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Our reviews of Shrek (published December 21st, 2001), Shrek The Third (published November 30th, 2007), Shrek The Third (Blu-Ray) (published September 26th, 2008), and Shrek The Third (HD DVD) (published December 6th, 2007) are also available.
The greatest fairy tale never told.
Four films, two green ogres, one donkey, a boot-wearing cat and a host of fairy tale creatures come together in high definition for one spectacular Blu-ray release.
Facts of the Case
Welcome to the land of Far, Far Away, where every fairy tale creature and character ever written actually resides. Here, the swamp is ruled by a giant green ogre named Shrek (Mike Meyers, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery)—who, incidentally, is also the title character of his own 2001 movie, Shrek. When Far, Far Away's maniacal new ruler, the diminutive Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow, Blow Out), forces all of the fairy tale creatures out of the kingdom and into Shrek's swamp, things start to get a little crowded for the ogre. Traveling to ask Farquaad to clear out his swamp so he can be alone again, Shrek is accompanied by a fast-talking donkey named Donkey (Eddie Murphy), who is more than a little anxious to be the ogre's best friend. The pair is tasked with rescuing the princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz, Vanilla Sky) held captive in a tower (so that Farquaad can marry her and become king himself). What they don't know is that princess is under a curse: when the sun goes down, she turns into a green ogre not unlike Shrek. The only cure? True love's kiss. Now, it's up to Shrek and Donkey to rescue the princess, break the curse and stop Lord Farquaad from taking over Far, Far Away.
In Shrek 2, Shrek and Fiona return from their honeymoon to learn that the King and Queen of Far, Far Away (voiced by John Cleese and Julie Andrews, respectively) want to celebrate the nuptials with their daughter and new son-in-law. The meeting does not go well, particularly after Shrek learns that the King and Queen had intended for Fiona to marry Prince Charming (Rupert Everett, My Best Friend's Wedding), whom she was once in love with. Prince Charming and his mother, Fiona's Fairy Godmother, accost the king and insist he rid of Shrek once and for all so that Charming can marry the princess. So, the King arranges for Shrek and Donkey to go on a fishing trip—which is actually a trap in which the pair are to be assassinated by Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas, Once Upon a Time in Mexico). Will the killer cat succeed in his attempt? Will the King's plan be revealed? Will Shrek return to make things right with Fiona and defeat Prince Charming in one fell swoop?
Shrek the Third finds the King falling ill and naming his heir: Shrek. The ogre, reluctant to become ruler of Far, Far Away, learns that there is another candidate for king in the bloodline: a teenage boy named Arthur (Justin Timberlake, Alpha Dog). Shrek, Donkey and Puss in Boots head off to find Arthur just as Fiona learns that she and Shrek are going to be parents. As Shrek freaks out about his impending fatherhood, he locates Arthur—who turns out to be just as reluctant to become king as Shrek, particularly after being told how awful the job is by Donkey and Puss. Meanwhile, the jilted Prince Charming has gathered a veritable army of fairy tale villains (including Captain Hook, the Wicked Witch, a Cyclops and more) to charge on Far, Far Away and enslave its inhabitants so that Charming can finally take his rightful seat as ruler. Oh, and some babies are born.
The series concludes with Shrek Forever After, in which Shrek and Fiona have settled into apparent domestic bliss—retired in the swamp, the parents of three adorable ogre babies. Unfortunately, the stresses of domesticity and his newfound acceptance make Shrek miss his old days as a fearsome ogre. He's granted one wish by Rumplestilskin (who bears a grudge against Shrek for ruining his chances to rule by rescuing the princess back in the original film) and elects to go back to being an ogre for a day. The only catch? He's got to give up just one day from some point in his past. Rumplestilskin takes away the day Shrek was born, meaning when he returns from his ogre-for-a-day vacation, Shrek finds a world he does not recognize: none of the events from any of the films have happened. He never rescued Fiona. Her curse was never broken. In fact, she's now living in hiding in the woods, the warrior leader of an army of ogres looking to bring down the tyrannical rule of Rumplestilskin. Now, Shrek has only one day to convince Donkey that they are, in fact, best friends, convince Fiona that she loves him, once again break the curse and get his old life back before he disappears forever.
Going into the new Blu-ray box set Shrek: The Whole Story, I have to admit I wasn't the biggest Shrek fan. That made the prospect of sitting through four consecutive Shrek films—plus hours and hours of commentaries and bonus content—a bit daunting. I saw the original Shrek when it was released in 2001, and found a lot to like about it—the way that it subverted a lot of fairy tale tropes and cleverly gave Disney the middle finger at every opportunity chief among them. It felt genuinely edgy for a kids' movie, which I found myself liking in spite of all the fart jokes. But by the time Shrek 2 was released just a few years later, I found that the formula had already grown stale and that the series was revealed for how superficial and pandering it was. Though the series continued to make billions upon billions of dollars, I skipped the next two films altogether, perhaps foolishly believing that there was some integrity in boycotting the movies and throwing my meaningless support behind the folks at Pixar.
Now, having finally seen all four films in the Shrek quadrilogy (thank the good folks at Fox for that idiotic and made-up word), I'll admit that I was wrong. Sort of. My feelings about the first two Shrek movies haven't really changed; what works in the first film still works, but what it does wrong only stands out more now almost a decade later. The movie even opens with a bathroom joke—a disheartening omen of what's to come—and too often relies on simplistic jokes and Eddie Murphy's comic energy to carry it through. Luckily, though, there's just as much humor that's clever and genuinely subversive (I'll always love the "Muffin Man" exchange, and the goon that breaks the mirror as a threat to the Mirror on the Wall). What surprised me more than anything in Shrek was how crude the animation in the original movie now seems; what once felt cutting-edge now seems a bit stiff and simple by today's vastly improved standards. It's the human characters that have always given away the magic in the Shrek movies, and though the problem was never really solved (the artists strive for a kind of realism in the faces, and that's a mistake; the eyes always feel dead and the faces appear to be carved from wood), it's never more apparent than in the original movie. Actually, working through Shrek: The Whole Story is worthwhile for no other reason than just to watch just how much the animation evolves in the span of a decade.
The sequel is, at times, just as cheap and lazy as I once found it to be, helping to create the template for a lot of what's wrong with current animated movies not made by Pixar: lots of potty humor and anachronistic pop music for the kids and hollow, there-for-the-sake-of-being-there pop culture references for adults (because apparently that's how you captivate both audiences). The first five minutes of the movie is little more than a sight-gag name checking of the popular movies of the time: Spider-Man, Lord of the Rings and—what the heck?—The Little Mermaid for good measure. I guess adults are supposed to be entertained simply by virtue of the fact that they get the reference, even though there's no real joke to be made (it's a bit like Family Guy that way). If there's any saving grace to Shrek 2, it's the introduction of the series' best character: Puss in Boots, a dashingly romantic, swashbuckling cat voiced to perfection by Antonio Banderas. He steals the movie from every other character on screen, and continues to do so over the course of the next two movies (I could see DreamWorks wanting to give him his own spin-off movie, but that would be a mistake; he works best as a supporting character). While I applaud the attempt to reverse the first film's story in Shrek 2—this time it's Shrek becoming human instead of Fiona—it never really feels like much more than that. It's just a role-reversal repeat.
Going into Shrek the Third—the first film in the series I hadn't previously seen—I was bracing myself for the worst, as I'm aware of the movie's reputation for being the weakest of the bunch. And, yet, I'd put it on par with the second film in terms of quality; like its predecessor, it's too much of a mixed bag to stand alongside the first film, but there's still a lot in it to like. The best part about the third film is the collection of villains, made up of a host of classic fairy tale baddies who are all bitter about the way they were treated by their rivals. Unfortunately, the stakes are just too low in Shrek the Third; we're not terribly invested in Shrek's quest to locate Arthur, and his concerns about becoming a father aren't really a strong enough spine to carry an entire film—especially a film that's targeted towards kids, who could care less if Shrek has parental anxiety or not. At the end of the day, Shrek the Third feels a lot like a placeholder, suffering from a lot of the problems that tend to plague unnecessary sequels that exist simply to cash in on a popular franchise. Thankfully, the series doesn't end here, or it would have gone out with far more whimper than bang.
The same way that a great ending to a movie can help convince you that the movie was better than it actually was, the Shrek series gets a huge boost from the fact that the fourth and final film, Shrek Forever After, is arguably the best in the series. It eschews most of the series' more cloyingly obnoxious qualities (though there are still those moments, like when the Pied Piper performs the flute solo that opens "Sure Shot" by the Beastie Boys; just because we recognize it and know that it's incongruous does not make it funny) in favor of a more sweeping adventure story. It asks us to invest more in the characters than we previously have, but it also pays off that investment with far richer emotional rewards. For a franchise that until now has been almost entirely dependent on smartass irreverence, there's finally a lot at stake in Shrek Forever After, and the way that the filmmakers bring the themes of the entire series together at the film's climax is both genuinely moving and deeply satisfying—two phrases I never expected to use in describing a Shrek movie (even if you like the first three movies, you have to admit that they're somewhat standoffish). The fourth Shrek movie is the first to come close to what's being done by DreamWorks Animation's rivals at Pixar: thrilling adventure backed by honest emotion and comedy that doesn't just aim for the lowest common denominator. It's a movie that truly earns the series its Happily Ever After.
Despite the occasional unevenness of the films themselves, Shrek: The Whole Story makes for a terrific Blu-ray collection. Rather than package the movies in one cardboard foldout package (as is often the way for sets like this), DreamWorks has wisely included four separate keepcases that stand side-by-side in one attractive box. All four of the AVC-encoded HD transfers are stunning and actually get better as you continue through the set, which is actually more a function of just how much better computer animation has gotten than anything else. While it once felt cutting edge, there are moments in the original Shrek that look downright crude by today's standards; there's a stiffness and a blockiness to the animation that disappears by the time Forever After rolls around. The first three movies are presented in a 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio, while Shrek Forever After—the most cinematic of the series—adopts a 2.35:1 "scope" format. All of the movies look terrific in HD; colors are incredibly bright and vibrant and fine detail goes from good to great (again, that's a function to just how sophisticated the animation becomes over the course of the series and not a commentary on lesser transfers for the first two films). By Shrek Forever After, you're able to see all of the pores in the title ogre's green skin. You can count the individual hairs that make up Donkey's coat. You'll want to reach out and run your hands through the forest leaves. Computer animation always has an advantage over traditional film, but that doesn't stop me from saying that the work done on the Shrek series is some of the best in the format thus far.
Each film also comes with a 7.1 TrueHD audio track, all of which are up to the collection's impressive technical standards. Dialogue is clear throughout, while the (often intrusive and unnecessary) pop songs are expertly integrated into the mix. What's best about the tracks, though, is how immersive and, at times, subtle they can be, with the sounds of forest filling out the rear channels and putting you right there with the characters. Not surprisingly, the audio track on Shrek Forever After is the best, mostly because that film is the most action-oriented and there are a lot of opportunities for sonic showing off; it's reference-quality stuff. All four of the films making up Shrek: The Whole Story really are first-rate from a technical standpoint, raising the bar for all Blu-ray releases and reminding those of us who've made the switch why we adopted the format in the first place.
The best bonus feature in the collection is also one of the few that's new to this Blu-ray release: a picture-in-picture production overview offering called "The Animator's Corner." Each film comes equipped with this feature, which allows the viewer to see just about every aspect of the series' creation, from interviews with the cast to recording sessions to storyboards to production artwork to early animation tests and more—all while the films play out right alongside the feature. "The Animator's Corner" is so comprehensive and watchable that it pretty much makes the commentary tracks included on each disc obsolete, though I appreciate that both options have been included. Combined, the two features should tell you everything you ever wanted to know about how the Shrek films came together.
The only other bonus feature specific to the Blu-ray release is called "Shrek's Interactive Journey," which is a far less compelling and essential inclusion, recommended only for the series' biggest fans. On each of the discs is an interactive map featuring a different location used in the films, which allow viewers to click around and see production artwork, concept designs and more. It's an interesting curiosity, but not a whole lot more. Every disc also contains a "Secrets of Shrek" pop-up trivia track, a "Spotlight On" featurette (each profiling a different character from the series and the voice actor behind that character) and a collection of music videos for songs featured in the film, as well as a few from the Shrek Broadway musical. Videos for music from other DreamWorks Animation films—Kung Fu Panda, Madagascar, Over the Hedge and more—have also been included.
On the first disc, the original Shrek, all of the bonus features from the original DVD release have also been ported over. That means you'll get an audio commentary from co-directors Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jensen and producer Aron Warner. If you've already sat through the "Animator's Corner" feature, there's a good deal of repetition here, but the talk is still an enjoyable overview of how the film was put together. In addition to the music videos and "Spotlight On" features (the first time out covers Eddie Murphy's Donkey), there are three deleted scenes and "Shrek in the Swamp Karaoke Dance Party."
Shrek 2 comes with not one but two commentary tracks, first from co-directors Conrad Vernon and Kelly Asbury and then from producer Aron Warner and editor Michael Andrews. The two tracks plus the "Animator's Corner" actually get fairly exhausting, but it's nice to know that all of the options are here for those fans who can't get enough production details about the first of the Shrek sequels. Along with more music videos and a short piece on the new character Puss in Boots (still my favorite in the entire series; the movies are always better when he's on screen), Shrek 2 contains a fairly lame American Idol-inspired animated short called "Far, Far Away Idol," in which Shrek, Fiona and Simon Cowell judge the musical abilities of various characters from the series.
Shrek the Third may be the weakest movie in the series (though I think I could make a case for Shrek 2), so it makes sense the the supplementary section is somewhat lacking as well. We do get a couple of deleted scenes this time (there aren't any to be found on Shrek 2), but there is no commentary track to supplement the "Animator's Corner" feature (A supplement for a supplement? We're living in a Philip K. Dick novel). Also included is a "Spotlight on Fiona," a short environmental piece called "How to Be Green," an interactive gallery for Justin Timberlake's Arthur called the "Worcestershire Academy Yearbook" and still more music videos.
Rounding out Shrek: The Whole Story is the supplementary section on Shrek Forever After, which, in keeping with the quality of the movies themselves, is the best collection of bonus material in the bunch. In addition to the "Animator's Corner" and "Shrek's Interactive Journey" features, Forever After includes an informative and entertaining commentary track from director Mike Mitchell, head of story Walt Dorhn and producers Teresa Chang and Gina Shay. There's also three more deleted scenes, as well as a host of decent featurettes: "Spotlight on Shrek," "Conversation with the Cast" (interviews with the movies' voice talent) and "The Tech of Shrek Forever After,) a brief piece covering how the computer animation for the films is done. It's an interesting featurette that could have actually stood to be a little longer. Oh well.
Also included on the last disc is another grouping of music videos and a featurette on the making of Shrek: The Musical. Since the disc is coming out just in time for the holidays, there's a whole section of the disc devoted to holiday-themed bonus content: "Shrek's Yule Log," which is exactly what it sounds like (though characters from the movie do make appearances as well); "Donkey's Caroling Christmas-tacular," in which the characters sing a series of holiday songs (with optional on-screen lyrics); "12 Days of Christmas Pop-up Book," which features Shrek telling a Christmas story; an interactive game called "Donkey's Decoration Scramble" and a short cooking featurette called "Cookin with Cookie."
I was surprised at just how much I enjoyed working my way through Shrek: The Whole Story (it helps that I was able to share much of it with my young son, who showed a genuine interest in the main character), and how much I missed spending time in the forest of Far, Far Away when my journey came to an end. Luckily, I can go back any time I want courtesy of this fantastic collection. The whole set can be picked up for around 40 bucks, which averages out to just ten dollars a movie; that's a steal for four Blu-rays as high in quality and packed with bonus features as these are. It belongs on the shelf of any Shrek fan, parent, animation enthusiast or just those of us who want to show off just how great Blu-ray can be. I never thought I'd say it, but Shrek: The Whole Story comes highly recommended.
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