THE ORIGINAL Shrek and its marvelous sequel, Shrek 2, could have shared the same subtitle: A Counter-Fairytale. Inspired by the late writer and illustrator William Steig's classic children's book, the films entertain viewers with lively, bluntly funny stories while making them think about the toxic messages that other fairytales send. Boisterous, clever and refreshingly unstuffy, the movies are fully evolved, modern entertainments. Temperamentally, they're more in tune with Mark Twain, George Carlin, Chuck Jones and Jay Ward (Fractured Fairy Tales, Rocky and Bullwinkle) than Disney or almost any other cog in the Hollywood machine. They're dedicated to the proposition that all thinking creatures are created equal and that one has a right to be happy in one's own skin.
The title character is Prince Charming's opposite, a cranky, mud-bathing, bug-eating, swamp-dwelling ogre (voiced by Mike Myers) who just wants to be left alone. This ogre is not really a monster, but sometimes acts like a monster to spite humans who have already made up their minds about him. He rescues an imprisoned, cursed young woman (Cameron Diaz) who's either an ogre passing as a princess or the reverse. His best pal is a talking donkey (Eddie Murphy) passing as a plain old donkey who falls in love with a feared dragon that's just a lovesick gal at heart. The villain (John Lithgow)-a wicked lord who declares his kingdom's fairytale creatures to be freaks and orders them forcibly relocated to Shrek's swamp-is a midget who hates himself so much that he refuses to acknowledge that he's no more "normal" than the creatures he persecutes. The film makes it clear that the ogre falls in love with the heroine not because of her conventional good looks, but in spite of them; the hero proves himself a gentleman by looking past Fiona's skinny, blond human surface and seeing the belching, bug-eating ogre beneath.
To make a long story short (and avoid spoiling surprises), suffice it to say that Shrek's parents, (thoughtfully voiced by John Cleese and Julie Andrews) never got over their daughter marrying an ogre. They believe her true form is that of a human and are determined to help her assume it again. "Whether your parents like it or not, I am an ogre," Shrek tells Fiona. But circumstances contrive to separate the lovers, and Shrek must reunite with Fiona. He's helped by Donkey and a host of other fairytale creatures, including Pinocchio, the Big Bad Wolf and a new character, the feline swordsman Puss-in- Boots, magnificently voiced by Antonio Banderas in what may be the role he was born to play.
In the tradition of Jay Ward, Shrek 2 perforates American social sickness with stickpin after stickpin. The Disney propaganda machine, with its sunny yet retrograde messages about beauty and entitlement, comes in for fresh ridicule. The film's honeymoon montage shows Shrek and Fiona bottling Tinkerbells as light sources and re-enacting Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr's From Here to Eternity surf kiss, with a punkish twist. The surf rolls in, covering the lovers in foam; when it recedes, Shrek finds himself entwined with the heroine of The Little Mermaid, and is so disgusted by her that he tosses her back into the ocean.
In the land of Far Far Away, society's ruling forces keep the masses hypnotized with celebrity culture. One of the outlets is Magic Entertainment, an E!-style cable channel that treats fairytale heroes and heroines as another kind of royalty. (The channel's initials are ME; Joan Rivers plays herself hosting red carpet arrivals.) The movie clearly suggests that many of its "beautiful people" are self-loathing individuals who are addicted to magic potions, have had work done and are essentially rich slaves providing the masses and the ruling class with entertainment. Their ranks include Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), first seen in the film's prologue racing to rescue Fiona from the tower, only to learn from the Big Bad Wolf, who's taken up residence in her bed, that an ogre got there first. In time, Shrek will be offered a chance to drink a potion and become "handsome" to please Fiona, who is still in thrall to her parents' approval, and Fiona will be entrapped by Prince Charming, who will pose as a magically retooled, "handsome" Shrek. (A burly yet suspiciously feminine bartender describes Charming as having "a face that looks like it was carved by angels.")
The movie puts its self-confident outsider heroes in a plot that challenges their self-esteem by bombarding them with messages suggesting they aren't truly happy. They're told by the corrupt machinery of Far Far Away that they can only save themselves by altering their appearance with help from the Fairy Godmother (voiced, with bitchy aplomb, by the great Jennifer Saunders) or the aid of various drugs (er, potions). Talk about finding truth in fiction-that pretty much describes the condition of every American who isn't under 25, skinny and beautiful enough to appear in a perfume ad.
I respect both Shrek films for their internal consistency, their broad-shouldered integrity, their refusal to lure audiences with false promises of rebellious insolence and then sell out and embrace establishment values. The latter was the preferred strategy of Disney movies made during the so-called renaissance of the 80s and 90s, when the same old fairytale imagery was repackaged with Chuck Jones sight gags and brilliant, Broadway-style musical numbers, then resold to audiences as "revisionist." The recent Disney films are world-class time-wasters, and as means of teaching children to think independently and believe in their own self-worth, they're useless-essentially the same old messages in new wrappers. The supposedly spunky, independent heroine of The Little Mermaid finds happiness when her burly dad gives her permission to marry a human prince by waving his phallic trident and turning her fins into legs. The "ugly" hero of Beauty and the Beast-a handsome prince transformed into a monster-admits vulnerability and opens himself to love, and is rewarded with the return of his blond good looks. The film's heroine, Belle, starts out as an independent-minded bookworm who rejects the attention of an anti-intellectual town bully, then learns to adapt to captivity in the Beast's castle and ends up sympathizing with and ultimately marrying her captor.
These movies endorse the notion that some were born to lead, others to serve, that beauty and goodness are often intertwined and that there's nothing wrong with wanting to conform to other people's ideas of attractiveness. The Shrek series' attitude is summarized in the original film's opening sequence, which found the hero reading a traditional fairy tale in an outhouse, then growing disgusted with it and tearing out the pages to wipe himself. A more direct repudiation of old, controlling myths is hard to imagine. Despite their surface vulgarity, Shrek and Shrek 2 are rare entertainments that refuse to reproduce old, bad messages, and challenge them instead.