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I think it's fair to say that the team behind the Shrek franchise has run out of ideas. As we rejoin everybody's favorite Scottish ogre (Mike Meyers) in Shrek Forever After, he is coming to grips with his new life as a family man.
Rather than getting a gym membership or buying a sports car to deal with the discontent of middle age, he signs an agreement with Rumplestiltskin to be a "real ogre" for one day. In exchange, he promises Rumple (Walt Dohrn) a day from his childhood, a day he won't even remember. Conniving Rumple chooses the day of Shrek's birth, and Shrek is plunged into an alternate reality where he never existed.
It's a little like It's a Wonderful Life, except it's a lot harder to sympathize with Shrek's complaints. He isn't, à la George Bailey, facing bankruptcy or scandal, and he didn't give up his dreams so his younger brother could go to college. In fact, he hasn't sacrificed anything for his family; it's just that they can be a little stressful and boring. The kids cry a lot and want their diapers changed, and he doesn't feel as cool as he did when he was younger.
It's hard to imagine what made executives at DreamWorks think this would be engaging material for children. Oh wait, maybe it's not so hard to imagine. It probably went something like this:
Producer: Our next animated feature is going to be about a guy gripped by a midlife crisis who feels that marriage and parenthood are robbing him of the excitement and respect he used to enjoy.
Executive: Isn't that a little complex and depressing for a film targeted at children?
Producer: Well, yeah, but it's the script for the new Shrek movie.
Executive: Carry on.
Of course families will turn out to see it and of course it will make a pile of money. But the success it will surely have doesn't justify the creepy assumption that children want to see adult problems and diversions acted out by funny-looking animated creatures.
It's not just the main plot that focuses inordinately on grown-up concerns. When Rumplestiltskin takes over Far, Far Away, he turns the palace into Studio 54, complete with velvet ropes and champagne rooms (parents should know that despite the PG rating, drinking features heavily in this movie). As I watched the witches flit across a Day-Glo dance floor pulsing with techno beats to join Rumple at his private booth, I got the feeling what I was really seeing was some producer's fantasy play out. I also kept expecting to see an animated Lindsay Lohan walk by.
Typical of so many of DreamWorks' projects, a large portion of the jokes stem from pop-culture references. After all, what's a more appropriate gag for children than to have a donkey sing "Papa don't preach . . . I'm keeping my baby."
Likely some kids, sensing an appeal to a level of coolness they have yet to attain, will be drawn to the humor. But it seems a bit presumptuous of the filmmakers to expect 8-year-olds to be familiar with the Beastie Boys catalogue to enjoy their movie. These are not subtle asides to parents; they are the primary jokes, and they bully children into raising their level of pop-culture awareness so they can be in on them.
Other animation studios have demonstrated time and again that adult focus is not necessary for box-office success and may even deter it. Pixar's Up focused on the character of an old man, but began by showing us that man as a boy and what sparked that boy's love for adventure. It finished by showing the old man becoming a father figure to a lonely boy who desperately needs one. Desire for adventure, longing to connect with a parent: Such themes touch kids where they are while also resonating with grown-ups. Other than the fact that it's animated and some of the characters are vaguely based on fairytale characters, nothing about Shrek Forever After caters to kids.