‘Let’s do that again!’: How to reboot Shrek in 2018

Fig. 1 -  Shrek  (2001).

Fig. 1 - Shrek (2001).

Back in November, Variety caused a furore online by reporting that Chris Meledandri, the Illumination founder and Despicable Me (2010) producer charged with overseeing DreamWorks Animation after its acquisition by Comcast, was planning on ‘rebooting’ the Shrek series. ‘Reboot’ typically refers to starting from scratch with a film franchise, recasting the characters and restarting the narrative. If Variety had read their own interview, they would have noticed that Meledandri actually said that ‘while you certainly could make a case for a complete reinvention, I find myself responding to my own nostalgic feelings of wanting to go back to those characterizations’. What he is in fact describing is a fourth sequel to the 2001 original, implicitly continuing the story from where it left off with Shrek Forever After in 2010. William Proctor distinguishes the reboot from the sequel by noting that “a reboot wipes the slate clean and begins the story again from “year one,” from a point of origin and from an alternative parallel position” (2012: 5). This would certainly not be impossible to achieve while retaining the same cast, but it would certainly be counter-intuitive. Nevertheless, other outlets ran with the ‘reboot’ headline, sending the likes Twitter and YouTube into a frenzy of ogre fans complaining that it’s ‘too soon’ for a reboot and demanding a sequel instead. This speaks to the affection that people of a certain age have for the era-defining original, perhaps indicating that, commercially, the time is indeed right for a new entry in the series to capitalise on this coalescing nostalgia, similar to Pixar’s strategy with the decade-long gaps between Toy Story (1995-2010), Monsters, Inc. (2001-2003), Finding Nemo (2003-2016) and Incredibles (2004-2018) sequels.

Regardless of whether DreamWorks and Meledandri go ahead with a sequel or even a reboot, however, the more pertinent question is what purpose would a Shrek film serve in the 2020s? Other than fuelling the obsessions of the cadre of online meme-artists keeping the ogre’s spirit alive through their warped takes on his legend (we’ll get to them in a moment), what gap in the market would this once-vital franchise be designed to fill? When the original Shrek debuted, memorably wiping his backside with a page torn from a generic Disney-esque fairy story, he represented a necessary antidote to the enormous commercial success and subsequent market saturation of the Mouse House’s ‘Renaissance’ run of animated fantasy musicals (Fig. 1). With the addition of modern technology and cultural touchstones to its Medieval diegesis, Shrek challenged the earnest and optimistic fantasy utopia of the Disney canon – long-since established as the default setting of the animated feature – by anchoring its fairy-story to our lived reality and contemporary outlooks. Not only adopting the fresh three-dimensional aesthetic pioneered in Toy Story (1995) six years earlier, but marrying it with a sardonic tone, pop-culture-infused intertextual gags, and explicit criticisms of Disney’s approach to fairy-tale adaptation, Shrek was a breath of fresh air for many upon release. Film critics[1] and academics alike[2] acknowledged the film as a clear and firm retort to Disney’s market dominance and the perceived ‘sterility’ and ‘saccharinity’ of their output, as identified by respondents in Janet Wasko et al’s Global Disney Audiences Project (see Phillips 2001: 47).

Shrek was hugely influential, as evidenced by the degree to which subsequent computer-animated films adopted its tone and intertextual approach: in addition to much of DreamWorks’ own output, Blue Sky’s Robots (2005), Sony’s Surf’s Up (2007), Pixar’s Cars (2006) and even Disney’s Chicken Little (2005) owe debts to the ogre, to say nothing of smaller productions like Hoodwinked (2005) and Happily N’Ever After (2007) which similarly sought to lampoon fairy-tales. Neither approach the targeted specificity of Shrek’s parody, however – Happily is a watered down, toothless gesture towards subverting the Disney model, while Hoodwinked avoids tackling the Mouse House, taking aim at Red Riding Hood – perhaps speaking to the comprehensiveness of Shrek’s satire.  Its influence was so pervasive, in fact, that any sequel or reboot taking the same approach could never hope to replicate the original’s impact in an animated landscape which is still displaying traces of its aftereffects. This can be seen in the Shrek franchise itself, which abandoned the Disney satire after Shrek 2 (2004) to focus on the ogre’s seemingly-endless string of midlife crises, retaining the tone and dense intertextuality of the earlier films but operating less and less parodically.

Fig. 2 -  Ralph Breaks the Internet  (2018).

Fig. 2 - Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018).

It seems that Disney themselves, though they have returned to the fairy-tale musical mode that dominated their 1990s slate, cannot release a film featuring princesses that does not go out of its way to pass commentary on the familiar Renaissance-era tropes that Shrek made virtually untenable through its pointed parody. Frozen (2013), for example, takes great pains to point out that the love-at-first-sight narrative found in films like Aladdin (1992) and The Little Mermaid (1989) is more than a little unrealistic. Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018), meanwhile, throws all of the Disney Princesses together for the first time in order to run through a laundry list of clichés – bursting into song, getting kidnapped and curse, talking to animals, relying on a ‘big strong man’ – all of which were deconstructed nearly two decades earlier in Shrek, and much more acerbically at that (Fig. 2). In a world where even the most saccharine Disney musicals are drawing attention to the tropes of the past, is there any sense in a Shrek reboot to mock a genre which now subsists on gently mocking itself? Is the big green ogre really the hero we need right now?

The answer is almost certainly no – at least within the framework of a big-budget DreamWorks production. However, extracted from his original context by the aforementioned online memesters, and reduced to a green, ogre-shaped signifier of the time-locked early-2000s version of postmodern anarchy that he once represented, Shrek has once again become a subversive figure of sorts. I’ve written previously on the trend of often-unsettling fan content based on the film, its Smash Mouth theme song, and its ubiquitous star, but these are always short form works designed for quick laughs or shocks. Coincidentally, however, in the month following the news of the ‘reboot’, two very different large-scale reworkings of the film debuted, making the case that the only reboot that can replicate the spirit of the original is one filtered through the peculiar lens of online irony perpetuated by Millennials raised as much on Shrek’s cynicism and chaotic bricolage as they were on Disney’s trademark sentimentality. These crowd-sourced reinterpretations make it their mission to out-Shrek, or perhaps re-Shrek, Shrek, subjecting the original film to its own strategies of subversion until it is reduced to an unrecognisable abstraction of itself, anchored only by blurred glimpses of a lime-green silhouette and an impression of an impression of a Scottish accent.

Fig. 3 -  Shrek Retold  (2018).

Fig. 3 - Shrek Retold (2018).

The first of these was Shrek Retold, a feature length remake of Shrek perpetrated by the organisers of Wisconsin’s annual ‘Shrekfest’ – described by The AV Club as ‘where irony goes to die’ – along with 200 collaborators sourced from the funniest, weirdest and darkest corners of the web. The original film was cut up into tiny chunks, ranging from full scenes to five-second snippets, handed out to a horde of internet luminaries to recreate in any way they saw fit, and ultimately reassembled into an almost-coherent narrative (Fig. 3). Similar projects have been mounted by other online fan communities, with 2009’s Star Wars: Uncut project being perhaps the most well-known. While the Star Wars fans certainly took liberties with the source material and found humour in their low-budget recreations of it, it is clear that their infatuation with the text is more earnest than that of the Shrek fans, as Uncut generally lacks the palpable layers of irony and wilful surrealism found in Retold. The latter’s segments range from genuinely beautiful animated sequences and music videos – Hot Dad’s ‘80s inspired take on ‘I’m A Believer’ is a sublime standout – to horrific miscarriages of CGI and baffling outsider art. Just try making sense of LA busker David Liebe Hart’s puppet-assisted cover of John Cale’s cover of ‘Hallelujah’, for example. Though it’s often difficult to tell, the majority of contributions seem to come from a place of real affection for the film. The contributors are by-and-large fans of the film, albeit fans seemingly competing to produce the most disturbing or consciously ironic take on the film. And yet, Shrek isn’t strictly parodied per se, in the way that it parodied Disney classics itself. It isn’t dissected or criticised so much as it is re-presented, and the humour comes from the diversity and absurdity of those re-presentations, paralleling and amplifying the perceived absurdity of the original.

Taking place around the release of Shrek Retold by pure happenstance, the organisers of Flim Nite, a Manchester-based comedy and performance art event which stages shows based around loose reinterpretations of classic movies, embarked on a tour dedicated to Shrek itself. Similarly to Retold, Flim Nite typically carves a film into four sections, and tasks four artists with building a performance around each of them. Unlike Retold, this approach rarely if ever results in a coherent remake of the film in question, as the artists are free to develop any kind of set they like, focussing on whatever minutia from their assigned section which takes their fancy. Some performers tour with the organisers, and some are exclusive to a particular town. The Newcastle event, for example, featured a Dickensian miser critiquing the film on ludicrous economic grounds, a monologue delivered from the perspective of Donkey’s backside, a philosophical discussion based around every question asked in the film, and a participatory theatre experience centred around a mass-possession taking place during a 2001 screening of Shrek. The Flim Nite performers were more liable than the Retold contributors to openly ridicule the film, pointing out its flaws and absurdities more explicitly, and the organisers are by their own admission far from Shrek super-fans. However, there were more than a few diehards in the audience, whooping at every obscure reference, the more specific the better. The evening had a celebratory atmosphere, and featured giddy sing-alongs of ‘All Star’ and ‘Hallelujah’.

Both of these fan-produced ‘reboots’ of Shrek distort its imagery, narrative and music into bizarre, often horrifying visions, and yet they do so without malice. The takeaway is that Shrek has taught us to laugh at Shrek, refracting it through its own postmodern sensibility. Unauthorised, and unsuitable for children, though they may be, they represent a truer adaptation of the original film’s cultural function – dismantling and reassembling the seminal works of the past to reveal their absurdities – than an official reboot could possibly aspire to. It is worth noting that these and other subversive fan responses to Shrek coincide with the renewed viability of the animated fantasy fairy-tale in the form of Frozen and Moana (2016), perhaps signalling that as the film has become more widely known as a punchline than anything else the force of its initial impact on popular culture has been forgotten. Still, if such fan works can be accused of diluting Shrek’s legacy as a landmark in the history of fantasy animation, their attitude and strategies signal the lasting influence of its spirit.

Notes

[1] See Susan Wloszczyna, ‘“Shrek” spins jokes from fairy tales’, USA Today (18 May 2001) <https://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/enter/movies/2001-05-16-shrek-review.htm> [accessed 9 September 2017]; Ed Gonzalez, ‘Shrek’, Slant (13 May 2001) <http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/shrek> [accessed 9 September 2017]; Elvis Mitchell, ‘So Happily Ever After, Beauty and the Beasts’, The New York Times (16 May 2001) <http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9F00E3DD153AF935A25756C0A9679C8B63> [accessed 9 September 2017].

[2] See M. Keith Booker, Disney, Pixar, and the Hidden Messages of Children's Films (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010); Jack Zipes, Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002).

References

Phillips, Mark. “The Global Disney Audiences Project: Disney across Cultures,” in Dazzled By Disney?: The Global Disney Audiences Project, eds. Janet Wasko, Mark Phillips and Eileen R. Meehan (London: Leicester University Press, 2001), 31-61.

Proctor, William. “Regeneration & Rebirth: Anatomy of the Franchise Reboot,” Scope, Issue 22 (February 2012): 1-19.

Biography

Sam Summers is Associate Lecturer in Film at Liverpool Hope University. His research focuses on the use of intertextual references in contemporary animation in general and DreamWorks’ animation in particular, with a view to contextualizing and historicizing the studio’s role in the development of the medium. He is the co-editor (with Noel Brown and Susan Smith) of Toy Story:How Pixar Reinvented the Animated Feature (London: Bloomsbury Academic,2018), and has a forthcoming monograph on the DreamWorks Animation studio.