The worst thing about the Shrek films is not their entertainment inconsistencies or lack of reach. Instead, what's most troublesome is the bellwether they set for an entire decade of derivative rip-offs.
With Dreamworks supposedly putting the last nail in the coffin of this creaky, antiquated CG dinosaur (well, ogre actually), it's time to look back at the damage a certain big green idiot has done to a fledgling, often faltering artform. When computer animation first hit big, there were two considered standard bearers. On the one side was Pixar, careful in their approach, polished in their presentation, and seemingly flawless in the quality of work they eventually produce. Of the ten movies the current Disney subsidiary has made, all have their champions and almost all are classics. On the other hand is the Spielberg/Katezenberg crapshoot, a creative enterprise that has seen as many disasters (Madagascar, Shark Tale) as delights (Kung Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon).
Sitting on top of the heap of half-baked entertainment is the Shrek series. Sure, the first film managed to snag the Academy Award away from Monsters Inc. (hard to believe in retrospect), but since then, the franchise has been a cinematic illustration of the law of diminishing returns. Shrek 2 was an even bigger box office success, but failed to repeat in the little gold statue department, and the less said about the awful Shrek the Third, the better. Now comes the closing riff for this encore no one asked for, a superior attempt to "reinvent" the original storyline to show what would happen if our hulking hero had never been born. Introducing the new villain Rumplestilkskin and offering a "parallel universe" version of Far Far Away where Shrek is no one special, the main aspects of this fourth installment are pretty solid.
But then the hackneyed elements that have ruined the series resurface: Eddie Murphy';s motor-mouth with ADD attempts at nonstop stand-up punchlines; the tossed off quality of the supporting players (especially one time favorites The Gingerbread Man and Puss N Boots; the gimmick of the moment inclusion of 3D; the utter lack of complicated character development; the calculated contemporary shout-outs meant to include those in the pop culture know while excluding anyone over, say, the age of 12; the abhorrent reliance on tacky toilet humor as a means of making the audience giggle; and the by now rote effectiveness of the voice acting. Instead of looking to Pixar, or its own stellar products, Dreamworks dumbs down the genre, insisting on being the class clown in a room full of jaundiced jesters. Sadly, instead of mocking this kind of goofball grandstanding, most pretenders to the cartoon throne want to mimic it.
Indeed, the massive commercial success of the Shrek franchise has bolstered less than memorable attempts at same from others. Fox formed an alliance with the baser Blue Sky Studios, releasing the redundant Ice Age movies, as well as memorable flops such as Robots, while Paramount has paired up with the Dreamers themselves to help out with mediocrities like Monsters vs. Aliens and Bee Movie. There are also lots of independents floating around, companies like Summit Entertainment (Fly Me to the Moon, Astro Boy) and Valiant (Space Chimps, Happily N'Ever After) that try to copy the creative drive of its competitors. For the most part, however, their efforts are as forgettable as the flood of films that come from outside the studio system each and every year.
While it may seem unfair to hold Shrek's bloated feet to the fire for the current back and forth in CG animation quality, it's clear that the industry wholeheartedly believes there are two competing prototypes for family film fun. The first is offered by Disney and its distribution arm, a combination of quality and masterfully marketed fodder which fills niches both artistic and artificial for the company. As long as Wall-E and Up win awards, the rest of the division can dine out on endless direct to DVD Tinkerbell adventures. On the other side of the sketch pad are the Shreks, the laugh a minute marathons that run out of steam long before the audience has stop snickering.
If the Toy Story films are the Woody Allen of the genre, then Shrek stands in for the easy-out one-liners of an Adam Sandler spoof. At its worst - Shrek the Third, for example - the swamp dweller equals the horrific Hellspawn that is the work of Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg (the duo responsible for the miserable "Movie" films). While some will point to the billions of dollars earned by the franchise and feign a sense of judgmental superiority, what's clear is that, in terms of timeless entertainment quality and actual invention, Shrek is coasting. Clearly, The Final Chapter needs to live up to its title. Even with the added approach of turning familiar characters into twisted versions of their former selves (all except Donkey, who's as hyperactive here as ever) and Rumplestilkskin's witch-aided reign of terror, the film feels old.
Indeed, after only nine years, it's frightening to see how dated some of Shrek really is. All worn-out wit aside, these movies take no risks, offer little beyond the simplicities of their strategies, and do nothing to expand our perception of what CG animation can be. Granted, not everyone has to play Pixar. There is nothing wrong with acting the fool, just as long as you're not doing so for crass, manipulative reasons. If the Shrek films were a cavalcade of unabashed silliness, going for the gut (or occasionally, the groin) at every turn, we'd enjoy every ribtickling moment. But someone clearly believes that there is grandeur in the tired tomfoolery, infusing these movies with meaningless messages about family and friends. When the Shrek films dive into emotion, they often turn from endearing to insufferable.
So as Dreamworks closes up shop on this profitable series and waits for the inevitable call for future installments (when, exactly, has Hollywood ever truly lived up to its "Final Chapter" promises???), we can reflect back on a quartet of titles that, while often approachable, have left an indelible stain on the artform they claim to commemorate. The worst thing about the Shrek films is not their entertainment inconsistencies or lack of reach. Instead, what's most troublesome is the bellwether they set for an entire decade of derivative rip-offs. Had the ogre with a Scottish attitude not struck some manner of mainstream chord, we wouldn't be inundated with the flood of lesser titles trying to copy its cash machinery. Argue over their value all you want, but in the pecking order of animated influence, Shrek is the idol no one really asked for. Here's hoping for a LONG and restful retirement.