It’s funny how animated movies from this vintage have aged so badly compared to classically-drawn stuff like Snow White. Old Disney has a timeless feel whereas the dawning days of CGI just looks goofy and amateurish. But I can remember at the time thinking it looked slick as shit. Actually, as early as 1991, Steven Spielberg held the rights to this film and thought he’d do hand-drawn animation through Amblin studios, with Bill Murray as Shrek and Steve Martin as Donkey. Just imagine that.
Shrek came out in 2001. Animated movies took so long to make that voice actors were cast years in advance. Nicolas Cage was offered the part of Shrek but turned it down, not wanting to be drawn as an ugly ogre (he apparently missed the whole point of the movie, unsurprisingly). Chris Farley was then cast as Shrek but at his death in 1997, producers decided to recast the role and it went to SNL alum Mike Myers (you can hear Farley’s work here). Farley’s gone but not forgotten – if you look closely, you might just see a few of Shrek’s movements that were inspired by Farley, notably his use of “air quotes” just like a certain Farley character. And that’s a bit of a miracle, because when Mike Myers came on board, he demanded a complete re-write of the script, not wanting any of Farley’s influences to contaminate his own performances. Another result of Farley’s death was the dropping of Janeane Garofalo from the cast. She was supposed to play Fiona opposite Farley’s Shrek, but she was dropped like a hot potato after his death, no explanation given.
Janeane Garfalo wasn’t the film’s only disappearing act: Jimmy Fallon had recorded the dating game show portion as the Magic Mirror, but in the film that hit theatres (and your DVD shelf), it’s just storyboard artist Christopher Miller.
Like Farley, Myers recorded his role in his normal speaking voice. When he saw the movie with test audiences, he realized something crucial was missing, so he drew on the Scottish accent his mother would use when reading bedtime stories to re-record the lines. That little decision cost the studio $4 million dollars. Do you think it was worth it? All the actors recorded separately, as was the custom at the time. John Lithgow (Lord Farquaad) lamented never being able to meet let alone work with Myers, Eddie Murphy (Donkey) or Cameron Diaz (Princess Fiona). Don’t feel too bad for them though – they’ve had several red carpets to schmooze each other since. Mike Myers did a lot of ad-libbing which comes as no surprise, but it seems that Cameron Diaz also added a lot to her role. Like her character, Diaz had studied kung fu (she was a Charlie’s Angel, after all) and recorded that part in full exertion (occasionally breaking out in Cantonese). Producers also scrambled to add Fiona’s burping scene after Diaz let one rip after drinking a Coke.
Because the film took so long to make (they started work in 1996), it features a lot of references that would have seemed fresh at the time (The Matrix, for example), and some that seemed almost immediately dated (the Macarena, and Riverdance, for example). It also gave the Dreamworks lawyers plenty of time to go over the film with a fine tooth comb: no one wanted to get sued by Disney for the many satirical pokes and jabs at their theme parks.
Of course we all know that Donkey is the best character in Shrek, and he was memorably voiced by Eddie Murphy, like no other could. In fact, Murphy received a BAFTA nomination for his voice-over performances, the first of its kind. Murphy knows it’s some of his best work, and firmly believes that when he does, the obit will run with a picture of a donkey beside it. “Donkey is a really positive character. He’s always looking at the bright side of everything, trying to work it out. A happy-go-lucky donkey.” How can you not love a sensitive, hyperactive donkey with a sweet tooth for waffles and parfait? And if you think he looks a little too cute and cuddly for a donkey, you’re right – although he’s modeled after a real-life miniature donkey named Perry who lives in Palo Alto, near DreamWorks, his movements mimic that of a dog rather than a hooved animal.
Shrek was released to enormous success. They immediately went to work on a second (which led to an ill-advised 3rd, and then a 4th that’s not much better). But in 2001, Shrek was animation gold. It was the first animated American film screened at Cannes since Peter Pan in 1953. It also won the inaugural Oscar for Best Animated Film when the Academy Award added it in 2001 (it beat out Pixar’s Monsters, Inc!). It was the 3rd highest grossing movie of the year, behind some Harry Potter and some other Lord of the Rings (and just edging out Monsters, Inc, in fact). So even if the animation looks a little busted today, it’s got a pretty solid spot in animated history.