Shrek: The Best American Movie of the Year

| 16 Feb 2015 | 05:36

    The best American movie of the year stars a thick-necked, flatulent ogre who gobbles down bugs and makes candles out of his own ear wax. His name is Shrek, and the fairytale that bears his name is one of the few big-budget summer movies in recent memory that's not only destined to be a huge hit, but actually deserves to be. It has three qualities many movies lack: heart, craft and wit. But it has another quality that's even rarer: a moral vision. Although it can be enjoyed as a charming, suspenseful, often delightfully vulgar cartoon, it doesn't just aim to entertain. It asks you to think about what you want from entertainment; consider how your desires are shaped by the movies you've seen in the past; and demand that pop culture reflect the truth of human experience.

    Based on a book by William Steig, Shrek arrives in theaters following an inevitable tidal wave of hype. Much of the publicity has focused on the film's self-conscious jokes at the expense of Walt Disney, Inc., the reigning champ of big-screen animation. That Shrek is released by DreamWorks, cofounded by ex-Disney creative honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg, sweetens the deal. There are sight gags about Pinocchio, Snow White, Cinderella and company, and a villain who, like Katzenberg, is vertically challenged. Viewers who know a bit about Katzenberg's relationship with Eisner during his Disney days (and the ugly lawsuit that came out of it) are invited to grin knowingly, and cheer as a rival studio sticks it to The Mouse.

    But there's much more to Shrek than inside-showbiz payback. The digs at Disney aren't just personal; they're political, social and emotional, and they play out inside a compelling story?one that will make anyone ill-served by Hollywood's dream factory want to stand up and cheer. Shrek's screenplay, which sends the ogre and his talking donkey pal to rescue an imperiled princess so she can marry a dictatorial lord, doesn't just rebuke the Disney tradition of micromanaged, family-friendly showmanship. It also criticizes the very assumptions that make Disney, and the rest of the Hollywood dream machine, possible.

    For starters, there's the notion that stars need to be the prettiest (and thinnest, and usually whitest) people in the story. The ogre Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) torpedoes that notion. He'd be relegated to sidekick status in pretty much any Disney film you can think of (even the flawed but compelling The Hunchback of Notre Dame turned its tragic title character into a matchmaker for two lookers). But he's at the center of Shrek?along with three other offbeat characters that are funny, weird and none too easy on the eyes.

    Shrek is a misanthrope who lives in a hutch in the middle of a swamp and claims to love his solitude. That solitude is shattered when the kingdom's ruler, a pint-sized despot named Lord Farquaad (voiced by John Lithgow) decrees that every fairytale creature in his domain be rounded up, Nazi-style, for unspecified accounting. Farquaad's human subjects are eager collaborators, happy to light torches and flush magical beings out into the open to be sold to Farquaad for a few pieces of gold. The aforementioned talking donkey (Eddie Murphy) flees into the swamp, pursued by Farquaad's guards. Shrek saves the donkey and is rewarded with eternal loyalty, plus a vexing bonus: the surviving fairytale creatures?bear and pig trios, blind mice, witches, fairies and dwarfs?show up on the ogre's doorstep looking to be saved.

    But Shrek is no Oskar Schindler. He's more like Toshiro Mifune's wandering swordsman in Yojimbo, or one of those bull-necked, working-class heroes from New York movies of the 50s; if this were a live-action fantasy, the character would need to be played by Charles Dutton, James Gandolfini or Dennis Franz. He wears his aloneness with pride; he wants to survive troubled times without giving up his autonomy. When the donkey suggests he's got a problem with the world, Shrek replies, "It's the world that has a problem with me."

    Ignoring his anointed-leader status, the ogre cuts a deal with Farquaad: he and the donkey will journey to a dark castle ringed with molten lava, slay the evil dragon that guards it and bring home the beautiful, long-imprisoned Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) to wed the bad guy. In return, Farquaad will give Shrek the deed to his part of the swamp and the bad guy will also clear out those irritating magical critters. Needless to say, Shrek's deal doesn't quite work out as planned. (Warning: I'm not one of those critics who ruins the best jokes and plot twists, then has the elitist gall to ridicule readers who care about such things; on the other hand, I can't dig into this movie without divulging goodies, so keep reading at your peril.)

    Shrek takes a fancy to the princess, but while he's intrigued by her physical perfection, he doesn't truly fall for her until he realizes she's an ogre at heart. She burps, she insists on sleeping in a separate room with no windows, she knows karate and she has a knack for whipping up insect delicacies that please the ogre's palate. (Today's Special: spiderwebs wrapped cotton-candy-style and topped with bumblebees.) In other words, she's a Cameron Diaz character: a girl who's one of the guys.

    Unlike most animated fairytales, the romance in Shrek rings true. Shrek and Fiona like the same things and view the world in a similar way (cynical but not defeatist). You don't just have to take the filmmakers' word that they're attracted to each other; you can see it in their eyes and body language. (The computer animation, billed in DreamWorks press notes as state-of-the-art, actually isn't; the graphics in Pixar's Toy Story 2 and A Bug's Life were cleaner, sharper and smoother. But that's okay, because the slightly ragged, smudgy look of Shrek suits the film's tone; it's warmer and more humane. The difference between DreamWorks and Pixar animation is the difference between the Muppets and, well, Disney.)

    The Shrek-Fiona relationship at first amounts to an interspecies romance; it's a red herring, but a similar relationship between the donkey and the dragon turns out to be the genuine article. These bold strokes help crystallize the screenplay's democratic and multicultural themes. You're invited to notice that the ghettoized fairytale characters are Others, expected to entertain, serve and occasionally play matchmaker to the privileged humans. It's the same role filled in most live-action Hollywood movies by blacks, Jews, gays, senior citizens, overweight people and anyone else who defies the Vanity Fair standard of beauty. (With his bald skull, toothy grin, broad shoulders and expressive lips, Shrek suggests a caricature of a beefy African-American male. But unlike Jar Jar Binks, the resemblance seems calculated to make nonwhite moviegoers feel pride rather than discomfort.)

    Shrek also invites you to see the tiny, fussy Farquaad?who overcompensates for his smallness by building a gigantic, Disney-style fortress?as a "freak" passing for one of the beautiful people. When the outcast characters joke about Farquaad's height, the humor isn't hypocritical; they're self-confessed misfits needling a guy who pretends to be their superior?a neurotic powermonger who, if he weren't so rich and powerful, would be rounded up with the blind mice, dwarfs and (ahem) fairies, and disposed of accordingly. Farquaad's sadistic torture of a gingerbread man reminds you that many dictators have been tiny men, driven to revisit their childhood misery on others. (The gingerbread man's defiant, two-word kiss-off line is pure Mel Brooks.)

    Shrek reveals its depth subtly, gradually. It zings you with sight gags and Chaucerian bits of vulgar humor, then asks you to look past the humor and realize where it comes from and why it connects. The film asks questions that few movies dare ask?including Disney cartoons of the 90s, which honorably tried to subvert the company's traditions but lacked the guts to go all the way. Among these questions: Why can't the sidekick be the hero? Why does the princess have to marry a prince, or somebody who's handsome enough to be a prince? Who's to say that the "ugly" characters are really ugly? And why should the audience cheer any movie that makes the vast majority of ticket buyers feel unattractive, unwanted and left out?

    Shrek's grand vision isn't perfect. The pieces don't fit together precisely, and some of the holes are baffling. Murphy, for instance, is sidesplittingly funny as the donkey, but his hipster clown routine flirts with minstrelsy (his dragon in Mulan raised similar objections). The film's multicultural cheerleading would be strengthened if he'd switched roles with Myers. Still, I think audiences will forgive both Murphy and the movie?Murphy because he's helped nullify racist presumptions in Hollywood; Shrek because its heart is clearly in the right place. So many of Shrek's characters are passing for something they're not. Farquaad is a short man passing for tall; the donkey can speak but pretends he can't, for fear of being rounded up by the bad guys; Shrek is a hero passing as a monster because that's what bigoted humans expect him to be.

    Fiona takes the metaphor to a whole different level. At first you think she's a standard-issue princess who's willing to let her hair down and hang with the riffraff?a modern-day Disney heroine. Accordingly, Shrek's interest in her has rah-rah interracial overtones; he's a green boy who's fallen for a white girl. The revelation that Fiona is secretly an ogre passing for human will inspire dread in some viewers; many supposedly "revisionist" cartoons have done an anti-prettiness bait-and-switch that confirms old fairytale values. (Disney's otherwise exceptional Beauty and the Beast was among them. It copped out in the last five minutes by having the Beast turn back into a pale blond prince before Belle married him.) Fortunately, Shrek has the courage of its own revisionism. Fiona's climactic change into an ogre only makes her more attractive to Shrek. Message: seek your own definition of beauty, and be proud of what you are.

    Visually, Fiona's transformation quotes the finale of Beauty and the Beast (a Katzenberg project at Disney) to critique it. In essence, Shrek is Beauty and the Beast with the right ending?one that passes muster in the modern era, when the walls between races, genders and cultures are crumbling. Shrek can't hasten this process because it's just a cartoon. But it can, and will, strike a chord. It knows the same things that viewers know and movies rarely confirm. Our world is changing for the better; the old fairytales don't make sense anymore; it's time for new ones.