Published May 1, 2001
The animated film Shrek, based on a story by William Steig and directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, is a deconstruction of the fairy tale. It is so literally, in the sense that what drives the eponymous ogre out of his homey swamp and into his parody of a fairy tale quest is an invasion of fairy tale characters detached from their literary contexts. But it is also a metaphorical deconstruction, since it inverts fairy tale expectations not only about ogres but about handsome princes and beautiful princesses and fire-breathing dragons. Above all, it is a calculated outrage against fairy tale morality — which, as you may remember, used to be a somewhat simplified version of grown-up morality and which it replaces with a parable of self-esteem for the therapeutic culture.
Mike Myers, doing the Scottish accent he used for Fat Bastard in the last Austin Powers movie or the father in So I Married an Ax-Murderer, does the voice of Shrek while Eddie Murphy as the inevitable sidekick, a donkey, also does his stock bit as the unthreatening black man who talks too much and John Lithgow’s voice makes the prince into that actor’s stock, sneering upper-class twit. The post-modern point is best made by people who are linguistically typed for us and doing what they’re famous for doing in real life, though all the famous fairy tale elements have to be changed—even to the point of making Robin Hood (voice of Vincent Cassell) French, of all things. So that real life becomes predictable and reassuring while the fairy tale is a land of darkness and surprises. Welcome to the new world, as the hero of the shaken-up and post-modern-crazy Knight’s Tale says to his fallen adversary.
The story has Shrek and sidekick go off to rescue the beautiful Princess Fiona (voice of Cameron Diaz) from the dragon at the prince’s behest, but the prince is nasty, brutish and short, the dragon just another in the film’s seemingly endless stock of lovable grotesques who rather alarmingly fancies the donkey while the Princess turns out to be not so beautiful after all. In fact, she is under an enchantment that transforms her beauty and makes her an ogre by night until she shall experience love’s first kiss and so permanently assume true love’s form. It can hardly be considered to be giving anything away to report that nocturnal-ogrish rather than diurnal-conventional turns out to be true love’s form for this particular princess.
The message is that letting it all hang out in ogrish fashion is OK, like ugliness (though, oddly, not shortness, even though this is even less in the control of those who suffer from it). So, naturally, are bad manners and farting and filthiness generally. “She’s as nasty as you are!” says the donkey, full of wonder and admiration, when Shrek and the princess get into a farting contest. Beauty is reduced to the level of grossness just because grossness is more authentic than beauty. It is also more compassionate not to be beautiful and show up the ugly. In other words, both the princess and the ogre need to learn to like themselves as they are — just like the millions of children who will doubtless come to the movie straight from their self-esteem class in school.
What else should we expect? When the romance of psychic well-being meets the old fashioned romance of sexual love, guess which one wins out? The new-style fairy tale celebrates the ability of both lovers not to love each other so much as themselves. The transformation of the princess from beautiful young woman to an ogre-like creature herself is a kind of symbolic representation of this superior romance. Like most of us she has her more and less attractive sides, but she must learn to treasure the less-attractive as that true self which, presumably, marriage to an ogre will allow her to be. Well, you’ve got to admit that all that fairy tale stuff about beauty (in princesses) and masterfulness (in princes) is not only embarrassingly reactionary, leading to gender stereotyping and the perpetuation of female subordination, but also highly suspect from the therapeutic point of view.
But when Shrek attempts to justify his choice to be emotionally and socially withdrawn on the grounds that people “judge me before they even know me” he not only establishes his own victimhood and therefore his character’s authenticity, he also attacks the technique of the old- fashioned fairy tale, which could be judged before it was known. That was just what we loved about it: that we knew as soon as we heard “Once upon a time” that it would celebrate beauty and virtue and love and striving and prevailing against difficulties greater than a deficiency of self-esteem. I wonder if anyone will ever come to love the Shrek-style of anti-fairy tale as much?