GREAT FILMS: Shrek (2001)

Shrek (USA, 2001)
Directed by Andrew Adamson & Vicky Jenson
Starring Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, John Lithgow

In my review of Raiders of the Lost Ark, I spoke about how the cultural indelibilty of a film, series or character can often lead us to forget how good or bad the individual instalments are. Indiana Jones is as central a part of our filmmaking culture as Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, and all too often we find ourselves simply reiterating platitudes about their reputations, rather than examining them in detail.
We find ourselves in a similar position with the Shrek series, which depending on your view is either the jewel in Dreamworks' crown or a sad indictment of how Jeffrey Katzenberg cynically squeezes all the creativity out of what was once a good idea. Taken as part and parcel of its reputation, it's easy to hold the first Shrek (and by extension Shrek 2) in high regard, only because the later instalments were not as good. But even outside of its reputation, it's a truly great film and is, with its sequel, arguably the best thing that Dreamworks has ever made.
When I reviewed Despicable Me, I took Dreamworks to task in its notion of what constituted a family film. While many of the greatest family films ever made operate on the same level for adults and children, many of Dreamworks' offerings have been structured to deliberately work on one level for young children (e.g. fart jokes) and on another for the paying adults (e.g. jokes about The Godfather and Goodfellas in Shark Tale). Dreamworks are not alone in this regard - see also Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox - but they are the most consistent and successful offender.
It would be easy to excuse Shrek of this indictment because it came from a time before Dreamworks was the PIXAR-rivalling behemoth that it is now. Even with the huge success of Antz, the company was still finding its feet in a marketplace where CG animation was still something of a novelty. But Shrek actually works for a very different reason: it keeps the children at the forefront of its mind, and uses its more grown-up moments to stretch them rather than to pander to their parents.
Shrek succeeds where The Princess Bride was ultimately indecisive, striking a near-perfect balance between celebrating fairy tales and taking the piss out of them. Even after fourteen years and all its sequels, the film still has an edgy quality in the way that it subverts, questions or dismantles fairy tale tropes. But it also works as a straight-up fairy tale in its own right, for when you're not in the mood for deconstructing conventions or ribbing Disney.
Even in the context of other postmodern fantasies of the time, Shrek is a very comprehensive subversion of the classic Disney fairy tale. Our hero is not a chisel-jawed, pleasantly dull prince, but a grumpy, cantakerous and often selfish ogre. Our princess is not a china doll incapable of defending or thinking for herself, but a strong-willed, hot-headed and very rounded character. The villain isn't a spiteful sorceress or a vain queen, but a powerful king - the character most likely to be trusted in a Disney film. And our main characters don't settle for a life of luxury in a castle far away, but end up living in a swamp.
Much of Shrek's origins, outside of William Steig's novel, lie in the fall-out between Dreamworks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg and then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner. When Katzenberg was forced to resign from Disney in 1994, he channeled his resentment into a film which challenged Disney's values while attempting to steal their target audience. Not only is Lord Farquaad modelled on Eisner (at least, as Katzenberg saw him), but his very name is a subtle insult aimed squarely at the Disney boss.
In any other instance, this amount of bitterness would create a film that was rankly mean-spirited. But for whatever reason, all of these arch decisions about character an narrative end up creating a film with genuine heart. By turning all the Disney tropes on their heads, Shrek challenges the false expectations that the company offers in terms of romance, gender politics and agency. It's ultimately a film about inner beauty and how meaningful relationships always take genuine effort.
Shrek and Fiona's relationship finds two difficult people having their belief systems or worldviews challenged to the core. Shrek is settled on his role in life, believing that no-one could ever love him, but Fiona confounds this and allows him to express a very different side of himself. Likewise, Fiona begins the film entrenched in a perfect, fairy tale version of how love works, but then she is confronted by reality and has to learn what true love really looks like.
What's often forgotten about Shrek, in the midst of its hilarity, is how well-written it is. Not only is the film beautifully paced and delicately told, but we have an enormous empathy with the characters. They reflect the audience's experience of seeing their childish, primitive notions of how the world works fall like scales from their eyes. But there is also the comfort that it will all be okay, and in a genuine way: even if your happy ending isn't how you imagined it, there is love out there for everyone.
Outside of its beautiful writing and intelligent sniping at Disney, Shrek is also a fantastically entertaining film. Its visuals pushed the limit of what was possible in computer graphics at the time, having a more appealing gruesome quality than Disney and boasting the best CG dragon prior to The Hobbit trilogy. Its battle sequences are fast-paced and exciting, its characters are witty and inventive, and all the reference gags (including a neat jab at The Matrix) still hit their mark and feel fresh.
The film also benefits from a cracking soundtrack, with each track beautifully capturing the mood of the scene in which it appears. At one end we have Joan Jett's 'Bad Reputation', which makes Shrek fighting all the knights all the more kick-ass, and 'All Star' by Smash Mouth, which brings a real rhythm to our main character's introduction. But we also have John Cale's version of 'Hallelujah' (by far the best), which makes the marriage preparations all the more tender and sad. They're sublime choices, and Harry Gregson-Williams' incidental work isn't half bad either.
No review of Shrek would be complete without looking at the voice cast. It's easy to praise Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy now that they have become forever identified with their respective roles. But directors Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson deserve credit for marshalling these often unassailable energies into performances which are focussed, heartwarming and hilarious. Princess Fiona contains some of Cameron Diaz' best work to this day, playing on the sparky quality which isn't always present in her other films. And John Lithhow is perfect as Farquaad, drawing on his work in Footloose and Raising Cain to craft an appealingly cruel but ridiculous villain.
Shrek is arguably the best thing that Dreamworks has ever done, and it still stands as a first-rate animated film that everyone can enjoy. Even after fourteen years it retains an edge and an energy that many films aspire to, coupled to a cast in excellent voice and a surprisingly subtle message. Whatever your feelings about the sequels or the brand that has grown up around it, it remains essential viewing and a rollicking good ride.


NEXT REVIEW: Jennifer's Body (2009)