It is time for Action Movie Friday, where I treat an action movie like an action movie and not like a drama and stuff. All movie reviews are subjective and while I may like something, you might think it’s shit, and vice versa!
MPAA Rating: PG
Genre: animated, buddy movie, action, fantasy, comedy
Starring: Mike Meyers, Eddie Murphy, John Lithgow, Cameron Diaz
Director: Andrew Adamson, Vicky Jenson
Writer: Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio, Joe Stillman, Roger S.H. Shulman, William Stieg (book)
Budget: $60 Million
Box Office: $491 Million
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: N/A
Shrek is on a quest to rescue the fair Princess Fiona from a castle guarded by a fire breathing dragon. Shrek, however, is no knight in shining armor. He’s a terrifying monster of an ogre. He’s on a mission of a personal nature and he’s not about to let fire breathing dragons, over talkative donkey friends and feisty princesses stop him. But he’s not the knight that Princess Fiona was expecting either. Their expectations are all that stand in their way of true loves kiss and happily ever after.
I’ve been meaning to review the Shrek series for several weeks. The irony of it being just as I got to Shrek in my ‘animated action movies’ pile. I also published my own retold fairytale, The Dawn Warrior, on Amazon (e-book & paperback.) And Disney has recently released a new live action version of their classic, Beauty and the Beast. (A story that Shrek is very similar to.)
I may be using irony wrong here. But regardless, this feels like a good time to be rewatching and reviewing Shrek.
Back in 2001, Shrek was something of a phenomena. Dreamworks had released three years earlier their first CGI movie in Antz. It hadn’t done so well, which was something of a let down after the popularity of The Road to El Dorado and Prince of Egypt. The same year, Pixar released Finding Nemo. And Shrek received a lot of talk because it was an animated feature that wasn’t just for kids. It was chock full of pop culture references and lampooning popular fairy tale stories that had been told straight by big rival Disney. Shrek sparked two movements. Movement one, retelling fairytales. Movement two, getting adults to actually enjoy a movie primarily aimed at kids. Shrek proved to studios that animated films weren’t just for kids anymore.
(Honestly, the huge success of Veggietales on the small screen should have proved that, but digression.)
Shrek inspired more parodies of fairy tales and legends. Things like Igor, Hoodwinked and I want to add Hotel Transylvania to this list. Most of them didn’t have the success that Shrek enjoyed at the box office (except Hotel Transylvania.) Creators were inspired to look at old franchises in new ways and parody them. Cue Pride & Prejudice and Zombies.
Mercedes Lackey was retelling fairy tales in Edwardian Times back in 1995 with her Elemental Masters series. In 2001, she had a new publisher and put out the Serpent’s Shadow, a retelling of Snow White with a Hindu Woman Doctor in London as a protagonist. In 2004, the year Shrek 2 was released, she used a different publisher Luna Press (an offshoot of Harlequin no less) to publish her 500 Kingdoms series which was about what happens if you have a fairy tale swirling around someone but the conditions of that fairy tale just aren’t quite right. (And was an inspiration for my own book, again, The Dawn Warrior, which is a tad more about what happens if you try to defy your fairy tale.)
So, does Shrek, the winner of Academy and BAFTA awards still hold up 16 years later?
Shrek is a buddy adventure movie that will appeal to boys with the fairy tale setting that will appeal to the girls. Lord Farquaad has essentially declared war on all the fairy tale creatures in his earldom and evicted them to live in Shrek’s swamp. Shrek is an ogre who has one desire, to be left alone, as he is considered a monster among monsters. However, in order to get his swamp clear of the squatters, he’ll confront Lord Farquaad and in turn, do Lord Farquaad’s bidding. Go to a castle set in a volcano and rescue a Princess for Lord Farquaad to marry in order to declare himself King. (I wonder what the King of said area thinks of all this. An earl can’t marry a Princess and suddenly become King. It doesn’t really work that way.)
And of course, whacky hijinks ensue when the Princess mistakes him for a Knight. Donkey figures out that the dragon guarding the castle is female and tries to talk his way out of trouble with compliments. And the Princess after a day of trying to act like a typical Princess, gives up and acts like herself which isn’t as mannerly. It’s an interesting take on Beauty & the Beast with lampooning some conventional fairy tale storytelling methods such as the Princess and the Glass Mountain. Because by conventional storytelling just by saving the Princess from her castle, Shrek is her true love. Can the Princess look past the ogre and see the person underneath?
The dialogue is funny. Lord Farquaad is really shown to be rather vain and insipid. Shrek and Donkey argue like well, boys argue. (People think that girls are the only ones that talk and gossip about relationships. OMG. I have worked in a mostly male workplace and it is not so.) There were the inevitable (this is Dreamworks) montages and the romance is a bit cheesy. But the characters, all of them are portrayed in a sympathetic enough way that by the end of the movie you really care about them and the outcome of what is going to happen with Fiona. Will she choose Shrek or Farquaad? Both men she barely knows, she just knows Shrek slightly better given she traveled with him for 2 days.
(Grumbles in irksome annoyance over the ‘true love in 48 hours trope.’ This is a very personal quirk.)
So, outside of this whole ‘true love in 2 days’ thing, I really don’t have a problem with the story of Shrek. It’s clever. It’s was/is an interesting new take. One cookie.
And as I’ve mentioned many times before, it’s really difficult to have explosions in medieval set movies. Most movies don’t take advantage of the ‘compressed barrel of flour’ trick. There is a dragon, but you expect a dragon to breathe fire. So, it loses a cookie here.
The fights are funny. Shrek gets into it with a bunch of knights in the beginning and they lampoon wrestling. Princess Fiona takes her turn against Robin Hood and Merry Men. (Because, I agree, that was annoying.) The fight at the end of the movie irks me. I know there needed to be some sort of dragon and donkey triumph moment, but that really wasn’t the moment. So, one bite out of the cookie.
There are about 5 main characters in Shrek. 2 of the five are women but Dragon doesn’t talk. So, it still kinds of screws with ratio of male to female a bit. I mean, does Dragon count as a main character despite her not talking or does she not count because she can’t talk. It’s difficult to say.
Let’s address Dragon first. Dragon is the poor victim of gender stereotyping. It’s why Minnie Mouse has eyelashes and Mickey Mouse doesn’t. The way we know the Dragon is female is because she has the human characteristics of femininity, lipstick, eye shadow and long eyelashes. Donkey puts it as she’s “reeking of feminine beauty.” And to top it off, she’s pink. Because that’s how we know girl things from boy things right? Girl things are pink and purple and cream and boy thing are… red, blue and yellow, maybe some green for variety. We never see any male dragons in this universe, so we never find out if they portrayed as a stereotype of a man and this equal gender stereotype badness or if Dragon is just not typical of her kind.
Most of the time we see her, she’s not respecting Donkey’s personal space and clearly stated wishes that he doesn’t want to kiss her etc. And he still “ends up” with her anyways. This is again, a gender role reversal for most romantic comedy love stories. It’s still horrible. It makes me horribly unhappy. And it just gets worse as the movie franchise progresses.
And then we have Fiona. Fiona is the precursor for Princess like Merida. As much as Fiona is a parody character of a stereotypical Disney princess, she’s explicitly given an action beat in the film. Then, later at the final beat of the film, this earlier action side of Fiona is completely forgotten. It’s contradictions like these that make other contradictions and plot holes (like how did she learn to fight in the first place) really stand out. It has been a bit difficult for me to put my finger on what bugs me about Fiona so much. And honestly, for most of the movie, Fiona is very vocal and very strong about saying what she feels, but when it really matters. When it is at its most crucial moment of talking with Shrek, she doesn’t go into specifics and be explicit about things. Which ends up with an entire ending of a movie that if you need yet another “I don’t need you” friend argument and then a “male hero narrowly saves the day” and “oh, miscommunication finally cleared up” plot. Then yeah, she’s probably just fine. It to me, just feels extremely out of character for the brazen, ‘I will fight you to get what I want and need’ Fiona.
I like Fiona’s character. I just wish she stayed consistent through the entire movie to that character. And the less said about Dragon the better. Half a cookie.
Like I said in the part about Fiona, the contradictions in some of the characters, really open up a bunch of questions about some of the world building. I know. We aren’t supposed to take an animated film all that seriously. But, how is Fiona getting food? There didn’t seem to be a stockpile and she was locked into her room at the tower from the outside. (Yes, there was a bar over the door on the outside.) How did she learn to fight? Why did she learn to fight? Who is the King that Lord Farquaad is serving? What did he do with the fairy tale creatures once he took them out of Shrek’s swamp? Who really owns the swamp anyways if Farquaad had a ‘deed’ for it? When you don’t think about these things, the movie rolls along fine. It’s when you’re staring into the fridge or eating dinner or had 15 years to wonder about it that it really becomes apparent how thin a thread that this whole story hangs on. Because it works if you just focus on the movie itself, I’ll be generous and only take one bite out of the cookie.
Shrek is a clever and interesting story. It just lacks an ‘oh shit’ moment and a closer look at the female characters reveal some inconsistencies in both them and the world building. 3 Cookies.