Shrek Forever After (Mitchell, 2010)

I am periodically re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 2 July 2010 on betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk.

This blog contains spoilers.

The Shrek franchise has always riffed on surrounding culture to humorous effect. And like most contemporary franchises, it surrounds itself with merchandise: action figures, duvet covers, video games, clothes. This sort of activity has been around for a long time. However, I discovered this evening another form of diffusion/repurposing that is at least a little newer. There is a particularly memorable ‘turn’ early in the movie, and at what turns out to be a crucial narrative juncture, which involves a young boy, reminiscent of Augustus Gloop in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, repeatedly demanding that Shrek ‘do the roar’. The repetition, editing pattern and timing of this in the movie make it very funny. And ‘do the roar’, a web search reveals, has, to use an ostensibly vague trio of words which in fact precisely captures the nature of the phenomenon we are faced with, ‘become a thing’. When I google ‘shrek do the roar’ this is what I get: http://tinyurl.com/shrdtr. There is a YouTube video that re-edits the movie to MC Hammer’s ‘U Can’t Touch This’, to great effect. There is a link to a Facebook group page which bears the following description: ‘Welcome to a Facebook Page about The kid from shrek who says “Do the Roar!” Join Facebook to start connecting with The kid from shrek who says Do the Roar!“‘. And, perhaps inevitably, there is an iTunes App: ‘Do The Roar, will allow anyone to annoy Shrek, and cause him to bellow out his enormous Ogre roar. Use Butterpants to help you annoy Shrek,‘ And those are just the first three hits!

A recurrent line of argument in film studies is that the contemporary commercial and media environment in which popular cinema exists mean that movies must appear across several different platforms, and that the pressure of such a commercial imperative causes their narratives to become incoherent. (A related line of argument is that the era of the blockbuster shepherded in the ‘movie as rollercoaster’, a thrill-ride of sensations, a mechanical series of ups and downs, rather than a carefully worked out story. 3D aesthetics, and the resurgence of 3D, invite us to revisit this analogy, and we will touch upon 3D aesthetics below.) Such arguments are not entirely negligible. In the Matrix Trilogy – the cinematic component of theMatrix franchise (and the dominant part of that supertext, to which all other parts ought to be subordinate??) – to take a good example, it is true, I would say, that the power station sequence inReloaded seems at least a little thin and undermotivated – and when one learns that the Matrix videogame involves a much more elaborate treatment of the same location, things start to make more sense. It is true that the thinness of the power station sequence in Reloaded or what one might tentatively call the ‘excess’ of the sequence with the young boy in the latest Shrek do pull us out of the narrative flow somewhat, and make the moviegoing experience less smooth, but then, i) it is not only intertextuality that does this; ii) complete ‘smoothness’ is neither a desirable nor even a possible state for narrative fiction, predicated as it is on development and conflict; iii) neither moment radically endangers the narrative coherence of the movie (or supertext) of which it is part.
Indeed, Shrek Forever After possesses a very carefully worked out plot, one which, as we shall see, owes certain debts to ‘classical’ movies and genres of the Hollywood cinema, and some of its most interesting elements of ‘un-smoothness’, tension and excess have nothing to do with the fact that the studio that made it also wants to sell toys and the people who see it want to make YouTube videos or set up Facebook groups. Rather, they emerge, in a much more old-fashioned way, from aspects of narrative, character and genre (all of which, of course, rely upon intertextuality, albeit of a different form).
We can see Shrek Forever After partly as a form of what Kristine Brunovska Karnick calls ‘reaffirmation comedy’ and what Stanley Cavell calls the ‘comedy of remarriage’, where ‘the drive of its plot is not to get the central pair together, but to get them backtogether, together again‘ (Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness). The reader who has seen Shrek Forever After will know that I am cheating here slightly, because, oweing to its alternate-world narrative, only Shrek knows that he and Fiona are already married, and Fiona is a completely different person who does not know Shrek at all. But I’ll get to that.
The moment that made me think most strongly of the comedy of remarriage was a sequence where Shrek and Fiona have been chained by the villainous Rumplestiltskin in such a fashion that when one moves towards the other, it causes the other to be pulled away. There soon follows an action sequence where ‘the camera’ swoops around through the space, joining Shrek and Fiona in a dance of movement as they work together and use their chains to turn the tables on their antagonists. As Dr Martin Pumphrey, a truly superb teacher at the University of Warwick, taught me in a final year undergraduate module on film comedy, the heyday of the reaffirmation comedy/comedy of remarriage/screwball comedy cycle occurred at roughly the same time as the rise of censorship, and we can see both the sparky dialogue and the pratfalls and physical comedy of the central duo in those movies as a sublimation of sexual impulses and desires. To see a plot work itself out bodily is one of the great pleasures of comedy, along with other even more disreputable genres.
And during this sequence, I felt that the movie’s 3D presentation added something to its achievement and its expressivity. I am generally skeptical of 3D, mainly because movies are not computer games, and are the better for it, and as such the worlds of the movie and the audience should remain separate, and will remain separate even if something jumps out at us to give us a scare. We are not in a straightforward sense participants in movie narratives: we do not affect their outcomes. (We are, however, ‘participant observers’, to borrow a term used by V F Perkins in relation to film, and movies rely upon our consent and our mental acitivity for their fictions and stories to work). But perhaps this is an argument against the misguided rhetoric of those selling 3D rather than 3D itself, promising to put us ‘right there in the picture’. And this is not exclusive to 3D: the same empty promise accompanies every new technological innovation. As a compositional tool or mode, 3D can definitely enhance the eloquence of certain framings, and the effectiveness of the physical and bodily working out of narrative, and as such is not ‘mere spectacle’. To evoke V F Perkins (again), so long as 3D creates possibilities rather than imposing spurious demands, then it is to be welcomed.
The main reference point for me as I watched Shrek Forever Afterthough, perhaps predictably, given that it is one of my absolute favourites, was It’s a Wonderful Life. Shrek, like George Bailey, ruins a gathering for a special occasion by venting his suppressed rage at a life of domesticity and self-abnegation. And also like George Bailey, Shrek, via a bit of magic (although Shrek’s magician is malevolent, and decidely not an angel like Clarence), gets to see what the world would be like if he had never been born.
The result, in Shrek Forever After, is that the kingdom of Far Far Away is ruled by Rumplestiltskin. Like the Pottersville of the alternate world of It’s a Wonderful Life, it is a fallen world of unproductive labour, cruelty and vice, and in both worlds this is fundamentally because the person in control of the circulation of money is not a benevolent figure. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life is an acquisitive capitalist. ‘Rumple’ in Shrek Forever After is more like an absolute dictator. As well as living in an opulent palace surrounded by his witches while the rest of the kingdom falls into ruin, he has control of the airwaves, issuing edicts via his magic mirror, and a pied piper whom he pays to make his subjects dance like automatons to his tune. Another of his strategies to keep his subjects supine and divided is to dangle in front of them the promise of riches beyond their wildest dreams – the equivalent of a lottery win – if they will buy into his system and do his bidding.
In It’s a Wonderful Life, George’s wife Mary is in the nightmare world of Pottersville a spinster-librarian, and clearly the worse for having missed out on marriage and motherhood. In Shrek Forever After, by contrast, Fiona is the potent leader of an underground resistance movement of trained warrior ogres committing to overthrowing Rumplestiltskin – that is, to enacting a revolution. She was not rescued from the tower by Shrek: she rescued herself.
Andrew Britton has written that ‘A peculiar interest accrues to works which have radically contradictory invitations – works which, in seeking to accommodate ideological disturbances, are compelled to allow them a space in which they become available to readers for purposes which the work as a whole cannot endorse.’ In the case of Shrek Forever After, the movie makes the alternative Fiona such a compelling and positive figure that we might well prefer to see her remain a radical, living as part of an alternative community and seeking to overthrow the unjust status quo, rather than revert to being Shrek’s wife and the mother of his children.
We must be careful not to exaggerate. The movie does represent the alternative Fiona as unfulfilled, and still yearning for true love and its kiss which, like all fairytale princesses, she has been taught to wait for in order to give completeness and meaning to her life. And eventually, Shrek, by being able to point out Fiona’s personal and intimate idiosyncracies (unchanged across worlds) such as the way she doesn’t like her feet to be constricted by bedsheets, is able to lay claim to what is often taken to be the truest and deepest knowledge one person can have about another, even though we might question why details such as this might define a person more than their public life does. The process is completed when, just before he expires (for the magic contract means he is living on borrowed time – the movie’s narrative deadline and part of its ideological ’emergency exit’), Shrek opens his hand to reveal the squeaky toy of the ogre baby (like It’s a Wonderful Life, Shrekmakes good use of objects and other motifs). There are tears and a true love kiss, and Shrek’s quest is complete. He gets his old life back (but gains a renewed appreciation for it).
But whilst we can take great pleasure in seeing Rumplestiltskin’s empire crumble before his eyes (another boon for animation and 3D), and can feel the rightness of the way the plot has worked itself out, I suggest that we feel an unresolved and uncompensated-for sense of loss in seeing this alternative set of possibilities for Fiona evaporate, and being left with the original Fiona, who remains none the wiser. The movie’s narrative logic and emotional dynamics reaffirm marriage, motherhood and domesticity, but they are unable to completely eliminate the contradictory invitation to acknowledge and experience the fact that there is fulfilment and value to be found in roles for women other than – or at the very least, in addition to (we must be on our guard against ‘either/or’ thinking!) – marriage or motherhood.
Afterword
Another ‘excessive’ turn in Shrek Forever After is Rumplestiltskin’s sidekick, a giant goose, who only honks throughout the movie, but had me in stitches with his blank malevolence. I was even going to break my ‘no-images’ policy and grace my blog with an image of this creature, but amazingly, I was unable to find one. During my search, however, I did find this page. Someone has ventured that the goose might ‘represent somethign deeper , like perhaps the global economy meltdown in 2008, with Rumple being all administrations, until finaly the goose destructs after becoming grossly inflated.’ As you might imagine, I got a big kick out of this, as well as the admirably balanced first response:

Claiming that the demented goose is nothing more than a funny side character is a little dissatisfying, though I do think it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that it represents an inflated economy. Your guess is as good as mine, though. I’m a big proponent of reading into movies when you find something interesting or provocative (even when it’s an animated kid’s movie). When I first saw the creature, it did bring to mind a demented Mother Goose figure. That reading makes sense–the film is so entertaining because it puts a comical spin on all kinds of familiar fairy tales. It is a little disturbing to portray Mother Goose in that way, though…it’s a very grotesque-looking goose with its pointy fangs and beady eyes. Very funny, though. I laughed every time it honked.

So did I, Answerer 1, so did I.

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