'Shrek' Was Peak Dreamworks, No Shrek 5 Needed
Shrek is an animated comedy based somewhat on William Steig's children's book (of the same name). It is to me the best Dreamworks film ever made, and I highly, highly doubt there will ever be another Dreamworks film to outrank it.
Mostly because we live in a collapsing economy, where reboots, remakes, and endless sequels are a thing. No one has any interest in actually being creative or making something new and unique so – sadly – the Shrek franchise is pretty much Dreamworks at its peak.
Shrek and I actually have a funny how-I-met-your-mother anecdotal relationship.
The first film came out when I was in high school, and I didn’t immediately run out to see it because so many of the kids in my class loved it, and anything that racist, sexist, homophobic, spoiled rich kids loved was something I was going to steer very clear of.
So I never saw the first Shrek in the theater. I actually got into the franchise because of my mother. She was a preschool teacher at the time, so all her students adored the film, and so did she. I walked in on her watching the hilarious scene with the gingerbread man (Conrad Vernon) being interrogated by Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow), and it was after that day that I fell for the film.
What’s truly hilarious about my sexist, racist, homophobic high school classmates is that Shrek is a movie with a very blatant message of love trumping hate and discrimination, and yet . . . none of them understood it remotely. As with most bigoted people, they were blind to their own hypocrisy. They thought Shrek-the-outcast was the greatest thing ever and yet went on bullying students who were black, overweight, unattractive, or showed signs of being gay.
Shrek (Mike Myers) is an ogre basically living in a world of fantastical racism. People see him and immediately assume a bunch of stereotypes about him, and these are stereotypes that lead bigots to believe that he deserves to die on sight. We see in the opening of the film that it has resulted in his isolation from the outside world. He is spiritually, emotionally sick with having been threatened with death for merely existing.
Shrek is a prime example of the psychological impact that bigotry and discrimination can have on a person’s mental health. He is lonely, grumpy, angry, and because he has been alone for probably his entire life, he doesn’t know how to treat the few people who see him as a person. As a result, he treats Donkey (Eddie Murphy) – the first person not to care that he’s an ogre – pretty badly.
He also treats Fiona (Cameron Diaz) – the first woman to love him – with suspicion. Unaware that Fiona is actually an ogre, Shrek has a hard time reconciling his feelings for her. After all, she belongs to the species that has hounded and tormented him all his life.
At the same time, the first film has this underlining sexist narrative where Shrek treats Fiona with bitterness and resentment when she rejects him, as if having preferences and standards was only allowed for men.
This is unfortunate because we live in a world where a woman saying "no" is often met with physical punishment. Fiona is disappointed that Shrek is an ogre, so Shrek punishes her by shoving, dropping, and throwing her.
Shrek comes off a hypocrite and a jerk here. He gets angry when Donkey applies a bunch of violent stereotypes to him (“Why don’t you lay siege to his fortress? Grind his bones to make your bread?”), but then he insists on applying a bunch of stereotypes to Fiona: she’s beautiful, so she must be shallow; she’s a woman, so she must owe him love for saving her life.
When they first approach the tower to save Fiona, Shrek cracks a joke about her that is pretty low:
Donkey: So where is this fire-breathing pain in the neck, anyway?
Shrek: Inside, waiting for us to rescue her!
Donkey: I was talking about the dragon, Shrek.
You could chalk this up to Shrek having low self-esteem and a low self-image due to life-long abuse, but it doesn’t excuse his sexist treatment of Fiona.
The damage runs deeply in Shrek, but at least the film calls him out for it. By the end of the story, Fiona has realized Shrek is an asshole and has opted into marrying the other asshole because, really, as a woman she didn’t have many choices.
Incidentally, it was pretty awesome that Dragon turned out to be a woman.
Most movies are male dominated, meaning there are very few women involved in important roles. The first "Shrek" film is pretty much a sausage fest, and unfortunately, Dragon being a woman only balanced that out as a sort of accident. Her being a woman was a gag, something to make the audience go “tee-tee!” and not a conscious decision to have a female character contribute to the plot in any meaningful way.
The lack of female representation was an unfortunate thing about the first film that was addressed in the second. So no harm done, I suppose. To be honest, though, I’m really tired of movies realizing in retrospect (coughToyStorycough) that – oh yeah! -- women exist and are paying to see these movies as well.
These are not movies that are specifically meant for men, so we can’t even use that excuse here. Especially when so many children are looking at these films. Women should be there. And we should be there in abundance.
Just like real life.
Makes you wonder if these filmmakers ever step outside their dark studios and leave their man bubbles for reality. Or if they even see the women, teenage girls, and little girls who frequent the streets daily as human beings who might be interested in their films -- you know, instead of sexist stereotypes who are only interested in shopping and nail polish and gossip.
People think Fiona knowing kung fu was “progressive” but in reality, it was just subversive humor. The writers wanted to subvert expectations and make you laugh by having the female lead actually be useful instead of just standing around, waiting for Shrek to do everything.
The point was to make you laugh, not to uplift little girls watching the film (who the filmmakers probably didn't even know or care were there). Princess Fiona – and women in general – were the butt of a joke.
No, I wouldn't be complaining if Fiona wasn't a fighter. Women don't have to know how to fight to be "non problematic" in fiction. They just have to contribute to the plot in meaningful ways. You know . . . be treated like people, fully realized characters, and not background decorations.
Shrek 2 flipped the tables a bit in an interesting way.
In most fairy tales, it's the woman who has to give something up in order to conform to the man's reality. I.e. the little mermaid had to give up her life in the sea to be with the human prince.
Shrek 2 presents a reverse-Ariel situation where Shrek realizes for the first time just how much Fiona has given up for him and just how unfair it is. He then sets out to become human in an attempt to fit into her world and make her happy.
The film shows how much Shrek loves Fiona given how willing he is to give up his own world and live in hers. It always brings a tear to my eye when Shrek asks Fiona if she wants to stay human, and Fiona says to him:
I want what every princess wants: to live happily ever after . . . with the ogre I married.
I always felt the second film humanized Fiona in a way the first film never did.
In Shrek, Fiona was a running gag. In Shrek 2, Fiona was a person.
Dreamworks tried to rectify this further with the princesses in Shrek the Third. Instead of sitting around waiting to be rescued, the princesses actually get off their asses and save themselves. Every one of them has something to offer the story, every one of them moves the plot forward in some way.
Despite the fact that their ambush on the castle became ultimately meaningless in the end (I mean, they aren't the main characters so it makes sense), at least they weren't treated like insignificant nothings who were incapable of doing anything productive without a male presence.
It was also great that Fiona was pregnant but wasn't coddled and treated like she was oh-so-delicate and should sit the story out (Disney did something similar with Pacha's wife in The Emperor's New Groove).
Even Fiona's elderly mother (Julie Andrews) was banging through walls with her forehead. It was hilarious. And Dreamworks having the women burn their bras was an obvious -- if not cheeky -- nod to feminists who were (and are) tired of seeing women be background decorations in male dominated stories.
All that being said, I still don't think Dreamworks quite understood how to not be sexist. Women don't have to kick a bunch of ass to be "feminist" or "progressive" anymore than male characters are constantly expected to be buff and powerful (Bilbo Baggins, Arthur Dent, Sherlock Holmes, to name a few).
Women just have to be treated like people.
Not asking for much here. Portray female characters. Portray female characters as people. Come on. It's not hard.
What's most baffling is that Dreamworks actually did this pretty well with Antz, but managed to screw up somehow with the first "Shrek" film. Different people on different projects, I suppose.
After his fallout with Fiona, Shrek goes back to his swamp, intent on living alone, under the belief that Fiona is just like everyone else. It is Donkey who calls Shrek out, telling him to his face what an asshole he is and that he’ll always be alone so long as he allows the rest of the world to define his life for him.
Shrek finally realizes that he is in charge of carving his own story, no matter how the rest of the world desperately tries to set his narrative. And so he sets out to beg Fiona’s forgiveness and to finally tell her how he feels.
Once Shrek realizes that he has to love himself and believe he is worthy of love in order to be with Fiona, he finds happiness. Likewise, once Fiona realizes that she must love herself and believe herself worthy of love, she finds happiness with Shrek.
In a world where the media defines what is and isn’t acceptable, it is a very important message that children should love themselves instead of trying to change who and what they are to conform to society’s bigoted expectations.
It was always something very beautiful to me, a teenage girl who was struggling with issues of self-worth and who faced a lot of bullying at school from students and teachers alike. For this reason, you can imagine that Shrek the Third appealed to me (and it did).
Fiona: I don't understand. I was supposed to be beautiful.
Shrek: But you are beautiful.
Gets me every time.
Because of its heartwarming message of self-love and self-acceptance, Shrek and its entire franchise will always have a special place in my heart.
It still amazes me to this day that Dreamworks managed to make an entire franchise that wasn't some cluster-crap money-grab mess. Anyone who’s familiar with my articles knows how often I complain about sequels and reboots. And yet, I love the entire Shrek franchise.
Good thing there weren’t adults like me around boo-hooing about greedy filmmakers, otherwise we might never have gotten Shrek 2, Shrek the Third, Shrek Forever After, and Puss in Boots, all of which are actually pretty good films with pretty great messages.
All that being said, I'm still going to slide back into my usual cynical rhetoric:
No, we do not need a Shrek 5.
It's seems that Dreamworks knows "Shrek" was the best thing they ever did. Now that they're drowning in a soulless capitalist economy like everyone else, they appear to be resurrecting the "Shrek" films in desperation. Hey, Dreamworks . . .
Don't ruin a beautiful thing. Before you could make more films because the same audience -- people my age -- were still watching. My generation is hitting our mid-thirties now. Not many of us are going to turn out for this film unless we have children, and statistically? Not many thirty-somethings are having kids these days. Not when we can barely feed ourselves.
Try a new story. Try something else. Try anything else. But do not make a Shrek 5.
The other films were great, but there's just no way you could get lucky a fifth time.
Thank You (Falletin Me Be Mice Elf Again)
© 2018 Ash Gray