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Oh, Shrek. Where to begin with this guy?
That’s a rhetorical question, I know exactly where to start. It all comes back to one man, a man with a vision: to stick it to his former boss.
There’s a lot of history and tangled truths behind the birth of Shrek, and Jeffrey Katzenberg is at the dead center of it. I was sorely tempted to make this another two-parter like the Black Cauldron review to go into more detail, but I was already running behind schedule with March of the Wooden Soldiers so here’s a slightly condensed version:
Between the disaster that was the making of The Black Cauldron and the glorious premiere of The Lion King, Katzenberg picked up a few tricks when it came to making acclaimed animated features. Then in 1994, Disney CEO Frank Wells was killed in a helicopter accident, and the Magic Kingdom was torn asunder as Michael Eisner took the reins and began his descent into madness. Katzenberg hoped that he would inherit Eisner’s former position of Vice President, but here’s where things get tricky. Katzenberg claims that Eisner fired him when he made his ambitions known; but the way Eisner tells it, Katzenberg was impatient, ungrateful, took way too much credit for the studio’s successes, and left of his own accord. Either way, it was a notoriously bitter separation with deep ramifications for the animation industry. Apparently Disney didn’t learn their lesson with Don Bluth because once again they wound up creating their biggest competitor – and this time, they were here to stay.
Katzenberg teamed up with David Geffen and the one and only Steven Spielberg to create Dreamworks SKG, the first major studio to truly rival Disney when it came to making animated motion pictures. The most important thing to them was to not be like every other feature on the market. For the first few years they flipped between making some great traditionally animated films that have been swept under the rug (Spirit, Sinbad and The Road to El Dorado are enjoying a comfortable cult status online and The Prince of Egypt only just got upgraded to blu-ray last year. Still waiting on that Broadway version, though), and openly trying to one-up their direct competition (when not teaming up Aardman to produce the same but with effort and a soul). Pixar announces their next movie is about ants? Dreamworks comes out the following week and says they’re doing a CGI movie about ants. Pixar says they’re making a film about fish? Dreamworks makes one about fish the following year. They make movies for children of all ages but with A-list actors, no Alan Menken musical numbers, and attituuuuude, dude. And nowhere is that jealousy and vitriol towards Disney more obvious than in what we’re reviewing today.
Shortly after Dreamworks was founded, co-head of the motion pictures division Laurie MacDonald gave Katzenberg a book by esteemed children’s author/illustrator William Steig simply called “Shrek!”; a fractured fairytale where a fire-breathing ogre was the hero, a donkey was his noble steed, and his happily ever after is defeating a valiant knight and marrying a princess even uglier than he is. He took one look at it, saw how it turned the traditional Disney-style fantasy he helped re-popularize in the 90’s on its head, the potential for even more slams at Disney fairytales and celebrity voice casting that worked gangbusters with Aladdin and had this to say:
Shrek evolved far beyond its humble literary origins into a green middle finger pointed at Katzenberg’s former workplace, and audiences and critics ate it up because nobody had dared to do such a thing before. And I’m not gonna lie, I loved this movie when I was a kid. But over time, mostly thanks to Katzenberg’s penchant for quantity over quality, Shrek became the very thing it was parodying: a shallow, over-hyped, over-marketed fairytale cash grab, and it’s affected my view of the original installment somewhat.
Well, it’s time for this non-star to get my game on and hopefully get paid. Let’s look at Dreamworks’ watershed studio-defining blockbuster…Shrek.