Saturday, May 22, 2010

Boldly committed, or just short-sighted?

As you are probably aware, the advertising surrounding Shrek Forever After has been all about how it's going to be the final Shrek movie.

In fact, for awhile, I thought they had actually changed the name of the movie to Shrek: The Final Chapter, as this poster would indicate.

There have been various other posters/ads with slogans like "It ain't ogre 'til it's ogre" and "the fairy tale is ogre." (I was really hoping to find one that didn't include the word "ogre," but they seem to have lost their pun thesaurus that day.)

It's as though they're trying to do everything possible to go on record about the finality of this movie, to remove every temptation they may feel about making a fifth one.

Well, I'll believe it when I see it. Or, don't see it.

When Shrek Forever After makes another $350 million this summer, will it really be so easy to walk away? How can you just leave money like that lying on the table? Given the franchise's history of box office bravura -- Shrek 2 slayed to the tune of $437 million in the U.S., which is the fifth highest of all time, while Shrek the Third is only 17 spots behind on that list at $320 million -- I fully expect the fourth Shrek movie to outgross all other movies released in 2010. (The bar is currently set at $331 million by Alice in Wonderland). In fact, I put my money where my mouth was -- okay, there was no money involved -- and picked Shrek Forever After as my top-grossing film in the March Madness box office game being run by Fletch at The Large Association of Movie Blogs (LAMB). (And looking at it now, I see I'm the only one -- which could mean I'm either crazy or brilliant.)

Most movie execs don't have the sense to walk away from a franchise until they have bled it dry, until the public appetite for that franchise has clearly started to go on the wane. Certain franchises might go dormant for awhile -- in the case of Indiana Jones, it was 19 years -- but we should all know enough by now to never say never. Until the audience has told you in no uncertain terms that they will no longer pay for this crap, it makes sense to keep making it.

Which is why the makers of the Shrek movies are either boldly committed ... or naive and short-sighted.

Retiring athletes always think they're certain about retiring. But when it's staring Michael Jordan, Brett Favre and Roger Clemens in the face that they will never shoot, pass or pitch again, they change their tune. At that point, all we can really hope is that they have only one false retirement, not multiple. Usually, that hope is dashed.

And it could be the same with Shrek. It could be that when Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy realize they'll only do the Shrek and Donkey voices again at parties, a fifth movie won't sound so bad. But who are we kidding? The impetus for the fifth film would probably have to come from somewhere else in Dreamworks. I don't know if Myers, Murphy and Cameron Diaz have gone on record saying they don't want to play these roles anymore, but any or all of them would probably be replaceable, and the movie would still make $150 to $200 million.

Besides, why wouldn't they want to come back for a fifth? It's not like any of them are master thespians who are turning down serious dramatic roles in order to make more Shrek movies. They wouldn't have to, anyway, because animation is an easy payday. You just sit in a studio and do line readings as you watch the characters move on screen. What could be easier?

If the Shrek movies do truly stop at four, it will give me a respect for the franchise I haven't had previously. I've actually only seen one Shrek movie, Shrek. I liked it fine at the time I saw it. But a dislike crept in pretty quickly. I decided that the essential message at the heart of the film was suspect -- I developed the impression that instead of celebrating difference and loving yourself despite your physical appearance, the movie was actually doing the opposite, in a covert, pernicious way. I'd have to watch it again for examples, but frankly, I don't really want to. But perhaps the thing that annoyed me most, as I saw bits and pieces of Shrek here and there again (and watched most of it again on a plane), was Murphy's Donkey character. Not only was he sort of offensive, he was also irritating. Does that conversation he and Shrek have about whether onions have layers take up 15 minutes of that movie, or 20?

But I'm prepared to take them at their word, for now. If only because I've heard there's a possibility they will keep the franchise going in a matter of speaking, by spinning off to concentrate on Antonio Banderas' Puss in Boots character. A character I am only familiar with by reputation, having seen neither the second nor the third Shrek movie. In fact, now that I look on wikipedia, I see that this spin-off has not only a title, but a release date: Puss in Boots: Story of an Ogre Killer, scheduled to come out next year already. (Who knows when that was written -- IMDB has it merely in "announced" status.)

So Dreamworks will be hedging their bets either way.

Before I leave off my discussion of Shrek Forever After, I wanted to include an aside about the movie's advertising campaign that has bothered me a little bit, but wasn't enough for an entire post.

If you've seen any of the recent ads, it's as though there's a campaign underway to make a cult figure out of a bratty little kid who tells Shrek (a celebrity in his world) to "Do the roar!" The roar, I guess, being what Shrek is famous for. This spoiled little kid has a voice that puts him halfway between Eric Cartman and the midgets (little people) in Tod Browning's Freaks. The "Do the roar!" demand is repeated a couple times, and then you see the kid say "I love you, daddy," from which we are supposed to understand that his father paid a huge amount of money to get him in to see the famed ogre.

I admit that this kid has a good weirdness going for him, and that voice is odd indeed. But what got me a little annoyed was when I saw a digital ad for Shrek Forever After on Venice Blvd. in which "DO THE ROAR!" was being put forth as the big catchphrase from the movie.

I resent the idea that the movie is trying to tell us what lines we will love, before we've even seen it. Aren't quotable lines supposed to develop organically out of the zeitgeist? Aren't we supposed to anoint them as classic dialogue through word-of-mouth? Yet it seems like more and more, the marketing departments behind films are trying to determine our quotable lines for us. Sort of the same thing happened with Inglourious Basterds, when a number of posters/billboards featured the line "That's a bingo!" Then again, those may have been posters for the DVD release, when we had already theoretically decided, as a society, that we found "That's a bingo!" to be a memorable line from Tarantino's film. (I may not have been present for that meeting).

And why wouldn't marketing departments do this, if it works? If it increases awareness/buzz about their film, even ever so slightly? Whether it works for this particular film remains to be seen.

So here's hoping that the Shrek Forever After advertising campaign succeeds in terms of being honest about there never being a Shrek Drinks a Fifth, but fails in terms of forcing a catchphrase on us.

My concern is that it will probably be just the opposite.


Daddy Geek Boy said...

It reminds me of when Michael Jordan retired from basketball or Jay-Z retired from music or when the Who broke up the first time.

We haven't seen the last of Shrek.

Vancetastic said...

Busted! You didn't read the whole thing! I mentioned Michael Jordan in there!

(Okay, I should just be grateful you read even some of it. It was long.)

(Thanks for the comment.)