Dir. Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson. Starring Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz
Shrek, when it came out, was an enormous breath of fresh air. Like dawn going down to day, the Disney Renaissance had ended two years before with Tarzan, in my mind one of the more uneven features of that group. Dinosaur and Fantasia 2000 felt like a serious step backwards. (I’m going to go ahead and say that I like Fantasia 2000, although it’s barely playing the same sport that Fantasia did.) Meanwhile, Pixar was pounding out good movies – the first two Toy Stories, Bug’s Life, Monsters, Inc. – but compared to the awe that studio would generate by the end of the decade, the train had not quite left the station. It had been a long time since My Neighbor Totoro and it would be a little while longer until Spirited Away. Animated mainstream films were comfortable, predictable, and utterly safe, and for reasons that no one quite understands, Disney tampered with the formula which made them the Michael Jordan of animated film in the 1990s.
Enter Shrek, which sends a message right from the get-go as its title character quite literally wipes his butt with the fairy tale princess story that Disney had been printing its own money with. Donkey says “damn” a couple times. Shrek makes a memorable ass-related double entendre. The villain’s problem is that he is forever “compensatin’ for something.” This is not the squeaky clean or else (meaning Hunchback, which has only recently begun to climb out of a vague critical hole) universe that Disney created for itself.
The fractured fairy tale hardly originates with Shrek. I remember reading someone’s version of it in my reading textbook from elementary school the same year Shrek came out. Into the Woods is a more interesting fractured fairy tale than Shrek, and much older. The genre is incredibly useful for a writer to play off. Everyone already knows their fairy tales well enough that they can be changed, subverted, or otherwise fooled with for the sake of pathos (ogres are bad news but Shrek has a heart) or for humor (see “secondary and tertiary characters in Shrek” for a complete list). I’ve always seen the fractured fairy tale as more than a little lazy for that reason; most of your jokes have already written themselves. (The scene where Shrek realizes, per the Three Blind Mice, the Seven Dwarfs, and the Lone Drag Grandmother Wolf, that his swamp has been compromised by fairy tale refugees is memorable, funny, and the perfect proof of this point.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, good fractured fairy tales are most memorable for their original characters. In Into the Woods, it’s the Baker and his Wife; in Shrek, of course, Shrek and Donkey and Fiona sorta-kinda lead the way.
The difference between Shrek as a Pixar movie and Shrek as a Dreamworks movie – and maybe I’m being idealistic or unfair to Dreamworks by saying this – is that Pixar Shrek wouldn’t have told us once every fifteen minutes that he was a good guy who, based on the propensity of the unwashed lumpenproletariat to judge an onion by its outer layer, is struggling with being alone. I like to think that Pixar Shrek would have made the onion metaphor but otherwise have left the matter alone, allowing us to see over and over again that he does decent things without having to pound home the moral of the fairy tale. After all, isn’t that how fairy tales and fables and nursery rhymes work? You only have to hear it once, at the end, and you make the connection on your own. Shrek goes to great pains to tell us that his loneliness has been forced upon him. After Dreamworks gives a big raspberry to Disney before the credits, we revisit the diagetic sequences with a mob that’s come to lynch Shrek and claim a reward. The point is clear: Shrek is alone because when he has company, they bring pitchforks. This might have stood on its own, if Shrek didn’t say within three minutes of meeting Donkey, that that’s what happens to ogres. We know, y’all. We just saw it. By the time we get to the Onion vs. Parfait Debate of 2001, the metaphor is practically superfluous. And we haven’t even gotten to Fiona and her disappointment that Shrek isn’t Prince Charming – or the heart-to-heart that Shrek and Donkey have under the
Moon constellation of a donkey – or Shrek’s ill-fated attempt to bring a sunflower to Fiona – or Fiona’s enchantment – you get the picture.
The brilliant savior of this movie is Donkey, a character more sympathetic than Shrek if for no other reason than because, ironically, Donkey shuts up about not having friends sometimes. Donkey is most of the things that Shrek is. He’s alone, but not by choice: it doesn’t take us long to hear, “I don’t have any friends” from Donkey. He is kind and even sensible, but it takes a minute for everyone to realize it because of his persona. It takes longer for the kindness to slip out, but in many ways it leads to a more affective moment; he is the one who discovers that Fiona turns into an ogre at night due to an enchantment, and he is the one who consoles the princess as she deals with very literal questions of identity. Maybe most importantly, he is the Genie to Shrek’s Aladdin; we came for the latter and stayed for the former. I’ve made the cast in a podcast that one cannot live off the Genie alone, but in this movie, Donkey simply makes a more reasonable sidekick. Too much of Aladdin is spent waiting for the Genie to do something, or being anxious because he has to do something, or wishing he could do something. Donkey doesn’t dominate the action in that way, and for that reason he is less of a threat to take over the plot. He does useful things with regularity, from riding the world’s largest barrel of beer over a bunch of would-be knights to enlisting his draconian paramour for a ride to Fiona’s wedding so Shrek can intervene. But Shrek, mercifully, does most of the work himself. Donkey may feel like a living bugbite on Shrek’s ankle, but at least he isn’t inserted into the narrative as living deus ex machina.
As for Fiona, it’s hard to know exactly what to feel about her. The scene in which she beats up every Merry Man, which itself follows closely on the heels of a scene in which she kills a bird with her voice, is supposed to give us the sense that she is not your normal princess. It’s funny – I guess that many of us, given the chance, would love to knock a man with an accordion unconscious with a righteous fist delivered through said squeezebox – but it feels like a joke almost as lazy as “He huffed and he puffed and he signed an eviction notice.”
Fiona isn’t like other princesses, because Cinderella and Snow White and all the rest of that troop manage to get through their stories without a crippling level of discourse about their appearance. We learn that how one looks is not entirely the point (see screed above), and yet one wishes that the scenes with audience emotional payoff involving Fiona didn’t require male characters. That’s Donkey, playing matchmaker into the wee hours in sight of Farquaad’s compensation. And that’s Shrek, rejecting her after overhearing the wrong part of a conversation. And that’s Shrek again telling her that she’s beautiful as an ogre. And that’s Shrek again, marrying her and riding off into the sunset. (One might argue that Dragon eating Farquaad might qualify, seeing as how that saves her from lifetime imprisonment, but I’m not sure that’s a payoff about Fiona so much as it is a payoff about Farquaad.) Fiona is constantly under some man’s surveillance or supervision or spell, as it were. She has a strong personality, and in many ways, her vulnerability is the most human element of the film; she reminds me of Buttercup from The Princess Bride, a character with a strong will and attractive gumption who seems to be perpetually waiting for a man to bail her out of the trouble other men have put her in. (I had to stop myself from talking about Shrek as The Searchers on acid, so I guess even if that didn’t ring true for you, count your blessings that that’s the film reference I’m going to go with.)
Animation is an interesting thing, because it makes it surprisingly easy for us to identify with characters who, in real life – or in a traditional film – would be impossible to connect with. In Aladdin, the Magic Carpet is someone the viewer comes to genuinely feel for: he seems like such a nice guy, even if he doesn’t have any features or voice. Beauty and the Beast turns a candelabra and a clock into objects of our sincere pity. WALL-E is the story of how a robot with big eyes made grown people cry. What Shrek does, and despite its insistence on being as subtle as a boulder, actually takes it up a level. Shrek is not cute, a marvel in an animated flick when you’re not trying to make the character look creepy as heckfire. (I’d link to a photo of General Woundwort from Watership Down to prove that thing about “creepy as heckfire,” but I have to sleep tonight and it’s dark already and I’m literally getting gooseflesh thinking about it, how’s about we talk on a different subject.) He is, in many ways, repellant – and he certainly would be to all of our senses if we witnessed him. Yet animation allows us to identify with him and root for him to succeed and to get what he wants and to be happy. George Lucas said that he could manipulate an audience’s emotions easily: show them a kitten and then wring the kitten’s neck. Animation is like that kitten. Perhaps mercifully for us, animated films tend to be for children, and in children’s movies, the kitten winds up purring in someone’s onion-shaped carriage.