Shrek. A Film from Dreamworks Studios. 2001.
Reviewed by John Bedell
I took my kids to see Shrek last weekend, and I had a good time. The sensible thing, I think, would be to leave things at that--Shrek is fun, and what else can you expect from a kids' movie? Since I am not sensible (hear that, Lisa?) and have trouble turning off the analytical part of my brain, I can't leave it at that. I have to wonder, what is Shrek about, and what, if anything, does its popularity say about us?
Some other people who have asked themselves this question have come away with unhappy answers. Donna Britt complained in the Washington Post about the movie's sarcastic attitude and ironic debunkings of Walt Disney's fairy tale movies. She especially hated a scene in which the princess, newly rescued from her tower, walks through the forest like Snow White, singing a duet with a bird. Except in Shrek, the princess hits one outrageously drawn out high note after another until the bird, in trying to keep up, explodes, leaving three eggs in its nest; in the next scene the princess is cooking three eggs for breakfast.
Now, I yield to nobody in my affection for fairy tales, and the stories I love best are saturated with wonder. I have a particular fondness for Disney's sappiest scenes: the opening to The Lion King, the sad prison song from Robin Hood, Mulan cutting her hair with her father's sword. But even I can take a joke, and I think Donna Britt somehow sat through Shrek without having any idea what she was watching.
For those of you who haven't seen it, perhaps I should explain what Shrek is about. The title character is an ogre who lives in a swamp, eats disgusting slime, and makes candles from his ear wax. The local lord, who badly wants a perfect kingdom, exiles all the strange fairy tale creatures from his realm to Shrek's swamp. Outraged by this invasion of his privacy, Shrek goes to see the lord, arriving just as a tournament is starting in which knights will compete for the right to rescue a princess from a dragon-guarded castle--so that she can be married to the lord. Shrek brawls with all the knights and defeats them in a parody of a World Wrestling Federation match, and the lord declares Shrek the winner of the tournament. Shrek offers to bring back the princess if the lord will give him back his swamp, and the lord agrees. Accompanied by a talking donkey (voiced by Eddie Murphy, who talks way too much), Shrek sets off to the castle. Of course, he succeeds. And, of course, Shrek and the princess fall in love with each other, even though they are painfully aware of how impossible a relationship between a princess and an ogre would be. They are too proud and troubled to ever talk through their troubles in a sensible way, but, of course, their friend the donkey helps to bring them together in the end.
This rather thin plot is stretched out to 70 minutes by a constant stream of jokes, half of them about farting and the other half intended to poke fun at various fairy tale conventions and parody all the hit movies of the past five years. I particularly liked the appearance of Robin Hood, who attempts to rescue the princess from Shrek and, asked his name, summons his Merry Men for a musical number that runs through West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and eight or ten other movies on its way to a ridiculous conclusion. Hilarious. It is this material, I suppose, that bothers people. It is all sly, knowing, and debunking--it undercuts heroism and punctures one pleasant myth after another. It is modern, ironic, post-Seinfeld, post-Simpsons.
If you paid too much attention to this attitude, though, you probably missed the underlying truth about Shrek. Despite the fart jokes, Shrek is as pure a fairy tale as any ever put on film. Shrek himself is crude, but he is otherwise a perfect hero: brave, resourceful, modest, unambitious. The princess is confused, but she wants more than anything to find true love. The lord is horrible and evil. The donkey is annoying but seems to have a heart of gold. The plot is solidly traditional, a mix of Sleeping Beauty, Tristan, and Don Quixote. The last scene, in which the whole hoard of fairy tale creatures celebrates at Shrek's place, is a festival of absolutely unironic joy. Most important, the conclusion celebrates the triumph of love in such an unironic way that they might as well have written "And they lived happily ever after" across the screen. The sarcastic jokes are completely at odds with the sweetness of the story.
Now if you were to sit down in your intellectual armchair and ponder what Shrek says about modern America, you might be tempted to dwell on the bad boy attitude and the constant satire and conclude that we are a bunch of cynical rebels without cause who cheer openly during fights at hockey games and secretly when a bad fourth grader smarts off to his teacher. But if so, why does the movie have such a perfectly romantic ending? Why have all the crude jokes been fastened to a sweetly sentimental story about the triumph of love and right? Here is what I think Shrek says about us: we are not half as bad as we would like to think we are.
June 8, 2001
"My imagination makes me human and makes me a fool; it gives me
--Ursula Le Guin