Shrek: the anti-fairytale
Forget living happily ever after - Shrek's stars are an ugly beast and an ugly princess who live 'ugly ever after'.
Shrek – the Dreamworks-produced animated movie about a green, ugly but loveable ogre – is everything the critics says it is: funny, intelligent, with a cast of characters that could show Disney’s all-singing, all-dancing, square-jawed heroes a thing or two (1).
But one thing about Shrek came as a surprise – how it ruthlessly usurps the traditional fairytale. Forget handsome princes, damsels in distress and living happily ever after – Shrek’s stars are an ugly beast and an ugly princess, whose best friend is a donkey ‘with issues’, who all live ‘ugly ever after’.
The opening scene shows the pages of a book being turned, complete with ‘Once upon a time…’, an imprisoned princess, a brave knight – all written in Ye Olde English calligraphy. Suddenly, a green hand rips a page from the book and we realise Shrek is using it to wipe his bottom. The message is clear: Shrek shits on the traditional fairytale. Literally.
Shrek himself (voiced by Mike Myers) is a smelly, swamp-dwelling, but kindly beast – so far, so familiar. But there is never any hope of him turning into a handsome prince or a gallant knight. So when he rescues the princess from the dragon’s lair, she slates him for deviating from the script: ‘You’re supposed to be a handsome prince so that I can fall in love with you!’
As for the princess (voiced by Cameron Diaz), she might dream of the fairytale life but she is no shrinking violet. She belches, kickboxes, blows up frogs with a straw, steals birds’ eggs for breakfast, and, ultimately, sacrifices her beauty to be with the beast she loves. So the beast doesn’t magically come up to the princess’s standards of beauty and elegance – she stoops to his standards of ugliness and freakiness. But hey, they’re in love.
The subplot to the love story is that John Lithgow’s evil Lord Farquaad (pronounced ‘fuckwad’…seriously) is rounding up the town’s freaks and weirdoes and casting them out for being ‘different’. Out goes Pinocchio for not being a real boy; out go the three blind mice for having a ‘visual impairment’; out go the three little piggies for being pathetic (‘He huffed and he puffed and…he served us with an eviction notice’).
But there’s a twist. Farquaad himself is a ‘freak’ – a four-foot small midget. But unlike Shrek, the princess and the cast of weirdoes, Farquaad can’t face up to his ‘difference’ and so he pays the ultimate price – he is eaten by the fearsome dragon. (Incidentally, even the traditional fearsome dragon is not really a traditional fearsome dragon – it turns out to be a she-dragon who wears lipstick and is only fearsome because she’s lonely and unloved.)
After all this, no wonder Shrek’s friend the donkey ends up ‘needing therapy’.
‘Just what is going on?’ asks Eric Metaxas of Christinanity Today. ‘Are beauty and nobility and innocence such medieval concepts that fairytales themselves cannot portray them positively?’ (2) He has a point. Much has been made of Shrek’s challenge to the saccharin-sweet Disney fairytales, where beauty always triumphs over ugliness and good over evil. But at least the old fairytales gave children something to dream about, rather than telling them that it’s okay to be ugly, stupid, weird or ordinary, and that anybody who says otherwise can ‘bite me’ (as the Gingerbread Man says to Farquaard…).
But Shrek is funny – and irreverent. The kids I took to see it particularly liked the scene where the princess sings to a bluebird in such a high-pitch tone that the bluebird explodes, leaving behind a pair of smoking talons, while the princess steals its eggs so that she can fry them over an open fire. You won’t see that in a Disney cartoon.
It was just that after endless messages about how it’s cool to be ugly, I can’t have been the only one longing for a square-jawed Disney character to swing in, in full song, to save the day.
Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.
(1) See the Shrek website
(2) See Shrek: happily ever ogre, by Eric Metaxas, Christianity Today
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