Shrek (2001) – Directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson – Starring Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, John Lithgow, Vincent Cassel, Conrad Vernon, and Frank Welker.
SHREK is a wonderfully funny film, full of heart and sly jokes.
While it is certainly a kid’s movie, there’s plenty of meatier material here for adults. One of the key storytelling techniques in SHREK is the disconnect between what people say they want and what they actually want. The film is largely about Shrek (Mike Myers) and Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) coming to grips with admitting what they really want and having the strength to open their hearts to let the outside world in.
For Shrek, a giant ogre who tells everyone who will listen that he just wants to be left alone, the need to open his heart is to allow what he actually wants: friends, companionship, and to be part of a community. He doesn’t even realize this at the start of the movie, but when the local villagers track him down in his home in the swamp, he meets them with a smile on his face (if not open arms). Shrek enjoys the confrontation, and so even though he’ll tell anyone who listens that he wants to be left alone, he has some fun with the attacking villagers.
We can say the same for his relationship with Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Fiona. The ogre is constantly (and legitimately) annoyed by Donkey’s constantly loud nature, but he typically only rejects Donkey when he’s been emotionally hurt. Being hurt himself, he seeks to take it out on others in order to protect himself from more emotional scarring.
In contrast, Fiona needs to open her heart in order to alter what she really wants. Obsessed with being inside a fairy tale, Fiona is a captive of a dragon and yearns for her handsome Prince Charming to come and rescue her, so she can fall in love, get kissed, break her curse, and live happily ever after. When Shrek arrives and only succeeds in meeting her fantasy of rescue, Fiona is like a spoiled little child complaining because after coming out of surgery, the nurse brought her Neapolitan ice cream and not getting enough chocolate. Fiona has been cursed to turn into an ogre from sundown to sun-up, and needs to be kissed by her true love to break the spell. Her conception of “true love” is entirely physical and story-based, but over the course of the film she opens up to the idea of being in love with Shrek, who turns out to be a pretty nice guy when he forgets he wants to be alone.
In between them is Donkey, who is much more vocal about what he wants, even though he does his best to hide the emotional scars. Like Shrek, Donkey is afraid to get hurt, but his approach to preventing that it to have an exaggerated persona rather than a sullen one. Where Shrek wants to be left alone, Donkey seeks to attach himself to someone else. It’s Donkey who serves the narrative’s need to get Shrek and Fiona to explain themselves for the audience, and Donkey who keeps the humor coming even when the other two get mopey or angry.
All three characters are solidly conceived and executed, and it’s because of them (and John Lithgow’s Lord Farquaad) that make SHREK enjoyable and re-watchable. What makes SHREK something special, though, is the way it overtly pokes fun at animated fairy tales (which is to say, the House of Mouse), yet covertly affirms many of those fairy tale conventions.
Shrek, for instance, claims to hate singing, yet the movie not only gets a whole lotta laughs from Donkey singing and humming, but ends with a big celebration in which Donkey leads a sing-along to Smash Mouth’s rendition of “I’m a Believer.” SHREK pokes all sorts of fun at the fairy tale characters it includes, but again, it ends up laughing with them instead of at them. It’s almost like this entire film is watching a kid bag on Walt Disney movies even though he secretly loves them, and can only truly admit he loves them when he starts dating a girl who likes them, too. The final scene, in which Shrek’s kiss breaks the spell and Fiona is transformed … into an ogre … is a nice twist in terms of physical appearance, but also a total reification of the traditional fairy tale. The transformation itself is screaming out for you to compare it to Beauty and the Beast, too.
The best scene in SHREK is between the Gingerbread Man and Lord Farquaad. The would-be king (his desire to be king is why he has Shrek rescue Fiona for him; if he can marry a princess then he can become king) is torturing Gingerbread in order to discover the location of missing fairy tale creatures. Farquaad wants all of them out of his kingdom and has driven most of them into Shrek’s swamp. G-Man isn’t talking, but then Farquaad threatens to pull off the cookie’s gumdrop buttons. “No! Not the buttons!” the Gingerbread Man wails helplessly. “Not my gumdrop buttons!”
From a structural standpoint, the movie SHREK reminds me of most is Jan de Bont’s Speed, which has an action sequence before and after the main bus sequence. Similarly, I thought SHREK was going to be about rescuing the princess, but the quest to rescue Fiona is not the point of the movie, but rather prelude to the return home.
SHREK was the film that put DreamWorks animation on the map and over a decade later it’s impressive how fresh and fun it feels. I’m lukewarm on the DreamWorks catalog, but I really love SHREK.