Shrek: Something Old, Something New

DreamWorks super successful film Shrek is being hailed as a departure from the typical fairy tale, however, Maureen Furniss investigates just how racy this re-telling is.

Shrek isn't your normal fairy tale and Princess Fiona isn't your usual damsel in distress. All images courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures.

Shrek isn't your normal fairy tale and Princess Fiona isn't your usual damsel in distress. All images courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures.

When I saw Shrek at a promotional release in Southern California, the day before it opened nationally, I found myself laughing out loud several times and pleasantly surprised by both the writing and the visuals. I loved it! Obviously, I am not alone in feeling this way, as the film's success has been immense. Newspapers have been filled with statistics showing its first weekend box office take to be over US$42 million (including two days of pre-release in New York and Los Angeles, as well as Friday through Sunday receipts). Statistically, it is the biggest opening for any animated film except Toy Story, which brought in $57.3 million over the four-day Thanksgiving weekend in 1999. Shrek also beat out Gladiator (2000), the most successful film to date for its production company, DreamWorks/PDI. Helping it in this respect was the fact that Shrek opened extremely wide, appearing in 3,653 theaters, the second-largest spread of any film (only Mission: Impossible 2 opened wider). Another reflecting of its critical acclaim is the fact that it is the first animated feature to appear at the Cannes Film Festival in France in over thirty years.

Gotta Have A Draw

More than a live-action film, animated features allow and even require a complex marketing strategy. Drawing huge crowds in to see, in this case, an animated ogre is the first and perhaps most important step in creating a feature that has 'legs,' as they say, and can spin its own web of self-perpetuating publicity and popularity. After that initial draw, that first weekend in which the film either makes headlines or falls flat, it is more the construction of the film that propels it into a popular culture phenomenon. Word of mouth, as well as critical reviews, in this case tend to be based on the writing of the story and the technological advances, both of which are impressive. Advances in showing fire, plants and hair are among the most noted accomplishments of the computer-generated animation.

Reveling in a nice mud bath, Shrek enjoys his solitary life at film's beginning.

Reveling in a nice mud bath, Shrek enjoys his solitary life at film's beginning.

A cast of great performers, including Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy, add a lot to the film and no doubt have helped draw audiences of a wide demographic. The script is based on a children's book by William Steig; however, the adaptation is quite liberal. Steig's version of Shrek is a relatively short picture book tale, which begins when Shrek is kicked out of his family home. Soon after he goes on his way, he is told that his fortune is to marry a princess. Shrek is surprised, but enthusiastic, and takes off looking for a series of clues that will take him to her. Like his filmic counterpart, this Shrek revels in the fact that he frightens people with his looks. In fact, when he walks into a hall of mirrors at one point, he even scares himself, which makes him quite proud. Along the way to the princess's castle, Shrek has to deal with a dragon and a donkey, who helps him make the final leg of his trip. Once at the castle, he has to battle a guard in armor in order to get access to his bride-to-be. When he finally gets to her, he is thrilled to see that she is -- not svelte and lovely -- but stunningly ugly. When the two see each other, they instantly know that they are fated for each other. They run together in an embrace and love conquers all.

Honing the Story

In film adaptations of novels, it is typical to cut out characters in order to streamline the story and to include just the most important (sometimes, different characters are compiled into one). The action is almost always simplified to create a single narrative plot that centers around action and conflict, with a final resolution that is clear-cut and satisfying. In the case of Shrek, the original children's story has too little action to sustain a feature-length film. It also has too little conflict, as the obstacles in Shrek's way are dealt with rather quickly and easily. Perhaps most significantly, though, the 'prize' at the end is in fact a really ugly woman -- and from a Hollywood point of view, that won't do at all. Even the Shrek character of Steig's tale is too ugly. Let me just put it this way: it's impossible to imagine either of them as plush toys, beanies, or even collectible figures.

Lord Farquuad dreams of his Princess Fiona.

Lord Farquuad dreams of his Princess Fiona.

The obvious solution is to complicate the plot and modify the character designs. By inserting the background story of fairy tale characters invading Shrek's territory, the writers have given themselves an almost limitless opportunity to create humorous scenarios, which they've fully exploited. My personal favorite is the spunky gingerbread man who yells, "You're a monster," and, "Bite me," as he refuses to give information to the evil Lord Farquuad. Weaving Princess Fiona into this fairy tale scenario works extremely well, as it solves another plot problem: the u-g-l-y factor. Make her into a beautiful princess who is under a spell and only becomes 'ugly' (in a cute sort of way) at night, when we hardly see her. In fact, she has to hide her ugliness from the other characters, so there is narrative motivation for not showing her ogre manifestation. There are practical reasons why Princess Fiona must be beautiful most of the time: why else would Prince Farquuad want to marry her? He is vain and the bottom line is that he wants to marry a princess, so he can rule the land. Nonetheless, he 'naturally' is taken by her beauty and she becomes his choice.

What about Farquuad? He is the only main character that does not appear in the original story. Farquuad works fantastically as an evil character who provides all the conflict for Shrek that is lacking from Steig's story. First, he moves the characters into Shrek's swamp. Then he makes a deal to move them out if Shrek gets the princess. Finally, he provides conflict when Shrek falls in love with Fiona. Clearly, he is of central importance to the development of the adaptation's plot.

Fiona the Fearless?

Shrek has great fun with traditional characters and storylines of fairy tales. It clearly takes aim at Disney; Farquuad's evil kingdom is unmistakably a deserted main street from Disneyland, complete with Small-Worldesque singers. The story of Fiona seems aimed at Disney animated features, in which a host of lovely princesses have been saved from horrible fates by their knights in shining armor. When Shrek comes to her rescue, she waits expectantly, taking a 'sleeping death' position, for "loves first kiss" (this sets her up for the first of several disappointments). Despite her attempt to fit herself into a fairy tale scenario, we see that Fiona is in fact far from a 'traditional' heroine. She is a skillful fighter, not above eating roasted rats, and known to emit uncouth noises from her body. What kind of princess is that? She looks like a princess, being tall, slender and lovely, but something tells us -- and Shrek -- that this one is different. But how different is she?

I was impressed by Fiona's ability to fight like female warriors from The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but I sensed an unresolved contradiction in her need to seek authentication from a male romantic partner. I could make the argument that a highly trained martial artist/fighting machine probably has little concern for such worldly matters as physical appearance, but I won't (I'll think it in my head anyway). My point is this: while the film does contain a message that 'beauty is on the inside' and that women of all types are beautiful, it is significant that Fiona's understanding of this fact is filtered through male approval. First she seeks a union with Farquuad, thinking it will solve her little 'problem' that happens every night. She realizes that she's in love with Shrek, but also thinks she's been rebuffed by him, so she follows through on marrying Farquuad (note, significantly, that when things get rough, this incredible martial artist is unable to fight off a small band of Farquuad's men). In any case, she doesn't become 'okay with herself' until Shrek kisses her and, ultimately, validates her appearance as acceptable; to me, it is disappointing that her character arc, being able to accept herself in a so-called 'ugly' physical manifestation, is in fact activated by the kiss of a man. However, this kiss is also significant for its affect on the main character of the film. By kissing Shrek, Fiona facilitates the completion of his character arc; he is no longer a social introvert, but instead looks forward to the company of a companion who has proven compatible with his lifestyle and in fact mirrors his own appearance.

Shrek reworks the typical fairy tale but still relies on some old standards.

Shrek reworks the typical fairy tale but still relies on some old standards.

Here's another scenario that might help put this in perspective: Shrek kisses her, but decides that things are happening too fast and he needs his 'personal space' again, so he runs back to his swamp hut. Would Fiona still have found personal satisfaction with her permanent 'new look?' I don't think so. In contrast, Disney's Mulan was a self-confident woman even at the start of the film, understanding fully how to operate within a man's world. At the end of Mulan, she remains strong as an individual, while also experiencing love. Sure, viewers are happy when she and her man meet again, but the story ends before a clear 'union' is formed. Ultimately, Mulan remains a strong female character -- outwardly beautiful throughout the story, of course -- while Fiona is not so secure in her identity and also shifts in her physical appearance. As an audience, we always know that she is really a tall, slender, beautiful 'storybook princess;' even after her look changes. If nothing else we still have the voice of Cameron Diaz to remind us of her origins. In any case, even the 'changed' Fiona hardly pushes the boundaries of true ugliness. One of my friends, Greg Singer, said that the audience around him collectively cooed "awww" in reaction to her 'cuteness' as an ugly character.

Some Myths Remain

The characterization of Farquuad, who is voiced by John Lithgow, is also interesting, as it plays on conventional stereotypes of masculinity. He has the so-called 'Napoleon complex,' being a short man who needs to compensate by dominating everyone around him. In terms of masculinity, shortness applies in more than one context to a lack of virility. A short man cannot physically dominate a tall woman, so how can he keep her in line? Farquuad compensates with leg extensions, and as some 'short men' might do with a padded, well, you know (Fiona and no doubt countless others were shocked when the poser's real stature was revealed). My point is that Farquuad's shortness is a clear indicator of his 'difference' and overall unsuitability as a partner for the tall and lovely Fiona. While many other 'myths' are being pulled apart, this myth of masculinity is vital in Farquuad's caricature.

The voices behind the frivolity: Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy and John Lithgow.

The voices behind the frivolity: Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy and John Lithgow.

I can see how these characters were determined by the film industry as much as the film's running time was. It is hard to imagine a 45-minute mini-feature or a 3-hour epic animation being screened in theaters; likewise, I can hardly see producers agreeing to an ugly female romantic lead. Even in a film about the need to see beyond the surface of a person, Hollywood makes sure there is a beautiful princess to admire. The fact that she is rendered so realistically, while the other characters are so clearly caricatures makes her 'perfect' appearance stand out in the film all the more. While the film tears at so many fond memories of childhood tales, it is nice to know that some things never change -- isn't it?

Ultimately, the film's ability to question tradition is bound into its status as a commercial product within the highly competitive, ultra-risky industry of animated features. With performances of a 20-minute musical version of Shrek performed daily at Universal Studios through summer, a 3D version planned for IMAX theaters to coincide with the fall release of Shrek on video, and plans for a Shrek 2 already under way, clearly the road to success is not in deviation as much as repetition. Since the film contains innovative technological achievements, interesting characters, great performances and wonderful writing to delight us, at least the second-third-fourth-and-so-on times around should be pleasurable.

Maureen Furniss, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor and Program Director of Film Studies at Chapman University in Orange, California. She is the founding editor of Animation Journal and the author of Art in Motion: Animation Aesthetics (John Libbey, 1998).

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