Shrek, Shrek, Shrek… one ogre to rule them all. DreamWorks’ flagship series, this is the film that really catapulted the company, sent their stock soaring, won them the first Animated Film Oscar, and effectively killed off their 2D department. Coming back to this movie after so long is a bit strange, considering how pervasive these characters have become, either in the sequels, TV specials, Broadway musicals, and more branded merchandise than you can shake a stick at. Considering the crass, terminally despondent nature of our main character, it always seemed odd to see Shrek’s face plastered on gummi snacks and cereal boxes, and if you’ll remember, in the months before the second and third films came out, that motherfucker was everywhere. You’d walk into a supermarket and it was just all green. But anyway, watching this first one again certainly is interesting, to see the film that started it all, and I can certainly see why it was such a success, being pretty subversive and off kilter for the time. But coming back to it, a lot of it does ring kind of hollow, with a lot of it sacrificing a deeper substance and meaning for its off brand of humor.
The film is set in a ye olde fairy tale world, but with a decidedly different protagonist. Shrek is a cranky, wise-cracking ogre, seemingly content to live in solitude in his swamp, when his life is disrupted one night when he finds a variety of magic and mythical oddballs squatting on his land. When he discovers this is a result of the short-statured Lord Farquaad evicting them from his kingdom, he travels to Duloc to straighten the situation out, accompanied by a clingy, annoying talking donkey named… Donkey. Confronting Farquaad, a deal is struck: Shrek will get his land back if he rescues the trapped Princess Fiona from a treacherous dragon-guarded castle, whom Farquaad intends to marry in order to become king. Fiona is initially perturbed that her knight in shining armor isn’t who she expected, but looks seem to be deceiving both ways, as she and Shrek find they have more in common than they think. But Fiona has a mysterious secret of who she really is, one she fears will keep her from Shrek, who has clearly got the hots for her.
When you boil it down, this movie’s really all about three things. First is the subversion of the classic fairy tale, and fairy tale characters. Our schmucky, sort of anti-hero steps in as a begrudging protagonist, set forth on his quest reluctantly, rather than in a fight of passion and true love. This is flipped further by the cursed Fiona, and by Farquaad, who would normally serve as the good guy, but here is kind of a skeevy creepy weirdo. That’s all well and good for what it is. Second focus… a crass tone and bathroom humor. Shrek is a disgusting, unsocial, gross ogre, so the opening of him farting in the pond, using earwax as a candle, belching to create a fire, I get that. And that stuff stays through the whole film, as well as jokes where Shrek gets hit in the crotch, and lots of double entendres and curses cut short (“I like an honest fight and a saucy little maid/what he’s basically saying is he likes to get… paid!”) Third is taking shots at the Disney company, which kind of ties in with the first point a bit. The like of Pinocchio and the Three Little Pigs are public domain characters, but are known from their Disney incarnations, and tie that with the Disneyland-esque kingdom Duloc and you can see what they’re getting at. Also Lord Farquaad is rumored to have been partly modeled after Disney head Michael Eisner, and it’s not exactly a flattering portrait.
So, yeah, my point is that besides those three elements, there’s not really much else here. You have your base layer with the twisted story, and all of those elements work perfectly well and are effective, but there’s not really any depth beyond that. The movie seems more preoccupied with having birds explode, making short jokes about Farquaad (a Mike Myers staple), and parodying The Matrix than digging deeper into the characters. There are moments that really work, like during Shrek and Fiona’s misunderstanding, where Shrek looks genuinely hurt but of course masks it with his normal gruff demeanor, but the story basically seems like it’s on auto-pilot. Plus with all the Disney bashing, it just feels like it’s all coming from such a petty place, I dunno. It sprung back and forth for me; there’s stuff here that really did work, like the “Hallelujah” montage, and I even liked some of the crass stuff, like the not-so-subtle bit where Farquaad had the magic mirror repeatedly show him Fiona so he could jerk off. But we also have the “I’m a Believer” ending, which basically put into law that all animated movies have to have a dance party at the end. Ten years later, and they still fucking do it. Perfectly great films like Despicable Me and Horton Hears a Who, I sit through them thinking, “That was damn good, I liked that a lot… oh wait… they’re not going to… AAAAGGH, DAMN YOU SHREK!!”
I also want to talk about the animation real quick… in that I don’t think it’s too hot. Similar to the issue in Antz, sometimes it feels like the strong vocal performance overpowers the less-than-expressive animation. Mike Myers and John Lithgow will do these big takes that won’t reflect on their characters at times. Also the human characters are kind of boring looking, and kind of clash next to some of our leads; when Fiona leans down to pet Donkey, you can see her head is like half the size of his muzzle. Ultimately they’d be kind of stuck with these designs through the other movies, but they did the best they could with them, I guess. But there are sequences that are handled quite spectacularly, like the journey to the dragon’s keep, the final escape from the castle and Fiona’s final transformation.
I usually don’t like comparing different studios’ films, but re-watching this reminded me of when I had re-watched Toy Story after many, many years, wondering how well it would hold up. Sure enough, it absolutely did, and I appreciated it just as much as I did as a kid, if not more so. With Shrek, it’s not so much the case. I think there’s not enough here beyond the snarky, subversive exterior that was so groundbreaking at the time and made it a hit. It’s a fine film for what it is and what it’s trying to accomplish, I guess, but it’s just odd that such a massive media franchise sprung forth from a story so seemingly thin.