2010: Scared Shrekless

When it’s at its best, the Shrek series is pretty terrific - long before everyone on the planet was covering Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” it utilized the song to tremendous effect. Putting Leonard Cohen in a kids movie is downright subversive, in its way. Shrek 2 had a bar full of villains in which Captain Hook was playing piano “Little Drop of Poison,” a Tom Waits number. 

But less successful is the use of, say, Smashmouth. The Cohen and Waits songs, like Pee Wee King’s “You Belong to Me” (which was also used to great effect) have an “outside of time” quality about them that makes them fit into Shrek’s world pretty cleanly. Smashmouth, Neil Diamond, Ricky Martin, and some of the other artists whose works they utilized belong too much to our world. 
Perhaps this is why Shrek, though sucessful, never began as big an institution as I think it could have been, and why Monsters Inc, which the first Shrek movie beat out for the best animated feature oscar, holds up a bit better for me.  
Now, this isn’t to say that the Shrek movies aren’t funny - they certainly are, particularly the brilliant first one. But, then, there are times in each installment when they seem to fall back too hard on bodily function jokes and cultural references that make the first movie seem more dated than it should. Now, don’t get me wrong here - I’m fine with pop culture references in cartoons, books, whatever*. I don’t think they automatically make something dated at all, they just make it clear what year a given story is taking place in. When I read a book that takes place n 1964, even if it was written around that time, I want Beatles references. 
But perhaps those references only age well if they actually refer to things from the world in which the story takes place. Lifting them into Shrek’s fantasy setting doesn’t hold up as well. Also, though I’m by no means opposed to a fart joke or a poop joke, when they come up in Shrek, I just want to look at the writers and say “Come on, now - you’re better than that.” Some of them seem shoe-horned in to keep the kids laughing at a series where most of the jokes are probably going over their heads. 
But, hey. You do what you gotta do. 
I haven’t kept track of the series as well as perhaps I should have, but the delightful 2010 Halloween special - Scared Shrekless - makes me want to go back and make up for lost time. Presenting a sort of anthology in which Shrek and the gang try to top each other’s scary stories, this plays like one of the better Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror installments. The title alone shows that the writers here weren’t scared into being approrpiate first and funny second, though it did make me worry that I was in for an evening of poop jokes. But I needn’t have worried - even with such tempting bait for poop joke writers as three ogre babies in diapers (could there be a more tempting bait?), Scared Shrekless didn’t rely on the naughty bits or topical jokes - it just set out to be a damned fine Halloween special, and pulled off one of the best such things in the last fifteen or twenty years. 

Beginning with Shrek and his wife and young children trick or treating, Shrek ends up taking his usual pals - Donkey, the gingerbread man, Pinnochio, and the Puss in Boots - out to a supposedly haunted castle, where they’ll try to scare each other. Shrek, as an ogre, claims that he can’t be scared, because he’s the one who does the scaring. Ogres, he and Fiona, his wife, explain, are the kings of Halloween.
The first story is that of the Gingerbread Man, who tells of the night he went to see his baker, having been kicked out by his girlfriend (now there’s a life event that doesn’t happen in many kids’ shows) and demanding that the baker make him a bride. The baker is reluctant to use as much sugar as the gingerbread man calls for, but goes along with it, resulting in the creation of gingerbread woman, who immediately starts acting like a slightly older version of Elmira, the annoying clingy girl from Tiny Toons. Now, as a rule, I don’t think psychotic girlfriends are very funny (they sure aren’t in real life), but it was fun to watch the gingerbread man dealing with adult relationship problems in his high-pitched voice, and fun to watch the evil gingerbread bride coming back to haunt him after he (yes) kills her.
It was the part where he killed her that made me realize I was watching something much more in line with The Simpsons than, say, a Nicktoon (and not just because she dies just about the same way Bart and Lisa do at the end of Treehouse of Horror 5). People don’t usually get killed in stuff that’s aimed at kids - or, if they do, they generally fall to their death and die offscreen, so more sensitive children, perhaps, could imagine that they just landed on their heads and got a bump that made them change their ways (this would not have been me; I remember making my mother assure me, again and again, that the wicked witch from Snow White was never seen again after falling into that deep chasm).

From there, Scared Shrekless flounders just slightly - the segment in which Donkey is stalked by a donkey-eating waffle never gets a chance to develop, and the segment in which Shrek gives Gepeto parenting advice when Pinnochio gets possessed by his conscience devolves into “puke in the face / kick in the nuts” jokes. All in all, both of the last segments are pretty good, but with more time to stretch out they could have been great.
And so what we end up with isn’t so unusual - a Halloween special that seems to be wrong length for its script. But in a bit of a rare move, it’s one that I wish was longer; there was too much wild invention here to cram into twenty-one minutes, and the last ten seemed stuffed with the writers trying to get all their jokes in. And I couldn’t blame them. Scared Shrekless is funny, just scary enough that you know that they aren’t wussing out for the sake of the easily-frightened kids, and as gorgeous, visually, as any Halloween special ever produced.
The 2011 DVD is packaged with Thriller Night, another mini Shrek Halloween special, a five minute parody of the “Thriller” video that opens with Shrek running, screaming, from a screening of The Sound of Music. What follows is an excellent, almost shot-for-shot remake of the famous video, with Shrek in the role of Michael Jackson’s girlfriend. It’s pretty funny, too. 

* - maybe I’m just being bitter here; the whole "don't use pop culture" rule for YA writers gets on my nerves a lot. When I read my older books, it's what they LACK that makes them seem dated. My books from 2007-8 have little mention of social media, youtube, streaming video services, etc, all of which would have made for a different plot. A stray reference to Metallica doesn't hurt them at all. 

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