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"From the Swamp to the Screen" is a really entertaining look at the creation of the first two "Shrek" films

"From the Swamp to the Screen" is a really entertaining look at the creation of the first two "Shrek" films

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You know, it's actually quite appropriate that John Hopkins' "Shrek: From the Swamp to the Screen" (Harry N. Abrams, May 2004) has a dimensional cover. (As in: The dust cover of this book is raised. So -- as you run your fingers over the front & back cover of this book -- you can actually feel the contours of Shrek & Donkey's faces).

Why for? Because this dimensional cover ... Well ... It has depth. Just as the writing in "From the Swamp to the Screen" does. By that I mean: Hopkins' does (what I think is) a really excellent job of reporting on the creation of Dreamworks' first two "Shrek" films.

John starts his production history 'way back at the beginning. Long before there was a "Shrek," the movie. All the way back 'til there was only "Shrek!," William Steig's children book. Which was originally published back in 1990. ( Married four different times during his 94 years on this planet, Steig -- just like the ogre character that he created -- seems to have a really tough time when it came to dealing with the ladies.)

Anywho ... The story of "Shrek" (the movie) actually gets underway in 1994, when Laurie MacDonald (acting on a tip from producer John Williams) first brings Steig's book to Jeffrey Katzenberg's attention. Katzenberg (The former head of Walt Disney Studios, the man who many Hollywood insiders consider responsible for the Mouse's long string of animated hits in the late 1980s/early 1990s) reportedly immediately saw "Shrek!" 's potential. Which is why -- after Dreamworks acquired the rights to the book -- Jeffrey quickly put this project into active development.

But -- as many of you JHM readers already know -- "Shrek" 's path to the big screen was far from a smooth one. For the first few years of this feature's development, "Shrek" was envisioned as a starring vehicle for "Saturday Night Live" vet Chris Farley. But -- when that heavyset comic tragically died of an accidental drug overdose in December of 1997 -- this once promising project really hit a rough patch.

As "Shrek" & "Shrek II" director Andrew Adamson explained:

"There was a period of time when we were trying to re-find the movie without Chris, and we ended up making a movie ... that was just too conservative, too traditional."

"Traditional?!" "Conservative?!" I know, I know. These are NOT words that one normally associates with "Shrek." But that's the beauty of "From the Swamp to the Screen," folks. Hopkins actually peels away many of the layers of myth that have already begun to be associated with the creation of these Dreamworks films. Revealing what really went on as that studio struggled to bring "Shrek" to the big screen.

Of course, one of the real pleasures of this Abrams book is its beautiful illustrations. Which finally allow you to get a good, close look at the exquisite backgrounds that the artists at PDI created for these pictures. Not to mention finally being able to pick out some of the more subtle in-jokes that Dreamworks has folded into the "Shrek" films.

"What sort of in-jokes?," you ask. Well take -- for example -- these gags from the "Far, Far Away" sequence in "Shrek 2":

  • What's the street address of Cinderella's mansion? 1159. As in one minute before midnight.
  • Among the hoity-toity stores that you'll find in Far, Far Away's equivalent of Rodeo Drive are Versarchery & Saxxon Fifth Avenue.
  • If you'd like to get a closer look at the Fairy Tale Stars homes, all you have to do is sign up for an Earl Gray Line Tour.

These are the sorts of jokes that just fly right by when you're watching "Shrek 2" in a theater. But -- thanks to "From the Swamp to the Screen" -- you now get a chance to discover & savor the witty little touches that are scattered throughout the picture. Blink-and-you'll-miss-them gags like the "Neighborhood Witch Watch" sign and/or the cover of that tabloid newspaper, "The Kingdom Inquisitor." Which features the headline "Goldilocks: Behind Bars."

There's also pieces of artwork in here that illustrate every phase of production. From the roughest sorts of storyboards (Showing the sequence in "Shrek 2" where the ogre is initially attacked by Puss In Boots. Which features that great "Alien" chest burster gag) right up to finished frames from the films. Which clearly show "Shrek" 's subtle use of color. Not to mention the almost insane level of detail that some scenes in these movies featured.

It's this mix of elements -- the great behind-the-scenes stories, the hundreds of beautiful illustrations -- that make "Shrek: From the Swamp to the Screen" just the sort of volume that any serious animation fan would probably love to have in their reference library.

(Oh! One other thing that will probably make this "Shrek" making-of book a must-have for all you animation buffs out there: The back most pages of "From the Swamp to the Screen" feature some pretty funny caricatures of the various artists, execs and animators who helped bring this project to life. So -- if you'd like to get a somewhat silly snapshot of the crew at Dreamworks looks like -- be sure and check on the "Shrek 2" credits listing at the back of this book.)

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