(Best of 2001)
It doesn’t take long for kids to tire of the simplistic retellings of fairy tales we’re bombarded with in our formative years — few of us have actually read the dark and gruesome Brothers Grimm versions, after all, and so we’re mostly fed on watered-down Golden Book renditions and, of course, bright, happy Disney translations. Beauty and goodness win, ugliness and evil don’t, and the world is full of magical, mysterious creatures — from elves and dwarves to fairy godmothers and Tinkerbells — all ready and willing to serve us superior humans. And once we’re old enough to realize what a line we’ve been fed, we give up and go to Disney World, hoping to recapture a bit of that naive magic, but instead we just get sick riding Space Mountain a dozen times in a row.*
So here we have Shrek, born out of that precise mindset: the one that longs for the just world fairy tales reassure us exists while recognizing that that place is hopelessly idealistic. If there’s any truth to the saying that cynics are nothing but disappointed optimists, then Shrek is the very embodiment of it, its cheery and confident optimistic heart beating underneath a tough outer layer that’s grim and twisted, one that seems at first to have given up on fantasy. This is DreamWorks’ animated so-there to Disney, but it’s an intentionally half-hearted one that grudgingly admits that there’s a lot to like in those cartoon fables we were weaned on, even if it’s not cool to say as much.
Humans aren’t looking for a fantastical helping hand in Shrek — quite the opposite. Lord Farquaad (the voice of John Lithgow: Don Quixote, A Civil Action), ruler of the realm of Duloc, has decreed that all fairy tale beings are to be rounded up and sent to a “resettlement facility.” Yikes. No fooling around here — fairy tale denizens are undesirables, and the sooner gotten rid of, the better… and Farquaad is ably assisted by the fine human citizens of Duloc, who aren’t past faking magical abilities in the creatures they bring in for the bounty, just to collect some cash. The humanocentric fairy story gets turned on its ear — we don’t need no stinkin’ fairy godmothers at our beck and call, and we’re not above organizing a little pogrom to prove it. Kiddie fantasy has rarely been given such an ignominious boot.
Farquaad and his cronies are the bad guys, of course — our reluctant hero is the ogre Shrek (the voice of Mike Myers: Mystery, Alaska, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me), who, notably, wants nothing to do with humans… or with anyone else, for the matter. It’s only when the fantastical outcasts end up camping in his swamp that he reluctantly agrees to become their champion, if only to get them off his land. Taking up their cause sends him on a quest for Farquaad, who will lift the bounty against the fairy tale beings if Shrek rescues him a princess to be his wife. So Shrek is off to retrieve Princess Fiona (the voice of Cameron Diaz: The Invisible Circus, Charlie’s Angels), imprisoned in a distant castle and guarded by a ferocious dragon — with the unwanted help of a talking donkey (the voice of Eddie Murphy: Nutty Professor Ii: The Klumps, Bowfinger).
The computer animation is gorgeous — fur and fire are so realistically rendered that you feel you could touch it — and it is complemented by some truly heartfelt voice performances, especially from Myers and Murphy as lonely beings who hide their forlornness by being, respectively, overly grouchy and overly friendly. This is fairy tale deconstruction the whole family will get a kick out of. Along the way, there are gross-outs for the kiddies (though, thankfully, the toilet humor is kept to a minimum) and hilariously sick laughs for the adults (guess how you torture a gingerbread man).
Mostly, though, Shrek is aimed at blasé grownups just looking for an excuse to let the overgrown kid in them break out. Shrek mines humor from ransacking not only fairy tales but Disney’s own ransacking of fairy tales to turn them into mass-market products — it feeds the knee-jerk self-referential reflex we all seem to have developed, the one that turns everything into a joke. But, of course, Shrek itself is just as mass-marketed, just as commercial an endeavor as those it teases, and is at its heart an entirely conventional fairy tale: beauty and goodness do win in the end, and ugliness and evil don’t. Shrek, for all his green skin and trumpetlike ears, is really quite a cute and goodhearted ogre, and Farquaad is indeed an ugly little toad of a man, inside and out.
The difference here is that we can actually identify with the hero — instead of a pretty but vapid girl waiting for her Prince Charming, we get to root for the guy who’s all mushy under the tough front he puts up. Just like us.
* To do this effectively, you need to go in the off-season, when there are short lines, and hit the ride at the optimal times during the day to further minimize the wait. But the ideal ways to take all the enchantment out of a trip to Disney World by attacking it with a battle plan Rommel would envy is a cynical Xer essay for another day.