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Shrek, written by Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio, Joe Stillman, and Roger S.H. Schulman from the book by William Steig, directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, 2001, 90 min.

Shrek is a fine, funny film, full of moments of laughter and wit. The pace is fast and assured, and the computer animation is a treat for the eyes. Shrek is a triumph in the same way that a few other recent "children's movies" like Toy Story 2 and Chicken Run have been: the writing is sharp, the jokes are funny, the story is engaging, and the whole enterprise pleases both child and adult audiences with the greatest of the ease. I find it interesting to note that these three films in particular, ostensibly aimed at children, gracefully surmount a difficulty that plagues nearly every other Hollywood production these days. This difficulty is simply put: special effects outweighing story, character, and the sense that there is a creative soul in the project. Shrek displays a confident balance between technical proficiency and other attributes of excellence, likely a hard-won trait and one that endears the movie to me. Unfortunately, Shrek is not a perfect movie and even though its story line is far superior to the sexist nonsense of Toy Story 2, Shrek does have a few problems.

An ogre named Shrek lives in a swamp on his own, perhaps not entirely happy but fiercely protective of his solitude. In a nearby kingdom, Lord Farquaad decides to expel all fairy tale creatures from his kingdom, and Shrek is horrified to find out that the creatures have been dumped off in his swamp. One of the creatures, a talking donkey, befriends Shrek even though Shrek attempts to make it abundantly clear that the feeling is not mutual. Shrek and the donkey set off to find out from Farquaad what it might take to move the creatures back out of Shrek's swamp. After a few comic interludes, Shrek is saddled with a quest: rescue Princess Fiona from the firebreathing dragon and his request will be granted. At this point, the movie seems as if it will settle into stereotype and cliché, especially when we see Princess Fiona, thin waist and all. But the movie has a few surprises up its sleeve and becomes, of all things, a rather sweet love story. What's more, Fiona has a secret, a curse that will affect her until she takes on her "true love's form." It is the resolution of the Princess' story that sets Shrek above the sexism of Toy Story 2. A happy ending is arrived at by means more circuitous and satisfying than found in other fairy tale stories.

Shrek the ogre is a lovable grump, the kind of person who does all the right things for all the right reasons but would be horrified if the news got out. He is ably voiced by Mike Myers, with a cranky Scottish accent. Shrek is the heart of the movie, and we are always on his side and always interested in how he will react next. Fiona is the Princess with a secret, and although the role is not as active as it could have been, it's refreshing all the same. Cameron Diaz provides the voice, and nicely captures the sense of a woman finding a way between the dictates of convention and what is right for her. The evil Lord Farquaad is mean for no particular reason, and somehow, perhaps due to the voice by John Lithgow, it works. The nonstop patter of the talking donkey (Eddie Murphy) dominates a good portion of the movie and ends up detracting greatly. To argue by comparison, some of the best humour in Chicken Run flowed from character and story rather than dialogue that was meant to be overtly funny. As I said, Shrek is a fast-paced movie, but the donkey's dialogue, though rapidly delivered, often creates only lulls in the pace.

Shrek has become one of the biggest box office hits of the year, and I would say its success is well deserved. The critical side of me finds it odd to have enjoyed such a mainstream blockbuster, especially since I'm firmly convinced that the commercial side can sometimes completely erase the meaning of an artistic endeavor. Take, for example, the big bucks raked in through ticket sales and merchandising for The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. The content of the film attempted to convey a commonsense message that it might not be things (gifts and so forth) that make us happy. The context of the film, the corporate machine in full-blown operation, was busy minting money from every conceivable trinket and gewgaw. The whole enterprise struck me as a soulless exercise in separating the marks from their wallets, with only the slightest gesture in the direction of making a movie of any lasting worth. Shrek is perhaps less hypocritical, with no overt message about merchandising, but at some level the discourse of the movie reduces from "be yourself" to "buy tickets." I seem to have argued myself into a rhetorical corner, because I enjoyed watching Shrek and thought that some of the Shrek toys (from McFarlane) were pretty nifty. It's a tough dilemma: what is the intelligent response to the fact that a) corporate behemoths like AOL Time Warner provide a cultural artifact that I enjoy (Batman Beyond, to go with the WB example, and I'm also looking forward with some amount of dread to the Harry Potter movie) and am willing to recompense the writers and artists for but b) the same corporation does everything in its power to leverage this transaction into an opportunity to transform me into a mindless consumer? Perhaps I can try to apply all of the quirks and criteria that maintain my individuality to every cultural exchange, but is mindful resistance enough? As I said, it's a tough question, and one that only gets tougher as media consolidation continues.


Last modified: July 22, 2001

Copyright © 2001 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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