Shrek doesn’t want to be bothered. Like, at all. Stay away.
You see, Shrek is an ogre, and he’s grumpy. He likes his swamp, his daily feast of bugs, and being feared by the local villagers. He’s immediately against any sort of change to his isolated existence, and will do just about anything to set things back to the way there were. He’s selfish, short-tempered, and—to be rather blunt—a very unlikely protagonist for a family film. He’s not a young lad learning that he can believe in himself to overcome all odds, no; he’s one who’s fed up with the world because the world looks at him and doesn’t like what it sees—and Shrek just as easily returns the favor.
So what makes this ogre so endearing? Over the course of four movies, this franchise follows a lonely curmudgeon turn into a true friend, a husband, and even a father, all while bandying about a keen sense of pop culture wit, leaving behind nothing but a slew of fairy tale clichés turned promptly on their head.
Yet four movies is a lot for one character, and now that all four films are put together for the first time on Shrek: The Whole Story, we can now see two things with abundant clarity: just how deep the messages of these films got, and just how glaring their respective flaws were.
DreamWorks assuredly was taking a bit of a gamble on bringing William Steig’s excellent children’s novel to life, albeit with its own savvy twist (not like most people would be offended by the altering of the text anyways, because, let’s be honest, most people still haven’t read the book), but given that this was only DreamWorks fifth animated film ever (following Antz, The Prince of Egypt, the major fumble The Road to El Dorado, and the surprise success of the Aardman co-sponsor Chicken Run), it was obvious that they were looking for something to franchise. It’s a bit of a relief, then, that by making the central figure someone as inherently unlikable as Shrek, the studio was willing to at least take a bit of an artistic risk, and lo and behold, it paid off brilliantly.
In watching the first film again, it’s easy to see why it was such a critical and commercial success: plain and simple, it was funny. Although Shrek never told many jokes himself, he was a perfect foil for his supporting cast, but especially the motor-mouthed Donkey (brilliantly voiced by Eddie Murphy, essentially streamlining what he did as Mushu in the 1998 Disney film Mulan). Shrek’s unflappable single-mindedness helps him bust through familiar clichés (most notably during his rescue of Princess Fiona from a dragon-guarded castle), and its this kind of off-kilter storytelling that winds up giving the film its personality.
Yet in the world of Shrek, few things are sacred: notice how most of the notable fairy tale characters (Snow White, the fairy godmothers, Tinkerbell, etc.) are modeled rather closely to their more famous Disney counterparts—which soon makes the subversion of their notable characteristics all the cheekier (in a description of Snow White, the game-show emcee Magic Mirror notes how “although she lives with seven other men, she’s not easy!”—insanely racy stuff for a kid’s film).
Yet Shrek still finds heart in its message of acceptance, particularly when Fiona (Cameron Diaz), when freed from her human-by-day, ogre-by-night curse by true love’s first kiss, discovers that her true form is that of an ogre. She’s not saddened by the revelation, even if the greedy Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow) is. In one quick gesture, Shrek tackles the issues of self-respect, body-image, and “inner beauty” without as much as batting an eye, and providing genuine optimism and joy towards the conquering of these issues. It’s a remarkably intelligent message, and it soon sets the templates for the films that follow (because, by the time we reach Shrek Forever After, who would’ve guessed that you could get kids emotionally invested in Shrek working through a mid-life crisis?).