Shrek: The Best American Movie of the Year

Written by Matt Zoller Seitz on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

The best American
movie of the year stars a thick-necked, flatulent ogre who gobbles down bugs
and makes candles out of his own ear wax. His name is Shrek, and the fairytale
that bears his name is one of the few big-budget summer movies in recent memory
that’s not only destined to be a huge hit, but actually deserves to be.
It has three qualities many movies lack: heart, craft and wit. But it has another
quality that’s even rarer: a moral vision. Although it can be enjoyed as
a charming, suspenseful, often delightfully vulgar cartoon, it doesn’t
just aim to entertain. It asks you to think about what you want from entertainment;
consider how your desires are shaped by the movies you’ve seen in the past;
and demand that pop culture reflect the truth of human experience.

Based on a
book by William Steig, Shrek arrives in theaters following an inevitable
tidal wave of hype. Much of the publicity has focused on the film’s self-conscious
jokes at the expense of Walt Disney, Inc., the reigning champ of big-screen
animation. That Shrek is released by DreamWorks, cofounded by ex-Disney
creative honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg, sweetens the deal. There are sight gags
about Pinocchio, Snow White, Cinderella and company, and a villain who, like
Katzenberg, is vertically challenged. Viewers who know a bit about Katzenberg’s
relationship with Eisner during his Disney days (and the ugly lawsuit that came
out of it) are invited to grin knowingly, and cheer as a rival studio sticks
it to The Mouse.

But there’s
much more to Shrek than inside-showbiz payback. The digs at Disney aren’t
just personal; they’re political, social and emotional, and they play out
inside a compelling story–one that will make anyone ill-served by Hollywood’s
dream factory want to stand up and cheer. Shrek’s screenplay, which
sends the ogre and his talking donkey pal to rescue an imperiled princess so
she can marry a dictatorial lord, doesn’t just rebuke the Disney tradition
of micromanaged, family-friendly showmanship. It also criticizes the very assumptions
that make Disney, and the rest of the Hollywood dream machine, possible.

For starters,
there’s the notion that stars need to be the prettiest (and thinnest, and
usually whitest) people in the story. The ogre Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers)
torpedoes that notion. He’d be relegated to sidekick status in pretty much
any Disney film you can think of (even the flawed but compelling The Hunchback
of Notre Dame
turned its tragic title character into a matchmaker for two
lookers). But he’s at the center of Shrek–along with three
other offbeat characters that are funny, weird and none too easy on the eyes.

Shrek is a
misanthrope who lives in a hutch in the middle of a swamp and claims to love
his solitude. That solitude is shattered when the kingdom’s ruler, a pint-sized
despot named Lord Farquaad (voiced by John Lithgow) decrees that every fairytale
creature in his domain be rounded up, Nazi-style, for unspecified accounting.
Farquaad’s human subjects are eager collaborators, happy to light torches
and flush magical beings out into the open to be sold to Farquaad for a few
pieces of gold. The aforementioned talking donkey (Eddie Murphy) flees into
the swamp, pursued by Farquaad’s guards. Shrek saves the donkey and is
rewarded with eternal loyalty, plus a vexing bonus: the surviving fairytale
creatures–bear and pig trios, blind mice, witches, fairies and dwarfs–show
up on the ogre’s doorstep looking to be saved.

But Shrek is
no Oskar Schindler. He’s more like Toshiro Mifune’s wandering swordsman
in Yojimbo, or one of those bull-necked, working-class heroes from New
York movies of the 50s; if this were a live-action fantasy, the character would
need to be played by Charles Dutton, James Gandolfini or Dennis Franz. He wears
his aloneness with pride; he wants to survive troubled times without giving
up his autonomy. When the donkey suggests he’s got a problem with the world,
Shrek replies, "It’s the world that has a problem with me."

Ignoring his
anointed-leader status, the ogre cuts a deal with Farquaad: he and the donkey
will journey to a dark castle ringed with molten lava, slay the evil dragon
that guards it and bring home the beautiful, long-imprisoned Princess Fiona
(Cameron Diaz) to wed the bad guy. In return, Farquaad will give Shrek the deed
to his part of the swamp and the bad guy will also clear out those irritating
magical critters. Needless to say, Shrek’s deal doesn’t quite work
out as planned. (Warning: I’m not one of those critics who ruins the best
jokes and plot twists, then has the elitist gall to ridicule readers who care
about such things; on the other hand, I can’t dig into this movie without
divulging goodies, so keep reading at your peril.)

Shrek takes
a fancy to the princess, but while he’s intrigued by her physical perfection,
he doesn’t truly fall for her until he realizes she’s an ogre at heart.
She burps, she insists on sleeping in a separate room with no windows, she knows
karate and she has a knack for whipping up insect delicacies that please the
ogre’s palate. (Today’s Special: spiderwebs wrapped cotton-candy-style
and topped with bumblebees.) In other words, she’s a Cameron Diaz character:
a girl who’s one of the guys.

Unlike most
animated fairytales, the romance in Shrek rings true. Shrek and Fiona
like the same things and view the world in a similar way (cynical but not defeatist).
You don’t just have to take the filmmakers’ word that they’re
attracted to each other; you can see it in their eyes and body language. (The
computer animation, billed in DreamWorks press notes as state-of-the-art, actually
isn’t; the graphics in Pixar’s Toy Story 2 and A Bug’s
were cleaner, sharper and smoother. But that’s okay, because the
slightly ragged, smudgy look of Shrek suits the film’s tone; it’s
warmer and more humane. The difference between DreamWorks and Pixar animation
is the difference between the Muppets and, well, Disney.)

The Shrek-Fiona
relationship at first amounts to an interspecies romance; it’s a red herring,
but a similar relationship between the donkey and the dragon turns out to be
the genuine article. These bold strokes help crystallize the screenplay’s
democratic and multicultural themes. You’re invited to notice that the
ghettoized fairytale characters are Others, expected to entertain, serve and
occasionally play matchmaker to the privileged humans. It’s the same role
filled in most live-action Hollywood movies by blacks, Jews, gays, senior citizens,
overweight people and anyone else who defies the Vanity Fair standard
of beauty. (With his bald skull, toothy grin, broad shoulders and expressive
lips, Shrek suggests a caricature of a beefy African-American male. But unlike
Jar Jar Binks, the resemblance seems calculated to make nonwhite moviegoers
feel pride rather than discomfort.)

also invites you to see the tiny, fussy Farquaad–who overcompensates for
his smallness by building a gigantic, Disney-style fortress–as a "freak"
passing for one of the beautiful people. When the outcast characters joke about
Farquaad’s height, the humor isn’t hypocritical; they’re self-confessed
misfits needling a guy who pretends to be their superior–a neurotic powermonger
who, if he weren’t so rich and powerful, would be rounded up with the blind
mice, dwarfs and (ahem) fairies, and disposed of accordingly. Farquaad’s
sadistic torture of a gingerbread man reminds you that many dictators have been
tiny men, driven to revisit their childhood misery on others. (The gingerbread
man’s defiant, two-word kiss-off line is pure Mel Brooks.)

reveals its depth subtly, gradually. It zings you with sight gags and Chaucerian
bits of vulgar humor, then asks you to look past the humor and realize where
it comes from and why it connects. The film asks questions that few movies dare
ask–including Disney cartoons of the 90s, which honorably tried to subvert
the company’s traditions but lacked the guts to go all the way. Among these
questions: Why can’t the sidekick be the hero? Why does the princess have
to marry a prince, or somebody who’s handsome enough to be a prince? Who’s
to say that the "ugly" characters are really ugly? And why should
the audience cheer any movie that makes the vast majority of ticket buyers feel
unattractive, unwanted and left out?

grand vision isn’t perfect. The pieces don’t fit together precisely,
and some of the holes are baffling. Murphy, for instance, is sidesplittingly
funny as the donkey, but his hipster clown routine flirts with minstrelsy (his
dragon in Mulan raised similar objections). The film’s multicultural
cheerleading would be strengthened if he’d switched roles with Myers. Still,
I think audiences will forgive both Murphy and the movie–Murphy because
he’s helped nullify racist presumptions in Hollywood; Shrek because
its heart is clearly in the right place. So many of Shrek’s characters
are passing for something they’re not. Farquaad is a short man passing
for tall; the donkey can speak but pretends he can’t, for fear of being
rounded up by the bad guys; Shrek is a hero passing as a monster because that’s
what bigoted humans expect him to be.

Fiona takes
the metaphor to a whole different level. At first you think she’s a standard-issue
princess who’s willing to let her hair down and hang with the riffraff–a
modern-day Disney heroine. Accordingly, Shrek’s interest in her has rah-rah
interracial overtones; he’s a green boy who’s fallen for a white girl.
The revelation that Fiona is secretly an ogre passing for human will inspire
dread in some viewers; many supposedly "revisionist" cartoons have
done an anti-prettiness bait-and-switch that confirms old fairytale values.
(Disney’s otherwise exceptional Beauty and the Beast was among them.
It copped out in the last five minutes by having the Beast turn back into a
pale blond prince before Belle married him.) Fortunately, Shrek has the
courage of its own revisionism. Fiona’s climactic change into an ogre only
makes her more attractive to Shrek. Message: seek your own definition
of beauty, and be proud of what you are.

Visually, Fiona’s
transformation quotes the finale of Beauty and the Beast (a Katzenberg
project at Disney) to critique it. In essence, Shrek is Beauty and
the Beast
with the right ending–one that passes muster in the modern
era, when the walls between races, genders and cultures are crumbling. Shrek
can’t hasten this process because it’s just a cartoon. But it can,
and will, strike a chord. It knows the same things that viewers know and movies
rarely confirm. Our world is changing for the better; the old fairytales don’t
make sense anymore; it’s time for new ones.