if they won. It was really cool because they actually showed all of the characters sitting down in actual seats. And sure enough, the first year this category was open, it wasn't a Pixar film that won, but Shrek.
It was an accomplishment in my eyes that I would not forget witnessing.

Then there was the inevitable Shrek 2.
I remember one of the most fascinating things about the marketing was my interest in the watches that McDonalds would give away. I was close to collecting all of them. I even bugged my friends into giving me the missing links and somehow I don't think I ever got 100%, but it would be an odd collectors habit that I wouldn't see resurface until the Monsters vs. Aliens toys.
I remember even getting the soundtrack for my 8th grade graduation. There was definitely something different about it than the prior.
Where the previous featured two Smashmouth songs (which I believe was their second coming in a career with the Monkees cover "I'm a Believer") and a list of older hits, almost every song on the Shrek 2 soundtrack was new material, including the main song "Accidentally in Love" by the Counting Crows front man.
Again, I was in love with the promo and even spent hours on the movie's website playing an epic game to discover all that I could about the movie. The fact that Larry King was voicing an ugly step daughter was and still seemed brilliant to me.

As for the movie? I can't say it moved me as much. After all, that two year gap lead to a huge obsession with the first movie and I was young and naive enough to still fall in love with the promotional materials. However, I couldn't quite figure out why the second one wasn't doing that much for me.
I mean, sure... you had Antonio Banderas as Puss in Boots, a brilliant parody of the Zorro character. You even had Monty Python star John Cleese as Fiona's father. There was even a halfway decent cover of the Buzzcocks "Ever Fallen in Love" by Pete Yorn. So why was I not raving about it?
I recently read that according to my friend Chris that it was better than the first in every way. This lead me on a quest to figure out why. Sure, I was still totally into the franchise, but I wanted to know personally why this refused to move me as much as the first.

After watching it recently, it made sense.
The original was a parody on the simple, outdated fairy tale characters. They lived in a swamp and traveled to a castle. In Shrek 2, they traveled to Far Far Away, which was pretty much the opposite. It was very chic and almost a parody on the culture of tinseltown. Sure, there was a king, just like Lord Farquad in the first, but I didn't realize why it felt odd to me until this time.
Sure, it was still in the realm of Shrek and it featured a much needed boost of screen time for sub characters like the Gingerbread Man and the Three Blind Mice, but it still felt it was missing something.
Yes, the messages were almost the same. The story was on a grander scale and was more complicated and faster pace, but it just wasn't executed at the same simple pace I had grown obsessed with. Also, where the original parodied fairy tales, Shrek 2 made fun of modern culture in an olden setting. Yes, it was entertaining, but for someone who is so obsessed with the first, it kind of proved to be a hurdle that was hard to overlook.

For those who remember, there were some smaller releases as well after Shrek 2 became one of the most successful films of all time (including setting records for box office in the animated category). There was the Shrek 3D (actually released before Shrek 2, and no real arch to the sequel, but still an entertaining short that used 3D before the Avatar-inspired outburst). There was even Shrek the Halls (released the same year as Shrek the Third), the first in a line of specials from Dreamworks Animation which would go on to include Monsters Vs. Aliens and Madagascar specials.
Shrek the Halls appeared to be what the franchise was turning into. It had started off in the pleasant way I wanted it to, but by the third act, it was relying on crass snot and fart jokes that didn't really leave much for me. It was still in good fun and even though I'm over bowel jokes, I somehow can overlook that in the time I'm watching Shrek films, an achievement within itself.

Then, there was Shrek the Third, which is probably the only one I haven't memorized or fell under a fine frenzy for. Sure, I did admit once to calling it better than Shrek 2, but do remember, I am young and my opinion changes quite a bit. I remember the HBO Making of special and even seeing it with my father, Anna, Gina, and her son David. I can't remember it being an amazing, life changing experience like the first, but it was significant.
How so? It was the first trilogy I had seen on the big screen. Sure, I had seen Lord of the Rings two and three on the big screen, but up until this point, Shrek was the only consistent films I have seen (next up: Toy Story trilogy). I know a lot of you note I have seen all Harry Potter films on the big screen. Those don't count as a trilogy. There's 8 of them.

But after revisiting Shrek the Third a year ago, it still seemed to have that analyzation on society that kind of made me loathe the second. It even had Justin Timberlake. However, it still was an entertaining movie that seemed to amp up the vomit jokes (thanks to those babies), but the heart of Shrek turning into a father was still an endearing element.

So as I sit through previews for what is being hailed as The Final Chapter, I try to figure out why I keep getting lured back to Shrek. I think more than anything it's because it represents a part of my conscious childhood that I remember fondly. It's also one that isn't like a bad hangover. I want to remember these in the morning.
The good, the bad... this isn't just a money making franchise, it's great animation that helped launch a studio that has now competed with Pixar since with titles like Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda, and one of my favorites Monsters Vs. Aliens.
True, Dreamworks Animation is nowhere near as preachy or top of the line as Pixar, but I can count on them for an entertaining, well written kid's movie. Like Shrek or Monsters Vs. Aliens, I can also expect decent satire on culture, which is often what I secretly look for. It proves to me that there is still hope out there for kid's movies and that they are not being oppressed entirely. If anything, they are becoming more universal in content, and I think that's an achievement.

And besides... Shrek 2 made bank before the recent spike in ticket sales that Avatar was boosted with. Yet, it still sits near the top. What does this prove? It proves that if a movie is good enough, you can expect people to come back again and again. It's not all about the money, but how much interest you can get from it.
To me, Shrek franchise is the ultimate borderline. Kids love these movies and adults can tolerate watching them. As for me, I just enjoy them regardless of boundaries. It makes me feel young and restores hope that I don't need to write Homer's Odyssey just to make an entertaining movie.

So, I doubt Shrek: The Final Chapter will be the best movie I see this year, but it will hopefully be another intimate moment to share with one of my favorite characters and experience something new.

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