Can you think of the last time you saw a sequel that was really really good? Like better than the original? (Try and exclude adapted literary works because that’s cheating.) Now try to think of the last good animated sequel you saw. If you’re like me, this just keeps getting harder. With the mind-blowing exception that is the Toy Story franchise, I’m hard-pressed to think of a good animated sequel. Most of the older animated sequels ended up going straight to VHS/DVD/Blu-Ray, particularly the Disney Princess sequels. Suffice to say, straight to DVD essentially means that they are dead on arrival for me.
However, now that a greater number of movies are coming out each year, we the animation-loving audience gets to sit through half-ass money grabs like Cars 2 and Ice Age 17: Extinct Animal Stuff and Things. And we’ve got more coming with Pixar finally buckling under the pressure that they’ve effectively run out of ideas with Finding Dory, The Incredibles 2 and Cars 3 in some stage of production as we speak.
But there is one animated sequel that stands head and shoulders above the rest. Shrek 2 manages to tell a new and believable standalone story that makes the characters feel fresh again, as well as introducing new blood into the franchise. Now don’t get me wrong, Shrek 3 and Shrek 4 were awful. But at least Dreamworks Animation got the first sequel right.
The first Shrek is groundbreaking in its excellent and prolific use of pop culture references. DreamWorks Animation can be credited with this new take on animation-style storytelling. “While the early 2D movies often aimed to be more grown-up and serious than Disney’s, the studio eventually established its identity with fast-paced irreverent CG comedy films packed with hip, fast-talking characters, rock music, and pop culture references, aiming to appeal to adults as well as children,” (Cavalier, pg. 313).
All of the main character’s significant story arcs naturally get played out in the first film in case you never get a sequel. But the “Meet the Parents” type situation proved to be comic fodder as Shrek is thrust into a situation he doesn’t want to be near in this fish-out-of-water tale… again. While it may seem like a similar story, it is executed well enough to where you can’t even tell.
In need of new conflict and new merchandising opportunities, we are introduced to new and unforgettable characters.
Puss in Boots was a gamble who paid off handsomely. Enemy quickly turned friend, he was an excellent counter to Donkey and along with Shrek made quite the trio. But we were also introduced to the real enemy, the Fairy God Mother and her son, Prince Charming.
Shrek 2 is the exception that proves the rule in terms of animated sequels. While animated films have such potential for expansive worlds to play around with, they ultimately revert to comfort zones with their storytelling to make sure the money keeps flowing. Boldly saying that animated movies aren’t as worried about critics may have some greater impact on the film industry, but money doesn’t lie. Studio movies are all about playing it safe to make money, especially when it comes to animated sequels. Luckily for us, Shrek 2 somehow turned out to be one hell of a sequel. Hopefully there’s more where that came from. But for now, I’ll just leave you with the most striking image from the film below.