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There’s a scene in the middle of the 2007 film I Am Legend where Will Smith’s character Robert Neville walks downstairs to find a woman and a boy watching DreamWorks’ landmark animated comedy Shrek. After perfectly reciting some of the film’s dialogue Neville turns to the bemused woman and child, shrugs and says “I like Shrek.” As you should Mr Neville; everyone ‘likes’ Shrek. It’s a good film. But is it great? No, the franchise only ever achieved greatness with Shrek 2. Before DreamWorks ever concocted the idea of minions, before Donald Trump even considered running for president and before I ever considered typing up an article on why Shrek 2 is the best film I’ve ever seen, Shrek 2 was there shining like an untapped mine of satirical gold.
Before we delve deep into the depths of that treasure trove we must first address where this Fort Knox of a franchise came from. Loosely adapted from William Steig’s fairy-tale picture book Shrek! by Stephen Spielberg’s fledgling company DreamWorks and conceived as a parody of sorts, Shrek took aim at Disney like no other film before or after could or would. It established DreamWorks as a serious competitor against Pixar. Shrek was considered to be so impressive and worthy of praise that it was awarded the inaugural Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Shrek was so good that I got four copies of it on DVD for Christmas in 2001. Shrek has only ever been beaten by one film in terms of its success within the DreamWorks stable and that film is Shrek 2.
When placed side by side it becomes clear which is the better film. Sure, Shrek has John Lithgow (the firebrand preacher from Footloose) as the diminutive villain Lord Farquaad but Shrek 2 has so much more. Rupert Everett as Prince Charming, essentially a campier version of Jaime Lannister from Game of Thrones. Jennifer Saunders basically plays her character from the hit series Absolutely Fabulous in the guise of the Fairy Godmother. Julie Andrews and John Cleese play the Ogre-phobic King and Queen of Far Far Away. To top it all off Antonio Banderas reprises his role as Zorro in feline form as the indomitable Puss in Boots. Oh, and Larry King plays Doris the Ugly Step-Sister. When compared in terms of the supporting cast alone it’s clear to see which film is the better one. But these famous names would mean nothing without a great script.
What happens after the happily ever after?
According to Shrek 2 a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner situation arises. Fresh after defeating Lord Farquaad Shrek (Mike Myers) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz) head off on their honeymoon. Upon their return Donkey (Eddie Murphy) informs them of an invitation to a royal ball in Far Far Away in celebration of their recent nuptials. Hilarity ensues. Shrek 2 is most famous for its appeal to both adults and children, quick fire jokes and mile-a-minute references. It is a modern Airplane but what many gloss over is that, like Airplane, Shrek 2 had a great deal of heart. Jokes are great until one realises there’s nothing under the surface. Shrek 2 doesn’t have this problem. The love story of Shrek and Fiona is one that feels authentic thanks to its simple message of “You don’t have to be good-looking to feel and give love.” The relationship between Dragon and Donkey also suggests you can be a little freaky if that’s what you’re into. That said I strongly discourage you from trying to mate a mule with a mythical fire breathing monster. That can’t end well. The Shrek franchise is a very successful inversion of classic Disney fairy tales. The hero is ugly; his noble steed is too small and his lady love is an ass-kicking, belching and farting Ogre. Shrek 2 further inverts these tropes as the plot moves forward.
In an effort to reinvigorate his marriage Shrek, with Donkey and Puss-in-Boots in tow, visits the Fairy Godmother’s ominous potion sweatshop. There they steal a potion that turns Shrek into a handsome human and Donkey into the noble steed he always wanted to be. It doesn’t last of course. If you were hoping I wouldn’t spoil the film then sorry but it was released twelve years ago. Catch up! Shrek marches on Far Far Away on the shoulders of an enormous Godzilla-like Gingerbread man, or Mongo to his friends. The castle defenders fling burning rocks and pour hot milk on Mongo to no avail, merely giving him a foamy wig and ruining his gumdrop buttons. Yes, yes I know; “NOT THE GUMDROP BUTTONS!!!” Of course, it’s when one knight bellows “More heat, less foam!” that Mongo’s doom is made certain. Tragically Mongo melts in the castle moat in a surprisingly emotional scene. Shrek goes on to rescue Fiona but not before she loafs Prince Charming right between the eyes. The Fairy Godmother gets zapped by her own wand in the most cathartic and magically bubbly death scene since Voldemort got his comeuppance. But there’s something else that makes Shrek 2’s emotional scenes land as well as its comedic ones: the soundtrack. Something the Shrek films have always done right.
Counting Crows, Frou Frou, Ricky Martin, Tom Waits and David Bowie all lent either individual songs or new original compositions to the Shrekverse (yeah I said Shrekverse so sue me). There are few things funnier than listening to Accidentally in Love while Princess Fiona hammer throws the Little Mermaid back into the ocean. Jennifer Saunders, singing I Need a Hero while Mongo destroys the castle remains one of the most surreal things I’ve ever seen. Tom Waits in a brief cameo as Captain Hook is the reason there should be an Oscar for Best Casting Director. Funkytown by Lipps Inc. playing as Shrek and Fiona pass by shops like Farbucks, Versarchery and Tower of London Records in Far Far Away is a great piece of satire on L. A. and modern life in general. It’s these references that make Shrek 2 a work of comedy genius.
There are countless references in Shrek 2. Hundreds of different shots reference numerous films and TV shows. Puss-in-Boots rips through the front of Shrek’s shirt ala the chestburster in Ridley Scott’s Alien. A rogue trumpeter plays the Hawaii Five-O theme before being smacked with a scroll. Several lines like E. T’s “Be good”, Garfield’s “I hate Mondays” and Dr. Frankenstein’s “It’s Alive!” are cribbed from their source material. The more detailed the references are the funnier they become. For instance, when Shrek, Donkey and Puss are arrested their capture is broadcast on a show called ‘Knights’ a clear reference to popular police programs like Cops and Road Wars. Men in steel armour slide down ropes from hot air balloons, Puss is found with catnip and pepper grinders are used instead of pepper spray. Donkey screams out “Police brutality!” as several ‘officers’ force him to the ground. There are other several smaller moments like this such as when the Fairy Godmother visits a fast food drive thru on her magic carriage and orders a Medieval Meal for Prince Charming which comes with a battle-axe as the toy. Referential comedy, in this humble writer’s opinion, peaked with Shrek 2 and we’ve been on the long way down ever since.
Shrek 2 is one of the best films I’ve ever seen and I say that in all seriousness and without shame. The Shrek films are all good apart from Shrek Forever After which I haven’t seen and refuse to. I made that mistake with Anchorman 2 and Zoolander 2 I’m not ruining Shrek for myself. Shrek 2 remained the highest grossing animated film ever released worldwide until 2010 when Toy Story 3 came out. It now sits as the 9th highest grossing animated film after the likes of Finding Dory, Frozen and Zootopia. It was nominated at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival for the Palme D’Or (the festival’s highest award) as well as the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. It won neither but it’s status as one of the greatest animated films of all time is undeniable. Shrek 2 will go down in history as the watermark of where animated comedy peaked. Sausage Party eat your heart out!