Of Ogres and Onions
Consider the onion. It may be smelly and make you cry, but this popular plant offers much more than that. It has layers. In Shrek, the title character says ogres are a lot like onions. How does he know? Because he’s one of them --- an ogre, not an onion, that is. Despite being green and ugly, he’s resourceful, fearless, and vulnerable to some very deep feelings.
Getting to know Shrek (voiced with a Scottish accent by Mike Myers) in this animated comedy brought back memories of my favorite fairy tale, “Beauty and the Beast.” Predictably, Shrek turns out to be just as lonely and misunderstood as Belle’s hairy friend, but watching a surly monster change into a loveable hunk gets to me every time. Speaking of fairy tales, Shrek pokes fun at practically all of them --- at least the Disney versions. Even a sweet-singing bluebird (resembling the one in Snow White) meets an untimely end. Nursery rhyme characters take their lumps here too. For example, the Three Blind Mice bump into everything, and a Gingerbread Boy endures his worst nightmare as he faces a kind of milky torture.
When these imaginary creatures beg Shrek to save them from the evil Lord Farquaad (voiced by John Lithgow), it’s an offer he can’t refuse, especially since they’ve been banished and taken up residence in his very own swamp, a place he wants for himself alone. Shrek’s mission? To rescue Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), the lovely “bachelorette” chosen by Farquaad as his bride after seeing her compared to Cinderella and Snow White in his confiscated magic mirror.
All Shrek has to do is fight a fire-breathing dragon guarding the tower in which Fiona is held prisoner. (In keeping with the film’s intent to subvert our ideas about fairy tales, this dragon is unlike any seen or read about so far.) Not to worry. Shrek’s helper on his important quest is a talking Donkey (Eddie Murphy) who expresses amusing thoughts about everything (“Did you say layers? Cakes have layers. Parfaits have layers. They’re both so much better than onions!”) and insists on humming annoyingly in an effort to bolster Shrek’s spirits as well as his own. It doesn’t take long to figure out that Donkey’s cheeriness and excessive talking mask a loneliness equal to Shrek’s. Donkey and Shrek are two sides of the same coin.
Like onions, cakes, and parfaits, the movie Shrek also has layers. Billed as a “fractured fairy tale,” it offers plenty of laughs on one level. Peeling off that cover, something deeper emerges. The importance of friendship and true love are explored with unusual sensitivity in scenes between Shrek and Fiona and between Donkey and Shrek. “Friends forgive friends,” Donkey teaches Shrek. From Fiona, this unjolly green giant learns that looks aren’t everything to a loving significant other.
However, I’m bothered by the way filmmakers dealt with one issue concerning physical appearance. Although turning the “Beauty and the Beast” theme upside down, the movie loses much of its moral tone by its disparaging treatment of short people like Prince Farquaad. Perhaps this depiction is intended to satirize how this character compensates for his horizontally-challenged stature. Nevertheless, whenever the Prince came on screen, I half expected to hear Randy Newman singing in the background, “We don’t want no short people round here.” And it’s too bad so many flatulence jokes were included. This clever film didn’t need any of that at all, if you ask fuddy-duddy old me.
What movies may not need at all in the future are real performers in front of the camera. Shrek’s computer animation seems so life-like, it’s scary. Thanks to a breakthrough software program called a “Shaper,” the characters’ body motions and facial expressions mimic human actions with eerie accuracy. If I were an actor who had just seen Shrek, I’d be afraid --- very afraid --- about my chances of living happily ever after, except as a voice-over.
(Released by DreamWorks and rated “PG” for mild language and some crude humor.)