Ah, Shrek (2001), the film that proved once and for all that DreamWorks can make a compelling, meaningful, and even historically relevant story arc out of any stupid idea you could possibly dream up. Think about this: a movie about an overweight, vomit-colored ogre with a very thick northern Scottish accent and a talking donkey going on an adventure to save a beautiful princess from a castle on top of a volcano in order to turn her in for property ransom to a man whose name is probably the most blatant euphemism in animated movie history so he can become the appropriately-sized king of a town that appears to be a deeply flawed version of “It’s a Small World” except with a dumber, more annoying theme song, has made so much money for its creators that they made three sequels, Christmas and Halloween specials, an app designed to encourage children to brush their teeth and get ready for school, so much useless, overpriced consumer merchandise, and even a literal theme park-esque bus tour based on it.
Overall the films have garnered 1 billion dollars in box office sales alone, and no, I am not kidding about that last one. Shrek’s Adventure recently opened in London, which is incredibly ironic considering the antagonist in the film is deliberately English as a display of the conflict between uptight English monarchs and the primarily working class demographic of Scotland during the time period depicted in the film. The disconnect between the two countries, although they are each very different now, has not diminished. The imbalance of power, especially in 2016, between England and Scotland is a cause of major social and political conflict. The most recent effect of this was in the fallout over the Brexit decision. Whilst England and Wales voted to leave, an overwhelming majority of Scotland voted to remain in the European Union. Finding out that they had to leave the European Union enraged many Scottish citizens, so much so that they believe the country should secede from the United Kingdom.
In case you think I am reading too far into this seemingly outlandish, culturally irrelevant film, looking for an excuse to talk about current events, I am, but it is relevant to the film. “There is a class struggle in Shrek between the fairytale kings and queens and the common people. I always thought that Shrek was raised working class. And since Lord Farquaad (the villain) was played English, I thought of Scottish,” said the voice of Shrek, Mike Myers, who, after recording the entire film, demanded the opportunity to record it again in a Scottish accent. This decision ended up costing five million dollars.
The historical context of film’s setting is striking and uncomfortably realistic. Farquaad exiles all whom he personally finds undesirable in his “perfect kingdom,” sending them away to live in the dismal swamp against their will. This story bears a resemblance, at least in my opinion, to the political turmoil caused by the reign of several Catholic monarchs. The most infamous of these was Queen Mary I, who believed it was her responsibility to rid her kingdom of the Protestants by executing them, earning her the sobriquet “Bloody Mary.”
Now to discuss the actual plot of the film. Shrek lives in a little shack in the swamp, with the exception of some brief skirmishes with humans. He is actually a veritably dejected character. I noticed one quote from him that seemed much too intense for a children’s film, which was that, “It’s rude enough to be alive when nobody wants you.” One day he meets the exiled fairy tale citizens of Duloc (which I discovered eight seconds ago on Wikipedia is eerily similar to the actual village of Duloe in Cornwall, England) trespassing on his land. The most significant scene in this opening portion of the movie is that in which Shrek screams about how he’s going to make sure they leave and never come back, and the entire crowd cheers, putting emphasis on the fact that none of them came out of their own free will.
Beyond his mistreatment of his own subjects, Farquaad’s treatment of Shrek is nearly as repulsive. He treats Shrek as a brainless monster. The idea of being an ogre can be looked at metaphorically. Shrek is less educated and lacks the aristocratic status of Farquaad. The interesting part is that, as soon as Farquaad realizes that Shrek could be useful to him he treats him better, although his opinions do not change at all, because he resumes berating him as soon as he has forfeited Fiona. This is incredibly accurate not just in British history, but in politics in general. People in positions of power pander to the useful, usually either for votes, money, or compliance.
I’ve realized that I could go on scrutinizing this film for ages, discussing topics of body image and ideas versus reality, and I haven’t even begun to talk about Donkey, who is quite the intriguing character to psychoanalyze. I am fairly certain that would make me a Shrek-pert on ogre themed family films. (I am already ashamed, but I could not get though an entire article with no puns.) In all seriousness, Shrek impressed me. When I originally decided to review it, my plan was to tear the film to shreds for its idiocy, but DreamWorks screen writers and producers are not idiots. The makers of Shrek succeeded in creating a fictional world with astonishing verisimilitude and diverse characters, each with their own individual yet intertwined character arcs, full of entertaining cultural references that was genuinely entertaining. I underestimated their abilities, and they proved me wrong. It was definitely more interesting than I originally assumed it would be. One may even say that the film has layers.
Featured image credit: Ged Carroll via flickr.