Compensating for Something
Why would anyone want to play a talking donkey? We might suppose that doing voices for an animated movie is less stressful than acting in live-action pictures, that actors are well-compensated, or that doing a movie “kids can see” is appealing to many movie stars. Then there’s the fact that cartoon animals can get away with behaviors that aren’t so possible or even appropriate for humans (breathing fire, flapping wings, running about on four legs). And often, the resulting performance can be colorful and charming, with enough edge allowed so that said performer won’t be too embarrassed, as was the case for Eddie Murphy as the Dragon in Mulan or David Spade as the Llama in The Emperor’s New Groove.
Then again, at this point, Eddie Murphy is rather beyond being embarrassed, isn’t he? From the olden days when he was doing standup and showing off his butt while dressed in a Michael Jackson-ish red leather outfit, to more recent times, when he’s been talking to animals, farting and burping as eight different Klumps, and giving limo rides home to pretty young women he spots on the street, it would seem that he’s pretty much covered the gamut of what might be considered embarrassing behavior.
And so here he comes again, just as cute as can be, as a talking Donkey in Shrek. Like most talking animals not named Mickey, Donkey’s actually the sidekick, in this case to Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers), a big old green ogre with something like a Scottish accent. Shrek’s not a bad sort, but he’s real mad at the world because people are afraid of him and call him names. Still, he’s made a partial peace with his lot, and spends his time alone, wallowing in his swamp, creating candles out of his own (yucky) earwax, eating weed rats, and getting occasional exercise by chasing off the pesky peasants who routinely come after him with torches and rakes.
The meeting of Donkey and Shrek comes early, which turns out to be a good thing, as their exchanges are among the film’s highlights. Donkey shows up at Shrek’s swamp, along with a passle of other “fairy tale” characters, when a mean “little midget” (more on this in a minute) of a lord named Farquaad (John Lithgow) decrees that all such characters are banished from his kingdom, and they seek refuge in Shrek’s soggy front yard. Suddenly beset by a host of pathetic, homeless, Disney-trademarked creatures—blind mice, pigs, dwarves, bears, a puppet who thinks he’s a real boy, and a flitty fairy named Tinkerbell—Shrek is ready to do anything to recover his solitude. And so he cuts a deal with Farquaad. He’ll perform a “great and noble deed,” that is, recover the lovely Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) who is currently being held prisoner by a fierce dragon in a castle surrounded by a roiling lava moat, so that the Lord can marry her and become a Prince; in return, Farquaad will undo his decree, allowing the fairy tale characters to go back whence they came, thus restoring Shrek to his usual, miserable groove.
Lucky for us, Donkey accompanies Shrek on his adventure as raucous comic asidester. And in this capacity, Murphy is well used to dump on all things Disney, including Farquaad’s Disneyworld-like kingdom, Duloc, deemed by its very own designer-owner-overseer, “A Perfect Place.” The generally slapdash Donkey sneers at most everything he sees in Duloc, which is, according to one of the film’s art directors, Guillermo Aretos, “the place of a man obsessed with order” (this would presumably be the opposite of Shrek’s “wild” environs): here visitors are welcomed by an imperious small-worldy chorus, expected to consume product at Ye Olde Souvenir Shoppe, and directed to abide by posted rules of proper conduct. Duloc is also the place of a man with a pronounced insecurity about his puny size: as Donkey notes on first seeing Duloc’s tall turrets, “Think he’s compensating for something?”
Donkey’s not the only one with a bone to pick with fairy tale/Disney conventions. The well-read Princess Fiona recognizes at once that something’s amiss in the way her own plot is going. On seeing the ogre’s mushed-up face, she notes that he’s hardly the beautiful prince she was anticipating. Still, she’s impressed enough with this green minion’s derring-do and quick wit that, once they (Shrek, Fiona, and Donkey) escape the dragon’s lair, she begins to like the ogre, almost in spite of herself.
It’s soon revealed that Fiona has her own issues when it comes to perfect beauty and proper princess-like behavior. For one thing, she knows how to look out for herself. When the crew is attacked by a band of annoying, Riverdancing Merry Men bandits, she takes them all out, using that already-corny Matrix-style leap-and-freeze, complete with circling camera (or rather, the animated simulation of such a camera). And for another thing, she has a mind of her own. As soon as Fiona actually meets the smarmy little fellow Farquaad, she’s plagued by second thoughts, even though she believes her own happiness is guaranteed only by fulfilling her Princess-like destiny, that is, to marry the lord who has arranged for her rescue: happy endings are harder than they look. And for still another thing, Fiona has a secret, which she reveals to poor Donkey, who has also agreed not to reveal Shrek’s crush on her. Eventually, Donkey gets tired of playing confidante to the principals: “What’s the use of being able to talk if you’ve gotta keep secrets!?”
Indeed, the drive to blab your frustrations for all to hear turns out to be one of Shrek‘s primary points. This doesn’t obscure the movie’s most obvious lesson (drawn from its source, the children’s book by William Steig), which is that you should love yourself and appreciate differences in others, the kind of thing that kids usually take away from kids’ movies. But there’s another lesson here, of quite a different order, namely, don’t mess with Jeffrey Katzenberg. It’s definitely not a secret that Shrek is a vengeful gesture by ex-Disneyite Katzenberg against Disney and its president Michael Eisner, the very man whom Katzenberg once famously called a “little midget.” Much like the feud between Shrek and Farquaad, the feud between these guys was over “turf,” both cash and intellectual property. In 1999 Katzenberg (now sitting pretty as the K in DreamWorks SKG, with new partners Steven Spielberg and David Geffen) won a long-in-the-courts $250 million suit against Disney for breach of contract, and just the year before that, the studios released dueling bug-movies, DreamWorks’s Ants and Disney’s A Bug’s Life.
With PDI/DreamWorks’s superb, 3-D-approximating computer animation (skirts rustle, faces wrinkle, and water more or less flows) and the story’s conspicuous aggression against easy target Disney, Shrek brings this squabble to a new level, but it’s still a squabble over money and reputation that matters very little to most of us. (And let’s be real, sniping at Disney is hardly a new sport.) Of much greater import is the fact that Shrek marks the return of Eddie Murphy to the recording studio: the film’s finale is a ritual celebration, where the soundtrack consists of Murphy and Smashmouth doing a cover of the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer.” Hey, at least it’s not “Party All the Time.” We can only hope that this performance is a one-off, and that he will not be embarrassing himself further.