By Dr. Craig D. Reid
The one thing you can count on in a Shrek movie is that the action sequences are based on something obviously familiar. However, with Shrek the Third (2007) and the latest (and last) installment to the franchise Shrek Forever After, only to the knowing eye or ear will recognize that it is the unobvious that made Shrek the Third and will make Shrek Forever After two of the most subliminally engaging animated features in the history of film. So what is it about these two films that most probably did not see?
In Shrek (2001) Fiona the Ogre (Cameron Diaz) while encased in the body of a beautiful human princess had a famous fight scene against Robin Hood and his band of very Merry Men. She flipped, kicked and spun then leaped to the air and froze in a classic eagle claw/white crane pose…sweeping, circular camera pan…bullet-time effect…reverse angle…with the action proceeding as Fiona magically dispensing with the forest bandits in a roaring barrage of martial arts kicks and strikes. Kids from the audience laughed, giggled and pointed at the screen yelling, “Hey look, they’re ripping off Matrix.”
In Shrek 2, most fans agreed that Puss in Boots stole the film. With his suave behavior and ace-in-the-hole, super sad-eyed pout, nobody except Donkey was immune to his catty ways. In fact, Puss in Boots was based on the fictional character Zorro, so it was no wonder that Antonio Bandares, who did a bang up job in the Mask of Zorro (1998) was recruited to be the voice of the swashbuckling cat and once more swish and slash his hour upon the sword fighting stage.
During the major fight sequences taking place in the castle between the female warriors lead by Fiona and Queen Lillian (Julie Andrews) against Prince Charming and his hench villains, where incidentally Rumplestiltskin was one of them, the Shrek the Third producers were going for the Charlie’s Angels (2000) look. Yet, during a screening I was blown away when a kid behind me squeaked to his mother, “Look mommy, it’s like the old funny kung-fu films daddy used to watch.” Shocked, I strained my neck around expecting to see a Chinese family, but no, Caucasian. I sat back and smiled and enjoyed the rest of the film with even greater joy, imagining that this kid’s father was probably a fan of the late night, badly dubbed kung-fu films, and grinned at the thought that maybe this kid had heard my voice coming from one of those characters (back in 1979, dubbing Chinese kung-fu films into English was my first job in Taiwan).
The Shrek films are all loosely based on the picture book “Shrek!” by Brooklyn born and raised in the Bronx cartoonist for the “New Yorker” magazine, William Steig (1907-2003). It is a story about a young ogre of the same name who goes out into the world, is told by a witch that he will find true love then proceeds to marry the ogre of his dreams. Apparently the name “Shrek” comes from the German and Yiddish words, “Schrek” and “Shreck,” which means “fear” and “terror.” Steig’s imagination was greatly influenced by the likes of Grimm’s fairy tales, Robin Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Pinocchio and the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Somehow or other, Dreamworks has intelligently weaved in all of these characters into the Shrek films, thereby explaining the foundation of the character choices made by the screenwriters and Shrek filmmakers; the legend of King Arthur being the part of the storyline behind Shrek the Third. What’s the kung fu part of the storyline? It’s not even close to Charlie’s Angels, it’s more like the legendary Chinese women warriors of the Yang Family, which included six daughters-in-laws, eight daughters and were led by the family’s matriarchal and superior woman Commander-in-Chief, Shi Sai-hui, seconded by her daughter Mu Gui-ying.
As the story goes, when the patriarch of the Yang family, Yang Ye, and many of his sons and sons-in-laws died while defending China against the invading Kitan Tartars from the North, the woman warriors became the default defenders of the realm, they stepped in to make sure that the surviving men of the Yang clan and the emperor had a country to come back to. In Shrek the Third, when jilted ex-fiancé Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) storms the city with an army of highly recognizable fairy tale villains to seize the throne, not knowing that Fiona, together with her mother, Queen Lillian, has drafted her fellow fairy tale heroines, the obsessive-compulsive Cinderella, the narcoleptic Sleeping Beauty, the opinionated Rapunzel and the prissy-but-sarcastic Snow White, to defend the realm from Prince Charming and to ensure that there will be a kingdom left for Shrek to return to. So one really can’t help but to view the Queen and Fiona as a duo similar to the Yang Commander-in-Chief, Shi Sai-hui and her daughter Mu Gui-ying. Is this too farfetched? Not when you consider that the co-director of the film responsible for the subtleties of the action, Raman Hui, was born in Hong Kong and was raised on kung-fu films before he moved to Canada to attend college.
So what’s happening in Forever After? In a Shrek-shell, instead of scaring villagers away like he used to, a reluctant Shrek (Mike Myers) is now a local celebrity who begrudgingly agrees to autograph pitchforks. However, longing for the days when he felt like a “real ogre,” Shrek is duped into signing a pact with the smooth-talking dealmaker, Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn). Shrek suddenly finds himself in a twisted, alternate reality of Far Far Away, where ogres are hunted, Rumpelstiltskin is king and Shrek and Fiona (Diaz) have never met. Now, it’s up to Shrek to reacquaint himself with Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss In Boots (Bandares), and to also fall in love again with Fiona before the present, future and Shrek disappear forever and ever, a-Shrek.
An aside note about the first Shrek film is that Chris Farley was supposed to be the voice of Shrek. In fact, he completed about half of the voiceovers before his untimely death. Dreamworks then recruited Myers to come in and fill Farley’s boots. One can only imagine that with Farley, Shrek may have come across insanely insane, where Myers has more of a cheeky, calming voice. After Myers had completed dubbing most of the movie, and the film was deep into production he requested permission to re-dub Shrek using a Scottish accent similar to, as he put it, “the one my mother used to use when she told me bedtime stories.” His mother is actually a Liverpudlian (from Liverpool, England) but his grandfather is a baroque Scotsman through and through. However, for reasons never explained, his Scots accent throughout the franchise seems to be somewhat toning down to be more American/Canadian, to the point that it is almost non-existent in Forever After. So what’s the hidden storyline influence in Forever After?
In a very subtle and subliminal way, the film’s new version of Fiona borders costume, weapon and woman warrior spirit wise on the famous Norse war goddess Brunhilde Valkyries. Similar to Brunhilde who collects the souls of slain warriors to fight on, Fiona exhorts and unifies culled ogre warriors to rise up against the evil Rumplestiltskin and fight against his witch warriors. The alignment is made even stronger where in pop culture, Brunhilde is associated with the famous saying, “The opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings.” In Richard Wagner’s opera “Die Walkure,” the final song is traditionally sung by an overweight lady dressed as Brunhilde. Forever After sets this up beautifully by reminding the audience that when Fiona sings, birds explode. When you watch the film, see and hear if you can make the connection.
Finally, in the legend of Brunhilde (aka Brynhildr), Odin condemns her to live the life of a mortal woman imprisoned in a castle on top of a mountain, and cursed to sleep on a couch surrounded by fire. Only if a man wakes her with a kiss, rescues her from the fire and marries her can the spell be broken. Let’s see, Fiona trapped in castle, guarded by a fire-breathing dragon, awaiting rescue by a man who must kiss her and marry her. Hmmm. Sounds familiar to me. How about to you?