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Oh, Shrek. Where to begin with this guy?
That’s a rhetorical question, I know exactly where to start. It all comes back to one man, a man with a vision: to stick it to his former boss.
There’s a lot of history and tangled truths behind the birth of Shrek, and Jeffrey Katzenberg is at the dead center of it. I was sorely tempted to make this another two-parter like the Black Cauldron review to go into more detail, but I was already running behind schedule with March of the Wooden Soldiers so here’s a slightly condensed version:
Between the disaster that was the making of The Black Cauldron and the glorious premiere of The Lion King, Katzenberg picked up a few tricks when it came to making acclaimed animated features. Then in 1994, Disney CEO Frank Wells was killed in a helicopter accident, and the Magic Kingdom was torn asunder as Michael Eisner took the reins and began his descent into madness. Katzenberg hoped that he would inherit Eisner’s former position of Vice President, but here’s where things get tricky. Katzenberg claims that Eisner fired him when he made his ambitions known; but the way Eisner tells it, Katzenberg was impatient, ungrateful, took way too much credit for the studio’s successes, and left of his own accord. Either way, it was a notoriously bitter separation with deep ramifications for the animation industry. Apparently Disney didn’t learn their lesson with Don Bluth because once again they wound up creating their biggest competitor – and this time, they were here to stay.
Katzenberg teamed up with David Geffen and the one and only Steven Spielberg to create Dreamworks SKG, the first major studio to truly rival Disney when it came to making animated motion pictures. The most important thing to them was to not be like every other feature on the market. For the first few years they flipped between making some great traditionally animated films that have been swept under the rug (Spirit, Sinbad and The Road to El Dorado are enjoying a comfortable cult status online and The Prince of Egypt only just got upgraded to blu-ray last year. Still waiting on that Broadway version, though), and openly trying to one-up their direct competition (when not teaming up Aardman to produce the same but with effort and a soul). Pixar announces their next movie is about ants? Dreamworks comes out the following week and says they’re doing a CGI movie about ants. Pixar says they’re making a film about fish? Dreamworks makes one about fish the following year. They make movies for children of all ages but with A-list actors, no Alan Menken musical numbers, and attituuuuude, dude. And nowhere is that jealousy and vitriol towards Disney more obvious than in what we’re reviewing today.
Shortly after Dreamworks was founded, co-head of the motion pictures division Laurie MacDonald gave Katzenberg a book by esteemed children’s author/illustrator William Steig simply called “Shrek!”; a fractured fairytale where a fire-breathing ogre was the hero, a donkey was his noble steed, and his happily ever after is defeating a valiant knight and marrying a princess even uglier than he is. He took one look at it, saw how it turned the traditional Disney-style fantasy he helped re-popularize in the 90’s on its head, the potential for even more slams at Disney fairytales and celebrity voice casting that worked gangbusters with Aladdin and had this to say:
Shrek evolved far beyond its humble literary origins into a green middle finger pointed at Katzenberg’s former workplace, and audiences and critics ate it up because nobody had dared to do such a thing before. And I’m not gonna lie, I loved this movie when I was a kid. But over time, mostly thanks to Katzenberg’s penchant for quantity over quality, Shrek became the very thing it was parodying: a shallow, over-hyped, over-marketed fairytale cash grab, and it’s affected my view of the original installment somewhat.
Well, it’s time for this non-star to get my game on and hopefully get paid. Let’s look at Dreamworks’ watershed studio-defining blockbuster…Shrek.
We open with the traditional Disney method of a fairytale book opening up and relaying the story of, what else, a beautiful princess. I’ll say this, the art style does a great job mirroring the medieval look of Sleeping Beauty. The nameless princess is put under an unspecified enchantment which can only be broken by True Love’s First Kiss™. As such she’s locked up in the highest room of the tallest tower of a castle guarded by a dragon where she awaits her true love to ride to the rescue.
And then our main character makes his entrance by metaphorically and literally wiping his ass with the story’s happily ever after.
It may surprise you that Mike Myers, who’s inexplicably linked to Shrek in the same way Robin Williams is to the Genie, wasn’t the studio’s first choice to play him. The studio cycled through some big names including Bill Murray before settling on Tommy Boy himself, Chris Farley. Farley recorded all of his dialogue, but tragically died soon after. So the higher-ups opted to have Shrek completely redubbed by Farley’s fellow SNL costar Mike Myers. Myers wasn’t satisfied with his first take, so he insisted on doing it all again with a Scottish accent similar to Fat Bastard’s from Austin Powers. If you’ve watched the Austin Powers movies as much as I did in my adolescence it’s kind of hard to shake off that association, but unlike FB, Myers is allowed to express some heartfelt emotion as Shrek. Though as of writing this I’ve just finished editing Krimson Rogue’s review of The Cat in the Hat so forgive me for not being too keen on Myers’ acting at the moment.
The opening credits mix with a montage of Shrek going about his happy disgusting day underscored by Smash Mouth’s “All Star”. Fun fact, the decision to include this song was done purely on a whim by the guy who usually picks out temp music to play over workprints and storyreels. The higher ups at Dreamworks liked it enough to keep it in, and it went over extremely well during test screenings –
– so the song stuck. And now it’s forever associated with this franchise to the point where it’s overplayed beyond death into the afterlife and the words haunt me in my sleep at night. Often I jolt awake from nightmares dark and green, the words “Somebody once told me” still fresh on my lips.
Oh, and I should mention much of the animation is actually pretty good for the time. Compared to today’s features it looks like something a student might crank out for their finals, but look at any CGI movie a few years prior to Shrek and you’ll see how the medium’s progressed since the first Toy Story. Though I had a helluva time picking out appropriate screen caps because when the film is frozen at certain points, the characters reveal what frighteningly dead-eyed soulless beings they are.
That evening a group of hunters try to sneak up on Shrek, but he nonchalantly scares them off. One of them drops a poster advertising a bounty for fairy tale creatures, though Shrek thinks nothing of it. The man behind this bounty is Lord Farquaad, a tyrant who’s short in both temper and stature. Farquaad rules the kingdom of Duloc, and he’s seen fit to round up innocent beings like criminals just because they look different and don’t fit into his idea of a “perfect” world. And the piece of soundtrack that underscores this scene is called, I shit you not, “Fairytale Deathcamp”. God, this movie has aged both amazingly and horribly.
Among the throng of familiar fantasy faces are lawyer-friendly versions of Disney characters taken from the public domain, namely The Three Little Pigs, Pinocchio, the Seven Dwarfs, Peter Pan and Tinkerbell. There’s also a talking Donkey (Eddie Murphy) who’s being sold because he doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut. Farquaad’s men chase him when he tries to escape and they all run into Shrek, who frightens them away with a mere grin. But Shrek has a much harder time getting rid of Donkey, who now feels indebted to Shrek and just happens to be in the market for a lifetime companion.
As far as Eddie Murphy as Donkey goes, I think he’s all right, though I think Mushu from Mulan better captures Murphy’s best attributes as an actor. You can’t deny that Donkey was the role that cemented Murphy’s fate of being typecast into family-friendly comedies and subsequently led to his career being what it is now. But if this is what introduces a new generation to Eddie Murphy and gets them to check out his earlier funnier stuff when they’re old enough, I’m all for it. And no, I’m not knocking the comedy in Shrek – most of it, anyway. The writing isn’t particularly inspired, but it’s the delivery that sells it. Myers and Murphy play off each other well and just the scenes where it’s them talking (and there are a lot of those) are entertaining enough. Murphy’s quick exuberant line readings are no doubt what made Donkey such a quotable character for kids who’ve watched this movie countless times.
Shrek eventually relents and allows Donkey to stay with him, but just for one night and outside. However their peaceful evening is interrupted by the sudden arrival of all the fairy tale refugees. Shrek scares them into confessing that Farquaad banished them from Duloc into the swamp. Eager to get his privacy back, Shrek recruits Donkey to guide him to Duloc and announces he’s going to speak with Farquaad himself to get the creatures off his land. The characters, believing Shrek means to return them to their homes, give him a hero’s sendoff.
Meanwhile, Farquaad (John Lithgow) is torturing the Gingerbread Man to root out where the rest of the fairy tale denizens have gone into hiding. I’ve got no problems with Lithgow’s performance. He’s a great actor and he does his best to infuse Farquaad with some menace and no small amount of smugness. I got to meet him at a book signing once, he’s an okay guy. But the character is obviously meant to be a stand-in for Michael Eisner, and this is where I start to have issues.
Tony Goldmark, in his excellent review of the Shrek 4-D “ride” formerly at Universal Studios, stated that Eisner wouldn’t really banish the fairy tale creatures to make a “perfect” world; it’s more likely he’d enslave them, force them into sweatshops to make their own merchandise and coerce them at gunpoint to endorse subpar variations of past successes. Having the unique, iconic fantasy characters chased out of an overly sanitized Disneyland knockoff by a myopic overlord reeks of Katzenberg’s deep-seated bias. We’re seeing how his version of his exit from the Mouse House played out – a savvy soul who helped build the kingdom sent into exile for being far too brilliant by an avaricious single-minded tyrant ruling in his stead. If Ayn Rand were still alive she’d be eating this shit up. Plus, a movie with themes about tolerance and seeing past appearances has the balls to add “except short people”, which really undercuts its moral.
But there was something else about Farquaad that I didn’t like yet couldn’t find the words to explain it. After thinking it over for a while it finally hit me: he’s a Stage One Marvel movie villain that isn’t Loki.
Hear me out.
Farquaad has all the problems that plagued most of the MCU antagonists for years. He’s no fun because he’s oh-so serious in order to balance out the wacky main characters, but he barely does anything to make him threatening, interesting, or even that memorable in the long run. In fact, none of the future Shrek movies mention him or the events at Duloc at all! There’s the 4D show set between the first and second films where he comes back as a ghost, but A) it’s hardly canon, and B) it’s closed now (though it’s on DVD because Dreamworks will milk their cash cows until nothing but dust and air comes out).
So getting back on track, the main villain who kickstarts the entire Shrek saga with an act that’s on every real-world dictator’s checklist is a missed opportunity on all accounts. As a satire of Michael Eisner, he fails. As a force to be reckoned with, he fails. As an engaging character, he fails.
…And that’s why I fucking love the Broadway version Farquaad so damn much.
I mean it, folks. If there’s any reason to watch the official recording of the Broadway show, it’s for Christopher Sieber’s performance. He’s so over the top you’ll doubt there ever was a top to begin with. His Farquaad is a bratty camp gay manchild with ten times more personality than his animated counterpart and he steals the show. Also, any man who’s six-foot-two and willing to perform an entire show on his knees eight times a week has earned my eternal respect. Yes, there’s the problematic aspect of the villain being coded gay as the Fourth of July, but that’s somewhat balanced out by coding a number of the heroic fairy tale outcasts as on the LGBTQA spectrum. It further drives home the story’s message of acceptance, and in the case of Farquaad, the pitfalls of hypocrisy, particularly when we learn his backstory.
Farquaad confines Gingy to the trash when his captain of the guards brings in the long-lost artifact he’s been scouring the kingdom for: the Magic Mirror from Snow White. He asks it if Duloc is the now the most perfect kingdom of all, but learns that it’s not a kingdom because Farquaad isn’t technically a king; however, he can become one if he marries a princess.
So The Mirror presents three royal bachelorettes in the style of the Dating Game: Cinderella, Snow White, and the fiery redhead Princess Fiona, who’s currently being held captive by a dragon in a castle over a boiling volcanic lake. Farquaad chooses Fiona because her beauty matches his arbitrary standards and she’s also the only one to not have a solo film made by some other animation studio. But since he’s the type to make others do his dirty work, he plans a tournament to find a knight brave and powerful enough to retrieve the princess for him. He’s so wrapped up in his plotting that he ignores the Mirror’s warning about Fiona’s “little thing that happens after sunset”.
Shrek and Donkey arrive at Duloc on the day of the big tournament and this scene is where the Disney jabs are actually pretty funny. That poor mascot with the oversized head who takes one look at Shrek and runs screaming through the winding queue? The It’s A Small World knockoff with the annoyingly catchy “Welcome to Duloc” song capped off with a snapshot of an utterly bewildered Shrek and Donkey?
The two crash the brawl before it starts. A disgusted Farquaad changes the rules so whoever kills Shrek first will be crowned champion. But Shrek’s not one to take a death threat lying down so he turns the fight for his life into a hardcore wrestling match backed by Joan Jett. Even Donkey gets in on the action. Farquaad sees how much the people now adore Shrek and decides to make him his champion. The two cut a deal – Shrek rescues Fiona, and Farquaad will find a new place for the exiles and give him back his swamp.
With a new goal in mind, Donkey and Shrek head out on their journey. Along the way Donkey asks Shrek why he didn’t just Hulk out to get what he wanted from Farquaad. Shrek informs him there’s a lot more to being an ogre than just squeezing eyeball jelly for toast, and gives the now famous example of how ogres are like onions in that they
stink make you cry are always in your mom’s spaghetti sauce and you have to pick them out have layers. Donkey, being Donkey, misses the point entirely, but that doesn’t stop the movie’s main theme from being laid out for us.
Soon there’s nothing separating the two from their destination but a rickety rope bridge over a lava pit. Donkey has a panic attack over crossing it which Shrek exacerbates by swinging the bridge to and fro and taking pleasure in his terror, which is awfully mean-spirited even for him. The Broadway musical may not be perfect, but this is another one of those points where it improves upon the movie. In the show, Donkey sings a song up until they reach the bridge that annoys Shrek. Shrek turns the tables on Donkey by singing that same overly cheerful tune as they make their perilous crossing, but stops when Donkey is in real danger of falling through and saves his life, further exposing his hidden heart of gold.
So Shrek and Donkey enter the castle, which is by far the best-looking setting of the film. Deep purple shadows color the crumbling stones, the faint red glow and smoke from the lava below seep through the floor, casting everything in a more eerie, desolate light. The whole place should have fallen apart years ago, but it hasn’t, because the very monster keeping it up is lurking around every corner waiting to strike. And let’s not forget the flambeed remains of would-be heroes everywhere for extra creep factor.
Shrek borrows some armor for protection, which also conveniently hides his monstrous features. He tells Donkey to look for the tallest tower because he knows the princess will be there thanks to the book he was reading in the prologue. So that story was all about Fiona? Was that book just a generic fairytale and the fact that it perfectly matches with Fiona’s situation is just a wacky coincidence? Did whoever write this book look into the future? Is it a Once Upon A Time/Ever After High scenario where someone wrote in a magic book that made the story happen in real life –
Anyway, Shrek finds the tower, but Donkey runs into the dragon. Shrek tries to protect his friend but the dragon flings Shrek into Fiona’s room and prepares to eat Donkey. Donkey curbs his blabbermouth enough to charm the beast, which works a little too well.
Shrek “awakens” Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) with a good hard shake instead of a kiss and gets them on their way, though she’s having none of it at first. This supposed knight won’t serenade her with ballads and poetry, he didn’t slay the dragon, and he’s more interested in saving his ass than following tradition. But Shrek’s got his priorities in order and he rescues Donkey from Dragon’s advances at the cost of his own dignity.
Then we get a genuinely thrilling chase through the castle. Shrek stops Dragon not by killing her but by using his wits to trap her while they make a getaway. Fiona is grateful for her rescue and wants to thank her hero with a kiss. Shrek is reluctant for obvious reasons. But Fiona seriously believes that Shrek is her destined true love since he saved her – until he finally reveals he’s an ogre. She has a minor breakdown over her story not going as she planned, which makes a lot of sense when you learn about her home life in the sequel. Shrek tells her he was sent by Farquaad, and when Fiona refuses to budge until Farquaad himself comes to claim her, he throws her over his shoulder and carries her away.
On the road Fiona gets Shrek and Donkey to tell her about her betrothed, and the two make short puns that Fiona misses entirely. It does raise the question of how they know Farquaad is a munchkin since the only time they’ve seen him he was up on a podium several stories high. There’s a funny deleted scene that’s very much in line with Christopher Sieber’s portrayal where Farquaad meets with Shrek and Donkey in private and shares his plan while playing with a model set. It was understandably cut to preserve the pacing, but it patches up that plothole and would have given Farquaad the much needed comic edge that he lacks.
Then there’s the matter of the “compensating for something” running gag revolving around Farquaad and his enormous castle. Like many of the adult-oriented gags in this movie, the meaning flew far over my head when I was a kid. My parents told me it because he was so short, which I still didn’t quite get. But then I grew up somewhat and now know exactly what that means. Like, wow, Katzenberg did not pull his punches when it came to his hatred for Eisner.
Fiona notices the sun’s about to set, and she orders them to make camp despite it delaying their journey by a whole day. She quickly holes herself up in a small cave with a door fashioned from a huge chunk of tree bark for some privacy. Shrek regales Donkey with stories around the campfire about the constellations and the ogres that inspired them. But when Donkey asks what the plan is after they get their swamp back, Shrek begins shutting him out again. He bluntly tells Donkey that the swamp is his alone, and the first thing he’s gonna do when he gets it back is build a huge wall and make the fairy tale creatures pay for it.
Donkey annoys Shrek into opening up about why he’s so eager to keep everyone out. What follows is a tremendously impactful yet simple monologue that eschews the cynical front Shrek the character and the movie have put up, and reveals an unexpectedly poignant, relatable side:
Look, I’m not the one with the problem, okay? It’s the world that seems to have a problem with me. People take one look at me and go “Ahh! Help! Run! A big stupid ugly ogre!” They judge me before they even know me….that’s why I’m better off alone.
Anyone who’s been judged their whole lives for one reason or another can identify with this moment. I know I have. Despite how content Shrek seems by himself in the swamp, taking joy in his daily routine and occasionally scaring off trespassers, it’s all a facade. He’s spent who knows how long convincing himself he’s happier living a solitary life because the constant discrimination has wounded him so deeply. Even as he’s learning to expose himself to others he’s still kind of being judged. Going back to the onions scene, when Shrek presented that analogy, Donkey rebutted not everyone likes onions but they do like cake or parfaits. So why be an onion when you could be a parfait? But Shrek isn’t what people like nor does he want to be. He can’t change who he is, even when others frown upon him for just existing. He’s an onion, an onion full of deep emotional layers that others dismiss as a rotting piece of produce rather than peel away and see there’s more to him. Everyone remembers the adventure our titular ogre goes on. But his internal conflict, to overcome his own self-loathing and prove he’s more than what people see him as, is the movie’s greatest strength (and also something we get far more insight to in the sequel). I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is the scene from the Chris Farley Shrek that leaked a few years back (and also where we get the best song in the musical). I’ll let the man speak for himself.
Donkey assures Shrek he never thought of him as a monster, and the conversation turns back to the stars, though neither of them know that Fiona has been listening in the whole time. The subtle touches of animation in what little we see of her peeking through the wood show that she’s been given much to think about that night.
The next morning the princess emerges fresh as a daisy and gives in to her royal urge to serenade the local fauna. She duets with a bluebird and, in one of the movie’s most infamous scenes, hits a note so long and high that the bird blows up. But the real punchline to that hilariously gruesome moment is where she uses its eggs to make breakfast for the group.
Fiona apologizes to Shrek about the previous day and outdoes him in an impromptu burping contest, leading him to make the same realization she has about judging others before knowing them. This lesson is driven further home after Fiona is suddenly “rescued” by an unusually French musical Robin Hood (Vincent Cassel) and his Merry Men, and she takes out the entire group with Matrix-style martial arts. Because no Disney Princess has ever dared to kick that much butt in one movie before.
Finally, Duloc is on the horizon. But Shrek and Fiona have grown closer to each other through the power of montage, and are eager to delay their parting. They camp out by an old windmill and share a romantic dinner of roasted weed rat. I guess I should mention that as a whole Shrek and Fiona’s relationship is great, but the first movie develops their romance a bit too fast. One’s a gross ogre, one’s a gross princess, they spend a fun day together and that’s it. Again, this is something the musical does better by having them bond over how messed up their childhoods were. It’s not until Shrek 2 that it really picks up some steam and they feel like a real couple.
The two are about to kiss until Donkey kills the mood. Fiona realizes it’s nearly sundown so she calls it an early night and dashes into a nearby windmill like it’s time for her daily fix. Donkey finally gets it through his skull that there’s sparks between Shrek and Fiona, but the former would rather not work up his hopes. A princess and an ogre? No, it’d never work. Then Donkey enters the mill to check on Fiona and comes face to face with a most shocking sight.
Not gonna lie, Fiona being an ogre was a really good twist I didn’t see coming on the first viewing. Enough time has passed between Farquaad’s introductory scene and the camp out after the rescue that we’ve forgotten about the Magic Mirror’s ignored warning about Fiona’s sunset curse. We assume Fiona’s just being overly paranoid about traveling at night and don’t question it until later.
Fiona calms Donkey down and gets him to realize that this is really her. When she was born, she was put under a spell which makes her turn into an ogress each night after sunset. She can only take on Love’s True Form permanently when she receives True Love’s Kiss.
Due to the spell’s terms Fiona believes that Farquaad is the one who has to give her that kiss to break it. But Donkey suggests that maybe the ogre who has a lot of common with her, enjoys her company, genuinely likes her for who she is, and isn’t trying to mold her into their idea of a perfect princess is really her True Love instead of the little racist jerk who couldn’t even be bothered to rescue her himself. And Fiona begins to think maybe he’s on to something there.
However – oh this is gonna hurt me – Shrek is outside working up the courage to confess his feelings for Fiona when he overhears them at the worst time and thinks Fiona considers him a hideous unlovable brute.
The following morning Fiona goes to finally tell Shrek the truth, but he cuts her off. And his response is worded in just the wrong way so it sounds like he’s aware of her curse and is a hypocritical asshat who believes Fiona’s a disgusting beast worthy of revile.
Let’s be honest here, nobody likes these kinds of moments in movies. I know you’re not supposed to and there must be some kind of down point in the plot to keep the happy ending from spawning too early. But for the love of God I’ll never understand why they keep doing it, especially in romantic comedies. And if you don’t think there’s another way around this, of course there is. There always is as long as someone can think long and hard enough about it.
And guess what? I DID:
Shrek discovers Fiona in her nighttime form, not Donkey. They both confess their feelings, and their kiss and its aftermath happens the way it does in the original third act. But since they obviously can’t go to Duloc or return to the swamp, they go on the run. Farquaad learns about Shrek and Fiona’s betrayal via the Magic Mirror and sends his goons after them to get revenge. After much fighting and chasing, the ogres and Donkey wind up back at the swamp where they rally the fairy tale creatures to take back their homes and overthrow Farquaad. The rest plays out like it does in the musical: the fairy tales riot, Farquaad’s parentage is exposed, he becomes a Dragon hors dourves, Shrek and Fiona finally wed, and everyone in the reintegrated magic kingdom lives happily ever after. Cue the DreamWorks Dance Party™!
There, no need to pad the runtime with easily fixable misunderstandings and moping about. Instead there’s room for more action, plot stuff, jokes and romance. You want to not be like every other movie out there, Dreamworks? This is how you do it.
Shrek has brought Farquaad with him to the mill and gets back the deed to his swamp. Despite her disappointment with the contemptuous minor, Fiona accepts Farquaad’s proposal and convinces him to bump up the wedding to before sunset that day. Shrek pushes Donkey away before he can clear up this whole confusion, and everyone storms off to be in a sad times montage underscored by Hallelujah, which has gone on to be the movie’s second bootstrapped theme. It’s nicely edited and does its best to evoke some sadness, but I can’t really appreciate it since, as if I can’t say it enough, this all could have been avoided if they had done more than exchange a few heated sentences. The only feeling I take away from this is boredom as it slowly draws things out to the expected conclusion. This is pretty much me whenever this part comes up:
The forced depression finally comes to an end as Shrek discovers Donkey has returned and is building his wall. Except he’s building it through the swamp so he could have half to himself instead of erecting it around its border like Shrek envisioned.
The two bicker about their friendship and what happened with Fiona until Donkey blurts that she wasn’t talking about Shrek the night before. This earns Shrek’s interest, but Donkey does what was once thought to be impossible and actually manages to keep his lips sealed, at least until the ogre gives him a meaningful apology. Donkey suggests talking to Fiona herself (a sensible idea, if I do say so myself) and the two fly back to Duloc on Dragon, whom Donkey reconciled with during the montage.
So it’s just a matter of storming the church and stopping the wedding with the power of love, right? Nope! Donkey forces Shrek to wait until they get to the “speak now or forever hold your peace” part. But Fiona is rushing the elderly priest through the formalities so she can get that kiss before sundown.
After a few more minutes of time wasting, Shrek barges in as Fiona and Farquaad pucker up. He claims that Farquaad is only marrying her so he can be king, which as we all know is true. But Farquaad turns it back on Shrek by outing that he’s in love with Fiona, humiliating him in front of everyone present. Fiona decides the best way to see who’s really her true love is by allowing them to watch her transformation as the sun sets. Shrek takes the change in stride, and Farquaad, well, he sees how much the two really are meant for each other so he annuls the marriage and lets them go be happy in the swamp.
Nah, just kidding, he orders Shrek killed and Fiona banished back to the tower since now that he’s married and officially king he doesn’t need her anymore. And Shrek and Fiona, who have proven themselves able to singlehandedly wrestle and karate chop entire groups of skilled warriors into submission, are now suddenly unable to save themselves from Farquaad’s easily defeated forces. Thankfully Shrek manages to summon a Dragon ex machina to eat the failed Tyrion Lannister prototype.
With Farquaad out of the way, Shrek and Fiona are free to declare their love for each other. They have their True Love’s Kiss, and Fiona undergoes a Beauty and the Beast-style transformation with lots of floating, sparkles, and light shining out of every pore. But when it’s over…
Fiona is understandably confused. After all, the spell dictates that only True Love’s Kiss will give her True Love’s Form. To her, that means being an idealized human beauty. But Shrek tells her she is beautiful, because he of all people should know there’s more to beauty than what’s on the outside. And that’s all Fiona needs to hear.
Fiona keeping her ogre form is another twist I doubt anyone who went into this back in 2001 ever expected, but I love it. It drives home the message of love beyond appearances possibly even better than Beauty and the Beast. Maybe. It sticks the landing, ten outta ten. Though, on further inspection, it also plays into another underlying lesson that’s often overlooked. All throughout the feature Fiona has despaired over how her story has played out compared to the traditional princess fairytale. Her knight in shining armor isn’t supposed to be an ogre. The dragon is supposed to be slain. A princess isn’t supposed to be “ugly”. Our fantasies and the expectations we’re raised to have rarely match what reality deals us. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find something meaningful in what you’re dealt.
Fiona and Shrek are happily married in the swamp and we end our film with the first of many, MANY Dreamworks Dance Parties™ set to Smash Mouth’s and Eddie Murphy’s admittedly pretty good covers of “I’m a Believer”. The End…until 2003. And 2007. And 2010. And 2011. And possibly sometime in the next decade okay you get the idea. I don’t blame Dreamworks for wanting to capitalize off their first real runaway hit with sequels, even if they are one out of three in that regard. Shrek 2 is a noticeable improvement in most aspects; and while the Broadway musical was clearly one of those shows destined for the high school/local theater circuit, it’s a much better retelling of the first film’s story. Some of the issues I have with the movie carry over, but it takes advantage of the longer format by giving the characters more development and disposes of most of the anti-Disney cynicism. In fact, the moments in Shrek when they’re not spitting on Disney and the characters are allowed to be onions are the best scenes.
But, there’s nothing Hollywood loves to latch on to more than shallow parodies of its classic staples, and it was the timely Disney-bashing more than its warm feel-good moments that won Shrek the very first Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Did it deserve it, though? Monsters Inc. had a better story, characters, animation, was much more creative and consistently funny, and didn’t sell its heartwarming moments short in order to maintain some temporary cultural relevancy. I even give some credit to Jimmy Neutron for its zaniness, a few inspired moments of originality, and for being a pretty good pilot to a pretty good Nicktoon. And it’s frustrating to see Shrek is the only non-Disney entry on AFI’s Top Ten Animated Movies of All Time when there are plenty of others I can think of that are more worthy of being on that list.
But despite all my criticisms, I don’t dislike the first Shrek movie as much as I’ve been letting on. The same September the year this movie came out, the world suddenly became a darker, more frightening place, and Shrek, along with Harry Potter, gave me and every kid I knew a light in that confusing darkness. It’s about as good as I remember from my childhood; there’s a bit more I can appreciate now that I’m older, and I still like it, but I also find it a bit overrated in the same way I find The Dark Knight or The Lion King slightly overrated.
Don’t get me wrong, these are examples of phenomenal movies, truly among the best of the past twenty years, but the constant blind praise from fans who put them up on pedestals to be worshiped as the end-all be-all of their medium forces me to take a step back and say that there are others that have done what they did just as good if not better; though I am reminded of why they deserve much of that praise when I watch them.
In truth it’s not Shrek the movie I have a problem with, but rather its legacy and what Shrek has come to represent. It shaped the animation landscape into what it is today – and that’s not entirely a good thing. I know that by the time it premiered South Park, Family Guy, King of the Hill and Futurama were in full swing, The Simpsons was shambling into zombie mode and Disney was the direct-to-video sequel factory, but the overwrought popularity of Shrek and how it tried to play both sides in appealing to kids and adults threw the medium out of whack. Now almost every animated movie of the 2000’s had to have a soundtrack crammed with soon-to-be-dated pop songs, zippy pop culture references and gross-out humor just because Shrek did it first. Focus shifted from telling compelling timeless stories that couldn’t be captured in live-action to who could boast the biggest actor and churn out the most toys and memes. Not even Pixar was completely immune from this as the Cars franchise would later prove. It would be quite some time before Dreamworks and many other animation studios would learn once again that they could make good movies born from a genuine love for the craft like How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda, instead of born out of a deep loathing for their predecessors. Yet that stigma of animation being meant just for kids is still there. It pains me to say it, but Shrek, as good as it is, is part of the reason why animation as an art form is taken nowhere near as seriously as it should be.
Well, Shrek may be more remembered today for the memes it spawned than the film itself, but at least no one who works at Dreamworks or any of Universal’s other animation studios would look at them and mistake its popularity for anything other than ironic and attempt to capitalize on it by, say, rebooting the Shrek franchise with completely new animation and more cheap pop culture gags and a watered down retread of an already pretty watered down story –
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You can vote for whatever movie you want me to look at next by leaving it in the comments or emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember, unless you’re a Patreon supporter, you can only vote once a month. The list of movies available to vote for are under “What’s On the Shelf”.
For more information on the making of the first two Shrek movies (and even the 4D film), I recommend Shrek: From the Swamp to the Screen by John Hopkins.
If you actually want to see an animated reboot of Shrek that’s, believe it or not, kind of amazing, then check out the incredibly bizarre and fascinating Shrek Retold. Over two hundred artists, animators, musicians and filmmakers from across the internet come together to remake Shrek their own way piece by piece and the result is beyond words. It’s one of those things that should not exist yet does and I am extremely grateful for it. Recently they gave Shrek 2 the same treatment, and if they decide to somehow do the same to Shrek The Third I guarantee whatever they make up will be far more entertaining than the film they’re sourcing from.
Artwork by Charles Moss. Screencaps courtesy of animationscreencaps.com
But anyway, you should have a gander at Shrek Retold:
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Absolutely! I recommended it in the coda.
Oh, sorry. Must’ve missed that.
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It’s okay, this retelling deserves more attention!
Tristan Petty said:
Yeah. I think I’m a bit in the same boat with you on this. It was a good movie at the time it was made and it still has a certain charm, but it did set a pretty bad precedent for animated films in general. Even some of the best animated films in recent years have fallen prey to having Shrek-like humor. Not a bad film but still quite dated.
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The Library Key said:
The irony about my first viewing of “Shrek” was that my family saw it at a drive-in theater during a thunderstorm: a funny movie punctuated now and then by lightning flashes! I agree: I LOVED this movie as a kid and still love it now (I recently discovered the orchestral soundtrack and the main theme, “Fairytale,” remains one of the most beautiful and evocative pieces of music from any film). But the level of “Shrek” saturation via the Internet does get trying at times.
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I agree the score is beautiful, too.
John Dailey said:
This is not the first time I’ve noticed you not appreciating the misunderstanding cliche, but I never understood why because these things do happen in real life. In fact, Benedict Arnold turned his back on his own people because he was not aware of Connecticut threatening Washington to disband from the Continental Union if he did not deny Arnold his hearing. This could easily have been avoided, but instead, proud and thickheaded Arnold never knew of this blackmail and switched his loyalties to the British.
Wait, you find The Dark Knight overrated, too? There really IS a Mufasa!
(Oh, yeah, and as with Disney, I find the musical better, too.)
They happen in real life, sure, but it’s frustrating to watch because it’s a cliche that drags out the movie and is overall unpleasant to sit through. At least in reality people have the excuse of being stubborn; when characters do it, especially when they’ve previously been proven to be smarter and more open to listen to others, it feels like they’re being forcibly dumbed down for the sake of the plot. And writers keep falling back on this cliche when they should at least attempt to do something different.
The Animation Commendation said:
Great review, the cosplay line had me laughing!
I’m not a fan of any of the Shrek films, even the first two. I’ve never liked them and maybe it’s because of how anti-Disney the plots were or the rude humor, etc.
I DID enjoy the romance between Shrek and Fiona though in this film and found it pretty sweet. So I guess we’re totally opposite in our feelings regarding this movie.
And yeah, the BATB and The Lion King comments did ruffle some feathers, lol! Thankfully I’m not a bird and don’t have feathers.
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Man, it’s been literal years, since I’ve seen anyone of the Shrek movies. I remember liking most of them (heck, Shrek 2 was one of the first movies I saw at a cinema), but read about it here, not to mention the gigantic memegod it has become, has made me lose a bit of my love for it. I still have fond memories of the franchise, just not as much as I used to.
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