Start Taking Shrek Seriously

It was the Fourth of July and I was hunkered down in a coffee shop with a significant other escaping the heat of mid-afternoon. We wasted much of the day there discussing a variety of topics but only one still stands out. Our talks turned, as they occasionally would, towards Shrek.

I’ll be the first to admit that I never considered myself much of a fan of Shrek, it was a movie, as far as I could remember, about Mike Myers doing a Scottish accent while Eddie Murphy made one-liners and, eventually, a fart joke happened but something my partner said to me changed my entire viewpoint. “There’s a musical, it’s pretty good.”

So nonchalant, as if they hadn’t just dropped a metaphorical bomb on all my notions of the Shrek franchise. A musical made everything more entertaining. Sure, maybe the films eventually resorted to making the same jokes over and over again but imagine them set to music! Imagine the colorful cast of characters that came to your screen via state of the art 3D animation instead coming to your screen thanks to various layers of makeup and prosthesis. It was just the thing that could finally help me understand the appeal of a franchise that I, and most of my generation, had turned into a laughing stock.

The first Shrek film came out in May of 2001. At the time of it’s release, audiences had become tired of the typical fare being put out by Disney and Pixar had settled in as the reigning king of animation but Dreamworks was well on its way to setting itself up as a true challenger for the crown. All it needed was one surefire hit to send them over the edge and catapult them into the upper echelon of animation studios.

The success of Shrek put Dreamworks on the map and set up an enduring franchise that still remains a landmark for the company, their very own Toy Story. Shrek, though, hearkened to a darker mood than Pixar usually dared to go. It seemed almost prescient in it’s predicting of the change that pop culture would go through in just a few short months. Shrek was a herald for the post-9/11 age of cynicism. It toyed with the conventions of the standard fairy tale and put a more adult sensibility front and center. It was simultaneously ahead of and a part of its time but we eventually rejected it.

People will say that lack of quality in sequels and spin-offs is what turned Shrek into a joke but the true culprit is the unceasing meme culture we’ve created for ourselves. Doing a quick Google search will give you all sorts of ‘jokes’ made at the expense of an animated ogre who was simply teaching us all to be better. Trust me, I understand. I was there too, joking and making fun of an achievement of modern animated cinema. Taking the time to watch the musical version, however, opened my eyes. Shrek was serious business and no longer deserved our admonishment. This shining green beacon of hope dulled by the feral roars of laughter from a generation that has scorned it, no more I say!

The musical opens with Shrek’s parents teaching him the ways of the ogre by sending him off to live on his own at the tender age of seven. This is one of many looks into the past of characters that gives an added layer of depth and wonder to them. Take for instance, our Princess Fiona, we see her spending years in her castle, alone, growing up by reading stories about the noble princes who come to rescue maidens such as herself. The musical rebukes that notion, however, by having Fiona rescued by our titular ogre.

The added backstory is wonderful but the true magic of this musical wonderland is the design in both sets and costume. I noticed it near the beginning as the music swelled and Shrek himself came to life as he broke out of an outhouse. Truly, we were witnessing a renaissance. Shrek has never looked more real and alive than he does here and the actor’s Scottish accent is even better than Mike Myers’ own.  Donkey remains a showstealer and looks fabulous, if less Donkey-like but the true spectacle of all this is the dragon. Bringing the biggest part of the franchise, literally speaking, to life was no easy task but they did it and they did it in style.

At it’s heart, Shrek is a story about acceptance and tolerance. It’s perfect for a Broadway adaptation and the musical perfects everything that the original film tried to do, even the fart jokes seem to have more heft and weight. The only shame is that no one has decided to adapt Shrek 2 and continue the feat of pure musical harmony they pulled off with the first.

Alas, it seems we will only have this two hour gem to remind us that Shrek can be important, if we let it. There are still things we all have left to learn from this tale, a tale not as old as time but, probably, at least as old as someone reading this. Perhaps, the Shrek franchise itself still has something to say as well.

Word has been out for sometime now that a fifth entry in the film series is being planned and if I were the creators of this new film I’d take a moment and watch Shrek: The Musical. Take in the majesty that it presents and the wonderful spell it casts over it’s audience, I truly believe it would help. The film series would do well to take the lessons of this musical and not give in to the greedy corporate merchandising that has befallen so many other animated franchises. Shrek should remain pure as pure as his home in the swamps.

Jesse Swanson is a would-be writer, podcaster and funny guy who covers TV shows of all shapes and sizes. You can find him on Twitter @JesseSwanson