How DreamWorks dreamed up Shrek and teamed up with Mike Myers to create an ogre opus

Kermit The Frog said it wasn’t easy being green. He could speak only for frogs, of course. But as it happens, it’s not easy being a green ogre, either.

Just ask Mike Myers. He’s the voice of the title beastie in Shrek, the new computer-animated feature from DreamWorks. A fractured fairy tale laden with satirical twists nowhere to be found in the 1990 William Steig storybook on which it’s based, the movie follows the grumbly ogre on a quest to rescue an imprisoned princess (voiced by Cameron Diaz), abetted, though also annoyed, by the hypertalkative Donkey (Eddie Murphy). After Myers replaced Chris Farley, who died in 1997 having recorded only a handful of sessions, the Austin Powers mastermind began performing scene snippets over many months. When he finally saw a full-length rough cut in February 2000, everything in it enchanted him — except himself.

Sitting in a screening room beside DreamWorks executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, Myers felt his spirits falling faster than Austin Powers’ mojo-free member. ”I instinctively knew I could do better,” Myers recalls. He’d played Shrek to sound ”like me with a thicker Canadian accent. Where I went with it initially was to be scary. What I really needed to hit was vulnerable.”

As Myers unleashed a pointed self-critique, Katzenberg stifled his alarm. ”I don’t think Mike understood what was going on in my mind,” says Katzenberg. ”Which was that literally one third of [the scenes with] his character had already been animated.”

When Myers begged to scrap all the tracks and start over, it was a moment of truth for Katzenberg. As Disney’s animation cheerleader in the late ’80s and early ’90s, he’d nurtured ever-bigger smashes: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. But from the day Disney banished him in 1994 after a decade of workaholic dedication, Katzenberg has had a spottier record launching a ‘toon division at DreamWorks. (Upsides: Antz and Chicken Run. Downside: The Road to El Dorado.) Now his Shrek star wanted an overhaul that meant major headaches, since new line readings would force animators to create new mouth movements and gestures to match them.

Absent a fairy godmother, Katzenberg waved his executive wand over Myers. He recalls that he ”had to choke out a yes.”

That yes plunged Shrek into suspended animation — literally. Work on shots featuring the ogre were put on hold while Myers sought fresh inspiration. He found it in his childhood. ”My mom read fairy tales to me,” says Myers. ”She’s from Liverpool, and she’s a trained actress. For me, Curious George was from London. So I went, Aha! Shrek should have the Scottish accent of somebody who’s lived in Canada 20 years.”

Did the revisions, which took three months and increased the $40 million budget by $4 million, make as much difference artistically as Myers hoped? Yes, says Katzenberg. ”It was like we had junk,” he enthuses, ”and now we had gold.” Will the work also pay off financially? Almost certainly. Because Shrek — the movie, the character, the tie-in toy — seems to be clicking big time with preview audiences and critics alike. Even the cineasts at the Cannes Film Festival fell under its spell. With no prompting from DreamWorks, say all parties involved, festival reps insisted on seeing the film back in January. They were besotted — though Katzenberg claims he told them they were ”insane” — and offered DreamWorks a slot in competition. That made Shrek the first American animated feature to vie for the Palme d’Or since The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat in 1974.

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