Jim Hill explores one of the forgotten secrets of the animated film - the writing.
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Back to the Drawing BoardBack to the Drawing Board with Jim Hill:
The Write Stuff - Ted Elliot & Terry Russio

by Jim Hill

As the 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.

Sometimes, 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.)

But whether 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 funnyIn the Morning, I'm Making Waffles! the first time I saw it. 1500 times later ... I'm not so sure) and our newspapers & magazines are saturated with Shrek-related stories.

That's why -- 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 items.

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.

Thankfully, 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.

It's that 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.

Shrek bathing in mud

But still, 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 multi-plex.

Thankfully, 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.

What? You 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 Aladdin?

There's dozens 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 Aladdinthe 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.

Terry & 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 have: heart.

Oddly enough, 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.

JasmineBut 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 before.

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 the Genie.

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.

Dragon from ShrekSo 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, make-sure-you've-gone-to-the-bathroom-first-otherwise-you'll-pee-your-pants 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.

Given that Shrek is written by the same guys who wrote Aladdin, I would have expected no less.

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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.

Based out 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 stadlerhill@mindspring.com.

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.

Shrek press images (c) DreamWorks. Aladdin images (c) Disney.

All editorialized columns, including this one, that appear in Digital Media FX are not necessarily reflective of the opinions of Digital Media FX, its partner sites, and its advertisers.

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