Negativity in Shrek

(Edited to expand on the Robin Williams story because it is genuinely fascinating)

In talking about Megamind a few weeks ago, I talked briefly about Megamind being free of dated references (and there were some but easily forgivable). It made me think of the references in Shrek and how some of them were a mistake at the time and some of them were probably not mistakes at the moment but definitely are now. While some pop culture references and double entendres have not aged well, I am specifically talking about the call outs. To explain that, I am going to have to give a little bit of history. I am also going to spoil some gags from Shrek but not the whole thing. Be warned. I am not intending this as a takedown of Shrek or Dreamworks, just a bit of a pet peeve that I want to counter with some constructive criticism.

In the early nineties, the four men at the top of Disney were CEO and Chairman Michael Eisner, President Frank Wells, Roy Disney, Jeffrey Katzenberg. They worked together during the so-called Disney Rennaisance which included such animated hits as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Hercules, and Mulan. Katzenberg had been brought along from Paramount by Eisner and was loyal. However, Katzenberg developed an ego and made some bad creative and business decisions.

The big problem was that he pissed off Robin Williams during the making of Aladdin by breaking a promise. It was still fairly early in Robin Williams’ career but he was already a famous stand-up comedian, sitcom star, and movie star. The writers of Aladdin wrote the script with Robin Williams’ fast-paced stand-up routine in mind for the Genie. Robin had dabbled in Disney before. He co-starred with Walter Cronkite in the Back to Neverland attraction for Disney Parks. Katzenberg invited him to consult on a movie called Aladdin that was in development but the script was still unrecognizable from what we all would see later. Eventually, Katzenberg admitted that he wanted Williams to play the Genie. Robin was hesitant as he was already finishing work on Hook and Ferngully and was already signed on to star in Toys.

Katzenberg convinced Robin to sign on to Aladdin. Williams reasoned that doing the movie would give his kids something of his to watch and he would also be participating in the grand Disney tradition. Also, the Genie was not a big part of the movie at that point. Williams agreed to only being paid $75,000 dollars (against his agent’s recommendation). However, such low pay would come with requirements on Disney’s part. Disney was not allowed to use Robin Williams voice to sell merchandise, they were to limit the Genie to 25% or less of signs and posters, and they had to limit the use of his name in marketing. Part of this was because Robin Williams did not want his voice or character to be used to market toys and merchandise to kids. He was about the movie and not the stuff. The second big thing was that he was gearing up to work on Toys and it was a project that was important to him. Toys was directed by Barry Levinson who had directed Robin in Good Morning, Vietnam. Toys had taken fifteen years for Levinson to get off the ground and Robin did not want the marketing for Aladdin to overshadow it.

The agreement was made and Robin squeezed in voice recording sessions and song rehearsals when he was not on set for Hook or Toys. Katzenberg went back on the deal pretty quickly. He authorized a commercial that had Genie shilling Burger King. He authorized commercials using Robin’s voice as Genie. He found sneaky ways around Robin’s rules by obeying the 25% rule but reducing the size of all of the other characters. He put up big bus stop displays of Genie. When Williams saw those displays, he complained that this was a violation of the deal. Katzenberg apologized and told Williams they would all be removed and destroyed. Except, Katzenberg only had the ones in LA destroyed and they remained up all over the country as if Williams would never find out from friends abroad. Williams was pissed. After Aladdin, he swore never to work with Disney again. He later returned but only when Katzenberg was gone and Disney issued a public apology to him.

Katzenberg tried to step over Frank Wells to become Eisner’s second in command. Everybody objected as Eisner had grown close to Wells and Roy Disney did not like the uppity Katzenberg. When Wells died, Katzenberg eagerly awaited his promotion but instead, Eisner took on the role of both CEO and President. Once again, this was something that everybody (but Katzenberg) agreed with and when Roy Disney and Michael Eisner agreed on something, you knew it was important. Katzenberg was instead forced to resign as bitterness between all parties increased. Katzenberg went off and co-founded Dreamworks and basically became in charge of the animation division. He helped create some great movies at a time when Disney was not doing so great in the animation department. He was able to stretch his wings again and do some good work.

Then came Shrek which is definitely a good movie and it is full of fun. However, Katzenberg definitely influenced the script and production design in a toxic way. The first thing he did was make the villain, Lord Farqhuad, into the spitting image of Michael Eisner. Making Eisner into an ineffectual, vain, and short villain just seems petty. He also had references to classic Disney characters having them tortured, imprisoned, or implying that they were morally bankrupt. Some of the references are clever. The appearance of the Magic Mirror is a clever reference and is not really done in a spiteful way. Gepetto selling Pinnochio to Farqhuad comes off as bitter. There are plenty of other little digs and references, some are clever and some fall flat (in my opinion).

The thing is, I may not know the whole story about Katzenberg, Eisner, and Disney. I know that Katzenberg sued Disney and Eisner and that lawsuit got really heated. I just feel like these dated references were the wrong way to go. Katzenberg left Disney and helped create The Prince of Egypt and The Road to El Dorado. Both are extremely underrated and beautiful and entertaining movies. Neither references Disney or Eisner. Shrek’s shots at Eisner and Disney feel kind of gross to me. If Eisner really did him wrong, Katzenberg had a much better option in front of him. The best revenge against your enemies is to be successful and leave them completely behind. At its heart, Shrek is a great inversion of fairy tales which went against what Disney was doing at the time. It has insightful, cute, and funny moments. Katzenberg should have just ignored Disney and done his own thing which would have made his work even better.

This feeling is my goal to become more positive in my life. Why take shots at other things and people when you can promote the positivity of the world and your own product. The core of movies like Shrek are positive but negativity clings to the movie which makes me less likely to watch it again. Compare that to Disney’s model when it comes to animated movies. In general, Disney does not reference much out of its own work. Also, by only referencing itself, Disney feeds its fandom and contains their product. That makes the work more theirs and it makes the jokes hit a higher percentage of the time. The only references I can think of that break that rule are either subtle or timeless. (See: The random Chinatown reference in Inside Out). I guess the final point here is to be positive. Release your anger and do your own thing and you will be far healthier and probably more successful.

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