As the movie opens, a hand-lettered book of fairy tales unfolds and a narrator’s voice begins to intone the story that we see splayed out, in words and pictures, across the luminous parchment. It’s a familiar tale of knighthood, castles and damsels in distress, and it lasts, oh, about 15 seconds, until suddenly–RRRIIIPPPP. The last of those pages gets rudely torn from its context, a flushing sound is heard, and thus we learn the fate of this old page of traditional literature: It’s been used as toilet paper by a lumpy, green, swamp-dwelling ogre named Shrek.
So begins Shrek, a new, massively expensive and heavily hyped DreamWorks computer-animated feature that evidences the increasing disparity between the startling refinement of CGI wizardry and the reflexive crudeness for which it’s used. Here again, we have an example of the central paradox of technology-based entertainment forms: The more sophisticated the hardware becomes, the more puerile the content.
Don’t movies, especially now that they’ve entered the computer era, offer a decisive improvement on the text-bound fantasies of literature? Do they not leave behind the messy moorings of Gutenberg’s printshop and allow the human spirit to finally soar into the imaginative empyrean? Well, no. Quite the opposite, in fact. But at least Shrek, which is full of cliched fart jokes, manages a bit of emblematic honesty in its opening moments. Literature, the beauty of the written word, are to this kind of movie just as it shows us: scraps of the past useful only for, say, wiping one’s ass and then being tossed down the crapper.
Of course, this initial scene doesn’t come across as offensive on-screen it may sound, for two reasons. First, audiences have now been thoroughly programmed to pay no attention to ideas or metaphorical understandings, so the gag here registers as nothing more than an opportune comic fillip. Second, every moment and move in Shrek is put across with consummate, calculated innocuousness. The fart jokes aren’t the scabrous variety that might spring from the irreverent brainpans of R. Crumb or Ralph Bakshi; they’re nice, fun-for-the-whole-family fart jokes–just like on TV.
Indeed, the formulas of television can be spied behind many of the strategies that guide Shrek, including its tepid, nudge-nudge vulgarity. For those of us who stopped watching prime-time TV in the innocent era of Happy Days, it’s still a shock to be flipping the channels and notice that the promos for current sitcoms are almost exclusively devoted to moronic chatter about sex, bodily functions and other subjects of subadolescent fixation. Did the lords of television simply notice that the American mind had become trapped at the level of a hormome-addled 12-year-old, or did a couple of generations of TV brainwashing produce that condition?
However you explain the phenomenon’s origins, not only has the form of humor formerly associated with the bathroom and the barnyard become a central pillar of TV comedy writing, but the practice has generated its own bogus mythology. It is supposed to be honest, contemporary and down-to-earth, man, as opposed to repressed, old-fashioned and stuck-up. This line of reasoning, which might be called the populist defense of systematic vulgarization, is fully embraced by Shrek, as that opening scene demonstrates. But of course, its jes-folks “honesty” conceals a very cynical species of dishonesty, just as its supposedly liberating effects amount to a new form of confinement. The real impetus behind this slick, commercial coarseness is to replace the difficulties of wit with the convenience of banality, which is as “democratic” as the modern septic tank.
Indeed, the aesthetic problem with such programmatic vulgarity, which seems epidemic on television and is steadily infecting movies (see Freddy Got Fingered and its ilk), is not its content per se (smutty versus clean) but the fact that it replaces originality with formula, creativity with cliché. Not surprisingly, Shrek‘s main story elements seem to have been spit out by a computer programmed for “comforting quasi-familiarity.”
Shrek, the big green medieval ogre (voiced by Mike Myers), emerges from his outhouse and soon finds himself equipped with a smart-mouth comic sidekick in the form of a donkey voiced by Eddie Murphy. His troubles begin when his swampy home is invaded by a host of Disney-like fairytale stalwarts like Pinocchio and Peter Pan, who’ve been dislodged from their habitats by the evil Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow). To free himself from this pestilence, Shrek appeals to Farquaad and is sent on a dangerous quest to rescue Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), whom the gnarly noble intends to marry.
As it happens, not only does Shrek fall in love with Fiona, but the beautiful princess has a secret to hide from him. At night she turns into an ugly-stepsister version of herself, a creature who looks like a pea-green cross between Oprah and Miss Piggy. Could Shrek–or anyone–love such an appearance-challenged heroine? I’ll return to the movie’s supposedly uplifting “message” further on. First, let me allow the surface facility with which the movie is mounted.
The jokes may not be that funny in general (the best seem ad-libbed by Murphy, despite the film’s large phalanx of writers) but they come at an engagingly regular pace. Likewise, the characters are drawn with appealing quirkiness, the songs add the right soupon of sentimental ballast, and, most striking of all, the computer images have the sculptured three-dimensionality that’s so lifelike and eye-pleasing that it makes you wonder if the days of old-school pen-and-ink animation aren’t numbered. DreamWorks seems to think it has a surefire hit on its hands in Shrek, and it may well be right. Yet behind the movie’s crowd-pleasing efficacy there’s a hint of mean-spiritedness and cynicism that can’t be ignored.
In his Village Voice review, J. Hoberman attributes this quality to DreamWorks head Jeffrey Katzenberg and his longstanding feud with Michael Eisner, his former boss at Disney. “If DreamWorks is [Katzenberg’s] market revenge upon Michael Eisner for not forking over $580 million in shared profits (after he’d already doled out a $100 million parting gift), then Shrek is Katzenberg’s most juvenile affront,” Hoberman writes, noting the subtly nasty way Shrek twigs Disney prototypes while simultaneously trying to outdo them.
In the light of history, that petty snarkiness is a shame. Katzenberg deserves great credit for reviving the Disney animation tradition during his years at that studio, which included making such latter-day cartoon masterpieces as Beauty and the Beast. Here in the age of CGI animation, though, he’s perhaps irate at Eisner not only for past financial spats but out of current creative rivalry too. Disney has the Pixar-created Toy Story franchise, which boasts the kind of thoroughgoing originality and genuine humanity that Shrek obviously envies yet doesn’t come close to matching.
Indeed, not only are Shrek‘s achievements of the superficial sort, but its ultimate message turns out to be both gratingly glib and focused on surfaces too. Rather than Shrek being transformed into a handsome prince to match the comely Fiona, she’s kept in her ugly-stepsister form (which, of course, is ugly-cute) to match him. This no doubt is meant to broadcast–to kids especially–that looks don’t matter, yet the film stumbles on its own internal contradictions. If “looksism” is really the enemy to be defeated, then why is Farquaad continually ridiculed for being short, a taunt that probably afflicts more real-life kids than the more subjective charge of ugliness? And isn’t it just reinforcing another hoary stereotype that the female’s reality is made to fit the male’s, rather than vice versa?
As it functions within Shrek‘s overall pattern of meaning, the movie’s self-serving endorsement of plug-ugliness is another example of its TV-style bogus populism, one that parallels and reinforces its use of formulaic vulgarity. That both tactics add to the film’s shallow fashionableness is only to be regretted. You can hardly open your eyes today without sensing that the culture is in the grip of a veritable cult-of-ugly, which delights in besmirching ideals and rivals Orwellian newspeak in its avidity to redefine “beauty” as anything but. Animated movies might’ve seemed like one sure bastion against the cult’s incursions, but Shrek sadly suggests otherwise.
About Adam, a romantic comedy set in yuppified Dublin, is similarly superficial and obsessed with looks, but thankfully not so given over to the cause of heroic homeliness. Kate Hudson, the cast’s obligatory American, plays one of four siblings in a middle-class family who become infatuated with the eponymous Adam (Stuart Townsend), a good-looking smoothie who tells each new conquest a different story about his past and his vintage Jaguar.
The premise may sound like an intriguing basis for psychological or allegorical explorations, but what About Adam has in mind, its tricky postmodern structure notwithstanding, is more along the lines of a Friends-like sitcom with just enough sex to make for a steamy trailer. Given such an ambition, you won’t be surprised to learn that the movie’s “Irishness” is so deracinated that it might have been created in Burbank.
With this film and the recent Bridget Jones’s Diary, Miramax seems to be in the process of creating a new genre: mildly naughty fake British comedies starring blonde American actresses. Yet About Adam at least can boast the charm of its capable cast, including Hudson, who may be the most appealing newcomer in American movies. The cult of ugly will not be able to rest as long as she waves those flaxen locks and flashes that million-kilowatt smile.