Shrek 2 Is Definitive Proof Sequels Can Be Better Than the Original

A certain amount of credit must be given to the filmmaking team behind Shrek 2 for overcoming a seemingly insurmountable obstacle and producing an entertaining motion picture.

The first Shrek, a delightful romp about an ogre who learns to love, remains sweet and timeless. But that’s what makes Shrek 2 so good: It manages to improve upon something no one knew needed improving.

With more sophisticated animation, tighter pacing, and star-studded additions to the cast, including Antonio Banderas, Julie Andrews and John Cleese, the movie was all but set up for success. It went on to compete for the top prize at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, earn two Academy Award nominations, and remains DreamWorks’ most profitable movie to date. Considering this is the same studio that produced the How to Train Your Dragon and Kung-Fu Panda series, it’s clear that Shrek 2 has a special lasting power.

Inspired by the 1967 classic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the film begins with a relatively simple story: Shrek (Mike Myers) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz) are married. Shrek travels to meet her parents, who just so happen to be royalty. They have no idea that their daughter not only married an ogre, but chose to remain one herself. Tension ensues.

It’s certainly a strong premise, but the film doubles down on wackiness when it introduces Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders), who will stop at nothing to guarantee that her son, Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), marries Fiona instead — in her human form.

What follows is a tale of pure joy as Shrek enlists the help of his motley crew to fight for his marriage. He steals a potion that turns him into the handsome prince he thinks Fiona wants, and by extension, turns her (his true love) back into the beautiful princess she was when they met. They must kiss by midnight in order to maintain those forms, but there’s a catch: Prince Charming is masquerading as the newly human Shrek, attempting to fool Fiona into believing he’s her husband.

Fueled by an excellent soundtrack (including songs from David Bowie, Tom Waits and Counting Crows, among others) and padded with plenty of astute cultural observations (a crowd of people runs from a burning Starbucks into another Starbucks across the street), the film’s climax is what really solidifies its place among the great sequels of all time. To the tune of “I Need a Hero” hero and villain race against time: Fairy Godmother needs to make sure Charming kisses Fiona before midnight; Shrek needs to make sure he gets to Fiona before that happens. The editing is tight, the stakes are high, and gingerbread and warm milk are required. The sequence is as high octane as anything in a Mission: Impossible film.

With Shrek 2, directors Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury and Conrad Vernon achieved something special by expanding on the intricate fairy tale universe of the first film, topping it all off with a sweet romantic resolution and an uplifting message: You don’t need to change to achieve happily ever after.

That obstacle is the ending of the original Shrek, which neatly wrapped up every conceivable aspect of the story, leaving little room for a sequel. Originally, Shrek had been designed as a one-off movie, but, when it became a huge hit, Dreamworks decided that a second installment was warranted. However, with Shrek and Princess Fiona married and living happily ever after as ogres, some creative brainstorming had to be done to arrive at a sequel-worthy concept.

To be fair, Shrek 2 doesn’t have much of a storyline. It’s basically about the meeting between newlyweds Shrek (voice of Mike Myers) and Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) and the bride’s parents, King Harold (John Cleese) and Queen Lillian (Juilie Andrews).

To facilitate this encounter, Shrek, Fiona, and Donkey (Eddie Murphy) must travel to the kingdom of Far, Far Away. The grotesque appearance of the happy couple isn’t to the liking of the ruling family or to studly Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), who wants Fiona for his wife. With a little help from his mom, the Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders) and a killer cat named Puss ‘n Boots (Antonio Banderas), Charming seeks to win Fiona away from Shrek.

Although there isn’t much in the way of a plot, Shrek 2 is populated with clever and amusing sequences, parodies, and pop references. There’s a nod to The Lord of the Rings (the forging of Fiona’s wedding band) and a lampoon of the Oscars’ Red Carpet (complete with Joan Rivers). There’s a brilliant satire of the “Cops” TV show (named “Knights”) and several opportunities to poke fun at Hollywood (Far, Far Away is a medieval version of the eccentric West Coast city).

The dialogue includes plenty of double entendres and secondary meanings. The music is laced with contemporary tunes: Donkey croons (in his own inimitable fashion) the theme to “Rawhide” and the whole cast joins in on “Livin’ La Vida Loca.” And what would a Dreamworks animated film be without a few knocks at Disney? This time, attentive viewers will catch unflattering glimpses of Ariel (The Little Mermaid) and the duo of Lumiere and Cogsworth (Beauty and the Beast). It’s these things, not the unimaginative storyline, that give Shrek 2 its energy and freshness.

The most recognizable vocal talents from the first film are back. Mike Myers, again using his Fat Bastard accent, returns as the jolly green giant, who, as a result of a magic potion, is presented with the opportunity to temporarily adopt a more pleasing appearance. Cameron Diaz gives Fiona equal parts sweetness and steel. And Eddie Murphy is once again the most annoying ass around, and his ability to carry a tune has not improved. This time, he’s not the only chatty animal.

Antonio Banderas gives Puss ‘n Boots his voice (while the animators provide the lifelike mannerisms). Jennifer Saunders makes a perfectly nasty Fairy Godmother. And the duo of John Cleese and Julie Andrews add a touch of class to the production – sort of. (Cleese is given more than one opportunity to act like Basil Fawlty with a crown.) Other familiar faces from the first movie have brief appearances: Pinnochio the possessed toy, the three blind mice, the mirror on the wall, the not-so-big bad wolf, and the gingerbread man. Plus, a few other fairy tale folk join the party.

The animation is on the same level as that of Shrek, which was, in its own time, groundbreaking. There haven’t been many advances in computer animation since then, but Shrek 2 hasn’t done any backsliding. The film looks as bright and imaginative as its predecessor. The non-humans are surprisingly life-like while the humans still retain the slightly awkward look of something designed on a computer. There are a lot of background jokes; I have a feeling that it will take multiple viewings to uncover some of the more subtle ones. As in the first film, it’s clear that the Shrek animators had fun putting everything together.

With its appealing blend of animated comedy, romance, and adventure, Shrek 2 follows the formula of its predecessor while maintaining enough originality not to come across as a direct copy. Fans of the first movie will be pleased. Although Shrek 2 isn’t as breezy as Shrek, it’s a respectable effort and a solid example of family-friendly entertainment. The enjoyable animated romp lives up to expectations, which is more than can be said for any of its current big-budget multiplex competition.

Director: Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury, Conrad Vernon

Cast: (voices) Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Julie Andrews, Antonio Banderas, John Cleese, Rupert Everett, Jennifer Saunders

Screenplay: William Steig, J. David Stern, Joe Stillman, David N. Weiss

Music: Harry Gregson-Williams

U.S. Distributor: Dreamworks

Run Time: 1:35

U.S. Release Date: 2004-05-19

MPAA Rating: “PG” (Nothing Objectionable)

Genre: ANIMATED

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