Deconstruction and Reconstruction in Shrek
Analyzing Shrek? Really?: Really Really!
A common refrain when analyzing popular media (especially media like animation which is mostly associated with children) is to accuse the analyzer of elitism. The accusations mostly center on the analyst being some sort of elitist who wishes to push their ideological or “worldly” values on everyone else and take the “fun” out of the movie. Further, they’re discrediting themselves, the movies and their audiences by subjecting themselves and others to their foolish ways. It just doesn’t make sense to spend so much of our time thinking about things we weren’t meant to think about in the first place.
Now, there’s a lot going on here with these sorts of arguments and I want to say in the interest of fairness that I can see where this sometimes comes from. Often when we want to enjoy the magic of something and someone just comes up to us stone-faced and explains everything in such detail that nothing is a mystery anymore, things might then seem stale.
In fact, this sort of thing reminds me of how some people contest that things like science stifle creativity or imagination and the like because it demystifies the universe and what goes on in it. But I think as with the science example the thing about explaining things (no matter the method) is that it never really closes the book. Often times explanations can lead us to wanting more from the person explaining. For more preludes and conclusions and most importantly (at least in terms of story) everything that happens in between that defines these two thing and links them together. In other words neither science nor analysts of movies take away the magic. They can sometimes lessen the enjoyment for others but the “magic” is never really lost. And in the best case scenario it can actually be deepened and enriched.
Explaining any one or three of these things in various ways isn’t inherently harmful to our psyches. Sure, sometimes spoilers can ruin our days or some jerk can walk up to us and explain who really killed JR from Dallas and take away our train of thought or thought process about the mystery. But these things are momentary and the people who take those things away from us can just as easily give us a lot more if we put our minds to it. Taking the example of a mystery being solved for you and without your permission can certainly be a troubling thing and not something I think should be the tone analysists should stick to. But even in this worst case scenario I’d contend that there’s still plenty to be had by thinking about how other people figured it out. What did you miss? What did they get? What would be useful to pay attention to in the future? And where’s the nearest 2X4 so I can wack that guy who ruined the mystery for me?
All of these questions (particularly the last one in this case) are important ones to ask ourselves and sometimes they won’t be asked unless we get a good kick in the butt. But nevertheless that’s not what I think someone should do if they want to explain. If you’re watching a kids film and want to enjoy it as just that and ignore the themes that it brings out, that’s fine. There’s nothing really wrong with enjoying entertainment for its own sake. But at the same time I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to grapple with themes and ideas that these pieces of entertainment give us so long as we try to make it an edifying and positive experience. And we can do that by first respecting those around us and not reinforcing the macho-elitist mindset that some may accuse us of. I think one of the important things for that is to speak our own language. To analyze something I don’t think you need to use ten academic words per second. I think that, in a lot of cases at least, you’re just as fine using your own language. And if that means being a little wordy then that’s fine too, as long as it’s genuine. For me, that’s the important thing.
But more to the point, I’m of the opinion that when we do look into movies that seek to give children and adults some amount of pleasure and critically and culturally succeed in some respect that they’re of particular note. Shrek is just one good example of that. And there’s plenty of themes and ideas to go around. In this short essay I’ll just focus on a few though. First and mainly I want to focus on Shrek’s greatest achievement as a piece of cinema which is reconstruction and deconstruction. Then I want to focus on the themes of identity and acceptance and how Shrek deals with these themes in a fairly satisfying way. Finally I want to address the ways that Fiona is used as a character in the movie and how it works and why.
“That’s what all the other knights did!”
Upon re-watching Shrek, I instantly noticed that Donkey, Fiona and Shrek were all archetypes or certain members of the theater’s audience. Donkey was for the children, obviously. He was constantly cracking jokes, typically either not grasping the situation or trying to make light of it to deal with it and he was very loud and chatty. And while the film is a comedy and Eddie Murphy’s character couldn’t be called comedic relief per se’ because of that he’d still probably be the most deserving of such a title. Fiona was the classical section of the audience. Those who still really loved and cherished the traditional fairy tale roles and stories and would’ve been reacting the same way as Fiona does when she is first rescued. Then there is Shrek. Shrek to me refers to everyone in between. Those people who don’t really buy the fairy tale stuff or do in their hearts but can’t manage to. The Donkey types in the audience typically will get the heart of it (at least somewhat) but won’t grasp the larger picture and the Fiona types will be too wrapped up in the heart of it to see how silly it can be from a logical standpoint. Shrek then stands as a middle ground for these two viewpoints and deconstructs both sides of the discussion in both funny and interesting ways.
One of the most apparent and immediate ways that Shrek deconstructs the genre of fairy tales and the expectations of the audience is being a slightly amoral character who would probably normally be the villain in a traditional fairy tale. He lives in a secluded, smelly and small swamp and is a huge monster that constantly scares people and lives a private life. He clearly wouldn’t be the hero in most fairy tales. But he immediately becomes more relatable as we see his everyday routine and what he does with himself. He eats, he showers, he warns villagers to run after he shouts at them (the typical villain would not do this) and so on. This makes Shrek first and foremost a very powerful deconstruction of one of the biggest tropes in fairy tales: the monster is the bad guy. And that’s sort of funny when you realize that most fairy tales are made up of monsters and the only real differentiation between the one and the other is the morality of their characters. And whether they’re ogres or trolls or whatever is more so incidental than anything else and Shrek himself is a great example of this fact.
To further humanize Shrek he’s given a much more naïve, friendly but often times not as seemingly in-the-know friend in Donkey. Donkey and Shrek both complement each other well because of how obviously different they are from each other. This is not only made apparent but constantly highlights in the movie for great laughs. Shrek is more realistic, cynical and private while Donkey has more of his heads up in the clouds, wants friends and is fairly happy-go-lucky most of the time. In this way Shrek is able to easily use Donkey as a caricature of some of the faults that fairy tales have in them and deconstruct them in often pretty witty dialogue that can also keep children entertained. I don’t mean to imply, however, that no children would get Shrek’s humor. I am of the opinion that children can be a lot smarter (and often times are a lot smarter) than some parents or adults give them credit for. Given that I think it’s more of a spectrum than an absolute declaration of all children being the character of Donkey, I am working with archetypes and approximations not hard and fast rules.
Further, once Fiona is introduced she immediately reminds the audience (if they haven’t figured it out already that is) that something is terribly wrong with the way this is working out so far. Shrek isn’t handsome, he’s not hard working, he hasn’t earned the title of knighthood from any honorable authority and he certainly hasn’t slain any dragons. All of this leads to one of the biggest deconstructions in the entire movie. When Fiona finds out that Shrek hadn’t slain the dragon before he rescued her she exclaims that the situation isn’t right and that he wasn’t doing it the way the other knights had done it Shrek responds:
“Yeah, right before they burst into flames!”
As he says this as they pass a skeleton of one of the other knights who had done what Fiona would have wanted Shrek and Donkey to have done.
Here we see the ultimate deconstruction of the fairy tale myth for it shows the logical fallacy of trying to outpower a dragon with simply some armor and a sword. Instead trying to outwit the dragon via either cowardly sneaking around it or trying to just avoid it all together seems like a much more rational way to do it. After all, the point is to rescue a human being. What does slaying the dragon matter besides some bravado of machismo? If there’s any worth in it Shrek would laugh at it and say that getting his swamp back from Lord Farquaad was what was important, not risking his life just so he could “heroically” slay a dragon. And when you look at the track record of anyone else who tries, which would normally be a boon to the hero for his litany of reasons for trying against his “mighty foe” Shrek uses this as a perfectly reasonable reversal. This reversal of Shrek’s not only deconstructs the over abundant trope of the hero’s journey but also reestablishes his own journey in its stead: the journey of the more logical and less fantastical.
Because, of course, if Shrek was just deconstructing things like fairy tales and all of the typical tropes, ideas, concepts and themes that typically come out of such things than Shrek wouldn’t be a very fun movie at all. But when you add Fiona and Donkey as characters who can both help in and fill the other sides of the discussion and hence balance out Shrek then the movie makes a lot more sense and is a lot more enjoyable as a result. Without Donkey, Shrek would just be a brooding lonely creature who’d scare other people away and would just live alone. And without Fiona, Shrek may have Donkey but he still would only grudgingly accept the world outside him and accept the idea that he can find happiness outside himself. Fiona is the one who helps Shrek reconcile those fairy tale dreams he has in his heart with reality. Because the reality is that sometimes people aren’t who they say they are but sometimes that’s okay.
Identifying Identity in Layers
Another one of the themes that Shrek deals with is the issue of identity and acceptance. These two issues make up some of the pivotal things that help Shrek reconstruct the fairy tale world around himself in a more positive light. Without the proper handling of these issues Shrek would once more fail as a movie because it would leave us for nothing to take with us, only things for us to remove. But instead Shrek helps us understand ourselves not only in relation to ourselves also to others and how we should be accepting of others and look for friendship where acceptance can be found.
Acceptance is one of the biggest parts of the relationships in Shrek. Without Donkey’s initial acceptance of Shrek as not just a “big, stupid, ugly ogre” but someone deserving of friendship because he went out of his way (though probably for the sake of convenience than an invitation for friendship) to protect him. Although this is somewhat naïve because Shrek’s heart wasn’t exactly in the right place for Donkey to invite himself into Shrek’s life, Donkey’s methods of friendship with immediate acceptance work great with Shrek in the future because that’s what Shrek specifically needs. Shrek comments again and again in the movie how he’s typically seen as scary or ugly or nothing but someone who they should be afraid of even though people don’t even try to get to know him. It’s no wonder then that Shrek is for much of the movie grumpy, cynical and only barely clinging to the ideals of the fairy tale story that we might normally associate with this sort of movie.
Fiona on the other hand goes through a rollercoaster of acceptance and lack thereof. She is at first very accepting of Shrek but not because he’s an orgre but because he’s her rescuer and through fairytale rules that makes him automatically acceptable even if he’s a bit unorthodox. But Fiona reveals the folly of this sort of trope when she demands to know what Shrek looks like and Shrek knowing better than this fairy tale trope attempts to decline. Fiona however gets her wish and Shrek takes his helmet off which causes an instant switch in Fiona’s mood as she declares upsettingly that he’s an orgre and that this is all wrong. She then attempts to fulfill the logical extension of this kind of logic against monsters in fairytales by preferring to starve (it’s not stated explicitly she’d starve but I can’t really imagine Fiona would be able to survive long, especially with the dragon so close) than go with Shrek and wait for her true rescuer. This changes the dynamics of the relationship and Shrek reverts back to the typical monster role of the kidnapper. Shrek even affirms this role rather explicitly when Robin Hood and his Merry Men try to “save” Fiona from him. But of course the audience knows better and Robin is instead made quick work of by Fiona herself (and we’ll get into that soon).
Fiona’s ogre form that happens after sunset is another big part of identity and acceptance in the movie. It’s a big part of contention for Fiona herself who thinks she’s nothing but an ugly creature which just shows that Fiona still has, in the end, chosen to internalize the tropes and ideas that most fairy tales traditionally say about “creatures” like her. Throughout her adventure with Shrek and Donkey it is seen at various points that part of who Fiona is is her ogre personality. The belches she does in the forest, as well as the killing of the bird through singing…and then…killing its young… (Seriously, that’s some pretty messed up stuff when you think about it…) and eating traditional swamp food with Shrek. All of these things and more suggest that the ogre part of her is a legitimate form of her identity but because she has internalized the typical fairy tale ideas of what beauty is and is not she cannot accept this about herself. Donkey tries to convince her otherwise in their talk in the shed before Farquaad comes but it’s of no use. Shrek, mishearing the conversation as slights against him gives up on his then obvious romantic attraction to Fiona, having been rejected once more.
From here we have what Doug Walker, better known as the Nostalgia Critic, calls the “misunderstanding” trope or “liar revealed trope”. This is where something is either misunderstood or misheard and the characters have to spend some time being depressed (usually) before figuring out it was a misunderstanding, clearing up the misunderstanding and moving on with the plot.
To Walker’s this is often times a huge waste of time, doesn’t move the plot forward in any meaningful way. And Walker finds himself constantly frustrated with the fact that most of the time these things could be solved by just telling the truth but for some reason this either doesn’t happen immediately or sometimes not for a long time. Thankfully Shrek only falls pretty to this trope a little and while I agree with Walker that this trope is overplayed I don’t think Shrek overly-abused the already overly-abused trope just for the sake of showing the consequences of being rejected. And while the scenes were fairly pointless, the constant linking up of pictures to characters was a really nice touch and kept me engaged and interested even if I sympathize with Walker’s critiques of this trope.
In the end of course, Fiona reveals to Shrek what she really is, he accepts her while Farquaad doesn’t and Donkey and the fire-breathing dragon (who turned out to be a female fire-breathing dragon) appear to be dating as well. In all of these relationships acceptance is an important thing here too with Shrek telling Fiona that she is beautiful in his eyes when she’s an ogre. This leads to a probably over-simplified but good enough conclusion to the arc of identity and acceptance in the movie. Going back to the themes of deconstruction and reconstruction and tying it into acceptance and identity Shrek has done such a good job with Fiona that he replaced her fear of herself with acceptance of herself. And this is a fairly powerful message, especially for people who don’t believe in themselves or how they look. It’s not an especially new viewpoint and even the way it’s presented probably isn’t that unique either but what matters to me at least is that it works.
Stopping the Music: A Quick Analysis of Fiona in Shrek
First and most importantly we see Fiona kick the pants off of the “damsels in distress” trope in some ways and reinforce them in others.
At first she certainly not only reinforces them but goes as far as to talk like she is living in such an era where that was still the norm. And as I said before she immediately accepts Shrek with very little disregard to who he may be on the inside and rests her acceptance solely on the fact that he rescued her and nothing more. And also as I said before she then immediately rejects Shrek after he reveals his true identity as an ogre. This reveals the inherent one-dimensional aspects of the trope of the damsel in distress. The fact that Shrek may have been a bad guy should have been enough to deter Fiona from immediately throwing herself at Shrek. But instead she disregards this mysterious man who she knows nothing about, knows neither his motivations nor his origins and doesn’t even know his name for the first few minutes of being rescued (by which time she’s already made some moves on him).
But this is just at first. Within time Fiona carefully peels back the “damsel” persona and seems fully capable to live by herself without Shrek or Donkey if that’s what it takes to find her “real savior”. This may not be an exact cry for independence but at least it shows Fiona is willing to deal with the hand she’s dealt and deal with it in a way that’d require significant physical and mental will on her part. I think that this shows at least a partial growing of her as a character which is only further sped up by the forest scene where she trashes Robin Hood and his merry men single handedly. Shrek is immediately impressed and Fiona nonchalantly replies that she had plenty of time on her own to develop the skills necessary to survive. This once again throws a big wrench in the gears of the damsel trope. After all, why wouldn’t the damsel train themselves with that much time to themselves so they ensure they aren’t captured again? It sure would be nice to see Peach or Zelda pick up some classes…
Fiona not only acts confident the whole time she’s wailing on her captors but remains cool about it the whole time and afterwards, like it isn’t a big deal. And this is a key thing right here because it shows an attempt at normalizing the conception of damsels being a pretty silly concept and the notion of women being able to fend for themselves given the right circumstances just like anyone else. It also develops her character further to see her in action (which she seemingly doesn’t put to good use in the climax, but then to be fair although Shrek gets off a few hits he’s ultimately powerless too and it’s ultimately Donkey and the dragon’s time to shine) and taking an active role in shaping where she goes in her journey and ultimately deciding to go with Shrek. Whether it’s because the music was just annoying or because she saw something in both Donkey and Shrek (and more so Shrek) this movie certainly had its moments of giving Fiona her time to shine.
Are you a believer?
Ultimately the aim of Shrek is reflected in the song at the end, “I’m a Believer” by Smash Mouth (and originally by The Monkees): trying to make you believe.
Believe in what? Well mainly it seems to be in yourself, in who you are, not who others say you are. I think it’s also trying to teach us understanding that there are layers to all of us and not just the prejudgments that people sometimes make about us because how we appear on the outside. It’s about looking for friends in the places that we feel the most accepted and cared for and not in the places that are disingenuous or dangerous for one reason or another. And finally it’s about recognizing other people in the same way we’d like to be recognized and not just instantly and forever stamped by bad judgments. Ultimately Shrek helps promote positive messages from both reality and fairy tales and brings the best of both worlds to the audience. This is a big part of why I think Shrek works so well as a movie. Shrek isn’t perfect and it certainly has its problems but overall I think it really succeeds where it needs to and makes it so you’re hard-pressed to dislike the characters you’re supposed to like and vice versa.
If Shrek’s goal as a movie was to make me think that fairy tale movies can still work while adopting some post-modern realism (or perhaps its cynicism) then consider me a believer.