When Shrek was released back in May of 2001, few could have predicted how big of a smash hit the tale about a big, green grumpy ogre discovering his inner prince would eventually become. The animated film surpassed all expectations at the box office, decimating records set by The Lion King seven years prior, eventually grossing a colossal $491M worldwide; a successful run that resulted in three sequels, including Shrek 2, which went on to amass $935M worldwide in 2004, a spin-off, eight short films, and three holiday specials. All told, the Shrek franchise has resulted in a stunning $3.5 billion worldwide, and probably ten times more than that in merchandise sales alone.
However, the Shrek that we saw wasn’t the original vision for the film as Chris Farley was originally cast in the role. With 20 years of hindsight, let’s take a look at all the parties involved and how different it could’ve turned out.
At the time, DreamWorks Animation had struggled to keep up with Disney and Pixar. While the Mouse House was busily churning out hits such as Toy Story, A Bugs Life, and Monsters, Inc., DreamWorks stalled out with Antz, The Prince of Egypt, The Road to El Dorado, and Chicken Run — modest hits, for sure, but a far cry from Toy Story.
So, despite its stellar cast and bouncy Smash Mouth-infused soundtrack, Shrek was something of a gamble for the studio. A $60M update on the classic fairy tale genre featuring a giant, green ogre and a talking donkey based on an obscure 1990 children’s book, Shrek needed to succeed for the studio. Consider this: if Shrek failed, DreamWorks’ upcoming slate consisted of Spirit: The Stallion of the Cimarron ($122M worldwide) and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas ($80M WW). Shrek’s success kept the animated studio afloat and allowed the team to produce popular franchises such as Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda, and How to Train Your Dragon.
DreamWorks may not have folded altogether, but one can easily discern the difference in the world before Shrek and the world after Shrek.
Of course, there were many factors to the film’s success, chief among them its main cast consisting of the then scorching hot trio of Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, and Cameron Diaz. Myers was just a few years removed from the enormous hit Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me; Murphy was enjoying a career resurgence in the family market with The Nutty Professor and Dr. Dolittle franchises, to say nothing of his turn in Disney’s animated hit Mulan; while Diaz was very much a star on the rise thanks to roles in the hits, There’s Something About Mary and Charlie’s Angels, plus notable turns in quirky dramas like Being John Malkovich and riotous fare like Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday.
In other words: the big three were lucrative draws and a unique marketing ploy that stood out in an era not accustomed to headlining animated fare with enormous stars — Tom Hanks and Robin Williams, perhaps, serving as exceptions to the norm.
Myers, specifically, offered a unique take on Shrek by voicing him with the same Scottish accent he used on the villain Fat Bastard in The Spy Who Shagged Me and that crazy dad in So I Married an Axe Murderer way back in 1993. Yet, it’s precisely that familiarity that likely allowed it to resonate with audiences itching for more of Myers’ broad, juvenile humor.
Originally, the popular Saturday Night Live comedian was set to voice Shrek and had even recorded some lines alongside Murphy before his tragic death in 1997. In fact, you can watch some of his work in the player below:
All this to ask one fundamental, completely rhetorical question: would Shrek have been Shrek with Farley instead of Myers?
As you can see in the video above, the SNL star’s iteration of the green guy was very different from Myers’ take. “Originally, the Shrek character was a little bit more like Chris, like a humble, bumbling innocent guy,” Myers explained to USA Today back in 2015. “I always thought that Shrek was raised working-class, and since Lord Farquaad was played English, I thought of Scottish.”
Indeed, Farley’s style veers back and forth between the lovable oaf seen in Tommy Boy and Matt Foley, motivational speaker, and doesn’t quite have the same impact as Myers’ rougher, cantankerous approach.
Even Steven Spielberg felt Myers’ accent, a controversial choice that resulted in nearly $4M in animation changes to match the more outrageous style, greatly improved the film. As a result of Myers, Shrek became a much larger personality, which is ironic considering Farley’s entire career was built around a similar style.
Another thing to consider, as mentioned above, Myers was amidst a hot streak that only cooled after the disastrous Cat in the Hat two years later — he still made a killing off Shrek’s sequels, so don’t feel too bad for the guy — whereas, Farley hadn’t produced a hit following the one-two-three punch of Tommy Boy, Black Sheep, and Beverly Hills Ninja in 1995, 1996 and 1997, respectively. Notably, none of those films surpassed $37M, compared to the enormous $312M collected by The Spy Who Shagged Me in 1999.
While still very much a presence in the public eye, it is also fair to wonder if Farley’s star power was big enough to carry a franchise like Shrek. Even in the clip above, Farley’s more somber tone is muffled beneath Murphy’s energetic performance. Perhaps, with Farley as his counter, Murphy would have stolen the show in much the same manner as did with Mulan.
Personally, I like to think Shrek would have resulted in a career resurgence for Farley and opened the doors to bigger family-friendly projects down the road. He deserved the type of success enjoyed by comedic greats such as Robin Williams, Myers, and Murphy. At the ripe age of 33, he was still young enough to alter his trajectory and venture onto a more unique career path.
Alternatively, maybe Shrek would have faltered at the box office and killed the franchise right from the start. The filmmakers behind the animated flick were obviously struggling with the main character until Myers came aboard and, following an unsuccessful Canadian accent, lent Shrek a more robust and ultimately memorable personality.
Would Farley eventually arrive at the same conclusion after recording his more genial take on the character? Would audiences similarly embrace the film?
Who knows. Suffice to say, Shrek starring Chris Farley would have resulted in a much different film, and likely (for better or worse) changed the fortunes of DreamWorks Animation, Mike Myers, and animated films in general. Regardless, it’s a shame we’ll never get a chance to see the late comedian’s performance as the man was truly one-of-a-kind.