Wednesday, July 31, 2013
The Movie: Shrek (voice of Mike Meyers, the star of Austin Powers and Wayne’s World), is an ogre who lives all alone in his swamp. This is how he prefers it; and his only real contact with the outside world is to scare off the occasional band of torch-wielding villagers who decide to come after him. Unfortunately for Shrek, his simple life is about to be upended. Lord Farquaad (the venerable and prolific John Lithgow), the local ruler, probably has the worst case of short man syndrome you could ever encounter. He is determined to be the Perfect King of the Perfect Kingdom; and the various fairy-tale entities who inhabit it have no place in the perfect world he envisions. As such, he’s been busy rounding them up for banishment; and Shrek’s swamp is where all the exiles wind up. To Shrek’s dismay, his neighborhood suddenly becomes awfully crowded.
Angrily, Shrek sets out to confront Lord Farquaad and demand his swamp back; accompanied by an annoying talking donkey (Eddie Murphy, last seen here in Bowfinger) who offers to show him the way. Fortunately, when Shrek arrives at Duloc, Farquaad’s kingdom, the tiny tyrant is in a mood to bargain. Having been told by a magic mirror that he isn’t technically a king, and that to become one he needs to marry a princess, Farquaad has fixated on the lovely Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz, last seen here in the Mask). The one catch is that Fiona is currently locked in the tallest tower of a ruined castle, which is surrounded by a moat of lava and guarded by a fire-breathing dragon. If Shrek agrees to rescue Princess Fiona and bring her back to marry Farquaad, then Farquaad promises to return Shrek’s swamp to him, with all the squatters packed off elsewhere. Not really having a choice, Shrek and Donkey set out to rescue the princess.
However, it turns out that getting Fiona away from the dragon, difficult and nerve-wracking as the incident is, is just the easiest part of the adventure. Fiona is nothing like Shrek has expected a princess to be, and against his will he finds himself taking to her. Fiona, meanwhile, while initially disappointed that her rescuer wasn’t Prince Charming, finds herself warming up to the ogre. You see, unknown to Shrek, Donkey, and Farquaad, Fiona has a major secret. It’s why she was locked in the tower in the first place, and it’s definitely going to have a major impact on how things turn out…
Shrek: “Oh, you were expecting Prince Charming?”
Fiona: “Well, yes, actually. Oh... this is wrong. This is all wrong! It's not supposed to be an ogre!”
I was in the mood for something different. Ever since I first saw Shrek in the theatre, it’s been one of my all-time favorite movies. In fact, I saw it in the theatre probably at least three times; something of a record for me. Admittedly, this movie has suffered a lot over the years due to Disney’s attempts to wring as much cash out of it as possible; repetition, over exposure, and three unneeded and increasingly inferior sequels. But if you can put all that aside, the original Shrek is extremely clever, well made, funny; something that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike.
Probably the aspect of this movie that caught and held me from the beginning was the message. Shrek is a message movie; but unlike most message movies it doesn’t attempt the bludgeon its audience with said message sledgehammer-style. Instead, the message is woven intrinsically into the script, the plot, and the characters’ motivations. Said message is one that we all need reminded of on a fairly regular basis: life never turns out the way it’s “supposed” to, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The setting of the movie, a world where all the fairy-tale characters we’ve known from childhood live, is perfect for showcasing this message. After all, thanks to Walt Disney fairy tales as we know them are extremely codified and formulized. I’m sure that the moment you read “fairy tale”, a very specific set of tropes immediately came to your mind: beautiful princess in danger, handsome prince to the rescue, monster, true love, marriage, happily ever after. If you grew up watching Disney movies (and let’s be honest here, who of us hasn’t?), these tropes immediately come to us without any conscious thought, because they’re what we’re conditioned to expect.
The genius of Shrek is that it presents us with these tropes, priming our expectations, and then turns them on their heads. Pay attention; all throughout the movie, whenever a character expresses how something is “supposed” to happen, we see it come about in a very different fashion. However, ultimately the outcome is all the better for it.
Lord Farquaad is probably our best example of this. He is a control freak who is determined to create the Perfect World; and he has a very specific picture of how such a perfect world looks. Everything in his kingdom is very carefully scripted. Whatever doesn’t fit the script is quickly disposed of.
However, as is always the case, perfection is beyond Farquaad because he, himself, is imperfect. Farquaad doesn’t fit his own script at all. The script calls for a king who is tall, handsome, dashing, brave and noble. The reality is a short, insecure, weaselly coward. When Shrek first lays eyes on Farquaad’s castle, his observation is “do you think he’s compensating for something?” And that, in a nutshell, sums up Lord Farquaad. A truly great man lets his actions speak for themselves and accepts the respect that is given; he doesn’t demand and script it. Farquaad wants to be seen as brave, wants to be seen as the man who makes the hard decisions, wants all the reward and glory that would come with rescuing and marrying Fiona; but he wants somebody else to make the sacrifices and take the risks it entails. When Shrek and Donkey arrive at Duloc, Farquaad is holding a tournament to pick a suitable champion to rescue Fiona. “Some of you may die,” he tells the aspiring champions, “but that is a risk I am willing to take.” Personally, that line always brings to mind a certain former president when he was trying to drum up support for a disastrous and unnecessary war; one waged for very similar reasons.
Fiona’s motives are, ironically, very similar to Farquaad’s; she is trying to compensate for a perceived imperfection in her life. When we start to get to know Fiona, it quickly becomes obvious that she’s anything but helpless. She’s more than capable of taking matters into her own hands when it’s needed. When the princesses takes on a whole pack of forest bandits single handedly, and beats the living snot out of them without taking a scratch; it’s clear that she has no problems defending herself. In short, Fiona never needed “rescuing” at all; she would have left that tower a long time ago if she wanted to. She was there entirely because she felt she had to be.
After a little over a decade (has it really been that long? Yep, feeling old.), and plenty of media overexposure; I don’t think it’s a spoiler at this point to reveal Fiona’s curse: she turns into an ogre at night, and will continue to do so until “True Love’s first kiss” will lock her into the form she’s supposed to take. Now, Fiona has been raised with some definite ideas of what a princess is supposed to be. As she tells Donkey when he finds out about her curse; “princesses and ugly don’t belong together.” She’s got everything about her rescue and the removal of her curse planned out to the smallest detail; so of course, none of it goes as expected. However, you have to admit she’s much better off with the outcome she gets than she would have been with the outcome she was expecting.
Shrek’s motivations are the exact opposite. Beaten down by society at large, he’s long given up on any kind of perfection. All Shrek wants is a place of his own where he can be alone and avoid all the abuse that others direct his way. However, despite his social problems and the expectations of others, he’s not a monster. The scene with the lynch mob at the beginning shows that. Lynch mobs are obviously not an uncommon thing for Shrek, the resigned little eye roll he gives upon noticing this latest mob makes that very clear. However, while he very observably has the villagers outgunned, he settles for scaring them off instead of actually hurting them. Unfortunately, a lifetime of derision has made Shrek feel on some level that he isn’t worthy of any kind of positive feeling. This makes him insecure, and all too ready to believe the worst.
That brings us to Donkey, who, while at times seeming like odious comedy relief, is actually a very important character who is absolutely necessary for Shrek and Fiona’s Happily Ever After. Donkey is actually an archetypal character. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, an archetype is a concept; a principal, ideal or fear presented in the form of an individual. Donkey embodies one of the fairly universal archetypes; that of the Fool.
In brief, the Fool notices what everyone else misses, which is the source of his power; but is oblivious to what’s blatantly obvious to everybody else, which is why everybody considers him a fool. He succeeds by approaching the problem from a direction that never would have occurred to anyone else. Longtime readers and anybody who knows me in person can probably guess why I so identify with the Fool.
Anyway, Donkey approaches everything ass-backwards (pun not intended); but since he lives in an ass-backwards world, this in absolutely necessary. His obliviousness to social expectations can make him extremely irritating; but it also means he’s not blinded by them, either. He’s willing to try things other people aren’t, and this brings about some unexpected, but needed, outcomes. For example, he is obviously the first individual to extend the hand (or hoof, in this case) of friendship to Shrek. Shrek initially finds Donkey obnoxious, but even more so Donkey confuses him. For some reason, Donkey doesn’t seem to notice or care about the fact that Shrek’s an ogre, and Shrek obviously doesn’t know how to handle it. Fear and hatred Shrek is used to, but genuine friendship and positive regard is an alien experience for him. Something similar happens, for the same reasons, when Donkey meets the dragon guarding Fiona. However, being that the dragon turns out to be female, she reacts by falling for him. While this does produce some extra unexpected consequences in the short term; in the long term it provides the heroes with a needed ally for the climactic showdown with Farquaad.
Likewise, Donkey’s inability to be blinded by social expectations means he’s usually aware of what’s really going on, even when everyone else isn’t. And, it also means that he’s the one who always says what needs to be said, even (especially) when it’s not the “appropriate” thing to say. In short, Donkey is the one who lights a fire under Shrek’s ass when he lets his insecurities get the best of him, and who always ensures that Shrek goes in the direction he needs to go.
The animation in Shrek is marvelous; and ultimately you get the sense throughout of a genuine, living, breathing world of which the characters are but a part. While there are, admittedly, some pretty awful lines, there are a lot more great ones and exchanges of dialogue. Finally, there is a truly witty sense of humor throughout; both for children and adults. Along with this, Shrek has this really dark, nasty edge just below the surface at times. It’s subtle, but it’s there. Most notable, though it took me a while to add it all up, are the presentation of the Three Bears among the exiled fairy-tale creatures. When we first see them, they are all three locked in cages. Later, we just see Father and Baby Bear in Shrek’s swamp. Finally, when the camera pans across Lord Farquaad’s bedchamber, if you look you’ll notice that his bearskin rug has Mama’s bow. Disturbing stuff, and I have to wonder how younger kids who’ve noticed this have reacted.
In the end, Shrek is a true classic of a movie. Unfortunately, this has been overshadowed by the sequels. Shrek never needed a sequel; it’s perfect as a self-contained story on its own. Unfortunately, artistic in integrity (or any integrity, really) has rarely been able to truly get in the way of somebody making obscene amounts of money. Worst of all, to my mind, is that the first sequel comes very close in the first two-thirds of the movie to overcoming that. However, that’s a discussion for another review.