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« Cannes Diary Day 2: Or, How I'm Still Grappling With 'Grace of Monaco' | Main | Dressed to Link »

Tim's Toons: Cannes competitor Shrek 2, ten years later

Tim here. Cannes is in the air, and as we do, I’ve been thinking about festivals past, when I landed on the fact that this very day is the tenth anniversary of the premier of Shrek 2 on the Croissette. And just as I started writing up a whole thing about big English-language crowdpleasers and their history of opening up the festival, talking about the toxic reception that Grace of Monaco has received in that slot (as so many of them do), when I landed on the further fact that Shrek 2 wasn’t that year’s opening night film (Almodóvar’s Bad Education was). No sir, Shrek 2 was an official selection in that year’s main competition. Which feels genuinely insane – no other American animated film, to my knowledge, has ever competed at Cannes, so how would something as unapologetically commercial as Shrek 2 get the nod? And yet it did, and somehow managed to receive not a single award from Quentin Tarantino’s jury.

Anyway, the date serves more generally as an ideal moment to look back from across the intervening decade at what remains the highest-grossing animated feature in U.S. box office history – neither the Zeitgeist explosion of Frozen (with nine years of inflation to help it) nor multiple releases of The Lion King were even been able to seriously threaten its crown – and one whose massive success caused it to influence so much of mainstream animation over the intervening years.

It solidified a model that DreamWorks Animation has largely followed in nearly all of its subsequent films (though if How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a massive hit, I wouldn’t be surprised if things started to dramatically shift): not just the wall-to-wall celebrity voice cast, which was already a thing in the 1990s, but the willful anachronism with pop culture references and pop songs and a general sense that the screenwriters were spending a little too much time watching E! while they were working. (Shrek had its Smash Mouth and all, but it pales in comparison to the full-on parody of Los Angeles introduced in the sequel). And not just DreamWorks: pretty much every animation studio that isn’t owned by Disney plays around in basically the same sandbox.

So how, ten years later, does Shrek 2 hold up? Not as badly as the naysayers back in ’04 – I was one of them, and have continued to be ever since – would have predicted. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the topical references have gone from feeling at least moderately sassy to absolutely desiccated (did you remember that there’s an O.J. Simpson joke? There absolutely is, and it was already years past its sell-by date when the movie was new), but there’s less of it than them seemed like at the time, and much of what’s there is tied to fairly obvious movies and television that hasn’t really faded from the general consciousness.

What has aged terribly, and this was also something that wasn’t terribly difficult to predict in ’04, is the animation and design of the thing: it wouldn’t be until years later that DreamWorks solved human figures, and at the time of Shrek 2 they were still in their technological infancy. Gaze on the eerily rectangular, plastic-skinned, dead-eyed monstrosities the film tries to sell as living beings, and despair:

And that’s saving you the agony of looking at the creatures in motion. It’s really horrible, though it wasn’t state of the art back then, either (until Dragon came along, DreamWorks could be reliably counted on to lag about 3-5 years behind Pixar in terms of raw animation quality). Still, looking not great by 2004 standards means looking positively ancient and dead by 2014 standards, and even if Shrek 2 had the most sparkling, living script ever to grace an animated feature, the stiff, unyielding quality of the animation itself would make it hard to watch these days.

Still and all, I found myself weirdly forgiving of the movie. I’ve never liked it – the first Shrek is the only one in the franchise that I could ever tolerate even slightly – but so fully divorced from its moment in the sun, its sub-par technology and sunny conviction that celebrity parodies and riffs on new movies was the way forward for the animated feature make it feel oddly quaint and charmingly sad, like an idiot child that’s very proud of getting a C+. If nothing else, it serves as a grim-faced reminder that everything we currently think is the most amazing and exciting thing going will age into the past, and none of us can really say what will be beloved or forgotten by future generations.

Has anyone out there thought of Shrek 2 since, like, 2005? Do you find that it holds up at all? Tell us in the comments!

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Reader Comments (13)

I loved Jennifer Saunders' portrayal of the Fairy Godmother. She was brilliant!

May 16, 2014 | Unregistered Commentertom

The movie is good, and I think the characters are meant to look like plastic, because they are superficial in a fairy tale.

May 16, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercraver

I'm pretty sure the first Shrek competed at Cannes, too. And I'm totally baffled by the festival's interest in this franchise.
The Mike Meyers franchise machine was in full swing for a few years there.

May 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

I remember reading way back when that it was a surprise that the first film took off the way it did at the box office. Regardless, it made all of those "voices" very rich.

May 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBia

this is one of those films where i had to kill an hour between things in midtown manhattan so I just went in for an hour. I never had a thought, let alone a desire, that maybe I should see the whole thing. zzz

but this post cracked me up. My absolute favorite part:

...oddly quaint and charmingly sad, like an idiot child that’s very proud of getting a C+. ">

May 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I don't like any of the Shrek movies, and am especially mystified , to this day, by the runaway success of # 2. But my feelings for Shrek 2 will forever be especially tainted due to the circumstances under which I watched it - election night 2004. Exit polls showed Kerry cruising to victory, and I didn't want to listen to the pundits bloviating away all night. I'd rented Shrek the day before (from a video store!!!!!!) and decided to throw it on. When I finished the movie, the networks were about to call the election for Bush. Heartbreaking. And in my heart, I know it's all Shrek's fault! :)

May 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

Shrek 2? Yeah, it's dated (really impossibly dated), but it's at least half-way charming in the how of being "dated." Shark Tale, meanwhile, is borderline unwatchable. If it was switched around to cut down on the bad puns and mostly be about Jack Black's Lenny and Oscar were just a charming but shallow side character? There'd be an at least semi-interesting, if still creepily designed, "done-in-one" there and the scenes of Lenny and Oscar are, even as is, probably the peak of the movie we got.

Top 5 and Bottom 5 Dreamworks Films (note, I am Not Counting the Aardman films they just distributed and have not seen The Croods, Peabody and Sherman, Rise of the Guardians, Sinbad or Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. If I were counting the Aardman films or had seen those five, I could probably justify a top 10 and a bottom 5):

Bottom 5:

5. Monsters vs. Aliens (Instead of a black and white uber retro celebration of cheap monster movies that refuses to reference anything made past 1965 or so, we get another typical DreamWorks hodge podge, this time with a not exclusive focus on sci-fi of all eras.)
4. Turbo (If How To Train Your Dragon is DreamWorks actually taking the right lessons from Pixar but still being recognizably DreamWorks, Turbo is them taking the wrong lessons from Pixar but still, unfortunately, recognizably being DreamWorks.)
3. Megamind (It's mostly breezy and funny, but I'm mostly putting this above Turbo for the big missed opportunity of not genuinely parodying goofy comic book weaknesses and the cavalier attitude superhero comic books have towards death and resurrection. Once they reveal that Metro Man's weakness isn't copper and that he faked his death, any bite the genre parody aspect might have had is flat gone and we're left with a below average character comedy that just happens to be in the genre.)
2. Bee Movie (On a pure sexual politics level, the implicitly creepiest movie Dreamworks has yet released. Thank you, Dreamworks, for making the same mistake Sega had made the previous year with Elise in Sonic '06.)
1. Shark Tale (Yeah, this is still the crown of garbage in the Dreamworks catalogue.)

Top 5:

5. Shrek 2 (Also not great, but easily the best of it's franchise and it's all down hill for Shrek from this point.)
4. Kung Fu Panda 2 (Yeah, the action is slightly better, but the character stuff has taken a significant hit in diving for the cliche. Sorry.)
3. Over the Hedge (I know some critics said the satire was toothless here due to them raiding the fridge while making these points, but I don't buy that. Megamind did much more to undermine it's genre parody in ways pro film critics probably wouldn't have been able to spot at the time.)
2. Kung Fu Panda (Strong character comedy, great fight scenes, non-hypocritical moral, animation getting less and less creepy as time goes on. What's not there to enjoy in the original, zippy tale of THE big fat panda?)
1. How To Train Your Dragon (The shimmering jewelled crown of the DreamWorks catalogue. Hopefully it's sequel lives up to that success and promise.)

May 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

This was a wealth of information on a movie I'd virtually forgotten about. Thank you!

As a complete non-sequitur, I just realized that Prince Charming looks like Jaime Lannister in the first season of Game of Thrones. Now that I thought it, I can't unsee it...

May 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

The photo of Shrek and Fiona in the costumes is from Shrek the Third, not Shrek 2.

May 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMia

Hat's off to Mia. I forgot to grab caps when I had the DVD, and when I was hunting for stills online, I liked it for that beat of the review and I thought, "nobody will care". And now I am much too lazy to fix it.

May 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTim Brayton

Truly one of the most hateful experiences of my life was sitting through this god-awful piece of offensive tripe. Hated every second of it, including Puss in Boots.

May 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

I saw it opening weekend, and the only things I remember about it are:

*The surprising choice of Larry King as a female bartender
*I thought the concept of Puss 'n' Boots as an assassin who avoids being killed by turning on the cute was HILARIOUS, though I never thought to see his own movie
*It was a 10 PM showing and there were toddlers there

That being said, I can't hate on the film because it gave us the "Accidentally in Love" scene at the beginning, and it seemed like it was the last time for a looooong while that a commercially successful song got nominated and performed at the Oscars.

May 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjakey

I think the reason Shrek 2 was in main competition was the success of the first Shrek (It was when Dreamworks still hasn't overused its pop-culture jokes)

And even more insane, there was another animation in the main competition too (that was Ghost in a Shell 2: Innocence); but for this anime I could understand why Cannes chose it

For me Shrek 2 is not bad (the story is actually better than I thought it was, but I'm getting tired of all their jokes in almost every Dreamworks' movies

May 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commentertombeet

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