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Non-Review Review: Shrek

I caught Shrek again at the weekend, and I’m surprised how well it still holds up. Of course, part of my concern was that the sequels might have somehow retroactively impacted on my opinion of the original film, but I’m always a little hesitant to return to films I greatly enjoyed when I was younger – afraid that they might have been superseded by movies I’ve seen in the years since, or perhaps victim to slightly changing tastes. To be honest, it help up very well, and I was genuinely reminded of why I enjoyed it so much over a decade ago.

A fairy tale romance?

Looking back, the biggest difference between the original Shrek and the movies that followed is that the original had a sardonic wit that drained from the series over time. Watching it now, the bitter vitriol the movie directs towards the “Disney-fication” of fairy tales seems even more bitter in hindsight, as I realise that it was precisely that sort of cheap sentimentality that snuck into the Shrek series. I think I actually appreciate the movie more now, as an older viewer, than I did as a child, having watched family entertainment grow and evolve over the past decade.

Shrek has heart. Not the sort of fake “heart” that so many family films have. It has an honest sentimental core that is built around what seems like real-world knowledge, instead of some cheesy slogan that would look good on a poster. I love my classic Disney cartoons, but I’ll concede that quite a few of the shots fired by Shrek land almost perfectly. After all, isn’t there something inherently worrying about teaching our kids to equate beauty and goodness?

A bit of an ass...

In particular, Shrek seems to take aim at Beauty & the Beast, which perhaps made itself a target by receiving a Best Picture nomination. Sure, it seems wholesome enough – teaching us not to judge a book by its cover and that love comes in all shapes and sizes. After all, Belle falls in love with the Beast, a hulking ball of fur. Still, this heartwarming message is kinda undermined when their love is vindicated and he turns into a handsome and rich prince. The subtext is less “love comes in all shapes and sizes” and more “don’t be dismissive of that hairy guy, because maybe there’s a whole hunk of rich man under that mane.”

Shrek’s wonderful final twist is something of a rude gesture directed at that ending, as “true love’s form” is revealed. I love it. It feels earnedand it feels genuine, because the movie isn’t coated in sugar and because it embraces the idea that love might actually be blind, rather than merely near-sighted enough to give us two very pretty people. The ending alone is a thing of beauty, and it makes the film worthwhile, but there’s a lot more where that come from – it’s just the highlight of a nifty little twist.

Far, far out...

In fact, I adore the way that the movie deals with the traditional “damsel in distress” role we associate with these sorts of fairy tales. After all, it seems like women like Cinderella and Snow White are just the property of Prince Charming, or whoever happens to “rescue” them – they are completely passive within their own stories and nothing but objects for men to fight over. The Magic Mirror describes Snow White as “your for the rescuing.”

While Robin Hood has his hands all over Fiona, he dismissively responds to Shrek, ignoring her, “Can’t you see I’m a little busy?” It’s as if he’s talking about oiling his car or something. Sure, the whole Matrix thing has been done to death, but there’s still something immensely satisfying about Fiona’s response to Robin’s lecherous advances. Perhaps it wasn’t a fair criticism of Disney at the time (after all, the nineties had seen them produce Mulan, perhaps their most proactive “princess”), but I think it’s a fair point in a movie exploring traditional fantasy settings and tropes.

Coming up short...

There are, of course, a variety of digs directed at Disney directly, with the most obvious being the cheap shots at Michael Eisner through the character of Lord Farquaad, a tinpot dictator who is intent on completely destroying any hint of magic in a kingdom that has a remarkable resemblance to Disneyland (the cart-park is “lancelot” and we’re informed there’s a “45 minute wait” from the entrance to the kingdom). In his bid to create “the most perfect kingdom of all”, Lord Farquaad is almost ready to commit genocide against the character populating his stories – to wipe them out or force their relocation. “I’m not the monster here, you are,” he tells the gingerbread man. “You, and the rest of that fairy tale trash poisoning my perfect world.”

I think Shrek really codified what audiences could expect from a family film, and I think it’s very difficult to downplay its influence. I know Pixar emerged at the same time, and they undoubtedly had an influence here, but I think Shrek has had a much greater influence on non-Pixar films. All the elements are there, from the subversive humour to the adult jokes slipping in under the radar (“although she lives with seven other men,” we’re told of Snow White, “she’s not easy!”). I honestly don’t think too many films did it quite as well as Shrek, but you can definitely see evidence of the movie’s DNA in the films that followed.

Of course, Shrek is also just a good movie in its own right. The animation holds up quite well today, and the jokes are still quite funny. the cast remains as impressive as it was. This was probably one of the last times that Mike Myers was actually good, and the same could probably be said of Eddie Murphy – who still had Dreamgirls ahead of him. Despite the fact that it’s a family-friendly film, Murphy as Donkey is a surprisingly funny character, perhaps because he’s not carrying the film itself and so Murphy can go a little further out than he normally would. “You might have seen a house fly, maybe even a super fly, but you ain’t never seen a donkey fly!” Cameron Diaz is solid as Fiona, but I absolutely adore John Lithgow as Lord Farquaad. Lithgow is an actor who is always fun to watch (or listen to), and I’m trying to watch Dexterjust to see him in a nice meaty role.

A long time ago in far, far away...

Shrek is solid, and it holds up remarkably well. Perhaps they should have left this one at happily ever after.

4 Responses

  1. great non review 🙂

  2. While an amazing film, “Beauty and the Beast” also has the theme of a woman falling in love due to the Stockholm Syndrome, as Cracked pointed out:

    http://www.cracked.com/article_16905_7-classic-disney-movies-that-taught-us-terrible-lessons.html

    “Shrek” is a great satire, and it was great seeing Disney skewered so successfully. The only problem I have with that movie is the modern cultural references like bullet time from “The Matrix,” which now seems dated, as well as contemporary pop songs used on the soundtrack. “Shrek 2” is possibly a better movie, but I like many movie series, it seemed to peak with the second film and then go downhill quickly thereafter.

    • Sorry, actually meant to paste that reply to your astute Alien comment. I was very tired last week, in my defense! But I do love that Cracked article.

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