Thursday, June 21, 2007

Shrek It Up, Baby

So, I went to see Shrek the Third, aka Shrek 3, a few days ago, finally. As is often the case, having already heard that the movie wasn't that good, my expectations were low, and I was pleasantly surprised, as was my son. Without a doubt, this was the weakest of the three, but that's the rule with movie sequels, third time's the harm.

If you've never seen it, they have a little video about Shrek 3 when you first enter the official site, and what's interesting is that they only emphasize one aspect of the movie, the incorporation of several fairytale princesses, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Rapunzel, in addition to Fiona the ogre-princess, played by Cameron Diaz, and her mother, Queen Lillian of Far Far Away, who's voiced by Julie Andrews. As for the princesses, their alter egos are:

Amy Poehler as Snow White
Cheri Oteri as Sleeping Beauty
Maya Rudolph as Rapunzel
Amy Sedaris as Cinderella
An impressive tetrad of comediennes! And they really stole the show.

Unfortunately, much like Spider-Man 3, the subject of a previous post, the filmmakers tried to cram too much stuff into one movie and the result is a bit of a mess. So, they also had a second plot line involving a teenage Arthur Pendragon, pre-Camelot as one of the unpopular kids in a high school setting called Worcestershire Academy. So, there are some high school jokes, but not enough to make it worthwhile (and unrealized potential for some Harry Potter parody as well) and the whole Arthurian mythos is pretty much passed over, except for some scenes with an eccentric Merlin played by Eric Idle, but sadly it was no Monty Python and the Holy Grail (even with John Cleese reprising his role as King Harold, the frog, who croaks early in the story).

There's potential for Shrek to play A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and the results could be very funny, but the focus was on young Arthur. Neither was there any play on The Once and Future King, despite the presence of Merlin, and the use of magical transformations in other contexts. There was no art to this plot thread, and the movie would have been better for some artless cutting.

Worst of all, they indulged in some sentimentality concerning Shrek's impending fatherhood, and his relationship with Arthur as a reluctant father-figure. It's a bad sign when characters that thrive on the absurd start taking themselves seriously, and that's what happened to Shrek this third time out. Somewhat, that is, because, again, the movie was not all bad, not by any means, and in fact was still quite entertaining (as long as you're not looking for it to match the first two in quality).

The Shrek movies are at their best when they are providing contemporary, show-business-savvy spins on fairy tale themes. They are especially effective at sending up Disney animations and theme parks (and as a fan of Disney animations and theme parks, I will say that Shrek's parody, puns, and playing around are never offensive, mean-spirited or spiteful, just good fun). And they've found the perfect target in the Disney Princesses™, a group that brings together Disney's big three, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella (but no Rapunzel so far), along with their more recent superstar, Belle (from Beauty and the Beast, star of stage, screen, and song), and usually Ariel (aka the Little Mermaid) as well, and sometimes one or more of Pocahontas (the real, historical native American princess, as fictionalized by Disney), Jasmine (Aladdin's Arabian princess), and even Mulan (from China, the only Disney princess who was never a princess). Here's a classic image of them (please don't send your lawyers after me, O great and powerful Disney):

What makes the Disney Princesses™ an especially apt target is that, as a collective entity, they are not a byproduct of the motion picture arts and sciences, but rather the result of a very clever marketing strategy. That is to say, there was no film, no narrative, that ever brought together these disparate products of folklore and oral tradition, literature, and historical writing. Instead, it was astute observation of the dress and behavior of young girls at Disney theme parks that led to the realization that the Disney Princesses™, as a collective entity, already existed in the minds of their fans, and that they could be transformed into a marketable commodity.

Now, I know some people find this sort of thing deplorable, both for its emphasis on consumerism and its promulgation of traditional gender roles (although the later princesses, e.g., Belle, Pocahontas, and Mulan, are much more progressive), and there is a point to that sort of critique. But there is also something very sweet and wholesome about it all, and there are a hell of a lot of worse things in the world than little girls indulging in princess fantasies (and little boys daydreaming of heroics).

By the way, on the Disney Princesses™ website, you can take a quiz to find out which Disney princess you are. I did, and I learned that:

You are most like Cinderella!

You are a true party girl. You like dressing up in glamorous outfits and holding parties. You are also very kind and caring.

And you know what? Sometimes I do feel just like Cinderella (right Barb?), or maybe that should be Cinderfella (a 1960 Jerry Lewis movie directed by Frank Tashlin, who excelled at making comic-like comedies).

Anyway, my intent is not to condemn the Disney Princesses™, just to note that they make for fine grist for the Shrekian mill, so to speak. And Shrek 3 goes to the heart of their idiosyncrasies, making Cinderella a neat freak who cleans when she's stressed, and turning Sleeping Beauty into a narcoleptic. Snow White is characterized as a control freak in the video on the official site, and during the baby shower for Fiona, the event that brings them all together, she gives Fiona a dwarf ("I have six more at home"), and repeatedly exerts control over animals. Rapunzel is all about the hair, of course, and being fickle goes along with that. Queen Lillian is matronly, and matriarchal, and can knock down walls with a head butt that speaks of her queenly power. And there's also Doris the Ugly Stepsister, hilariously looking like a cross dresser with five o'clock shadow, with a voice belonging to Regis Philbin. Oh, and there's also Dragon, the gigantic but girlish flying dragon that Donkey (played by Eddie Murphy) married (the parts of Donkey and Antonio Banderas's Puss in Boots are also terribly diluted by the Arthurian distraction). But why not include Belle, at least, and Ariel, and make it a princess party, and have Shrek be comically uncomfortable in that feminine environment?

The best part of the film is when the princesses are locked up when the fairy tale villains invade and take over, and Fiona convinces them not to wait around to be rescued, but to take action for themselves. Considering that Cameron Diaz played one of Charlie's Angels in the remade for the big screen movie and its sequel, there was another parody opportunity that was missed. But the funniest scene in the whole movie is when Snow White takes on two evil haunted trees. She begins by singing in the semi-operatic fashion of the original Disney feature, and as she does so, the animals of the forest gather around her in that pretty and peaceable way that we associate with the Disney film. Then all of a sudden the sound shifts to the familiar wail of Roger Plant and the sounds of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," and with that heavy metal soundtrack the animals suddenly charge in formation, attacking and defeating the evil trees. A brilliant and hilarious sequence.

Shrek movies rely on really effective use of good popular music, and Shrek 3 has some other high points, as the princesses attack to the tune of "Barracuda" (but not the Heart version unfortunately, but a cover by Fergie, whoever that is--showing my age, I know). The much-missed Harry Chapin is heard singing "Cat's in the Cradle," and there's one from The Ramones, "Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio?" And the film ends with Eddie Murphy and Antonio Banderas doing the Sly and the Family Stone standard, "Thank You (Falletin Me Be Mice Elf Again)," not too badly but who can match Sly? But apart from the Zep moment, the high point was at the funeral of King Harold, where we heard Paul McCartney and Wings doing "Live and Let Die" for a little bit. Groovy tunes, but I wish there had been more of them (there were some others not worth mentioning included in the film's soundtrack).

If you haven't seen them yet, I do recommend Shrek and Shrek 2, and the short video Shrek 4-D is a lot of fun, but better yet is the Shrek 4-D attraction that the film is taken from, at the Universal Studios theme parks in Orlando and Hollywood. Shrek the Third comes in fourth after these three, but with Mike Myers doing his Scottish brogue, Shrek is still good for a laugh, and now as the father of an ogre brood, has every reason to extend the franchise further into Far Far Away.

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