Later this week, I will be going to see Sony Animation’s take on Peter Rabbit, the beloved children’s series by Beatrix Potter. What are my expectations? Considering that the promotions are filled with Animal House-style parties, and that our titular hero shoves a carrot up Domhnall Gleeson’s derrière, I’m not particularly looking forward to it. That still looks masterful, though, compared to the upcoming Sherlock Gnomes, which features truly hilarious lines like “‘We need a ship.’ ‘No ship, Sherlock.’” and an old man dancing around in a thong.
How did we get here? How did we get to a stage in our evolution where Beatrix Potter’s characters are sodomizing people with vegetables? I see it as part of a trend, a trend with its roots all the way back in 2001, with the release of Shrek.
Most people my age were very young when Shrek first released, and it’s hard to really understand the impact it had. Looking at animation before and after though, you can see a distinct difference. Suddenly, fart jokes and other body humor became so much more common in feature animation, as well as more “adult” humor. Sure some animated movies had done it before. Shrek made a difference though, because it made money. In fact, it was the first PG-rated animated film to be a financial success. You can see that impact today, where virtually everything from major animation studios is rated PG. That’s right, Wreck-it Ralph is just as intense as Indiana Jones — and more intense than The Lion King’s many death scenes.
Another enduring legacy of Shrek was the concept behind it: fairy tales, but reimagined for a modern audience. Classic fairy tale characters that we knew and loved had now been shattered against a soundtrack of dated pop songs and crude humor. Again, it had been done before, but never done so well and to the tune of so much money. Of course studios wanted to get in on it, and sure enough they did. Lots of copycats came about: Igor, Hoodwinked!, Happily N’Ever After and even Disney tried it out with Chicken Little. More recently studios expanded into classic cartoons with the likes of Yogi Bear and The Smurfs getting the treatment. Now it’s led up to the subject of this article, Peter Rabbit.
Here’s the problem with copycats though: they imitate what they see, without understanding what really makes it work. Hundreds of fantasy writers across media rip off J.R.R. Tolkien without understanding the themes that underpinned his different species and creations (looking at you, Bright). Movies like The Swan Princess attempted to copy the Disney princess movies without understanding what made them actually enjoyable in the first place. In the same manner, many creators copied Shrek without really looking at it. Yes it has fart jokes and adult jokes and celebrity voices and makes fun of fairy tales, but it actually has something to say. It tells a complete story with a gruff but likeable protagonist. It doesn’t just mock fairy tales, but points out the actual inconsistencies within them and offers an ending that makes more sense for a modern audience.
But when you only look surface-deep, at the pop music and the grown-up jokes and the mockery of cultural touchstones, that’s all you end up making: a surface-level product. Even filmmakers who nail Shrek’s deeper themes find themselves faced with a paradox. In 2001, Shrek pushed the envelope for what animation could get away with, but managed to stay within family-friendly boundaries. Now, let’s say I make a movie and I want it to have Shrek-style humor. If I do what the movie did, I’m not pushing the envelope — I just have a character farting and digging earwax out of his head. On the other hand, if I try to push the envelope harder, I risk losing that family-friendly label, and run into characters who are more gross and sulky than likable.
Heck, Shrek itself began to run into this problem. Between Shrek Forever After in 2010 and Puss in Boots in 2011, the box office dropped by $200 million worldwide, and audiences became more ambivalent. Puss in Boots had the same stuff that Shrek had: reimagining Jack and Jill as notorious outlaws, Humpty Dumpty as a criminal mastermind, and lots of adult jokes. The magic was fading though, and the hard data exists to back it up.
As a result, we can see a shift in how animated movies are selling themselves. Disney and Pixar are marching to the beat of their own drum, and it’s served them quite well. Illumination has now become a major rival, and they have their own brand of silliness — but a silliness that doesn’t rely so heavily on pop culture and crass humor. Every now and then though, you can see the remnants of the past sneaking into theaters. Look at The Smurfs, where Gargamel…ahem, relieved himself into a bucket in the middle of a restaurant, and you had Blue Man Group and Katy Perry references right and left.
So we get to today, where we are looking forward to a rather perverse Peter Rabbit and a eye-rolling Sherlock Gnomes. In their rush to be current and popular, they’re merely relics. Sony and Paramount are trying to capture lightning in a bottle, but the lightning struck over fifteen years ago. The Shrek phenomenon cannot happen again. Peter Rabbit is now expected to open with a $16-18 million weekend, which puts the final gross roughly between $70 million to $180 million. With a budget of $50 million to make up, not to mention advertising costs and the theaters’ cut, a financial hit is not very likely here. Shrek humor and storytelling has had its run and audiences are moving on.
David Gouldthorpe is a senior in the College of Labor and Industrial Relations. He can be reached at [email protected] Animation Analysis runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.