As the Hollywood Century takes us into the 21st Century and thus near to the present day, I shall find myself increasingly hard-pressed to do much good situating the films I'm discussing in any kind of historical context: we're still in that historical context, for the most part, and it will take a few more years to authoritatively state what the cinema of the early to mid-2000s begot and transformed into. But in at least one regard, I can state something with unflinching certainty: we owe the animated features of the 2000s almost solely to DreamWorks Animation's Shrek.

The film began life simply enough, as yet another of Jeffrey Katzenberg's "fuck you so hard" gestures to his old boss and nemesis Michael Eisner; their rivalry fueled the creation of the animation studio that Katzenberg had tried to use to out-Disney Disney, beginning with 1998's dramatic musical The Prince of Egypt, DreamWorks' second feature (their first, Antz from earlier in the same year was a more petulant but also lower-key "fuck you" to Disney's handmaidens at Pixar). But DreamWorks was unlucky: by 1998, the gas had just about run out on the Disney Renaissance, and it was starting to take with it people's enthusiasm for seeing animated movies. As far as trying to copy Disney's playbook, the game was up: The Prince of Egypt was a hit, but the next three traditionally-animated projects DreamWorks released, between 2000 and 2003, remain their lowest-grossing trio of films, even today.*

But it playing catch-up to Disney was proving to be a non-starter, the studio was soon to find vastly more success in simply insulting Katzenberg's old studios right to its face. And that brings us to the second DreamWorks animated film, and in some ways its all-time signature title: Shrek birthed three sequels that remain the peak of the studio's popular output. The four Shreks are, at the time of this writing, the four highest-grossing films DreamWorks has ever made (and given the studio's recent fortunes, they're likely to remain that way for years to come). Shrek itself was the highest-grossing animated film since Disney's own The Lion King in 1994, which must have delighted the shit out of Katzenberg: that smash hit was the last Disney release during his tenure as chairman. It also kept itself just ahead of Pixar's Monsters, Inc. from later in 2001, and managed to beat that same film for the first-ever Best Animated Feature Oscar.

Such success breeds imitators, so what, then, are we imitating? Shrek is a fairy tale, basically, directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, and adapted by a consortium of writers (Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and Joe Stillman and Roger S.H. Schulman) from William Steig's children's book. But a fairy tale that self-consciously up-ends the normal morality: the handsome prince is an ugly little meanspirited shit named Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow), the monster is the grumpy ogre Shrek (Mike Myers), who turns out to be the hero, and the damsel in distress is Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), who knows wire-fu, has a calculating sense of her own worth, and turns into a hideous ogre herself when the sun goes down. The irritating comic sidekick is still the irritating comic sidekick: a talking Donkey played by Eddie Murphy, far less disastrously then when he played the same type in Disney's Mulan three years earlier.

"It's a traditional fairy tale, only everything is subverted" gets us pretty far along the road to seeing how this is a parody of Disney's stock in trade, but just to make sure we totally get it, the filmmakers place Farquaad's palace behind a thick layer of satirising Disneyland with the cheery, sanitised, ugly castle of Dulac (they also open the movie with Disney-style storybook pages that the title character uses to wipe his ass, but I'd prefer not to linger there). And the "it's a small world" parody that beats that dead horse one last time is, I confess, my favorite gag in all of Shrek, though I also confess that ranking all the Shrek gags that I like doesn't take all that long.

For the thing that Shrek truly gave unto the world was not a spate of savage takedowns of Disney tropes - Disney was doing quite fine doing that in its fumbling incompetence that marked most of its output at that time (ironically, Disney wouldn't regain its footing as a powerhouse until it firmly and enthusiastically embraced the tropes that Shrek was making fun of so hard, with 2010's enormously square Tangled). It was, rather, the tone of Shrek that suddenly exploded as fully-rendered CG animated films became omnipresent in the following years, owing to the huge successes of DreamWorks and Pixar at exactly the time Disney's traditional animation was imploding. And the tone of Shrek is pop culture references, lots of pop songs driving montages - and the introduction of the infamous "film-ending dance party" trope, soon to become the worst bane to storytelling ever known to the animated feature - cutesy cutaways from dirty language, jokes pitched at the target audience's parents that don't even pretend to be for kids (seriously, "Farquaad"? Especially since Myers's arbitrary Scottish accent gives him some trouble enunciating it, and you can always hear the "fuckwad" he's struggling so hard not to say). And farts. So, so many farts. Shrek's function as a character, especially in the first third of the movie, is almost solely to provide a full array of gross-out humor, but even with a gamut of everything from ear wax to shit to body odor, the writers always retrench to the easy comfort of farts.

It was, too, in Shrek that the gambit of casting famous people and selling the movie on their names first paid off in a big way. Pixar had attracted heavy hitters like Tom Hanks and Tim Allen at the peak of his sitcom fame and Bonnie Hunt, the young people's favorite, but there was always the sense that they were chosen as actors first, celebrities second. But in Shrek, besides the proven success of Eddie Murphy as a fast-talking con artist and Mike Myers doing funny voices, gave us Cameron Diaz as an animated princess - Cameron Diaz! Who the fuck can remember what her voice sounds like when they're not actually hearing her talk? How is she an appropriate choice for casting an animated film? The simple answer is that she's not, and Princess Fiona is boring as hell and has no personality to speak of. John Lithgow is the only person trying to do anything interesting, and he's still just playing the typical Lithgow arrogant fussbudget.

This is, all of it, pretty dire stuff; the sarcastic, nasty tone of smug hipness clashes mightily with the film's shrill attempts at sincerity and lesson-learning, forced scenes of "I just want to be understood" plugged in exactly where the formula expects it, clearly not because the filmmakers particularly believe in it. And far too much of the knowing, in-jokey humor is stale and unfunny, ghastly now where it was merely dumb in 2001. Compounding all of this is how barbarically ugly the whole thing is: the Shrek films have always been the most unpleasantly designed in DreamWorks' stable, with their wave after wave of human characters who look like corpses given movement with rod puppetry that exaggerates all their gestures. But beyond the dead-looking, stretched flesh and emotionless faces, there's so much technical flatness that has only magnified over time, not that Shrek looked as good as its competition in '01. The cloth moves stiffly and has no texture; Donkey's fur is rigid and plasticky, and this in the same year as Monsters, Inc. and its groundbreaking fluffy hair. That film still looks terrific after 13 years: the backgrounds are a bit flat, maybe, and the animation of the little human girl's face leaves plenty to be desired, but it's still appealing and visually deep. Shrek, in 2014, is embarrassing to look at: you could throw a dart in a video game store and find something with better character movement and photorealistic rendering.

This, in fact, might very well be why Shrek generated so many note-for-note imitators: it proved that crappy jokes, sugar-addled music (Smash Mouth, where art thou?), and famous people cashing a check to sound like they're dashing off their lines on the way to dinner, are somehow appealing enough that it doesn't take significantly technical finesse to turn a profit. The lesson of Pixar is that CG animation could be big business if you have unfathomable talent and state-of-the-art resources; the lesson of DreamWorks is that CG animation can be even bigger business if you have marketing know-how and shameless in appealing to the worst side of children's natures. Not all of Shrek's immediate effects are still being felt - generally, more effort is put into character design than this ugly sonofabitch ever shows, and the climactic dance parties are largely a thing of the past - but its calculating, intensely mediocre approach to animated storytelling is with us still, strong and durable as ever, and with every Ice Age 17 and Despicable Me 8, the shadow of DreamWorks' flatulent ogre grows just a tiny bit longer.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 2001
-A pair of multinational fantasy adaptations light it up at the box office, with the Chris Columbus-helmed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring topping the charts
-Wes Anderson's fussy aesthetic blooms into full flower with the doll's house inhabited by The Royal Tenenbaums
- Steven Spielberg shepherds the final vision of the late Stanley Kubrick in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, to the admiration of the few and the hostile bafflement of many more

Elsewhere in world cinema in 2001
-The Hindi-language Lagaan is an enormous international sensation, rare for Indian cinema
-The international success of Danis Tanović's No Man's Land throws light on the youthful Bosnian film industry
-Austrian miserabilist Michael Haneke explores the dark side of soul-destroying violent sex in The Piano Teacher



*Excluding their collaborations with England's Aardman Animations, which I categorically refuse to sully by defining them as DreamWorks productions.