May 19, 2004

Big, Green, and Ugly

Posted by Ed

As many readers of this blog undoubtedly know, Shrek 2 is being released in theaters today. The reviews have been very favorable so far, and I enjoyed the first movie in the series, but I feel an unusual degree of ambivalence about the sequel.

For those of you who don't know, the character Shrek--an ugly, green ogre--was first introduced in a children's picture book by William Steig. Steig died last fall at age 95 and was best known as a cartoonist at The New Yorker, but his book Shrek has won him a cult following in certain circles. A.O. Scott briefly mentions the book's popularity in his review of Shrek 2, concluding with a paragraph that captures some of my distaste for the first movie in the series:

Mr. Steig's "Shrek" is a celebration of ugliness that also happens to be one of the most beautiful children's books ever written, with respect both to its pictures and its prose. Of course it is unfair to compare that slim volume to the franchise it has spawned, which is a phenomenon in its own right. Certainly "Shrek 2" offers rambunctious fun, but there is also something dishonest about its blending of mockery and sentimentality. It lacks both the courage to be truly ugly and the heart to be genuinely beautiful.

Scott's lament reminds me of my own main criticism of the first Shrek movie: the first half of the movie acts as if it's a "daring", "subversive" cartoon that will turn the traditional fairy tale on its head, but in the end, the movie's central plot conceit was a reversion to the formulas it was supposedly mocking. The result is a movie most notable for its unfortunate synthesis of cynicism and sappiness.

On my old blog, I commented on a related topic several months ago when I read a Boston Globe article about the portrayal of beauty in fairy tales. I found one particular comment in that article both amusing and irritating:

Grauerholz hopes the fairy tales will continue to evolve to include ordinary-looking or ugly characters as the heroines or heros, as in the 2001 animated film "Shrek," whose happy ending has a beautiful princess turning back into an ogre and leaving the prince at the altar.

"What I think is so interesting about 'Shrek' is that it's the opposite of that ugly duckling story. The princess becomes the ogre in the end. But that whole movie was about twisting the fairy tales around," Grauerholz says.

For those of you who haven't seen the movie, Shrek falls in love with a beautiful human princess he's rescued from a dragon, but he doesn't think the relationship can work because he's an ugly green ogre. He doesn't realize that the princess is the victim of a spell making her an ogre every night, and that when she falls in love, she'll be restored to her true form; in the end, she declares her love for Shrek and becomes an ogre permanently.

This is where my argument gets complicated. I suspect that the creators of Shrek thought that their ending to the movie was extremely clever and creative--in the end, the prince didn't get the princess, and the princess turned ugly! Instead, however, the ending struck me as a cop-out. One of the main questions of the movie was whether two very different people could fall in love with each other, and instead of deciding that they could, the creators of Shrek decided that they'd need to become the same after all. Instead of glorifying ugliness, the movie glorified conformity.

This decision came at the end of a movie that prided itself on being "subversive." (Try googling "Shrek" and "subversive" and you'll get over 2,000 hits!) The first half of the movie relentlessly makes fun of Disney, of past animated cartoons, and of the idea of the fairy tale in general; the villain (Prince Whatever-His-Name-Is) is said to be based on Michael Eisner, and the message of the movie seems to be "We're cleverer than those Disney cartoonists ever were, and you're clever too, since you understand all the sly pop culture references we've included in the script!" Most of these references will fly over the heads of the kids in the audience, and the whole movie has a bit of a self-congrulatory air.

I don't want to overstate my criticisms of the movie, since--like most people--I liked Shrek overall. The movie's humor just feels too cynical, too smirky, and too self-congratulatory for my tastes; it also feels, like many Pixar movies, as if its creators had used focus groups and target audiences to craft the ultimate crowd-pleaser. (Compare it to a quirkier movie like The Triplets of Belleville, which resembles Shrek in its occasional bawdiness but which feels like it came unbidden from the mind of an eccentric genius.) Shrek differs from Pixar movies like Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc. in that it seems even more determined to appeal to grown-up audiences through bawdy humor or subtle pop culture references, and it seems determined to emphasize its own coolness and sophistication in doing so.

My two main criticisms of Shrek come together in the ending. The first half of the film builds itself up as a witty, self-referential take-down of the traditional fairytale; in the end, however, it backs away from a complete break with the form. Imagine how much more entertaining the movie would have been if Fiona had stayed a human but had still run away with Shrek. The ending would be far less sappy, the new scenario would have lots of opportunities for humor, and the final outcome really would, in a sense, be subversive: Fiona would be sticking it to all the people who thought that Shrek was too ugly! The actual ending, however, is sappy and boring, and doesn't fit very well with the beginning of the movie; moreover, when you strip away the movie's subversive aspirations, the only anti-fairy tale elements of the story that remain are the self-congratulatory and cynical strains of the movie's first half. The movie has a contrarian exterior, but its heart is completely conformist.

Do these same criticisms apply to the sequel? A.O. Scott, it seems, agrees with me:

In terms of its attitude toward the audience, DreamWorks 3-D animation is in some ways the opposite of Pixar, choosing to divide its viewers by age rather than uniting them. The music (including Butterfly Boucher's cover of David Bowie's "Changes" and a rendition by Mr. Banderas and Mr. Murphy of "Livin' la Vida Loca"), the in-jokes and the occasional touches of bawdiness are intended to placate insecure adults while the bright colors and jaunty storytelling enchant their children and teach them to be themselves, like all the other kids with Shrek dolls and ears.

This kind of strategy is hardly uncommon in pop culture these days, and "Shrek 2" executes it with wit and aplomb. The script, by Mr. Adamson, Joe Stillman, J. David Stem and David N. Weiss, has jokes that grown-ups and precocious kids will congratulate themselves for getting, and plenty of broader humor (which actually works better). The movie's goal is to enchant children with an old-fashioned fairy tale while simultaneously mocking and subverting its fairy-tale and nursery-rhyme premises. This is sometimes enjoyable and genuinely imaginative (appearances by the Gingerbread Man, who looks like Mr. Bill of "Saturday Night Live," and the Three Blind Mice are especially clever), but it also leaves a sour, cynical aftertaste.

Nevertheless, I do plan to go see Shrek 2--and I expect that I'll enjoy it. (I'm sure it's infinitely better than Troy, after all!) I still have my doubts about the franchise, however,and I hope to do something else before I see the sequel: one of these days, I also plan to go read William Steig's book. Maybe then I can get a more genuine look at a contrarian curmudgeon.

Posted by Ed at May 19, 2004 11:26 AM


I disagree about your idea that it would be more subversive to have left Fiona "beautiful".

It's not very subversive that way, as it is typical in movies to have a pretty female and an ugly male in love; "Beauty and the Beast" goes a long way.

The actual ending in Shreck also has both traditional and subversive aspects. The main subversion is "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" (a traditional subversive value, if there is such a thing) and Fiona and Shrek have chosen to see beauty in an aspect their culture finds ugly.

The ogre Fiona is actually cute.

If you could make a convincing and popular movie with the romantic characters actually ugly -- or even just the female -- that would be closer to truly subversive. Something like "Shallow Hal" managed it only by having Gwyneth Paltrow play the ugly female.

On the other hand I don't see subversion as the primary thing making a children's movie good. There is a lot to be said for traditional values, though "pretty = good" is not one of them, "marry who you love" is.

Posted by: Dee Lacey at May 20, 2004 10:14 AM

Important point--nearly every retelling of the Beauty and the Beast ends with two beautiful people in love, unless you're referring to the Linda Hamilton/Ron Perlman eighties TV show.

I've been reading lately about the "Loathly Lady" archetype in fairy tales and myth. One version of the story involves a woman who gives her suitor a choice: she will be beautiful during the day and loathsome at night or vice versa. (In the less-suitable-for-children's-movies version, she will be ugly and faithful or beautiful and false--this, and many other myths, rather undercuts the "traditional" notion that "pretty=good" that Dee mentions above). If the suitor's intelligent, he gives her what Chaucer's Wife of Bath termed "maistrie" and lets her decide, whereupon she ends up beautiful day and night (or both beautiful and faithful). It's tempting to attempt to draw parallels between the first scenario and Shrek, but it seems like the intent of the choice is different; in the myths, it's a test of the suitor, whereas in Shrek, the intent is for the princess to assume her "true" form (a choice in which she does seem to have some agency, as she chooses to become an ogre) (it's been a long time since I saw it--if I'm wrong, please correct me).

Oh, and since we were speaking about bad messages for the kiddies, I think that one can interpret Fiona's final transformation as a very bad message indeed: Your true form is determined not by anything intrinsic to you but by the form of the person you love. Reading it this way, it's hard not to agree with Ed that the movie is, at the core, quite conformist.

Posted by: susan at May 20, 2004 11:06 AM

Just a minor comment: Shrek is not a Pixar movie. It is produced by DreamWorks. Pixar did Finding Nemo, Toy Story, Monsters, Inc...

Posted by: kathleen at May 23, 2004 09:09 AM

One quick clarification to my post: I'm not necessarily arguing that the movie Shrek, as a whole, glorifies conformity, or even that this would necessarily be a bad thing if it did. (I don't want to sound like the sort of crazy left-winger who likes to denounce innocuous pop culture phenomena for their underlying messages about society.) (At least one other blogger has misinterpreted my argument this way on his blog.)

Instead, my argument is that Shrek sets itself up as a really contrarian (or "subversive") movie, but it wimps out with a conformist ending that's far duller, sappier, and less interesting than its creators believed.

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