Shrek: A Review

I had never seen Shrek until yesterday, and I decided on a whim to rent the thing and watch it. I have to say, for a film that got three sequels, I expected more.

Firstly, I want to say I understand why my some parents hate this film.

There are, I think, two main reasons. Firstly, it twists fairytales. Fairytales always have specific dichotomy of good and evil which is expressed in very strong visual metaphors. In Jack and the Beanstalk it’s Jack vs. the Giant. Jack is the hero, and the giant is the villain. In the tale of Saint George and the Dragon: George is good and the Dragon is evil. These stories are universal – but they are especially effective with children because whether they learn auditorially or visually they can always understand the story and grasp its meaning with ease. Thus, fables especially are most effective when they make use of this representational storytelling.

Shrek destroys these metaphors. In Shrek every main character that is normal is evil or stupid; this is true of Farquaad and his entourage, and Robin Hood with his Merry Men. Contrarily every character that is ugly or terrifying is good or helpful; as in the case of Shrek himself or the Dragon.

Is this a problem? It depends. I think in a lot of cases, this twisting of the established order can result in confusion for children (who the film was supposedly made for). Maybe not by itself, maybe not with all children, and maybe not with parental guidance – but it just seems like there is an opportunity here to cause problems that don’t need to exist. If children watch the film and get the impression that  ultimately “everyone is just misunderstood” or that there are no villains, I think that impression can readily translate to losing the ability to recognize evil as such. Shrek seems to weaken the arguments of other fairytales, and undermine their lessons.

The second reason the film is disliked by parents is that it features excessively vulgar humor (and what’s worse, it’s not even very good vulgar humor). The film goes out of its way to be as in your face about its low-brow humor as it possibly can. It doesn’t stop at fart jokes though, pushing in some subtle sexual innuendos which really have no place in a family film.

Why don’t I like the film?

I don’t like Shrek for both of the reasons listed before –  but for a whole lot more than just those. Firstly, to expand the vulgarity argument – I think this film really wanted to be something other than it was. I got the impression as I watched this film that creators were a bunch of bored animators who wanted to make an adult satire in the vein of someone like Mel Brooks – but because the medium is animation they felt that pushing the film into the family friendly(ish) zone would be more profitable. The film stars Mike Myers and
Eddie Murphy for pity’s sake: clearly the filmmakers had adults in mind with the casting.

Secondly, I don’t think the message is very powerful or good. The film is ultimately trying to push a vague message that you shouldn’t judge a person based on their appearance. On the one hand, it’s easy to see an anti-racism element to the message.

Far more irritating is the character of Fiona who pushes the element of the message having to do with self-image.Fiona shows the audience that you’re beautiful even if you’re fat or ugly. That’s an OK message I guess, and maybe it makes some people feel better about themselves. However, it’s not really that accurate. If you become fat, or you’re born ugly…you are less attractive than a person who is fit and beautiful. Is that all a person of the opposite gender should be care about? No. And I do give the film credit for putting forth a personhood over body argument to an extent. However, when you look at what Shrek and Fiona actually have in common as persons it’s only two things: beating up people who are weaker than them, and fart jokes or potty humor. Really a stellar relationship base there. This sort of feeds back into the idea that we should accept people exactly as they are, but that’s not very true either. Even from a purely hygienic perspective, Shrek and Fiona’s characters are societally inept and frankly disgusting. Sure, lots of people sometimes wish they didn’t need to use table manners or that they could just fart in public – but why is that a theme that should be sent to kids (or even adults)?

Next, why on earth is the animation this bad in Shrek? Toy Story came out six years before this and had better animation. Everything from the character’s motion to the feeling of vacancy as regards the environment made getting into the film absurdly difficult. I felt like I was watching a really long experimental student film half the time.

Also, where the heck did Fiona learn Karate – and how could she overpower multiple men twice her weight? Unless she retains her Ogre strength when she is human? Really that’s the most unrealistic thing about this film (which is saying something).

Finallythis film felt rushed. Not in terms of production (though I suppose there could have been problems there). Rather, I don’t understand why the film had such a huge problem with pacing. each scene felt absurdly short – like there was a list of locations the filmmakers wanted to go to as fast as possible. Every conversation, in particular those which were supposed to involve character development, felt like they were rushed and not given time to develop. Shrek’s decision to go see Farquaad felt rushed and out of character from the person who got to know in the first few minutes of the film, and Fiona’s romance with Shrek felt really sudden if inevitable. In fact every scene in the film made me question why I was seeing this so early.I have to suspect that this goes back to the problem of

I have to suspect that this goes back to the problem of the writers’ inability to distinguish between family and adult audiences. They wanted to make a two hour movie, but the short runtime associated with children’s films made them push everything together.

Finally, this film had an interesting idea – but one which is ultimately unsavory and unhelpful for its audience. If this film had to be made, I think and adult live action adaption would have served this frenetic farting fallacious frolicking fable far better.

(Or maybe none of this matters and I spent too long analyzing a 90 minute flick that was made fifteen years ago.)