Shrek: Happily Ever Ogre

September 18, 2001

When Disney’s Pocahantas opened in 1995, the New York Times Magazine published a parody titled “Mohandas.” Pocahantas was typical Disney fare, bleached and sugary, so “Mohandas” pretended to review a similarly Disneyfied animated life of Gandhi, complete with treacly coming-of-age ballads (“The Man in the Diaper”), hyper-idealized historical characters (Disney’s Gandhi looked like Mr. Clean and was voiced by Michael Jackson), and fictional sidekicks (a sassy cow voiced by Whoopi Goldberg, and an animated spinning wheel voiced by Jackie Mason.)

But one part of the parody was pure invented silliness, suggesting that the villain in the fictitious Mohandas looked suspiciously like Jeff Katzenberg, the former Disney animation executive whom Michael Eisner had famously overlooked for the Number Two job—and who had therefore huffed off to found Dreamworks with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. There wasn’t anything inPocahantas that actually referred to this famous rivalry, especially since it was only just budding, and no media executive could be that petty anyway, right? Wrong. For—lo and behold!—six years later the bud hath flowered and hath borne rivalrous fruit in Dreamworks’ Shrek—so taste and eat, and you will be as entertainment insiders, knowing both good and evil industry gossip, whether you care to or don’t.

Let me explain. Shrek is Dreamworks’ latest salvo in the bloody popcorn wars it wages with Disney, its only current rival in the feature animation industry. Loosely based on a book by William Steig, it is a twisted fairy tale about a green ogre, the eponymous Shrek (Scottishly voiced by Mike Myers), who dwells in a swamp, happily alone, until the evil Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow) chases all of the other fairy-tale creatures—from Snow White to various witches and unicorns—into Shrek’s swamp. Shrek cuts a deal with Farquaad: If he can rescue the lovely Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) from her dragon-protected castle and deliver her to Farquaad to marry—so Farquaad can become a legitimate king—Shrek will get his swamp back. Simple enough. Except, of course, while the grotesque Shrek is delivering Fiona, he falls in love with her, and she with him. Oh, and along the way, Shrek picks up a sassy donkey sidekick, voiced by Eddie Murphy. Perhaps Ms. Goldberg was unavailable.

Now, as most reviews will tell you, Shrek is Dreamworks’ digitally animated raspberry to the Disney Corporation. It makes nasty references to past Disney films, and is supposed to have somehow cast the cowardly Lord Farquaad in the mold of Michael Eisner. The whole dopey feud is everywhere for all to see. But in attempting to subvert Disney’s saccharinized version of various fairy tales and legends, Dreamworks has fatally overstepped, as if Katzenberg, socking Eisner in the nose, had knocked himself unconscious in the process. Shrekdoesn’t just subvert the treacly Disney version of fairy tales, it subverts the glorious and mysterious and ennobling idea of fairytales themselves.

For one thing, Shrek is tiresome in its unalleviated puncturing. No sooner does a moment fill with meaning and beauty than you can sense the hatpins poised to prick it. It’s as if Mona Lisa smiles, Jeff Katzenberg paints a mustache on her, and we cut to the next scene. When the seven dwarves carry Snow White to Shrek’s house in her glass coffin, Shrek exclaims, “Get the dead broad off the table!” And much of this is disturbingly inappropriate for children. When Farquaad tortures him for information, a legless Gingerbread Man spits in his eye and barks: “Eat me!” A goofy announcer says of Snow White, “Although she lives with seven men, she’s not easy!” Later, when Shrek sees the tiny Farquaad’s towering castle he asks, “Do you think maybe he’s compensating for something?” It’s funny, barely, but are phallic jokes necessary in a children’s movie? Flatulence jokes abound, too, as though sophisticated animation equipment and $100 million had somehow fallen into the hands of fifth-grade boys.

Later, Fiona and Shrek bump into an oversexed Robin Hood, whose merry men break into song about what’s really on Robin’s mind. One lyric ending with the word “maid” continues: “What he’s basically saying is that he likes to get—” pause, “—paid!” The Grand Canyon between the sensibility of a joke like this and that of most parents is breathtaking. And again we hear that Farquaad’s skyscraping battlements are “compensating for something,” just in case we had missed this Freudian gem the first time around. Nope.

But the worst example of the movie’s runaway deflation isn’t a dirty or puerile joke. It’s when the waking Princess Fiona greets the morning by singing a genuinely moving song. She is soon joined in her reverie by a bluebird, who trills along with her happily, until it attempts a particularly high note—and suddenly inflates and explodes, leaving a pair of smoking talons still clinging to its branch. It’s a startling and downright ugly moment, one for which you are quite unprepared. But it gets worse. Fiona then sees the dead bird has left a nest of three eggs. We behold the orphans with her for a moment, wondering what will become of them, until this poignant image dissolves into three eggs frying in a pan. Ha! Another joke! And Shrek and his mugging donkey eat the eggs for breakfast. The audience in my particular theater groaned and sighed, obviously horrified. If only they had known this was all a pointed, brilliant send-up of the singing bluebird scene in Disney’s Snow White of 1938. Poor unenlightened saps!

But the apotheosis of it all comes at the end. After Shrek and Fiona have fallen in love, we learn that at night Fiona herself turns into an ogre. But when she kisses her true love the spell will be broken and she will be forever beautiful, as she is during the day. We assume this will occur when she kisses Shrek—and surely Shrek, too, will be transformed, and they will live happily ever after. But we must be hopelessly old-fashioned, because this isn’t how things turn out at all. Shrek does rescue Fiona from Farquaad’s clutches, and they finally kiss. She is in her ogre mode, but though there is a moment of rapture, neither she nor Shrek is transformed. They ride off into the sunset, happily ever ogres.

Evidently the hoary fairy tale conceit that one’s inner beauty will be revealed on the outside is for people wearing pince-nez, celluloid collars, and spats. The brave new moral we moderns are to take home with us is something more along the lines of “appearances don’t matter” or maybe “accept thyself.” What is going on? Are beauty and nobility and innocence such medieval concepts that fairytales themselves cannot portray them positively? Must not only Shrek remain ugly, but Fiona become forever so? Shall the Ugly Duckling accept himself, and all swans turn into Ugly Ducklings, lest feelings get hurt? Shall the Frog Prince stand his warty ground and require the princess to croak and leap into the mossy well with him, ker-plump? Why? And why does this ending feel so forced? Why do I feel like my nose has been pinched and I’ve just been dosed with castor oil? Is it because I know that my legitimate expectations are being thwarted by a trendy idea? Does Shrek really mean to say that fairy tale virtues don’t exist, or are relative, or meaningless? It reminds me of gray communists screaming that God does not exist and that all human beings need is bread and vodka and cement housing. Did anyone ever believe that?

The old fairy tales aver the opposite; that what everyone knows in his heart to be true is true, that there are such things as goodness and beauty and truth—and even though in this life they are often obscured or hidden altogether, a time will come when the truth will be revealed, when dragons will be slain and bewitched captives will be set free forever. ‘Tis the Gospel truth, and till such stories are told again, I won’t choose between schmaltzy, focus-group-tested niceties and sophomoric, joke-strewn subversion. I’ll rent old videos and wait.

Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture Magazine.