The Wednesday Weekend Primer: Shrek

Shrek (2001)

Directed by: Andrew Adamson, Vicky Jenson
Starring: Mike Meyers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, John Lithgow
Rated PG for mild language and some crude humor.

It’s been almost ten years since Shrek beat Monsters, Inc. for the inaugural Best Animated Feature statuette at the Academy Awards. Both films have their charms, but Shrek has not held up as well over the past decade. Some of the songs are dated, some of humor is now off-putting and the film, once, possibly, fresh, stands as the blueprint for the majority of DreamWorks Animation‘s releases. Peppered with pop-culture references and double-entendres designed to soar over the heads of the eight and under crowd, Shrek appears to want to be two separate films instead of merging the humor so the whole family is laughing at the same jokes for different reasons.

The film, does, however, have it’s charms to this day which make it a pleasure to revisit. Shrek (Meyers) is an ogre who lives a voluntarily solitary life. He doesn’t like the way people view him, so he attempts to keep everyone out of his swamp. This solitude is breached when Lord Farquaad (Lithgow), ruler of Dulac, decides that he needs to rid his lands of fairy tale creatures in order to build a perfect kingdom. Shrek confronts Lord Farquaad and undertakes a quest to rescue Princess Fiona (Diaz) from her dragon-guarded tower and bring her to Dulac to marry Lord Farquaad in exchange for the return of his solitude. On the course of the return trip, Shrek offers up some simple, but mostly enjoyable lessons on prejudice, love and friendship.

Shrek is a loveable character who cannot accept that anyone would even like him, let alone love him. Many of us have felt this at one point, and we didn’t have the disadvantage of having to overcome ogre stereotypes. The film entertains children by emparting the not even remotely subtle lesson of not judging a book by it’s cover. We find, in Donkey, a character who judges no creature on sight. He accepts Shrek immediately, rather than hating or fearing what he is. He speaks to everyone in the film with the same child-like innocence (while still being a smart-aleck for most of the film). When confronted with a fire-breathing dragon, he finds ways to compliment her (Of course, she’s a girl dragon…) to the point of her becoming enamored of him.

Much was said, when the film first opened, about the lessons the character of Princess Fiona had to teach young girls. Having been hidden away in a tower because of her “curse,” she has had a lot of time to herself to read and learn. She has also had a lot of time to fantasize about being rescued. She’s a well rounded individual; she can cook and beat up merry men (although the Matrix reference is one of those items which date the movie instead of adding to its charm), but when her rescue doesn’t go according to her fantasy, she gets a bit snippy. On second viewing, it’s clear why she is upset to see she was rescued by an ogre and not a prince, but it plays into the very stereotypes it’s lauded for eschewing at the end. The problem with Princess Fiona, ultimately, is that while she does teach young girls to love themselves for who they are, she also implies that they need a man to tell them who they are.

Despite this contradiction, Shrek still works as a fractured fairy tale, playing off generalized and established fairy tale characters in a way that teases while still showing respect. As with most fairy tales (even fractured ones), it leaves the audience with a smile on their face. When I initially saw it in theaters, I was so happy at the end of the film, that I started singing along. Out loud. In the theater. I don’t quite have that same reaction now, but I still smile.

Caution: Shrek includes the following: two Smash Mouth songs, a French Robin Hood, outdated references and Eddie Murphy at the height of his “family-friendly” period.