With fifth installment, Shrek has become what it originally mocked

Raise your hand if you’re actually excited for a fifth installment of the Shrek franchise. No takers? That’s what I thought.

Well, it’s coming anyway, and will no doubt make a tidy sum. The first in the series was a brilliant, subversive approach to fairy tales — highly critical of Disney’s profit focus in a friendly way, and not afraid to take big risks. From the very first scene where Shrek rips a page from a fairy tale book and uses it to wipe his behind, it was clear that we were in for something new and exciting.

Modeling Lord Faarquad’s face after Michael Eisner (the head of Disney), and giving the character a name that could be easily pronounced as profane, the first film set out to make a mockery of the economic powerhouse that is the Disney corporation, and to mock consumerism heavily along the way. The Eisner-faced villain wants only perfect, pretty princesses to serve him — he’s greedy, suffers from a major Napoleon complex and shies away from anything that isn’t part of a traditional, beautiful fairy tale. The mockery is seen most clearly in the scenes set in Duloc — as the singing puppets tell you, it’s the “perfect place” — but its only reason to exist is to sell things. Lord Faarquad propaganda, dolls, banners and stores are everywhere – there’s even a man in a Lord Faarquad outfit, hawking appropriately-themed wares.

The criticism is clear: Disney exists only to market and sell things, and its promise of a “perfect place” filled with happiness is only done to make more profit. What else could we expect from a company, anyway? Lord Faarquad even banishes fairy-tale creatures from his kingdom in the interest of creating more space to expand, showing that those who make him powerful are wholly expendable; the only thing that matters is growth and profit.

The franchise’s second film was good, but not great, revealing cracks in the franchise’s anti-corporate foundation. In the film, Shrek and Fiona travel to her parents’ kingdom, which closely resembles Hollywood. There are multiple scenes mocking celebrity fervor as crowds scream excitedly at being in the presence of someone famous, or seeing their house. It’s still a solid film, but the ultimate message of the story is the same as the original: true love isn’t about looks.

Shrek action figure, via PAISAN HOMHUAN / Shutterstock.com

Shrek action figure, via PAISAN HOMHUAN / Shutterstock.com

The third film was a disaster, with a low 40% on Rotten Tomatoes and a summary that says that it “has pop culture potshots galore, but at the expense of the heart, charm and wit that made the first two Shreks classics.” At this point, the franchise was focused on seeing how long it could last, as the volume of Shrek-based merchandise began to rival that of Disney princesses. The third film still made five times its budget at the box office, and countless DVD and merchandise sales — a green light to keep churning out sequels as far as Dreamworks was concerned. Shrek Forever After, the fourth installment hilariously named “the final chapter” on the movie posters, made almost just as much profit despite the Rotten Tomatoes consensus that it “feels like a rote rehashing of the franchise’s earlier entries”.

There was never originally going to be a sequel, or a third, or a fourth. Each successive movie was supposed to be the last one, only to generate enough profit to make another iteration worthwhile. With the upcoming fifth chapter of Shrek, the franchise has been dragged out of the grave again for another cash haul. It’s increasingly clear that a clever script or a story begging to be told no longer drives the films, which now seem to limit themselves to asking “How can we recreate the magic in a safe, clinical way?” Perhaps ironically, to say nothing of tragically, the Shrek franchise has become the object of its original movie’s own criticism.

But who could blame them? Why wouldn’t a company continue to copy and paste films if they continue to be profitable, and why wouldn’t they sell tons of merchandise if people are willing to buy it? There’s certainly nothing wrong with a company making money, but one can’t help but appreciate the irony in the fact that the Shrek franchise has become the very thing it set out to mock and subvert: a soulless cash cow, focused on expansion and growth rather than meaning, message or creativity.

Much like Lord Faarquad banishing the fairy tale creatures, those creating the Shrek films have gotten rid of what made them good in the first place – a critical eye, and a non-traditional approach that has clever social criticism about such things as the heartless machine of capitalism and the sterile manipulation of consumerism. But hey, the series still makes plenty of money, something the nearly bankrupt Dreamworks could certainly use right now.

Holly Blackler is a University student in the final year of her degree, which is a double major in Political Science and Philosophy with a minor in Media. She writes on a variety of things, but focuses on social issues and international events.

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