Thursday, September 25, 2014

My Beloved Monster

Film: Shrek
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

So it’s time for another strange admission of my children’s relationship with some animated films. When she was little and Shrek was a current film, my older daughter was terrified of this movie. Specifically, she was terrified of the scene where Shrek gets shot in the posterior with an arrow. For whatever reason, it freak her out, which means we didn’t watch Shrek much when she was little. I have no explanation for my children.

Well, that and the fact that our disc of Shrek has been missing for some time. I’ve been cleaning out my office for the past two days, and guess what I found. It’s like Christmas in September around here.

Shrek tells the story of a Scottish-accented ogre named Shrek (voiced by Mike Meyers) who wants nothing more than to be alone. This doesn’t work out for him, though, because the ruler of a nearby kingdom has other plans. Lord Farquaad (a name that sounds suspiciously like “fuckwad,” voice by John Lithgow) wants his kingdom rid of all fairy tale creatures and pays to have the rounded up. Once collected, they are dumped into Shrek’s swamp. Wanting none of this, he goes to pay a visit to Lord Farquaad to get his swamp back. Accompanying him is Donkey (Eddie Murphy), a talking donkey who frequently gets the best lines.

Lord Farquaad, who stands about 4’0” in boots, has a problem: he’s a lord and not a king. The only way to become a king is to marry a princess, which means going on a quest to rescue one. He opts instead to hold a tournament to determine who should have the honor of rescuing the fair Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) for him. As it happens, Shrek shows up the same day as the tournament and beats the snot out of all of Farquaad’s knights. Crowned the tournament champion, Shrek cuts a deal—if he rescues Fiona from the castle of a dragon, Farquaad will give him his swamp back.

What we’re not told until quite late in the film is that Fiona exists under a curse. By day, she is a typical human princess, at least in appearance. By night, however, a curse turns her into…an ogress. With that set up, it’s not hard to see where Shrek is going to end up, but like any good family film where the ending is pretty much pre-written with the plot, it’s not the destination, but the journey.

The story is in many ways the basic fairy tale turned on its ear, but Shrek’s genius is that it’s a lot smarter than just going for the easy jokes all the way through. This is a very smart screenplay, filled with a range of jokes from the scatological comments about the smell of the lava moat at the dragon’s castle where Fiona is waiting to the far more subtle. It’s also a film that very purposefully tweaks the Disney formula, since this is a film produced by Dreamworks. The Disney ideal is, well, that pretty conquers ugly, but with Shrek we get a character who is by human standards a hideous monster, but he’s also completely comfortable in his own skin. Fiona may be a beautiful princess by day, but she also belches, happily dines on fried rat, and is capable of kicking ass when she needs to.

In fact, Fiona is interesting because of her ability to kick some ass. The scene where she is “rescued” from Shrek by a Robin Hood equivalent demonstrates her ability to fight her way out of a difficult situation. That leads me to suspect that Fiona could have essentially rescued herself from the castle of the dragon at any time, but chose instead to stay based on the romantic ideal that she’d been fed. And, of course, since she is rescued by Shrek, nothing goes as she plans it.

There’s a lot to like with Shrek. The characters are well-developed and fun and the screenplay is frequently screamingly funny. I can’t imagine someone sitting through this and not getting hit broadside by at least some of the jokes. It’s also smart enough to go exactly where we want it to. It’s a fairy tale, after all, and all of us in the audience really want the happy ending. The way we get there makes sense and manages to be heartfelt in the process. Humor may well have been the main intent of Shrek, but make no mistake—there’s a sweetness here, too.

And it’s also, as mentioned above, smart. A traditional fairy tale would have Shrek slay the dragon. Here, we learn that the ferocious dragon is a) female, b) lonely and c) attracted to Donkey. This makes for some fun dialogue and some excellent moments of resolution before the end.

The best family entertainment is entertaining for everyone in the family. Shrek delivers on all counts, even if parts of it feel a bit dated. For instance, like virtually every movie made between 2000 and 2002, there’s a reference to The Matrix that doesn’t hold up as well today as it could have. But even that’s a throwaway bit, and the few things that perhaps have aged poorly don’t detract from a film that is fun, funny, and surprisingly endearing.

I’m pretty sure I’m preaching to the choir in general, but if you’ve somehow missed Shrek, you should track it down. I can’t imagine not enjoying it.

Why to watch Shrek: An absolutely genius script.
Why not to watch: I got nothing. There’s no good reason not to watch.


  1. It was a coup to have Eddie Murphy do the donkey. As an actor he has been in steady decline since Beverly Hills Cop, but for doing voices none are better. Donkey is in my opinion the most hilarious character of any animated feature and there is some tough competition. I hope the girls eventually got around their fear.

    1. Eddie Murphy flat out makes the movie. He's got the best lines and the best delivery of lines.

      I understand Puss in Boots was funny, but I'd have gone to the theater for a film starring Donkey.

  2. "And in the morning, I'm making waffles!"

    I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. I liked the second one quite a bit, too. (Antonio Banderas voicing a feline version of, for all intents and purposes, Zorro was genius voice casting.) The third and fourth ones were a step down. Puss in Boots was entertaining, but also a step down from Shrek 1 and 2.

    Another thing that Shrek did well that gets lost nowadays was that at the time their animation of humans was top notch, both in appearance and movement. Think pre-ogre Fiona and Robin Hood and his men. In the years since then it has been surpassed, but it was very impressive in its time.

    "I have no explanation for my children."

    There is always the classic "They get it from their mother" explanation.

    1. The waffles comment is one of my favorites in the movie. I'm not sure why it strikes me funny (perhaps "waffles" is an inherently funny word?), but I always giggle when that line happens. There's a lot to love in Shrek, but Donkey consistently makes me laugh. "She's as nasty as you!" "Do I detect a hint of minty freshness?"

      You're right about the animation. It doesn't look as good now as it did then, but in 2001, this was top of the line realistic character movement.

      I'd never blame my kids' idiosyncrasies on my wife. I might think it, but I'd never say it out loud.

  3. I have very mixed feelings about Shrek. I think Shrek 2 is easily the best of the films. I like some of this movie (especially Donkey) but the movie has a terribly mixed message.

    The moral of the story is, more or less, that you can't judge a book by its cover. Shrek may be hideous (even though he's not really) but he's a good guy at heart. Fiona may be beautiful, but she's actually perfect for Shrek. Good message.

    And then we hit Farquaad who is (ahem) short. And they make fun of his height during the entire movie. If they made fun of his evilness, or his vanity, fine. But they constantly make jokes about his height, thus undercutting their own moral.

    Not saying a movie HAS to have a moral, but the treatment of Farquaad seems hypocritical to me and seriously hurts my enjoyment of the movie.

    1. There's pretty good evidence that Farquaad is Jeffrey Katzenberg's huge extended middle finger to Michael Eisner, which accounts for the name and the height jokes..

      That said, I get the point you're making.