Shrek: Screenplays Don’t Get Much Tighter Than This
Another great story breakdown, this time for one of the best animated comedies of all time…SHREK!
There’s so many things right with the screenplay for Shrek, it’s hard to know where to begin. The opening sequence is a perfect example of everything that’s right with this project.
It begins with establishing Shrek running around his swamp gathering food for his dinner. Shrek clearly enjoys the swamp, knows it and makes use of the various animals and plants for his dinner. And that sequence doesn’t go to waste, because later when the events of Act 1 unfold, there are all the elements on the table. Nothing goes to waste.
Yep, it’s perfect storytelling. Very economical and sets up the hero’s ordinary world. Remember that Shrek’s world is the swamp. He’s going to go to a ‘special’ world where he’s the ‘fish out of water’. In order for that to work, we must set Shrek up. Note that he’s happy all alone, chilling in his swamp. At this point, he doesn’t have a problem that needs solving.
Shrek himself is a rich character. He’s not just an ogre. In Act he teaches Donkey the mythos of his people by looking up at the stars. A lesser screenplay would’ve completely ignored that the ogre had his own gods.
And as an ogre, Shrek has a logical origin. He’s alone and bitter in the swamp because people assume he’s ugly and stupid. In the first act, they establish Shrek’s “normal” life of humans coming into the swamp with pitchforks and torches. And, although Shrek clearly has the power to crush them all, he merely scares them off and doesn’t hurt them. Shrek is a curmudgeon, but a nice guy.
This is an important storytelling technique: making the hero likable. Shrek is such an amazing movie because he says (much like Rick in Casablanca) that he’s an unlovable jerk who doesn’t care about helping anyone else BUT every action he takes is to help others. This creates a wonder contrast.
We LOVE characters that say one thing but do another. It creates a mystery…and all great stories play off our curiosity. We are presented with a question (‘will the boy get the girl?’, ‘will the hero defeat the villain?’). So Shrek sets this up perfectly and makes us see that he deserves love and that he protests deserving love BECAUSE he doesn’t want to be rejected and get hurt. This shows us who he really is and, since we all can relate to the emotion of wanting to be loved and accepted, we see ourselves in Shrek. This is called ‘empathy’ and the key reason why you love a story or not. The best stories are the ones where you relate the emotions and problems the main character faces.
Also note that the inciting incident is all the Fairy Tale creatures being banished to Shrek’s swamp. He wants to figure out why they’re suddenly invading his swamp. His life was normal (chillin’ in the swamp) then got set to chaos (which he needs to restore) the minute the creatures invade his swamp. This sets him off to talk to Lord Farquaad (whom he finds, and gets a new goal, at the end of act 1).
In contrast, the villain Lord Farquaad, is everything Shrek is not. He’s handsome, petty and longs for attention. He has vast wealth and power, but squanders it. His evilness is firmly established when he tortures the helpless gingerbread man.
(Keep in mind that the writers set Lord Farquaad up as the noble, handsome prince THEN twist it to show that appearances can be deceiving (the theme of the film). He’s really short and that insecurity is what causes him to be so vain and evil. Even though he has money and fame, he’s an ass. Unlike Shrek who should be evil (everyone is trying to stab him with a pitchfork) BUT he is kind at heart. Making Lord Farquaad’s emotional problem be the same as Shrek helps to contrast why Shrek is the hero…he’s got it much worse than others but STILL is a kind person.
The Shrek universe is also a major factor in the story’s success. This is a fairy tale world in which anachronisms are common. The rules of the fairy tale world are ones in which everyone is familiar, so the supporting cast are easily recognizable: witches, fairies, the three little pigs, etc. As a bonus, for the adults, the soundtrack is full of nostalgic pop songs that they recognize.
The rules of the Shrek world are pretty clear. It’s a fantasy world made up of fantasy characters. It’s also a satire, so the writers can mock the characters (but they don’t mock Shrek, Donkey or Fiona…that would give the film a mean tone and turn audiences off). Note that the rules are set up in act 1 and never broken.
Each story has 1 ‘Big Buy’. That means there is one major thing the audience needs to accept. You can only have 1 per a movie. If you do 2, then you’ll make the audience feel like you’re breaking the rules. Imagine, if you saw a movie with Fairy Tale creatures and magic THEN aliens come down. You’d be like ‘why are there aliens here?’ The big buy is that there is a world with magic. Having aliens (non magical) would be too confusing. It would ruin the stakes of the world and cause the audience not to care. Afterall, if anything can happen in your story then why should you care? The hero will obviously survive and thus there is no tension, and no conflict. So let’s applaud Shrek for setting up clear rules and never breaking them.
The plot is that Shrek must save Princess Fiona, who is cursed. This is alluded to in the opening and mentioned again in Act 1. By the end of Act 2, we find out that she turns into an ogre at night. So just like Shrek and Lord Farquaad, Fiona’s character and her journey is about what appearance means. The theme plays throughout.
This film serves as a buddy film. First it’s about Shrek and Donkey, then Donkey takes a back seat (and becomes just comic relief) as Shrek and Fiona bicker and feud (classic buddy comedy material). Also the end of act 1 sets up act 2: Shrek can get his swamp back IF he rescues the Princess and brings her back safely.
The midpoint of the film Shrek saves Fiona. The 2nd half of act 2 is him having to get her back to Farquaad safely (and the conflict is him bickering with her while falling in love).
Shrek’s motivation is about his self-perception. Farquaad is driven by his “short man’s disease”. Fiona’s romantic delusions about her “prince” are shattered by the arrival of Shrek. And even Donkey and the dragon’s relationship play with the idea of appearance. So in the end, the message is clear that love conquers all and appearances aren’t important.
This is Shrek’s central emotional problem… He sees himself as an unlovable monster. By the end of the movie he realizes that nothing is what it seems and that all things must be judged by their actions (or ‘it’s what’s on the inside that counts). It’s a cliched theme (same as Beauty & the Beast) but it is universal and thus works. Hundreds of films use that exact theme, and they’re all good!
So to sum up, Shrek is full of detailed characters with a rich background, a well-balanced, consistent universe that everyone can immediately connect with and universe message that drives the plot, which is both familiar and unique. It’s light, fun, funny and full of popular music. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and even though it’s aimed at kids, it still contains enough moments of vulgarity and actual danger that it doesn’t come off as some sugary sweet cartoon that talks down to them.
There’s a reason Shrek won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
And there’s a reason Shrek spawned a bunch of sequels, TV specials, theme park rides, and a broadway musical. When you create a character people LOVE they can’t get enough of it. It’s like a good friend who want to hang out with all the time.
So go out there and start paying attention to the main heroes emotional problem and how the plot forces them to deal with their problem/grow as a person (or an Ogre).