And They Lived Happily Ever After...
Once upon a time, in the land of Duloc, there lived a nasty ogre, a princess held captive by a mammoth dragon, a troubled lord, and a talking donkey. Sound familiar? These are the basic elements of any conventional fairy tale (minus the donkey, perhaps). They are also the essential figures of Shrek, the latest animated feature from Dreamworks, based on the children’s book by William Steig. However, Shrek is a far, far cry from what you’d expect from such Western archetypes.
In the fairy tale mythos popularized by Mother Goose, for instance, the ogre and dragon should be slain, the princess rescued, and the lord triumphant over the land’s evils, and in the end, a wedding should take place. Mother Goose was never too big on parody, essential to any halfway decent modern comedy. But Shrek is very parodic, sort of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? meets Politically Correct Fairy Tales meets Mad Magazine.
The story begins when swamp-dwelling Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers, doing a light version of his famous Scottish accent), a lone ogre with heinous hygiene habits, finds that every fairy tale character has chosen to camp out on his front lawn. They’re seeking refuge in the one place safe from the population-cleansing forces of Duloc’s Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow), a ridiculously short aristocrat with an extreme dislike for all things nonhuman. He’s put a bounty out on all fairy tale figures in order to make his kingdom sterile and serious. Among the hunted is the unconscious Snow White accompanied by the seven dwarves; Pinocchio; a sarcastic Gingerbread Man; and very cunning Three Blind Mice. As well, there are elves and witches and nearly every other character from the Disney canon.
Shrek, who has grown accustomed to solitude, is none too pleased by this state of affairs, and so he ventures out to seek an explanation from Farquaad. Accompanying him is the overly talkative Donkey (Eddie Murphy), also on the run from the law. Meanwhile, the Lord has set his mind on marrying the imprisoned Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), and Shrek walks into the castle just in time for the contest of champions—naturally, Farquaad is much too cowardly to save a distressed damsel himself. Shrek and Farquaad come to an agreement: Shrek will fetch Farquaad his princess, and Farquaad will make sure to clean out the swamp and leave the ogre in peace. So off Shrek goes, Donkey by his side, into the jaws of death.
Or so you’d expect. Shrek‘s comedy depends on the assumption that its audience is well-versed in fairy tales, specifically those associated with the wonderful world of Disney. In fact, Farquaad’s castle itself is a spoof on Disney World, with phony-looking cobblestone roads and little singing puppets that explicate the rules upon entry. Everything in Shrek‘s world turns out opposite from the usual dynamics of Disney.” This is not the way it is supposed to happen,” Fiona protests when she realizes her savior isn’t a dashing Prince Charming and her storybook fantasies will not pan out as she’d imagined. When she attempts singing to a bird in a scene clearly mocking the classic cutesy duet in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the bird strains so hard to keep up with her high notes that it explodes in a hail of feathers. Fiona subsequently cooks the dead bird’s eggs for breakfast. This is the sort of dark humor that runs throughout Shrek, making it one of the more unusual animated features to come out in a long time.
Another unusual aspect of Shrek is its smooth CGI computer animation. Animation technology has progressed in leaps and bounds since Toy Story, but its capacity for #-D effects has never been so well realized as in Shrek. PDI/DreamWorks’ award-winning animators spent years using state-of-the-art software to create the movie’s environments and characters. What they’ve produced is the most realistic animation thus far seen in a feature film. While computer animation has proven useful in rendering strange creatures in previous movies, such as Antz, it always seemed to falter when it came to portraying realistic humans. Not so with Shrek, where facial features are stunningly complex.
And yet, for all its brand new technology and current thematic references, Shrek still boils down to a simple love story, though one with a much more progressive mindset than found in typical beauty-and-the-beast scenarios. As Shrek continually undercuts the values placed on appearances, so too does it reframe the value usually placed on conventional beauty and love. This becomes abundantly clear once we realize the great and powerful dragon who is guarding the princess is really a girl dragon, longing for love. No longer are epic adventures the province of fair maidens and proud knights. According to the film, everyone is deserving of fair treatment and true love. Even a dragon and a talking donkey.
Sure, Shrek has its cheesy moments. But all in all, it’s a fun movie that should elicit smiles from even the most jaded of moviegoers. Children will dig the crude, slapstick sight gags, and adults will like the array of fairy-tale in-jokes and Disney spoofs, as well as that subtle sexual humor that can only be pulled off in cartoons. Everyone knows that Farquaad’s compensating for something by building such a massive castle, but while parents can enjoy the mature angle of this joke, they needn’t be concerned that their kids will be affected by its explicitness. A testament to the marriage of sharp wit and cutting-edge technology, Shrek is sure to be a milestone among animated features for a long time to come.