Watching all four Shrek movies in a brief period is an educational experience. You see everything that is good (and bad) with an animated franchise, and you see the one thing often missing when franchises, animated or not, go off the tracks…redemption. If you check out the box set Shrek: The Whole Story (including Shrek, Shrek 2, Shrek the Third, and Shrek Forever After, you’ll find the best and the worst that the stories of a giant green ogre have to offer. Also, we begin to realize why fart jokes are best left to four year olds.
The Shrek franchise was a phenomenon during the last decade. The four character-driven, satirical, and pop-culture-riddled computer-animated comedies made in excess of 14 trillion dollars since the first movie was released back in 2001. I mean, that’s a rough guess, but I’m pretty sure it’s accurate. They also made it possible to refer to Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy as “comic actors” in a setting and not have everyone guffaw and possibly sneeze in your face. With the (supposed) final installment, Shrek Forever After, out now on Blu-ray, how does this whole series stack up?
Better than I thought it might, to be honest. I figured the heavy level of time-sensitive culture references, as well as the overall improvements in computer animation since 2001, would make the first two movies seem a bit dated. Plus, the third movie just plain sucked. Thankfully, I was wrong. Not about Shrek the Third, which is a real piece of dung, but Shrek and Shrek 2 are, if not fresh, still very appealing. Even though the Lord of the Rings joke in Shrek 2 isn’t really immediate, it’s still pretty funny.
The story, spread out over the four films, involves a giant, ugly, green ogre named Shrek (voiced by Myers) who wants nothing more than to live quietly in his swamp in a fairy-tale land, scaring the occasional villager, or six. He ends up going on a quest for Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow) to rescue a Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) from a tower. Shrek is forced to befriend Donkey (Eddie Murphy), and the two ultimately rescue Fiona. After the obligatory falling in love and living happily ever after, Shrek and his friends return for Shrek 2, or Shrek Meets the In-Laws. Because Shrek 2 is a sequel, more big names show up, including Julie Andrews and John Cleese as Fiona’s King and Queen of Far, Far Away parents and Antonia Banderas as Puss in Boots, a suave, sword-wielding cat. The Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders) is the bad guy in this one, but eventually she gets sorted out.
Deciding they hadn’t screwed anything up so far and they were still minting money, DreamWorks threw out Shrek the Third during the 2007 Summer of Threequels. It was the worst of the Threequels that summer (which is saying a lot), and also the worst of the Shrek movies by a long shot. Justin Timberlake joined the cast as Artie, the rightful heir to the Far, Far Away throne which is being usurped by Prince Charming (Rupert Evert). A who's-who of Saturday Night Live ladies join in as some butt-kicking princesses, but the whole thing feels like it was done to make everyone a few (million) dollars. Once a franchise goes over the edge like that, it’s hard to bring it back, but DreamWorks gave it the old college try in 2010 with Shrek Forever After. Son-of-a-gun if they didn’t succeed. This time adding only animation writer Walt Dohrn as villain Rumpelstiltskin, they recaptured the fun and character-driven aspects of the original film. Almost. They certainly recaptured enough of it to wash the bad taste of the third movie out of your mouth.
When Shrek is on, it's way on. Big action pieces, hilarious dialogue delivered by Murphy and Myers, and real satire. These are, at their best, movies for grown-ups that have enough fart jokes and silly action to appeal to even the youngest kids. The messages, which are of the “be who you are” and “everyone deserves love” variety, don’t scream with originality, but the presentation is like a bigger version of a Simpsons episode. Core beliefs gussied up with silly animated trappings.
This box set is certainly a good opportunity to fill in a collection that might include -- horror -- a VHS copy of the first movie, like I have. The third movie could be dropped out without any real plot being lost, and you’d save a few bucks not supporting crap, but it’s a harmless addition. It does bring down the overall score, as do the pop-culture jokes which don’t quite pop like they did in 2001 and 2004.
The funny thing about the Shrek: The Whole Story box set on Blu-ray is not so much that it isn’t impressive to have all the movies on beautiful HD and that they didn’t make some effort with the extras, it's just that they didn’t seem to put enough unique stuff in the set to make it a “must have” for the Shrek fan. Still, if you have an incomplete collection of the movies or are planning on making a Blu-ray upgrade, this is a great opportunity.
The main unique thing you get with this set is Shrek and Shrek 2 in HD. While you can get Shrek the Third on Blu-ray and Shrek Forever After is being released simultaneously as a standalone movie, the first two films only seem to be available in this set. Those bastards! They just have HD lovers by the short hairs, am I right? Well, the HD upgrade is totally worth it. Sure, I’m going from VHS tape on Shrek and DVD on Shrek 2, but the clarity, color, vividness, and brightness of the Blu-ray is just fantastic. Remember, this is a visually appealing movie with tons and tons of in-jokes and subtle references that are just easier to spot and enjoy with HD.
Many of the extras are available on all four discs, and the most appealing is something called (oddly) “Animator’s Corner.” It’s a picture-in-picture quasi-commentary that can be played during each film. The reason it’s such an odd name is this isn’t really an animator’s forum. It includes interviews with the star, directors, and producers, as well as some animators, along with shots of the work in progress of a scene or the storyboards. It functions like a commentary in that you can’t hear the dialogue when it’s playing, but no one who is being interviewed in the PIP is watching the actual scene you are, so they don’t address it directly like they would in a normal commentary. It’s more of a behind-the-scenes featurette shown alongside the movie and strung out to the length of the film. It’s enjoyable, and is the only way to hear the thoughts of the stars during the movie, since they don’t participate in the audio commentaries.
Speaking of commentaries, there is at least one for each movie except Shrek the Third. It’s almost as if they couldn’t get anyone who worked on that movie willing to watch it again. Shrek 2 makes up for this by having two commentaries, and the other movies have one each. They mostly include producers, directors, writers, editors, etc. participating, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t breezy and informative. It’s nice, compared to the “Animator’s Corner,” to have someone directly commenting on the action on screen. However, you don’t get the animation sketches and other behind-the-scenes visuals you get with the PIP.
The naming of some of these extras is a little puzzling at times. There is something called “Shrek’s Interactive Journey,” but it should really be called “Art Gallery.” It allows you to click on places in the Shrek world and see some concept drawings of the area. Some people probably love this kind of thing, but I’m never too interested. Still, they should have been a little clearer when labeling it, so if you want to find it, you can.
Other items that pop up consistently across the discs are a “Spotlight On” feature for Shrek, Fiona, Puss in Boots, and Donkey, each on a separate movie. This covers the voice work of the character, the star behind each voice, and the character’s development. It’s nice to see them making an effort to tie everything together rather than just trotting out extras that were relevant in 2001 when Shrek came out but aren’t quite so relevant today. There is also a brief “Secrets Of” feature on each movie. This doesn’t seem to go as far as I would like on the different inside jokes or references. It is a little too basic and spends too much time saying, “The editor was also the voice of the Pig” or whatever.
The Shrek movies made a big deal about music, and the discs have all of the music videos for the big songs from the movies, as well as some of the animated music sequences from the films themselves. There is also an attempt to sell tickets to the current touring musical based on the movie, so a making-of feature as well as songs from the stage show are included. If you are too cheap to shell out the dough to take in the Broadway show (hey, I rhymed!) then you can get the next best thing.
The remainder of the extras include some deleted scenes for each movie but except Shrek 2, a couple of features about the cast and the technical making of Shrek Forever After, a bunch of Christmas-themed games and bits on the Shrek Forever After disc, and some stupid extra on the Justin Timberlake character in Shrek the Third that sucks, just like the movie.
While the attempt to be cohesive in the box set is commendable, they didn’t seem to want to put together any “wow” items. It’s all pretty “Well, that’s great” type of stuff. Plus, there is a LOT of it. So, you have three top-notch films and a very nice set of extras that are (at this point) primarily unique to this set. It’s worth checking out.