Shrek: The Final Frontier

Mike Mitchell and the DreamWorks Animation team deliver Shrek Forever After, the green machine’s final bow, in 3-D.

The infallible rule of fairy tales is that they must end with a happily ever after. Though fans of DreamWorks’ sass-talking, evil-foiling ogre will be sad to see the end of his popular film franchise, the dedicated team behind Shrek Forever After promises to deliver a happy ending–in state of the art stereoscopic 3-D, no less!

Shrek is on the brink of a mid-life crisis. He’s lost his edge. Instead of terrifying villagers, he’s autographing pitch forks for eager fans. When Rumplestiltskin offers him a day off in exchange for one day of Shrek’s life, it seems like a good deal… until it’s revealed the wicked imp has taken the day Shrek was born, plunging Far Far Away into an alternate reality where Shrek never existed, Rumplestiltskin rules the land and Fiona has embraced her inner warrior, leading an underground ogre resistance. The rest of the gang are also caught up in their bizarrely flipped existence, and it’s up to Shrek to win them over and set things right.

“It was just a natural evolution of the movies and the character. We’ve seen Shrek fall in love, have a family, become a father and, finally, it was more about him accepting himself as part of a larger community. It felt natural to question his impact on the world,” says head of story and voice of Rumplestiltskin Walt Dorhn of the inventive plot, which has drawn comparisons to It’s A Wonderful Life.

“A lot of people have forgotten that that first movie was a well told story with lots of emotion. We want this film to be as endearing and as emotional, and we want to bring back that really cool, tough Shrek. I think Shrek is the animated Tony Soprano,” director Mike Mitchell jokes, “He’s allowed to be grumpy and hateful and we love him!”

Mitchell, who makes his feature animation debut after serving DreamWorks’ art department for years in addition to live-action directing (Sky High, Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo), credits writer Josh Klausner (Date Night) with the clever twist. “It was just me and him in a room and our challenge was, how do we make the best Shrek film ever that encapsulates all the previous films? And he came up with such a clever idea that was really just a reboot of the whole franchise.”

As a teammember on previous Shrek outings, Mitchell says he was beyond excited to be offered the director’s chair. “I’m a huge Shrek fan ‘ Not only that, at the time I was a new dad, so I was very much relating to Shrek and his issues, ” he shares, “You can see that in the film’my little mid life crisis was happening at the same time!” The director says his mantra throughout the production was to not just make another Shrek, but the series’ “ultimate” film. A sentiment shared by Dohrn and the rest of the crew, and one they feel they’ve fulfilled (and hope audiences agree).

Ultimate Efforts

Adding an extra sprinkle of magic to Forever After is state-of-the-art 3-D, a spectacle new to the Shrek universe. DreamWorks’ recent stereoscopic romps like How to Train Your Dragon have proven that with a little finesse, the technology can serve the story and add excitement without an overwhelming theme-park feel.

”The only thing I was nervous about was the 3-D,” Mitchell admits. Luckily the Dragons team was near at hand, and studio CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg even got Mitchell in touch with director James Cameron to see the 3-D workings of Avatar.

Though there is plenty of dimensionally enhanced action (say, a high-speed flying broomstick chase), Mitchell and his crew also found ways to use the depth and immersiveness of the technology to highlight the film’s more emotional moments. ”This movie is very much from Shrek’s perspective, so the 3-D really helps put you in his headspace and environment,” he observes.

Head of character animation Jason Reisig, who came aboard fresh from Kung Fu Panda, was less concerned with the techy new tricks: ”It’s really not our part to judge the 3-Dness,” he laughs, though he notes that the animation team had to break the occassional bad habit when it came to cheating eye lines and allowing limbs to cut out of frame.

”Seeing shots evolve in 3-D and stereo viewing really helps,” he says of the close collaboration in the tight-knit production crew of about 35, ”Being aware of when you’re cheating things, when you can and can’t, when you’re playing with composition ‘ it’ll pop in 3-D. it’s not good to do anyway, but in 3-D it’s more apparent.”

As we’ve seen in the past three Shrek films, the quality of the animation is always evolving. Reisig, an unimpeachable Looney Tunes fan, points out that audiences can see this improvement in the characters themselves. ”In the first movie there was more of a flexibility to the characters. As the movies progressed, they were more supposedly ‘human’ and ‘natural’ and everything got kind of stilted and puppetlike,” he explains, ”I wanted to try to go back to that flexibility, allowing the animation to be a little more loose.”

This return to a more cartoony feel was accomplished by working under the hood to retrofit new skeletal structures in the models, which had been developed during recent productions. ”There have always been two ways: the Shrek way and all the other shows,” Reisig jokes. ”I really wanted to get the look we loved on Panda and others that allow the characters to be squashed and stretched’not to that extent, but it allows that flexiblity and I think it helped the quality.”

”The animators are so skillful and they’ve been provided with extra tools for these characters,” Mitchell concurs, also citing advances in lighting and textures that have truly raised the bar. ”There are some scenes where it looks like a live-action film. There’s a scene where he stands up, and in the 3-D and you see the specs of dust in the light, and it’s so crazy’it feels more real than a live-action film.”

Another favorite advancement of Mitchell’s was the capacity to let Fiona wear her trademark red hair down. ”The hair department are the heroes of this movie!” he enthuses, only half-joking. Combined with the improved lighting, motion effects and cinematography, it’s possible Fiona’s warrior princess act will give Neytiri a run for her money.

Reign of Terror

While all our old favorites promise to create a stir with their new alternate personas, it’s the conniving miscreant Rumplestiltskin who may just steal the show.

”As many times as I’ve watched this film ‘ when Shrek first comes across Rumple’s lair and the camera pans across and you see Rumple’I just laugh!” Mitchell remarks. ”It’s weird to have a character that you hate so much that it makes you laugh. He’s like a scheister, rat lawyer. Like a strip mall lawyer. You just hate him! When he tricks Shrek and becomes king in all his oppulance, you just want to slap him.”

Dohrn, not being a strip mall lawyer, says he pulled from several film classics like The Bad Seed and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane to get the performance down. ”Rumple has this kind of innocence, but he could turn on a dime,” he explains, adding that he has no hard feelings about being cast as such a malicious creep.

And Reisig found plenty of opportunity to scratch his Looney Tunes inspired itch with the little sneak. ”His facial expressions are a bit more pushed, more exaggerated, which was a lot of fun to play up ‘ He’s the kind of character that sometimes animators will do something in blocking that’s way out there and makes you laugh when you see it, and you have a tendency to want to pull back. But we found on Rumple we never said that. I think the animators really enjoyed that and always wanted to get his shots’you could do no wrong.”

The Final Chapter

Full of humor and heart, the film sets out to wrap up the franchise with another all-important element of fairy tales: a moral to the well loved Shrek story.

”I really hope that the audience walks away knowing that maybe there’s no such thing as a perfect happily ever after, but even with all its flaws, life is really, really great,” Mitchell summarizes. ”And also knowing that we made the most ultimate Shrek ever! That would be nice, too.”

Reisig seconds the sentiment. ”I just hope the audience thinks that, this being the last one, we were successful in making this the best one. That we didn’t go out with a stutter, but with a bang.”

And when it comes to the wild and magical world of animation, Dohrn (who shares both a name and a birthday with his toon hero, Walt Disney) says that it’s in the creators’ hands to make an audience connect with even the most fantastical of stories. ”The key is, which I tell our story tellers and animators: Find a way to love your characters and make them real. Draw them lovingly. Make them a real person’or a real ogre, in this case.”

‘And they all lived happily ever after.

DreamWorks’ Shrek Forever After hits theaters May 21. For info, trailer and other ogre-ish delights, visit www.shrekforeverafter.com.