Shrek has lost his mojo. He has become a shadow of his formerly fearsome self, forced to bare his lopsided grin in a series of sequels and holiday specials of diminishing quality and endure the indignities that come with being the star of a played-out romantic comedy. Shrek the Musical, which lumbers into town this month, demonstrates this all too well. The stage show, like the DreamWorks films, is a mish-mash of pop culture parodies and for-the-parents in-jokes that ends in a chorus of hugs, tears and cheers. Though the story opens with the swamp-dwelling beast in full rage, ranting against the world and rejecting it, by the time he declares his love for Princess Fiona in the final act, Shrek has been reduced to singing, “It’s a big bright beautiful world with happiness all around; it’s peaches and cream if our dream comes true.” Peaches and cream? That’s an image even Maria from The Sound of Music would find a little treacly.
The grumpy green ogre—who once seemed like a rough and refreshing alternative to the blemish-free heroes churned out by Disney—has become yet another vapid, mass-market cartoon character. The seeds of his downfall were sown the moment DreamWorks decided to make Shrek a romantic hero, one who must change his ways and learn the ever-important lessons about friendship and true love.
It didn’t have to be that way: the eponymous hero of Shrek!, the 1990 children’s book by William Steig upon which the franchise is based, was a very different beast, one who would have burned a dairy farm to the ground before being forced to sing about peaches and cream. In the book, Shrek is a relentlessly malevolent creature who never feels a moment of remorse for his wrongdoings. Everything he does, he does with a sneer, not a grin. When he encounters his horrid reflection multiplied many times over in a hall of mirrors, he brims with pride: “He faced himself,” the narrator declares, “full of rabid self-esteem, happier than ever to be exactly what he is.”
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