Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Big, Green Goodbye.

Disclaimer: I work at Universal Studios Florida, at the Shrek 4-D attraction. The opinions expressed here are my own, and are not those of my employer Universal Studios/NBC Universal, or their licensee DreamWorks Animation SKG. Okay?

The original movie Shrek was a lot of fun. Most fun of all was the amount of fun poked at Disney. It was inevitable; one of the DreamWorks partners, Jeffrey Katzenberg, was treated badly by Disney's CEO at the time, Michael Eisner. Katzenberg could have made the film a lot nastier, and a lot less funny, but the satire was restrained enough to remain funny.

Shrek 2 and Shrek the Third were...well, sequels. They coasted on the goodwill and good times of the first movie. They also established some cliches for DreamWorks animated features which are troubling. Many animated productions from DreamWorks and other studios were full of pop music to appeal to parents, pop-culture references to other movies, and famous actors performing animated voices. Many DreamWorks movies became as formulaic and cliched as the Disney tradition of the Disney Princess and the "I Want" song.

And perhaps that was the reason that Shrek Forever After was announced as the final chapter; for a while it was promoted under that title. Rather than string out the characters and the story forever, eventually with other voice actors taking the place of the originals, they decided to put an end to it.

If it is the end, it is very satisfactory. As mentioned elsewhere, it is based on It's a Wonderful Life. Shrek (Mike Meyers) is feeling domesticated and ineffectual and bored. He is no longer feared; he is a celebrity fawned over by adults and children alike. This makes him blow up at his babies' first birthday party, and makes him bitter at his wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz).

Which opens the door for Rumplestilskin (Walt Dohm), a magical deal-maker who is detested by everyone in Far Far Away. The result of the deal he works: Shrek was never born. He never saved Fiona. He never became friends with Donkey (Eddie Murphy). He has only one day to turn about his deal by getting Fiona to fall in love with him.

What makes this movie for me is the treatment of Fiona. Throughout the films, she has been far too much the Disney Princess that she originally satirized. Even when in her natural, hefty and green state, she was always wise, sweet and supportive. (I liked the ogress Fiona far better than the human Fiona.) She was, like so many women in tepid fantasies, an accessory to the male lead.

In this film, in the "Potterstown" version of Shrek's world, Fiona did not get rescued. She rescued herself. Her curse of a half-human, half-ogre existence made her tough and dedicated. She becomes the leader of an ogre army, fighting for survival against Rumplestilskin and his army of witches. Perhaps it's personal, but to me, Warrior Princess Fiona is hot.

The end of the film is as predictable as a fairy tale, of course. There is the suggestion that things have changed for Shrek and everyone, that the universe of Far Far Away has been changed for the better by this experience. And one thing has. For the first time, I actually accept the tenderness and sweetness of Shrek under his grouchy exterior. In the first movie, Shrek said that "ogres are like onions; we have layers." It took four movies for the filmmakers to reach that layer.

But I still miss Warrior Fiona. I hate seeing her as a housewife only. She can be much more, and in defense of her children, her man and her species, I wish I could see her become something more.

The elaborate end credits feature scenes and characters re-imagined from throughout the Shrek films. They remind us of the good times and fun from those movies. (Note that scenes from Shrek the Third are barely glimpsed; it's admittedly the weakest of the four.) The credits also offer thanks to the creative people who worked on the Shrek films for the last decade. If that isn't closing the door, I don't know what is.

In one of the last scenes, the book "Shrek Forever After" is put on a bookshelf. Up there, I glimpsed other titles like "Shrek and the Beanstalk" and "Princess Fiona and the Pea." With the good box office this movie achieved, there will be the strong temptation to make those movies.

I hope DreamWorks resists. The Shrek Saga was good, but it's time to move on. The trailers for two new DreamWorks productions that accompanied Shrek Forever After are entirely different, although they rely on previous movies. Despicable Me takes the premise of the evil mastermind who is saddled with three mischevious kids. And MegaMind clashes two cliches, the superhero and the supervillain (although MegaMind looks a little too much like Galaxar of Monsters vs. Aliens).

Let Shrek stand on his swampy laurels, guys. Make him your corporate mascot if you want. But do other, newer, more original animated stories.