This review was originally published at Christianity Today.
When we bade farewell to the happily honeymooning ogres Shrek (Mike Myers) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz), it seemed like a “happily ever after” ending. True love had saved Fiona from the curse that bound her in the guise of a human being during the daylight. At last she was free to be her ogre-ly self, 24-7. She had learned to accept who she was, and she had discovered someone who loved her that way. Shrek had overcome his antisocial attitude and become a local hero. Donkey (Eddie Murphy) seemed happy to have found friends who would tolerate his nonstop talk.
Viewers cheered for Shrek’s triumph, but it was Donkey who stole the show. So, sure enough, we get an extra helping of donkey’s braying nonsense in Shrek 2. We also get more of everything we liked about the first film, and less of the things that didn’t work.
In Shrek 2, Shrek begrudgingly accepts an invitation to travel with Fiona to the land of Far Far Away. Fiona’s parents (John Cleese and Julie Andrews) are expecting to meet a charming new son-in-law … literally. They think Fiona’s rescuer was Prince Charming himself.
But Charming (Rupert Everett), who was indeed dispatched to rescue Fiona from captivity in a dragon cave, got there too late. Shrek had already done the job. Apparently, Shrek never played theater in the land of Far Far Away-the king and queen know nothing of Fiona’s marriage to the jolly green giant from the swamp. Thus, it’s not just Shrek that will surprise them. They’ll be shocked to see their daughter looking ogre-ish in the daylight.
When Charming learns that Fiona’s already made her marital vows, he returns home to plot Plan B with his mother, the infamous Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders). While Far Far Away is governed by royalty, Godmother’s the one who really runs the show, ruling the kingdom with a dangerous magic wand and a pantry full o’ potions.
Shrek and Fiona are welcomed to the castle by a crowd of astonished and appalled locals. The people of Far Far Away, like their reigning monarchs, judge others by their appearance—and Shrek’s not their idea of admirable. For a while, it looks like a storybook retelling of Meet the Parents—when Shrek and the king trade insults over dinner, he looks likely to “Hulk out.” While Fiona consoles her fuming husband behind closed doors, the king becomes an easy subject for the manipulative Godmother. He determines to take Shrek out of the picture—first, by the hiring of a notorious assassin, and then by the influence of enchanted beverages that promise more than your daily dose of antioxidants.
The first threat, a feisty feline in famous footwear, is played by Antonio Banderas with panache and personality—Puss-in-Boots nearly steals the show. If there’s a Shrek 3, there will be at least as much expectation of more Puss as there is of more Donkey. And the way things look, we may as well speculate about Shrek 4, 5 and 6. Banderas’ exuberant contributions and some animation brilliance make this one of the all-time great cartoon cats. He deserves his own franchise.
Director Andrew Adamson and his team of co-writers keep the story moving at a quick clip, packing the screen with cleverness that will reward repeated viewings. He also guides the characters with more confidence; Shrek, Fiona, and Donkey interact as comfortably as if they’d starred in a sitcom together for decades. The DreamWorks animation team serves up another dazzling show of animation that raises the bar yet again for Pixar and Disney studios, but there’s no “showoff” factor this time. The look of the film supports the story instead of drawing attention to itself.
Although Harry Gregson-Williams’s pitch-perfect soundtrack is again punctuated by somewhat intrusive pop songs (I still wince when I remember the appalling abuse of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in the first film), this time the selections are better suited to the material. Even such superlative artists such as Tom Waits and Nick Cave fit right in. While I prefer the pure storytelling style of Finding Nemo and The Iron Giant, Shrek 2‘s relentless parodies of other movies work better here than they did last time. Spoofs of Mission: Impossible and TV’s “COPs” earn big laughs while buoying the characters along toward an adrenalin-rush conclusion, one of the fastest and most frenzied action climaxes ever.
Shrek 2 ends up not so much an extension of Shrek‘s story as an improved retelling. The theme remains the same—we should not judge a book by its cover, even if that cover is lime green and covered in warts. The first Shrek declared open season on Disney clichés, throwing not-so-subtle jabs at the way Mickey Mouse’s house has become preoccupied with stories of characters who long to be something they’re not.
In defense of those “transformation stories,” such fairy tales as Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella speak to our deep suspicion that we are not what we were meant to be. It’s no accident that such stories recur throughout history and cultures. They strike chords that resonate within us because we are, indeed, flawed, “asleep,” incomplete. On some level, we’re waiting for the day that our Creator will redeem us from our “cursed” state, purge us of our sins, save us from a wicked world, and raise us up to the ideal existence he intended.
Nevertheless, Disney deserved a critique. It’s not Disney’s focus on fairy tales that is the problem; it’s the way their versions of fairy tales eliminate the complexity of the source material, and the way they have inclined generations toward the idea that a true happy ending involves the blessing of Barbie-like good looks.
This time around, it’s not Disney that’s the butt of the joke (although there are few more unmistakable potshots taken at the studio giant along the way). Shrek 2 has the “beauties” of Beverly Hills in its sights. With a red carpet welcome party hosted by a Joan Rivers look-alike, the filmmakers make a mockery of Oscar glitz and glamour. Through the Fairy Godmother’s exultation in the power of her potions, we see a media-wise perspective on the culture of cosmetic surgery.
Celebrity culture has polluted popular imaginations with poor definitions of beauty. On “reality” TV, women and men give up their natural appearances for artificial beauty in order to gain acceptance and temporary happiness. One such show is called The Swan, a reference to the famous fairy tale of the ugly duckling. These shows only reinforce the insecurities of viewers who have been sold a lie. They tell us that we have to change our exterior in order to be truly satisfied. The Shrek movies remind us that it is not our appearance that needs changing, but our hearts. Further, it affirms that no matter what we look like, we all have value, gifts, and the potential to truly make a difference.
But the implications go as far as viewers care to take them. Shrek 2‘s critique applies to any culture that has its codes of behavior and appearance. The land of Far Far Away might be reflecting playground ethics or high school culture. But it might also be your political party. It might be your health club. It could be your neighborhood, or your nation. It might sometimes even be the church.
Yes, even Christian “culture” has its prejudices, tending to jump to unflattering conclusions about those who are “different.” They may not be green-skinned or smelly. But they might have colorful language, an audacious sense of jewelry, or some ideas about love, politics, sexuality, or even diet that is dissonant with our own. How often do we wish we could change a stranger’s vocabulary, appearance, or manners so that we can feel more comfortable with them? Certainly we have room to be concerned about inappropriate behavior, because choices can lead to serious consequences. But if we approach others with an aim to change them rather than an aim to know them, to love them, and to exemplify a better life for them, we make ourselves ugly with arrogance in the process.
Will Shrek give in to the pressure, and conform to the Far Far Away idea of beautiful? Will he and Donkey succumb to Fairy Godmother’s tempting offer of an extreme makeover? Moviegoers can rest easy. A saint is known by his response to temptations, and in the land of fairy tales, Shrek and Fiona are holy fools.