Halley’s Comet is an pale splash of starmilk that flows across the sky every 75 years. Its frozen nucleus boils as it approaches the sun, shedding a tail of gas a hundred million kilometers long. I expect to only see it once. Some people will see it twice. All celestial phenomena are interesting, but Halley’s Comet is doubly so because it keeps coming back. It’s like a friend who can’t wait to see us again.
“Is there a point to this?” you ask, perceptive as always. Yes, there is. Reading it has brought you a few seconds closer to the Comet’s next appearance (which is 28 July 2061). Why stop now? Have some more. And one more. We’re in this together. I just have to keep typing and you just have to keep reading and Halley’s Comet will be back in the sky before we know it.
For a month at age 6, my favorite thing was called Shrek. For a month at age 11 my favorite thing was called Shrek. Like a comet, Shrek zipped in and out of view and then reappeared, years later.
But just as Halley’s Comet never comes back twice in the same form (it changes shape and albedo as it sublimates mass), Shrek didn’t come back in the same form. The first Shrek was a children’s picture book by William Steig. The second Shrek was an animated movie by Dreamworks.
Let’s talk about the book first.
It’s 26 pages of brutal, scabrous art, with thick lines that don’t quite join and colors selected with an eyedropper from plates of slime infections. It’s the first time I can recall reading a book and thinking “I could have done a better job on the pictures”. Only later did I understand how tricky “ugly” art is to make if you still want it to be appealing.
Shrek is an extremely revolting creature who walks around scaring people, animals, plants, monsters, and himself (when he sees his own face in the mirror). This isn’t a “YOU’RE not ugly, society is!” book. No, Shrek’s definitely ugly. In fact, he’s repulsive. Completely loathsome. He smells so bad that plants and flowers literally bend out of his way. One of Thomas Aquinas’s arguments for God’s existence (Summa Theologiae 1:2:3) is that the concept of goodness entails the existence of a maximally good being, ie God. Biologist Richard Dawkins questioned this logic: the concept of “smelly” exists, does that mean there’s a supremely smelly being somewhere? But after reading Shrek!, I think Aquinas had a point. Shrek is that supremely smelly being.
After being kicked out of home by his parents, Shrek wanders the land, searching for his destiny. Is Shrek evil? Hard to say. Aside from one clearly bad deed (stealing a peasant’s lunch), most of his actions are morally neutral. He fights lots of people, but only because they started it, and he generally incapacitates enemies instead of killing them. He even gains the princess’s consent before kissing her. He has a nightmare about being hugged and cuddled by children, but haven’t we all?
(Update: Halley’s Comet draws closer. Or rather, further away. It’s complicated, see – it has to reach the far point of its orbit before it starts swinging back. A shortening of temporal distance requires an increase of astronomic distance. The universe is full of paradoxes.)
Stieg never “redeems” Shrek, never gives him a makeover, never transforms him into a handsome prince. Shrek is allowed to be who he is and look the way he looks, finding happiness at the end nonetheless. Many fairy stories (the Ugly Duckling, Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer) have a transactional quality to them. “You have flaws, but maybe someday they’ll disappear, or they’ll turn out to be really useful.”
But sometimes they don’t. Shrek! prepares kids for the fact that they might have to sail the seas of life in adverse conditions – a truth that many books by adults aren’t willing to confront.
By the way, the book has zero passages describing Shrek as an ogre. He might just be an extremely ugly man. Is there a “Humpty Dumpty is an egg although he’s never called one in the nursey rhyme” conspiracy going on where the public just decided by consensus that he’s an ogre? (Well, the back cover says he’s an ogre. But that’s hardly canon – authors usually don’t write their back blurbs.)
Published in 1990, Shrek! (note the exclamation point) was aimed at preschoolers – although words like “blithe” and “varlet” and “churlish” and “carmine” probably caused some parents to reach for the dictionary. I liked the author’s name. Stieg. All of the children’s authors I grew up with had these ominous, evocative sounding names, usually beginning with S. Sendak. Stieg. Seuss. Shel. Stine. Names that made them sound like wizards atop high castles, summoning lightning. Surely no children’s author would have a boring name like “Bob”.
In all, a good book: Roald Dahl for kids who aren’t old enough for the real Roald Dahl. It’s well worth reading (or re-reading) while you wait for Halley’s Comet. 28 July 2061. Are you excited? I know I am. Soon.
But we still have the movie to discuss.
In 2001, commercials for a film called Shrek began rolling out. Stieg’s book was a distant memory by this point. None of my friends had read it.
When I saw the movie I was blown away. I’d never imagined anything so funny, clever, sophisticated. This was clearly and inarguably the greatest film ever made. I talked about it to everyone I could. I had the DVD, and spent hours playing with the special features (if you had a microphone, you could dub your voice over Eddie Murphy’s). If you were my friend and hadn’t watched Shrek, I genuinely thought there was something wrong with them.
I rewatched it in 2021, and it was unimaginably worse than I’d thought.
I hated almost every part of it: the creepy plastic doll animations, the bad songs, the cheap pop culture obsessed “jokes”, the sanctimonious “don’t judge people based on appearances!” message interspersed with mean gags about how the bad guy is short. Some computer animated films (Toy Story) have become timeless. Shrek has become ocular pollution: ugly and unfunny.
The movie is generally well-remembered. I wonder how many of these fond memories would survive a rewatch. I made it to the Matrix ripoff scene before mumbling to an empty room “How is this funny? You’re just…commenting on the existence of another movie!”
Some parts held up. The opening scene is fun and sells the movie well. There’s sharp writing at certain places (such as the Gingerbread Man sequence). The adult humor (“Lord Farquaad”) isn’t exactly funny but at least shows a creative team with some nerve and daring.
But nothing could save the movie from the cancerous pus-filled oozing blastoma sac of Eddie Murphy’s character. I laughed at the donkey as a kid. Not because he was saying anything funny (he spoke very quickly and most of it went over my head), but because he masterfully created the appearance of being funny. Eddie Murphy is a reminder of how much of humor is in the delivery. His cadence, vocal rhythms, confidence, are those of a comedian doing a tight five on national TV and nailing it.
But he’s saying nothing. He was like an air-guitarist who has such perfect moves that you don’t notice his hands are empty.
Donkey: [Chuckles] Can I say somethin’ to you? Listen, you was really, really somethin’ back there. Incredible! Yes, I was talkin’ to you. Can I tell you that you was great back there? Those guards! They thought they was all of that. Then you showed up, then bam! They was trippin’ over themselves like babies in the woods. That really made me feel good to see that. Man, it’s good to be free. But, uh, I don’t have any friends. And I’m not goin’ out there by myself. Hey, wait a minute! I got a great idea! I’ll stick with you. You’re a mean, green, fightin’ machine. Together we’ll scare the spit out of anybody that crosses us.
Donkey: Oh, wow! That was really scary. If you don’t mind me sayin’, if that don’t work, your breath certainly will get the job done, ’cause you definitely need some Tic Tacs or something, ’cause your breath stinks! Man, you almost burned the hair outta my nose, just like the time– [Mumbling] Then I ate some rotten berries. I had strong gases eking out of my butt that day.
Yep, that’s Eddie Murphy in Shrek.
This is clearly improv – a director sat Murphy in front of a mic and told him to go nuts, hoping for another Robin Williams’ Genie. But when the entire movie is littered with this sort of babble, it becomes grating, and then beyond grating. The big danger of having a character that irritates other characters is that this character will likely be irritating to the audience as well. The 2000s were boom years for black actors with a nails-on-chalkboard voices. Will Smith. Chris Tucker/Rock. Tyler Perry alone is persuasive evidence that William Tecumseh Sherman had the right idea to give them 40 acres and a mule, instead of 40 acres and a microphone.
In all, not a good movie.
But there’s a deeper level to all of this. A conspiracy, if you will. As soon as I read item 3 on this list, I heard the X Files theme playing in my head. Mostly because I cued up xfilestheme.mp3 at that precise moment.
Douglas Rogers (the art director) found a place there that was a magnolia plantation where he did research to get the look of Shrek’s swamp just right. It was perfect and exactly what he had been looking for, for the film.
While there, though, he was in for quite the big surprise. And that surprise was an alligator, that unfortunately, ended up chasing him.
Once again, this crew’s dedication is something else. Though, I’m sure he wasn’t expecting the alligator to run at him.
All I can say is I hope he felt it was worth every bit of running from the alligator because that is a seriously scary situation to be in all for research for work.
An alligator. In a swamp. One that’s very defensive of Shrek’s legacy. Where have I seen this before?