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Sneaking Emotional Depth into 'Shrek'

By David Freeman

Learn how Shrek utilizes emotional depth that appeals to both kids and adults with 7 expert techniques in this article by David Freeman.

In The Simpsons, Toy Story, A Bug's Life, and Shrek we see film and television which can be enjoyed equally by kids and adults.

There are a number of ways to create this kind of cross-demographic appeal. Here I will discuss a few of the techniques the writers of Shrek used to achieve such a complex feat.

First, let's give credit where credit is due. The writers, basing the script on a book by William Steig, were Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio, Joe Stillman, and Roger S.H. Schulman, from a story by Ken Harsha, and with additional dialogue contributions from Cody Cameron, Chris Miller, and Conrad Vernon.

On the surface, Shrek might seem to be just light, animated fare. But that wouldn't explain the film's appeal to so many adults.

The writers started with a fun and cartoony premise, and then layered in one technique after another which makes the film resonate with adults.

Here are some of those techniques:

  1. Edgy Comedy
  2. What's considered funny in our culture tends to change from time to time. It might be Mork and Mindy one year, Northern Exposure further down the line, and South Park a few years later. Of course, this is an over-simplification, for there are quite a number of popular comedy styles alive at any moment.

    Still, there do tend to be trends, and adults are likely to be responsive to them. One trend alive today is a somewhat gross, edgy kind of comedy.

    In Shrek the grossness doesn't have a sexual component, such as in American Pie, but there is a scene where Fiona sings a morning duet with a little bird in a nest. When Fiona hits an extremely high note, the bird swells up and explodes. The camera zooms in on the two little eggs left behind, then zooms out on them, now frying away, as Fiona cooks them for Shrek and Donkey.

    In another scene, Fiona makes some cotton candy for Shrek by wrapping a spider's web around a stick, and then catching flies with the mess. She and Shrek both enjoy the delicacy. In yet another scene, Fiona and Shrek feast on cooked rats together.

    This is very original, hip, and edgy comedy. It appeals to (at least some) adults.

  3. Parody Humor: Spoofing Cultural References
  4. When you spoof cultural references, especially when you do it well, you can create a kind of humor to which adults will respond.

    In Shrek, Walt Disney Pictures and Disneyland bear the brunt of some clever spoofing. It was done with enough intelligence and wit that adults would appreciate it, such as:

    • Seeing, near the start of the film, various Disney-like animated characters depressed (and thus the opposite of their usual normal cheery selves) as they're being hauled away.
    • Lord Farquaad's castle, which possesses the ominous overtones of a nightmarish Disneyland, or
    • The weird singing toy figures which greet Shrek and Donkey at the castle wall, which spoof the singing toy figures in Disneyland's Small, Small World ride.

  5. Non-Cliché Characters
  6. A cliché character is one whom we've seen before, especially a character we've seen frequently. Shrek is certainly not a cliché. His personality is marked by some of the following attributes, or as I call them, Traits.

    • He likes himself (evident in the bathing scene under the opening credits).
    • He's clever. (He scares off the townspeople by convincing them he's much meaner than he is.)
    • He's brave (never shirking from a fight).
    • He's afraid of rejection, resulting in him pushing people away before they can reject him, which results in:
    • He's a loner (at least in the beginning), but he longs for connection with others, even as he also fights it off.

    Can you think of another film or TV character with this exact set of traits? If you have a hard time remembering one, that's exactly why Shrek isn't a cliché.

    Fiona also has an interesting array of traits:

    • She's romantic.
    • She's earthy. That's what I call women who eat rats.)
    • She's tough. She beats up Robin Hood with a few moves borrowed from The Matrix.)
    • She thinks she's ugly. And, like Shrek, she fears rejection.

    Once again, we have a non-cliché character. Adults respond to characters who aren't clichés.

  7. Emotional Problems We Can Relate To
  8. Both Shrek and Fiona, for similar reasons (feeling that they're hideous), believe that no one could love them. This fear is so great in both of them, that it drives many of their actions.

    Giving a character a powerful fear, a shame, or an emotional problem that adults can relate to will also help draw an adult audience -- as will that character's arc (his or her path of emotional growth) as circumstances in the plot force them to wrestle with this issue.

  9. The Use Of Masks
  10. A Mask is the term I use to describe ways characters can hide their fears and vulnerability.

    There are at least eight different kinds of Masks that characters can hide behind. In Fiona's case, of course, her Mask is literally a visual lie: a fake body and face, created by magic.

    Shrek's Mask is an attitude—the attitude that he doesn't need or want anyone in his life. (An Attitude is one of the eight types of Masks characters can hide their fears behind.) His behavior, stemming from this attitude, is the one I touched upon earlier: to push people away before they can reject him.

    This is a Mask because, by watching this attitude and corresponding behavior, you might initially think that he hates others. But it simply covers up his fear that they would find him loathsome.

    Using one of the eight types of Masks to create more complex characters is another technique that gives the film adult appeal.

  11. Parallel Plot-Lines
  12. There are about 100 techniques I'm aware of to give a feeling of emotional depth to a plot. I call these Plot Deepening Techniques.

    (By the way, there are also Dialogue Deepening Techniques, Character Deepening Techniques [like the eight types of Masks], and Scene Deepening Techniques.)

    The whole area of techniques which inject emotional and psychological depth into one's writing is vast, but we see one such Plot Deepening Technique used here, and that's parallel plot-lines.

    There is the parallel of both Shrek and Fiona feeling too hideous to be lovable, but there's a third one too. The dragon, who falls in love with Donkey, uses such behaviors as shish-kabobbing people as a form of stopping them from getting too close.

    Her efforts to frighten people off are very similar to the way Shrek handles the same fear.

    As a general rule of thumb, Deepening Techniques work best when no more than 25% of the audience consciously notices them. Usually, to maximize their emotional effectiveness, you want them to operate a little bit outside the level of awareness of those watching the film.

    All Plot Deepening Techniques contribute to making a film resonate more strongly with adults. The writers of Shrek employ many other techniques besides the one mentioned here, but my limited space here doesn't permit me to list them all.

  13. Set-Ups And Payoffs

    Sometimes a writer will introduce an object, and action, an image, or a phrase spoken by a character—the set-up—and then revisit it one or more times later in the script, usually in interesting ways (the payoff or payoffs).

    It makes for sophisticated writing, which in turn makes the script appeal to adults.

    Shrek utilizes many set-ups and payoffs. Here's one: When we first meet Shrek, he's in his outhouse. We learn his outhouse, like the rest of his swamp, is a place where he can be alone in total self-contentment. It's a symbol of his privacy, but here his desire for privacy is seen in a good light: as a reflection of his self-satisfaction.

    Later in the film, when Shrek has experienced his worst nightmare—rejection by Fiona—and when he in turn has pushed Donkey away, he retreats into an outhouse. Now this symbol of solitude represents all his fears of getting close to others, and of literally shutting them out.

    So, the outhouse is set up in the beginning, and then revisited later in an interesting payoff.

    Don't worry if you didn't catch this when you saw the film, for, like Deepening techniques, set-ups and payoffs, in general, create their greatest emotional impact if they operate a little outside the conscious awareness of most people in the audience.

  14. Summary:

    The bottom line is that it's no accident that Shrek appealed as much to adults as it did to kids. The writers took a fun and amusing story which any kid would enjoy, and then artfully wove into the script a number of techniques not found in normal kids' fare.

    The writing in this script is extremely tight. For me, tight means that most scenes accomplish several functions simultaneously: moving the story forward, drawing us into the characters, making us laugh or sad or both simultaneously, setting up elements which will be revisited later on, and always entertaining us with highly original lines and scenes.

    If you want to reach both kids and adults and thus capture a wide demographic for your film, it wouldn't hurt to master the techniques these writers employed so artfully.

Meet the Author: David Freeman

David Freeman is a screenwriter, and teaches screenwriting and script development internationally.

A long-standing member of the Writers Guild of America, he has sold and optioned scripts and ideas to Sony Pictures, Columbia Pictures, Paramount Pictures, MGM, and other major film and television companies. He works half time for News Corp (which owns 20th Century Fox and television networks around the world), developing television dramas.

He has taught screenwriting and script development not just to writers around the world, but at Pixar, Disney, to many executives of the BBC, at various film studios in China, and to many other film and...