By Tony Di Nizo
Released in 2004, Shrek 2 reintroduced the song “Holding out for a Hero” to a new generation. Thrilling and entertaining, this climax defines the entire movie. For example, who can forget the self-sacrifice made by Mongo? The iconic and flawless costume change made by the fairy godmother at the beginning of the song? Or Puss in Boots’ adorable method of distraction? This scene is so perfect it actually hurts. It is, in fact, the greatest achievement in animation history.
While watching this scene you are probably thinking, who came up with this? Is this even real? Why did the troops have steamed milk at their disposal? Where were they even storing that? Have we all experienced a collective fever dream? The answer is yes. A scene this perfect has no right to exist, and yet it does. It is simultaneously hilarious, suspenseful, thrilling, and clever. The stakes in this scene are made explicitly clear to the audience. If Charming kisses Fiona she will fall in love with him forever. At this point in the movie the audience is invested in Shrek’s goal to stop the kiss and save the day. Clear stakes provide an audience with context. Knowing who or what to root for, and how long our hero has in order to complete their goal is critical for creating suspense. How our hero goes about accomplishing their goal is what makes a scene compelling and entertaining. To storm the castle, Shrek rides on top of Mongo, the giant and iconic gingerbread man. The character is hysterical and his death is more emotional and impactful than the first ten minutes of Up. I sob literally every time I hear that cookie utter his last words, “Be…good.” Wow, I am actually crying right now, this is not okay.
The sequence is effective because of its use of music. The song “Holding out for a Hero” is not only important to this film, but to the Shrek franchise as a whole. Redefining a generation with “All Star” by Smash Mouth during the opening of the first film, the song immediately informs the audience that this is not your average fairy tale. This trend follows through the rest of the franchise and is important to the brand’s identity. In Shrek 2, the “Holding out for a Hero” sequence is the pinnacle of that motif.
The usage of the song is impressive because it perfectly reflects the motivations of each character in the scene. Shrek is the literal hero on his way to save the day. Fiona knows something is wrong and is literally the one holding out for a hero. Harold is hoping for Charming to save the day so he does not get outed as a frog, while the Fairy Godmother and Charming think they are the heroes in this situation. The contrasting motivations change the meaning of the song depending on which characters we are following. Creating suspense and tension from different perspectives is a feat that is hard to pull off in a film.
Another astounding achievement is being able to revitalize an old song successfully. The song is now associated with Shrek 2 instead of the film Footloose where it originated. The new mix beautifully combines 80s rock synth from the original with orchestral scoring from the film. This creates an upbeat, musical moment without it feeling too out of place from the rest of the films’ soundscape.
The sequences is well-paced and the vocals sync up perfectly with the action, supplemented with clever nuances that add to the stakes. For example, Fiona puts a rose if her mouth to stop Charming from kissing her. Puss in Boots uses his adorable eyes to distract the guards. These brief moments allow the audience to breathe during the adrenaline-inducing scene. Which only creates more anticipation for what will happen next. Moments of breathing room allow the scene to not become too emotionally-bombastic, successfully adding levity to the situation. If these interactions were taken out, the energy and pacing would be too consecutive, making a giant wall of emotional white noise.
Every character in this scene is well-utilized and given something to do, including actions that are built off a well established foundation. With a movie that has so many characters and plot threads, for it to all culminate in just one scene perfectly accompanied by a pop anthem is incredible. Overall, this scene encompasses the journey represented over the coarse of the entire Shrek franchise. The scene is about the hero’s journey, and proving that you are worthy of being loved. While not being content with the role you are given in a pre-written narrative. This scene shows that nobody’s journey is set in stone. If you are unhappy with the circumstances you were given, change them.