Sunday, May 23, 2010

So What's Next for "Shrek"?

The fourth "Shrek" movie, "Shrek Forever After," underperformed this weekend at the box office, taking in about $70 million so far, well short of the $100 million openings of the previous sequels. Industry watchers are already declaring that it's a bomb, though the lack of kid-friendly viewing choices this month should ensure it has a long and profitable run. Dreamworks execs have already promised that this is the last "Shrek" film, in light of the lukewarm response to "Shrek the Third," and the new installment was billed as the finale to the series. Frankly, I don't believe a word of it.

Even assuming that "Shrek Forever After" is a complete financial failure, and Dreamworks cancels plans for spinoffs like "Puss in Boots" and peripherals like Christmas specials, it doesn't mean the big green ogre will be gone for good. In the short term, Dreamworks may turn their attention to their other promising properties like "Kung Fu Panda" and "How to Train Your Dragon," which both have sequels in the pipeline, but in the long term, I have no doubt that "Shrek" will be around for a long time. In the current media age, where "Hulk" and "Punisher" have gotten two reboots apiece within a span of five years, and Sony is about to relaunch "Spiderman" for another round, no marketable franchise gets left behind.

"Shrek" is a particularly good candidate for future resurrection. Cartoon characters are built for longevity. They never age, stand up well to updates and tinkering, and recasting is a breeze. Properly handled, they can endure for decades. Though I wouldn't put Shrek in the same league as Mickey Mouse or Bug Bunny yet, he's well on his way. Shrek's been around since 2001, is instantly recognizable to a whole generation of kids, and still represents a major cash cow for Dreamworks. His image is everywhere, incorporated into toys, games, books, and other branded merchandise. I even found green marshmallows at a convenience store in the shape of Shrek's head, a tie-in product for the new movie.

Other characters like Alvin and the Chipmunks, and Scooby Doo have had successful resurrections recently, partly due to nostalgia, which has lead to plans for new CGI movies based on the Smurfs, Marmaduke, and other childhood favorites. Winnie the Pooh, one of Disney's top brands for years, is coming back to the big screen in 2011 in the studio's next traditional animated feature. They've also created a whole series of direct-to-video features around the character of Tinker Bell, originally a minor presence in the 1953 Disney "Peter Pan" feature, as part of the "Fairies" merchandise line. Not all of these reboots are successful – see last year's "Astro Boy" – but there's certainly plenty of incentive to try.

Dreamworks' pledge not to make more "Shrek" films is probably well-meaning, but the creative decisionmaking power over these characters changes hands pretty often. If the leadership at the studio is replaced in a few years, or the" Shrek" characters are sold off to someone who can get more features made, we'll be seeing more sequels. Ill-considered direct-to-video sequels have been churned out for everything from "Cinderella" to "The Secret of NIMH" for a quick buck when their studios have run into lean years. I doubt it will be any different with Dreamworks.

It might take a while for Shrek to make his way back to the big screen, depending on how much success the studio has with its newer franchises and how well the latest "Shrek" film performs. But there's no question that the popularity of the grumpy ogre is in decline, and he'll have to take a backseat to the next big thing and exit the stage sooner or later.

But he'll be back.

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