The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?
Shrek was a “fuck you.” That was the entire point. This massively successful children’s film franchise owes its entire existence to corporate resentment and hubris. That’s probably why it was successful. Most of America’s 10-year-olds were presumably not poring over the pages of Variety, gasping at the back-room machinations that led to Jeffrey Katzenberg being so mad at his former bosses. But most of America’s 10-year-olds probably could tell that Shrek was a snarked-out broadside against the Walt Disney Company and all it represented.
As a young executive, Katzenberg had taken the lion’s share of the credit for the sudden creative and commercial rebirth of Disney animation in the early ’90s. Katzenberg had pushed the studio’s feature-length cartoons back toward the formulas that had once worked so well: the bright visuals, the songs, the wacky anthropomorphic sidekicks, the princesses. But when Disney head Michael Eisner fired Katzenberg in 1994, Katzenberg vowed revenge. Along with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, Katzenberg founded DreamWorks, and he did everything in his power to turn his new studio’s animation division into something that could bury his ex-employer, directly undermining Disney at every step along the way.
Once DreamWorks got going, the studio began a practice of cranking out movies that were thematically close to whatever Disney and their partners at Pixar were doing at the time—something that was pretty easy, since Katzenberg had been in the pipeline for those movies’ development. In 1998, for instance, Pixar followed up Toy Story, a film in which Katzenberg was involved, with A Bug’s Life. A month and a half before A Bug’s Life came out, though, DreamWorks released Antz, another movie about the adventures of a rebellious worker ant in love with a princess. A Bug’s Life made more money, and it’s a far better film. But Antz had Woody Allen as its lead, which fooled a lot of people into thinking that it was the more adult, sophisticated alternative. Pixar bosses Steve Jobs and John Lasseter seethed at Katzenberg for years, accusing him of stealing the whole idea for A Bug’s Life and taking it elsewhere.
Shrek (2001) might be Katzenberg’s spiteful masterpiece. As Pixar worked on Monsters Inc., its own movie about a sympathetic big lug of a creature, DreamWorks adapted a William Steig storybook about an ogre with a heart of gold. Shrek knocks down the classic Disney archetype, kneels on its chest, and hocks loogies into its eye. The movie’s monstrous hero and his donkey sidekick are ugly, nasty boors with nothing but contempt for the architecture of the story in which they find themselves. The film’s avatars of Disney-style chivalry are pompous, self-adoring blowhards. The villain believes in fairy-tale perfection; the hero stands in complete opposition to all of that.
Shrek had fart jokes and sex jokes and pop songs and pop culture references, most of which were in short supply in Disney movies at the time. Shrek also had huge movie stars: Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, and Cameron Diaz, all of whom had headlined big comedy hits in the years before Shrek. The film was a huge success, the No. 4 earner at the 2001 box office. It made just a bit less money than Monsters, Inc., but DreamWorks still pulled the dick move of releasing Shrek on video on the same day that Monsters, Inc. premiered in theaters.
Four years later, Shrek 2 was Jeffrey Katzenberg’s touchdown dance. Each of the stars of Shrek had demanded $10 million to return for the sequel, and Katzenberg happily paid it. He’d also enlisted the voices of show business legends Julie Andrews and John Cleese. Directors Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury, and Conrad Vernon dialed up the grossness and the nudge-nudge humor. And Shrek 2 utterly obliterated Disney’s summer cartoon flop Atlantis: The Lost Empire on its way to beating Pixar’s groundbreaking superhero family adventure The Incredibles. In North America and in the rest of the world, Shrek 2 was the year’s biggest movie. For years, it reigned as the highest-grossing animated film in history.
All that said, Shrek 2 is only barely a movie. Without its end credits, Shrek 2 clocks in at considerably less than 90 minutes. The film’s big themes—about rejecting dominant narratives, embracing who you are, the shallowness of beauty—are the same big themes from the first Shrek. Shrek’s whole grumpy-to-cuddly character arc is roughly the same. The climax is similarly noisy. Donkey sings a song over the end credits, just as he did in the first Shrek. The sequel has no compelling reason to exist beyond general public appetite for more Shrek shit.
Disney catches some stray shots in Shrek 2—Ariel getting thrown to sharks, Tinkerbell passing out from fart gas—but Katzenberg’s white-hot hatred no longer feels like the guiding principle. (If anything, the main target seems to be generalized Hollywood phoniness, which is the sort of thing that Hollywood phonies love to mock.) Instead, the film mostly works as a long procession of jokes and ideas: Prince Charming is really a vain asshole! Fiona’s parents think Shrek is gross! But then Shrek becomes a handsome human! Also, Puss In Boots is a swashbuckling swordsman who wins fights by being cute! (Watching Shrek 2 with my kids, the Puss In Boots scenes got the biggest reactions by far. That idea worked.)
In a way, there’s something refreshing about a hugely successful film as unassuming and low stakes at Shrek 2. It’s less than half the length of The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King, the biggest hit of the previous year. (The Lord Of The Rings and Spider-Man both get moments of affectionate parody during the opening, a Shrek-in-love montage set to a Counting Crows song that would get an Oscar nomination.) Shrek 2 is a perfectly functional entertainment that never becomes a chore. It gives exactly what its title promises, which is more Shrek. The Incredibles is a better film in every conceivable way, but it didn’t have Shrek or Donkey. It couldn’t win.
Shrek 2 has a go-for-broke energy that works pretty well. Plenty of the jokes don’t land, but they keep coming so fast that they wear you down. Jennifer Saunders, from Absolutely Fabulous, has audible fun as the villainous Fairy Godmother, and she gets to belt out Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out For A Hero” in the zippy, showy climactic set piece. Also, the animation looks a lot better than it did in the first Shrek—less PlayStation cutscene, more PlayStation 2 cutscene.
America’s ticket-buying public was apparently awfully impressed with computer animation in 2004. Just a decade shy of the release of Toy Story, the new style had all but wiped out hand-drawn cartoons. Besides Shrek 2 and The Incredibles, audiences flocked to Robert Zemeckis’ misbegotten motion-capture experiment The Polar Express and to DreamWorks’ Finding Nemo bite Shark Tale. Other big hits from that year—Spider-Man 2, Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, The Day After Tomorrow—had entire sequences that were mostly computer-animated. Film storytelling had just taken a big leap forward, and audiences had embraced it.
All those box office successes were also essentially movies for kids. Every major Hollywood studio was in a rush to find properties with franchise potential that wouldn’t exclude paying audiences, and they’ve kept up that practice to this day. In the year-end box office top 10 of 2004, the only R-rated film is an unrepeatable fluke: Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ, which had the good fortune to become a culture war weapon and which rode church-group field trips and water-cooler chatter to earn an astonishing $370 million domestic, finished just behind Shrek 2 and Spider-Man 2. Even with its fetishized bloodlettings, The Passion Of The Christ didn’t exclude many audiences either; plenty of kids ended up seeing it.
Every other big movie in 2004 was a zippy, jokey adventure of some form or another. Many of them were sequels: The aforementioned Spider-Man and Harry Potter joints, Meet The Fockers, The Bourne Supremacy. Almost everything had jokes. Nothing besides The Passion Of The Christ took itself seriously. Within that context, Shrek 2 was the big dog. In the years since then, Pixar has pushed animated movies toward sentimental, emotional catharsis, to the point where Shrek 2 almost seems transgressive now. (Upon rewatch, my 8-year-old said that Shrek 2 is good because “they say ‘sexy’ and ‘ass.’”) Upon Shrek 2’s release, Jeffrey Katzenberg told The Guardian that the Shrek franchise worked because it was “sophisticated, subversive, ironic, satirical, full of parody.” These days, when people have basically stopped equating irony with sophistication, those Shrek movies don’t look quite so special.
Katzenberg’s success with the Shrek movies may have been part of the reason that his old boss Michael Eisner was pushed out at Disney. For a few years, all of Disney’s non-Pixar animated films struggled. When Bob Iger replaced Eisner in 2005, he said that one of his main goals was to restore the luster of Disney’s animation. One of Iger’s first acts was to buy Pixar outright, rather than just partnering with the company. In his tenure, Iger was responsible for Disney paying billions for Lucasfilm and Marvel. Iger also pushed Pixar’s storytelling braintrust into the rest of Disney animation, which led to a whole new renaissance with Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen and everything afterwards. At this point, Disney isn’t even really in competition with the other film studios anymore. Disney has won. Maybe that wouldn’t have happened if Katzenberg and Shrek hadn’t put the fear of god into the company.
DreamWorks cranked out two more Shrek sequels and a Puss In Boots spinoff in short order, and all of them made money. But after Shrek 2, DreamWorks Animation never beat Disney at the box office again. Universal bought DreamWorks Animation in 2016, and Katzenberg left the company. He went off to start Quibi, which became one of the great schadenfreude stories of 2020. Katzenberg tried, but his “fuck you” wasn’t enough. Disney still won.
The runner-up: There’s not a ton of transcendent cinema on the list of 2004 hits, but Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 is about as good as a first-wave superhero sequel can be. Freed from the chore of the origin story, Raimi blew out his scope and sped up his storytelling, and he put together one of the era’s best examples of confident, kinetic blockbuster filmmaking. At its climax, Tobey Maguire struck 2004’s best Jesus Christ pose.
Next time: George Lucas wraps up his dumbfounding prequel trilogy with Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith.