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Non-Review Review: Shrek 2

Shrek 2 is quite entertaining. It’s not nearly as good as the original Shrek, but it doesn’t feel quite as tired or stale as the two films that would follow. There’s still an endearingly subversive streak to the film, and the series hasn’t quite evolved into the very thing it was originally mocking. While it is charming, witty and intelligent, there’s a case of diminished returns. In particular, this time around, the series is growing increasingly dependent on pop culture references and cheesy “in-joke-y” references. While, again, not quite as bad as the two films that would follow, it’s a sign of things to come. Still, despite that, Shrek 2 has its heart in the right place, and continues the original’s spirited deconstruction of the Disney fairytale franchises. It’s only slightly diminished by the fact that it is gradually evolving into one itself.

Happily ever after?

Within the opening twenty minutes or so of the film, we’re treated to two theme tune gags in quick succession, as the film makes humourous references to both Hawaii 5-0 and Rawhide. It’s not that the gags aren’t funny, it’s just that we had a similar joke about two minutes earlier, and there’s only so often you can do “look, a modern reference in a classical setting!” before it gets a little tired. Later on, we get an unnecessary shout-out to “E!” covering the red carpet at the royal ball. It seems like it could be the perfect opportunity to mock that sort of vacuous presentation, in keeping with the movie’s themes about how little those superficial elements matter, but the film never does anything with it. It’s just sort of there. It seems the joke is simply “look, it’s the E! red carpet in a classical setting!”

On the other hand, some of the pop culture gags work – generally the broader and less specific ones – the moments where it seems the crew aren’t afraid to pull their punches at the risk of offending anybody. The best gags play off the kingdom of “Far, Far Away”, which looks suspiciously like Hollywood. Sure, there are some wonderfully terrible puns (“Tower of London Records?”), but it’s also a fascinating commentary on what popular culture has warped fairy tales to be about. All the classic Disney princesses reside in mansions, with Donkey describing them as “movie stars”– lambasting how white-washed and materialist most modern fairy tales are. Of course the dream is to live in a beautiful and impressive mansion.

Things aren’t quite looking down yet…

It’s funny because it’s true, and also because it’s entirely legitimate. I think the problems with the following films really began when they actually embraced that sort of fantasy they mocked here – with Shrek and Fiona living the sort of materialist lifestyle that the film mocks Disney for inspiring kids to aspire towards. When “Far, Far Away” ceases to be a punchline and instead serves as an idealised home, you know that the franchise has lost its way. Luckily, Shrek 2 still has its claws out, and it still makes a number of cutting commentaries on the type of fantasies we sell to children.

(While on the topic of pop culture references that do work in the context of the film, I should also confessed that I loved the “Knights” bit – not because it emulated Cops, but purely because of the wonderful sight gag involving pepper spray and the first of Puss In Boots’ “catnip” jokes. I think that sequence was great.)

Still turning the genre on its head…

Like the superb original, Shrek 2 dares to take on the normative view of romance that popular culture teaches kids at a young age. When Shrek and Fiona return to her family’s castle, the movie makes some effective comparisons to mixed-race marriage, for example, with Fiona’s family seemingly upset that she has dared to marry “an ogre”, somebody outside of their own social structure and class. The initially benign-seeming Fairy Godmother turns out to be a conservative and normative crusader, disgusted at the idea that Fiona and Shrek could buck the barriers that society placed between them. The Godmother angrily warns Shrek, “I told you ogres don’t live happily ever after!”

There’s something delightfully subversive about all this, as the film explores just how generic and white-washed the Disney canon is. Undoubtedly a product of their time, those fairytales offered a very conservative depiction of what love must seem like. In contrast, the Shrek films are delightfully open-minded, with the conventional Disney-esque characters disgusted by the characters and relationships we take for granted. Notice, for example, how scornfully the Fairy Godmother refers to the “gender-confused wolf.” (Who, incidentally, never shows up wearing anything other than granny’s nightie, no matter what the situation. Imagine a character like that in a Disney film.)

One cool cat…

If Lord Farquaad in the original film represented Michael Eisner, the head of Disney, then the Fairy Godmother represents something just a bit more fundamental. She’s the moral of every Disney film carried to its logical conclusion and given a mean twist. She is, after all, the only character in the film who breaks into a Disney-style musical number, promising to smother our princess in all manner of luxuries and creature comforts:

With just a wave of my magic wand,

your troubles will soon be gone.

With a flick of the wrist and just a flash,

you land a prince with a ton of cash.

A high priced dress made by mice no less!

Some crystal glass pumps and no more stress!

Worries will vanish your soul will cleanse –

confide in your very own furniture friends!

We’ll help you start a new fashion trend!

I’ll make you fancy, I’ll make you great!

The kind of gal a prince would date!

Fiona is interesting precisely because she doesn’t conform to the stereotype of “the kind of gal a prince would date”, but also because she eschews the crass materialism of the princess fantasy. “I really don’t need all this,”Fiona tells her Fairy Godmother. She doesn’t need the glass slipper, the expensive gown or the fancy carriage. Any love based on any of those things isn’t love at all. It is reassuring to see a family film willing to criticise those sorts of fantasies, and to explore their implications. I honestly don’t think we would have seen Disney evolve quite as much in the past decade if it hadn’t have been for the constructive criticism of films like this.

Blue skies ahead?

Shrek 2 handles it well. It’s a stylish production. It looks fabulous. I know it only arrived a few years after the first film, but the animation actually looks remarkably improved, especially little things like the animation of hair or fabrics. They seem so much more effectively rendered here than they did in the previous film – and they actually looked really good there.

The script is tight. Ignoring the abundance of pop culture references, there are actually some great sight gags. I especially enjoyed the opening sequence with Shrek and Fiona on their honeymoon. The cast is, as ever, on fine form. I think it’s reasonable to argue that the first two Shrek films count as the best things that Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers have done since the year 2000. Antonio Banderas is perfectly cast as Puss in Boots, and actually manages to inject even more energy into a dynamic that works quite well anyway.

Cat’s eyes?

While Shrek 2 doesn’t quite eclipse its predecessor, it does make for a (mostly) worthy successor. On the other hand, one can see many of the faults that would develop over the subsequent films and would eventually wear down the franchise, turning it into the same safe and relatively generic fantasy that it originally rallied against. Still, those problems are only fledgling here, and – taken on its own terms – Shrek 2 makes for a solidly entertaining piece of family entertainment.

One Response

  1. When I watched this movie I thought “oh, my fuking god. THIS is the really fun comedy”.I am very glad there are still these initiatives comedies original and intelligent!

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