Shrek and Dreck? Well, Not Quite

I spent Memorial Day weekend catching up on Shrek (directed by Andrew Adamson and

Vicky Jenson, from a screenplay by Ted Elliott, Terry Russio, Joe Stillman and

Roger S. H. Schulman, based on the book by William Steig), and Pearl Harbor (directed by Michael Bay,

from a screenplay by Randall Wallace). Shrek

has had nothing but good reviews; Pearl

Harbor almost nothing but bad. After seeing Shrek with an appreciative audience, I decided its good notices

were fully justified, and I dreaded what promised to be the three-hour ordeal

of Pearl Harbor . But Pearl Harbor was not nearly so hard to

take as I had anticipated. I even got a bit teary-eyed over its full-bodied

romanticism and anachronistic nobility, which reminded me of a period I had

experienced firsthand, though admittedly at the hyper-susceptible age of 13.

My more justifiably enthusiastic response to Shrek , however, had to overcome my

habitual resistance to animation as an alternative to live-action

cinematography. Still, I am willing to concede that animated films are more

“artistic” than live-action films in that there is more human control in the

former than there is in the latter. This is to say that Kate Beckinsale was not

created by the filmmakers who utilized her talent. There is an irreducible core

of reality to her feisty beauty.

The point is that Shrek ,

possibly the most accomplished and articulate animated film ever made, lacks

something that one experiences with even a very ordinary-and, at best, only

marginally meritorious-war movie like Pearl

Harbor : a feeling of kinship with images of life in real time on the

screen. I am perhaps indulging a humanist bias on my part that is totally at

odds with the tastes of today’s more gadgety and cyberspatially driven young

people, who make up the target market audience for this new movie millennium.

Nonetheless-and here is the ironic twist in my acceptance of Pearl Harbor -the parts I liked most are

the parts before and after the digital destruction of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese carrier planes.

For me, the only use of spectacle here, as in Titanic , is for the enhancement and

redemption of the major characters. Mr. Bay and Mr. Wallace borrow proudly and

shamelessly from many old movies, not the least of which are Gone With the Wind (1939) and Children of Paradise (1945). They

achieve only faint echoes of the originals, of course, but there is more than a

suggestion of Scarlett with the wounded in Atlanta, and of Garance offering

herself to the misguidedly noble Baptiste in Paris, in Ms. Beckinsale’s Nurse

Evelyn Johnson. In one instance, Evelyn is overwhelmed by the carnage in Pearl

Harbor; in another, she is disappointed by the misplaced scruples of Ben

Affleck’s Rafe McCawley.

Mr. Affleck has taken a lot of heat for not being a big

enough star to carry a love story in a special-effects superproduction, but he

is as good as most-if not all-of the $20 million superstars. Indeed, I have

seen him be good in so many underrated melodramas that I can’t dump on him

here. In the end, Pearl Harbor is not

so much about World War II as it is about movies about World War II. And what’s

wrong with that? We certainly don’t need to revive our hatred of “the Japs” at

this late date. A few years after the war, Nat Holman, then basketball coach at

City College, visited Japan to give some basketball clinics, and he was

astonished to discover that these polite and civilized people were the same

ones who had bombed Pearl Harbor. This is something Pearl Harbor doesn’t pick up on: the sheer disbelief in the United

States that a despised race of people would have the technical and strategic

know-how to destroy the mighty American fleet, and then sink two British

battleships that had sailed confidently to relieve Singapore. This

condescension to Japan lasted into the 50′s, when American cineastes were

amazed to discover, in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon

and Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu , the

spearheads of a vibrant Japanese film industry going back to the silent era.

Still, what Pearl

Harbor cannot be forgiven is its $135 million price tag-as if with all that

money a filmmaker should be able to purchase Shavian dialogue and Chekhovian

pathos. This is hardly the first time critics wound up reviewing the money

rather than the movie. I was in Cannes in 1979 when Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now was unveiled, and all

that the American and British critics on the scene wanted to talk about was its

fiscal extravagance in the face of its anemic commercial prospects. Twenty-two

years later, the uncut Apocalypse Now

was hailed as the best film at Cannes, and no one seemed to care about how much

it had cost.

Erich von Stroheim and Orson Welles were buried in Hollywood

under the tombstone of needless extravagance, and even Michael Cimino was

treated more roughly than he deserved for Heaven’s

Gate (1980), a film that stays in the mind despite its undeniable

bottom-line follies. And let’s not talk about Max Ophüls and Lola Montès (1955)-after Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and Jean

Renoir’s The Rules of the Game

(1939), my favorite box-office disaster.

Pearl Harbor is

not in this class of creative extravagance, and as I have suggested, its

celebrated bang-bang scenes are closer to animation than to live-action

cinematography. As for the widely panned kiss-kiss scenes, I cannot recommend

them to my readers, because that would arouse expectations that could not be

fulfilled. The best way to see the movie is as I did: expecting nothing and

being pleasantly surprised, and strangely moved, by Mr. Bay’s audacity in

filming his lovers in end-of-the-world close-ups, however briefly. This is a

choice I applaud, despite the risks it runs with reviewers.

There is less to say about Shrek that has not already been said many times over. The film has

been heralded as the antithesis of everything Disney stands for, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Pearl Harbor . Still, as much as I like

and admire Shrek , I am not prepared

to give up Dumbo (1941), Pinocchio (1940), Bambi (1942), and especially Thumper, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and

all the inspired Goofy sports cartoons. And, of course, there is Tex Avery, and Mr. Magoo, Bugs Bunny and the Road

Runner-and let’s not forget The Simpsons

and South Park . Have I implied that I

don’t like animation? Let’s say I’ve kept looking at it out of the corner of my

eye-or, better still, let’s never say never. Or, even more embarrassingly,

let’s say that we never entirely grow up.

I’m not sure I can adequately describe the advances in

animation represented by Shrek , which

may be another reason why I shy away from posing as an authority on the

subject. I know what I like on the narrative level. The backgrounds look

interestingly detailed, and the donkey in particular has his anatomy and its

movements imaginatively integrated with his smart-ass personality. What Shrek is saying to both its adult and

child audience is mainly that ugly creatures can find happiness together if

they find and appreciate each other’s inner beauty, or some such sentimental

and politically correct nonsense. Since most of us look more like the Ogre in Shrek than what most people would

consider an adequate prince in shining armor, it’s a fairly popular message to

send. Of course, looks don’t matter in the game of love-as long as that assumption

is not tested too often on the screen.

What gives Shrek

its special artistic distinction is its witty and knowingly sassy dialogue,

delivered by vocally charismatic performers whose voices remind us of their

stellar screen personae in live-action movies. As we were leaving the theater,

my companion and I wondered aloud why Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy didn’t have

marvelous Shrek -like lines in their

recent live-action bonanzas. Here was Shrek ,

a cartoon directed largely at children, with more adult dialogue than either

the Austin Powers or Nutty Professor idiocies in which Mr.

Myers and Mr. Murphy were enmeshed, respectively, for the benefit of their

bankbooks. We had almost forgotten how subversively funny both could be. And

the same complaint can be made for the corny, vulgar vehicles in which a comic

genius like Robin Williams has found himself trapped in recent years. Perhaps

he needs a Shrek -like regeneration to

regain his comic and satiric edge.

Cameron Diaz as the spunky Princess Fiona and John Lithgow

as the grotesquely diminutive Lord Farquaad round out the cast of iconoclasts

trampling on the flowers of chivalry as well as the blessed creatures from

Disney’s Magic Kingdom. For once, all the “inside jokes” work, so that takeoffs

on televised blind-date shows and the magic mirror in Snow White , and a lovesick, fire-spouting dragon who encapsulates

all the anthropomorphic excesses of the Disney oeuvre , do not slow down the narrative flow to a trickle.

I was happy in the end for Shrek because he was both

discriminating enough to accept his limitations and courageous enough to

realize that he didn’t need a beauty to complete or transform him. I am

reminded of Marlene Dietrich’s (or was it Greta Garbo’s?) complaint after a

screening of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and

the Beast (1946), with its conventional ending of the Beast transformed

into a prince. “Give me back my Beast!” she cried. Still, Shrek goes even further by imagining the blissful union of two

Beasts, figuratively speaking, and that makes for an original fable, indeed.