to the Drawing Board with Jim Hill:
The Write Stuff - Ted Elliot & Terry Russio
media prepares us all to go ga-ga over Dreamworks' Shrek
(opening at a theater near you this week), let's not forget that
-- in addition to the masterful work done by the film's animators
-- that a few other folks had a hand in bringing this ill-mannered
ogre to life.
it's more than an animation fan can bear.
I mean, here
we are, in the final days of the media blitz that's leading up
to the release of Dreamworks' latest animated feature, Shrek.
(Mind you, the advance buzz on this film is actually pretty good.
I've heard from a lot of friends that the project's directors
-- Andrew Adamson & Vicki Jenson -- have really delivered
the goods with this project. That Shrek makes for one really
entertaining night out at the movies.)
or not the film is any good really doesn't factor into the equation
at the moment. All that matters right now to Dreamworks' marketing
staff is that you -- the movie-going public -- knows that Shrek
is opening wide this weekend. That's why our televisions have
been constantly repeating the same commercials (That Eddie Murphy's
"Waffles" joke was funny
the first time I saw it. 1500 times later ... I'm not so sure)
and our newspapers & magazines are saturated with Shrek-related
-- in spite of not having seen the movie yet -- I'm kind of feeling
Shrek-ed out right about now. There just doesn't seem to
be a way for me to get away from the big green guy. My local Burger
King is going to start giving Shrek toys away with each
"Kids Club" meal it sells later this week. My local
Software Etc. store is taking a somewhat different approach. They
anticipate that demand for Shrek toys (particularly the
finely detailed McFarland stuff) will be so great this weekend
that they're actually rising the prices of these prominently displayed
Me? I've spent
far too many years watching the Mouse over-market its movies to
really get upset over some "Happy Meal" toys or some
over-priced movie tie-in merchandise. What's been bothering me
are some of the stories that I've seen written about Shrek.
To date, I
must have read at least six different interviews that Dreamworks
head Jeffrey Katzenberg has given where he's mentions how Shrek
has achieved the three "Holy Grails" of computer animation:
believable hair, liquid and fire. I've also seen a dozen or more
articles that repeatedly explain how the animators used a bold
new approach to CGI to create believable humans for the film.
Well -- forgive
me if I'm talking out of turn here -- but the folks who wrote
these articles really don't know squat about what it takes to
make a successful animated film. It's the very same thing that
every successful live action films has to have: a great story.
Shrek started out with great source material: William Steig's
wonderful children's book, which was then sculpted into a snazzy
but sturdy little screenplay by Ted Elliot & Terry Rossio,
with assistance by Joe Stillman & Roger S.H. Schulman.
script -- and how it's been interpreted by the film's production
team -- that will ultimately determine whether Shrek is
a success or not. Yes, funnymen Mike Myers and Murphy obviously
ad-libbed a few new lines and/or veteran performers Cameron Diaz
and John Lithgow gave the animators some interesting line readings
to work off of. And these additional contributions obviously added
some extra "Oomph" to the production.
it all comes back to that Shrek screenplay. And -- as they
say on Hollywood -- "If it ain't on the page, it ain't on
the stage." Or -- in this case -- on the screen at your local
Katzenberg had the presence of mind to recruit Elliot & Rossio
to help turn Shrek into a workable screenplay. After having
seen the magic that these two had worked on Aladdin's original
script back in 1990, he knew that Ted & Terry would be the
one who could whip Steig's odd ogre tale into cinematic shape.
don't know about all the horror stories associated with Disney's
Aladdin? How the movie's first writer -- lyricist Howard
Ashman -- had envisioned the film as sort of an Arabian Nights
version of those old Bob Hope - Bing Crosby "Road" pictures?
How Aladdin was originally saddled with three sidekicks, two genies
and a sick mother? How Katzenberg actually shut down development
of this film, sending Howard off to try & repair Beauty
and the Beast (which was then supposed to be this morose non-musical
cartoon) while Jeffrey desperately searched for someone to fix
of stories like this associated with Aladdin. (Just ask
any animator who actually worked on this project to tell you about
the long-in-production "Test" sequence, the moment in
movie where Prince Ali was supposed to have proved to the Sultan
that he was a worthy suitor from Princess Jasmine. At the mere
mention of this sequence, grown men have been known to start weeping.)...
How there was more story than the film really needed... How the
plot was clogged with unnecessary characters.
Ted waded into this mess and -- by methodically removing all of
the elements that weren't essential to the telling of Aladdin's
tale -- ended up crafting one hell of a screenplay. The end result
was this bold new take on the material. Sure, Aladdin was
still loaded all with the laughs & adventure that Howard Ashman
had originally intended the project to have. But -- in their reworking
of the material -- Elliot & Rossio had found a way to give
the film the one key element that all great Disney animated films
Terry & Ted located the film's emotional center in the most
unlikely of places / mostly unlikely of characters: the Genie.
In all previous movie / TV / theatrical versions of the Aladdin
story, the Genie had been little more than a magic-making plot
device. He wasn't anyone you really cared about. Aladdin was the
character who was supposed to have all the audience's sympathies.
The Genie was just someone who moved the plot forward.
once Elliot & Rossio realized that the Genie's dilemma (Trapped
forever in that lamp. "It's only an eternity of servitude."
"Phenomenal cosmic powers. Itty bitty living space.")
might be as compelling to movie-goers as Aladdin's desire to become
something more than a "street rat," the story suddenly
gained a level of emotional depth that just hadn't been there
In a lot of
ways, Aladdin is -- at least to my way of thinking -- the
perfect modern Disney animated film. I mean, the project's got
it all: Wonderful music, huge laughs, great characters, tremendous
design, a story that grabs your attention right from the first
frame and doesn't let go 'til the credits roll. I must have seen
this film six or seven times during its original theatrical release.
But you wanna
know what my favorite part of the movie is? Not Eric Goldberg's
eye popping work on the show-stopping "Friend Like Me"
or "Prince Ali" sequences... Nor Glen Keane's masterful
animation of Aladdin in the "One Jump Ahead" number...
Or the skillful blend of CGI and traditional animation in the
"Escape from the Cave of Wonders" sequence... But the
relatively quiet moment in the movie where Aladdin finally frees
This -- at
least for me -- is where Aladdin's story finally pays off.
In spades. Aladdin could have made use of his final wish to become
a prince again. But instead, the "Diamond in the Rough"
honors his promise to his pal and releases the Genie from bondage.
what does all this have to do with Shrek? Well, all the
stories that I've read -- to date -- about this Dreamworks film
have been about the amazing new computer animation techniques
that the PDI crew used in production of this project. Or they've
been snarky little articles about all the satirical swipes this
film supposedly takes at the Walt Disney Company, its stable of
characters as well as its theme parks.
But what do
I keep hearing from friends who have actually seen Shrek?
It's *NOT* that they're impressed by how funny the film is (And
don't get me wrong, folks. Shrek *IS* supposed to be fall
down, see-it-three-times-so-you're-sure-you caught-all-the-jokes,
funny). But -- rather -- these folks are genuinely surprised by
how touched they were at the film's conclusion. Who'd have thought
it? Under all these jokes was this tremendous story about how
we should learn to love ourselves for who we are and not judge
ourselves or others by outward appearances.
Shrek is written by the same guys who wrote Aladdin,
I would have expected no less.
here to discuss this column in the dFX Forums.
Jim Hill is
an award winning journalist who specializes in writing about the
entertainment industry. Hill's columns appear on Digital
Media FX on the 2nd and 16th of each month. Those subscribed
to the free Digital Media FX newsletter receive 24
hour advanced access to the columns before the general public.
of a log cabin hidden away in the woods of New Hampshire, Jim
is currently at work on an unauthorized history of the Walt Disney
World Resort. In addition, he writes for several online Websites.
He has a beautiful 7 year old daughter and three obnoxious cats.
You can email
Jim Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more
about Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio and the art of screenwriting, check
out Terry Rossio's excellent "Wordplay" website at http://wordplayer.com.
To learn more about Shrek, visit the dFX Shrek Movie Site at http://www.digitalmediafx.com/Shrek/index.html.
press images (c) DreamWorks. Aladdin images (c) Disney.
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