Hollywood’s clean little secret is that many people in the industry are not, at least by natural inclination, the utter shlockmeisters that their output would suggest. They are often cultivated, tasteful, hard-working craftsmen sometimes pained by the trashiness the public demands from them.
Over the last decade, the animated Shrek franchise, a hugely successful series about a green ogre in a tawdry fairy tale land, has offered perhaps the most flagrant example of What the People Want (and Deserve to Get, Good and Hard). Yet, in Shrek Forever After, its latest (and likely last) installment, the animators have moved in a surprising new direction.
The typical billion-dollar box office property, such as the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or Spider-Man series, is based on an elaborate preexisting work whose integrity is jealously guarded by fanboys. In contrast, the 2001 Shrek was a surprise hit derived merely from a 32-page bedtime book by William Steig, allowing the franchise to become a tabula rasa pandering to median 21st century tastes.
The first Shrek had evolved into a poison pen letter from DreamWorks executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, the former Disney studio head during its Beauty and the Beast silver age, to his ex-boss Michael Eisner. Shrek’s villain, Lord Farquaad, was modeled on Eisner, who had tried to cheat Katzenberg out of his share of Disney profits (eventually settling for, reportedly, $280 million).
You might have expected that the audience for a family film would have either been oblivious to or alienated by this backstory of Hollywood venality. Instead, they were galvanized.
The meta-joke of Shrek was how DreamWorks’ crudely animated versions of public domain Disney characters (such as three small pigs or a wooden boy) tiptoed right up to but didn’t quite violate Disney’s notoriously well-defended copyrights. It’s remarkable that the public now more or less gets intellectual property humor, but also a little depressing.
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