catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 1, Num 2 :: 2002.09.27 — 2002.10.10


Life's like an onion

Dreamworks' Shrek refuses to be cake

The difference between fantasy and reality is not always very clear. For children, the division between the two can be minute, and often causes some confusion. When I was growing up, kids, thinking they were Superman, occasionally took flight from neighborhood roofs. Some children (I know from personal experience) spent hours using the Force on random household objects, while others kept their realistic-sounding Uzis with them at all times, in case sneaky “commies” should try to steal their blood-red Rambo scarves.

Some parents, recognizing that kids get confused, warned their children to beware of He-man and Papa Smurf, those gateway thugs to the devilish back-masking metal bands and black magic games so popular among teenagers. You can imagine how relieved early 90’s parents must have been when Disney released a string of fun-for-the-whole-family films that were wholesome and entertaining. These successful animated fairy-tales (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin) presented clearly-defined singing characters, in a fantastical setting, who were caught up in dramatic events that always ended happily. Thanks, in part, to the vision of Jeffery Katzenberg, Disney’s animated fairy-tales gave parents some much-needed time off: the video release of these films assured parents at least two hours of peace and quiet, from the moment they pushed play until the final song of the end credits.

At the end of Katzenberg’s stint at Disney, however, it was clear he was trying to do more with the animated fairy-tale genre. The Lion King took on a Shakespearean story line and moved closer to realistic looking animation, thanks to technical innovations and increasingly sophisticated computer software. After a much-publicized falling-out with Disney, Katzenberg became a founding member of Dreamworks Entertainment. Dreamworks made a quick impression on the animation world with the very biblical (and Jewish) Prince of Egypt, the Woody Allen-ish Antz, a buddy-picture with two VERY CLOSE buddies called The Road to Eldorado, and (for you Wallace & Grommit fans) the stop-action full-length feature Chicken Run. But none of these animated films challenge their own genre as directly as Shrek.

The film’s title refers to the main character, an ogre (voiced by Mike Myers) who doesn’t quite fit in. But Shrek isn’t your average fairy-tale misfit. Shrek is like no other creature because, as an ogre, he has layers. Not layers like in a cake, he explains to his new-found talking donkey friend (Eddie Murphy as Balaam’s donkey from Numbers 22), more like the layers of an onion. You see, cakes are sweet and everyone likes them; Shrek, the character and the movie itself, is not a cake. Shrek (Shrek) is an onion.

What makes Shrek so layered is that it walks a complicated line between fantasy and reality. “Shrek kind of looks backwards at all the fairy tale traditions we grew up on,” says producer Katzenberg, “and takes great fun turning all those storytelling conventions upside-down and inside out.”

Among the conventions that get turned inside out are the sweet sing-along moments common in Disney films. Shrek stifles Donkey’s attempts at song, the princess screeches fatal high notes, and theme-and-variation orchestrations are replaced with a rock’n’roll soundtrack that alludes to the coming of a new generation. Shrek is a new kind of fairy-tale that doesn’t seek the perfection that Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow) the keeper of a neat and tidy “magic kingdom” desires, that doesn’t have the storybook ending Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) dreams of, that ultimately doesn’t pretend to offer happiness ever after.

Even the look of the film conveys the filmmakers’ intentions to bring more reality into the fantasy-world of contemporary fairy-tale. At one point this desire actually caused them to go too far. Princess Fiona’s digital image was, for a while, so realistic that she looked out of place in her fairy-tale surroundings. The animators had to refrain from using the full potential of the digital technology in order to maintain this unique mixture that might be called a live-action-style animated film.

Shrek definitely blurs the line between animation and live-action films. And, all in all, it recognizes that the difference between fantasy and reality is also blurred. Even when confused children grow up, they still won’t know where reality begins and fantasy ends. As a film for both children and adults, Shrek does not pretend that such a clear-cut distinction between the two exists. Life isn’t as neat and tidy as Farquaad’s perfect kingdom. Shrek is more like an onion than a cake because life is that way.

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