Shrek: Breaking Fairytale Boundaries Since 2001

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The renowned 2001 Dreamworks animation is watched and adored by many; having been one of the first feature-length computer animated films. ‘Shrek’ is a film-adaptation of the book ‘Shrek!’, which was written by William Stieg, an American Cartoonist. Whilst maintaining its fantasy/fairy tale genre, its success and fame is from its subversion and disregard for the stereotypical fairy tale conventions. It revolutionised children’s films by allowing more engrossing and unpredictable storylines; not to mention the character roles.

‘Shrek’ subverts from fairytale conventions as the plot is extremely unlike the typical ‘damsel in distress’ narrative. When the film starts, the narrator is reading from a book; it is a cliche fairy tale, ironically resembling Shrek’s fate. Fifty-eight seconds in, we discover that the narrator is Shrek whilst he is finishing his business. He rips out a page after recounting the true love’s first kiss (see fig. 1). This is very controversial as it showed Shrek ‘breaking the third-wall’; often perceived as a barrier between the story and the viewer. In the film, the world is set where the creatures of fairy tales, fables and rhymes collide with the people of the 16th century. Shrek is bombarded by the fairy tale creature, in the hopes of escaping the tyranny of Lord Farquaad. Whilst the base and beginning of the plotline is of a cliche ‘damsel in distress’ fairytale, it is only a red herring as the real issue is then raised. That issue is the fact that Fiona, the ‘damsel’, had actually been cursed to turn into an Ogre every night. After enthusing about her love for Shrek with donkey, there is a misunderstanding which then spirals into another issue and the rescue of Fiona. The film’s plot has much more depth and alike an onion or an ogre, has many more layers than your standard fairy tale.

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The film also rebels from the quintessential character roles as nearly all of the characters in ‘Shrek’ are portrayed completely against the conventions. For example, the film strays from the ‘Beauty is goodness and Ugliness is evil’ motto. This is supported by the hideous protagonist, Shrek. He begins as a sloppy ogre but after being bombarded by the fairytale creatures, is forced to take action and seek Lord Farquaad. Donkey plays a very significant role in influencing Shrek’s personality and demeanour. Whilst Donkey continuously unnerves Shrek with his loud characteristics, Shrek tolerates his noble steed. Shrek rescues Fiona and starts to feel insecure; which is an emotion he had never felt when he lived alone. On the journey to the castle, Shrek begins to develop feelings and respect for Fiona, to which he tries to repress immediately. After a misconception when he overhears Fiona’s conversation with donkey, Shrek storms home. Donkey clarifies the misunderstanding which then urges Shrek to crash the wedding. The film then ends with the newly-wed couple and their happily-ever-after. While Donkey is only a supporting character, the other characters rely predominantly on his presence to develop their roles. Donkey is introduced as an animal being sold to the guards for his talking ability, which is one of Donkey’s key characteristics. He is the character with the biggest impact toward Shrek’s demeanour and when Fiona is introduced into the story, Donkey becomes the cement between the pair; cooling the arguments down, trying to shine light on each other’s opinions and clearing up multiple misconceptions. In the traditional fairytale, the noble steed does not talk, nor does he play a significant role. When the journey begins, Fiona is resistant to Shrek but warms up to him as the story progresses. For example, when she begins to enjoy the company of shrek, she shows off her ability to spin spiderwebs as if they are sugar (ser fig. 2). Unlike the traditional fairytale, the characters of shrek develop over the film and are very different to when the story was introduced.

Finally, the movie utilises an abundance of film techniques to convey and intensify the demeanour of the scene. The first instance is the opening scene. A narrator is speaking and there is a focus on the book; up until Shrek rips the pages out. Whilst the narration is initially perceived to be non-diegetic, we quickly learn that it was actually Shrek speaking; making the voice diegetic. The use of the close-up shot (see fig. 1) focuses the audiences’ attention on the storybook and the abrupt disruption from Shrek’s hand. The second example is when Fiona gallops around the meadow, collecting spider webs for Shrek. (See fig. 2) This Bird’s Eye shot in conjunction with the Mise En Scène helps showcase the full scene and Fiona’s sporadic actions. To convey Donkey as powerless and frightened, the camera is fixed below and from afar. (See fig. 3) This creates a low-angle shot; it emphasizes the size of the dragon who towers over Donkey. The lights that seeps through the Dragon also draws the eyes to the her and the dark red colours are often associated with malevolence.

The plotline, characters and film techniques are only a few of the instances that support the subversion of ‘Shrek’ as there are a multitude more. Ever since its release, it has allowed the following films to divert much more elaborate plots. Whilst the film maintains a fairytale plot, its plot is far more complex than the basic short story with fairies and witches. The characters are the opposite of what you expect with an antagonist with a high status and low height; not to mention the film techniques that are used effectively throughout the film. It is no wonder that this film is a success. It taught its young and old audience that gourmet grub is the perfect way to entice your partner and, of course, that beauty is only skin-deep.


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