Only one critical favorite, DreamWorks' irreverent family film Shrek, is making a significant summer splash ($176 million at the box office so far.) The film's success can be explained in many ways: It entertains children with high adventure and the kind of crass humor that Hollywood has decided is appropriate for kids. It entertains adults with sophisticated pop culture references and a subtext about the bad politics between Disney and DreamWorks. And there's no denying its animation is astonishing.
A couple of weeks ago here at Film Forum, a gallery of responses to the film were on display. Many critics were dismayed by the lowbrow antics, but found its story a refreshing change from the predictable Disney formulas. Currently at Books and Culture, Eric Metaxas of Big Idea Productions offers a very different view. Metaxas writes for the popular children's video series VeggieTales, some of the funniest and most intelligent entertainment for children and adults you'll find anywhere. He writes, "Shrek doesn't just subvert the treacly Disney version of fairy tales, it subverts the glorious and mysterious and ennobling idea of fairytales themselves." He goes on to list its various offenses. "Shrek is tiresome in its unalleviated puncturing. No sooner does a moment fill with meaning and beauty than you can sense the hatpins poised to prick it." He adds, "Much of this is disturbingly inappropriate for children."
Spoiler warning! (Do not proceed if you do not wish to know the ending of the story.)
Metaxas takes particular offense to how Shrek ends. The beautiful Princess Fiona is an ogress who is under a spell that makes her look like a typically Disney-ified beauty during the daylight hours. She has been told that the spell will be broken and she will take "love's true form" if she encounters true love. When she does encounter true love, you might expect her to become beautiful forever. The big surprise is that she returns to her natural state … a green-skinned ogre. This turns the traditional Disney-like ending on its head, avoiding a conclusion in which hero and heroine end up looking like Barbie and Ken and, thus, being (at last) beautiful. And Shrek delivers the movie's most important sentiment … that she is beautiful just the way she is.
But this offends Metaxas. "Evidently the hoary fairy tale conceit that one's inner beauty will be revealed on the outside is for people wearing pince-nez, celluloid collars, and spats. Must not only Shrek main ugly, but Fiona become forever so?"
His conclusions, when I passed them along to the OnFilm eGroup, set off a wave of commentary. "Wasn't the lesson of the Ugly Duckling that the duckling had always been beautiful, but simply hadn't seen himself in the right light?" asks Peter T. Chattaway. "Why can't that be the lesson that Fiona learns about herself, too? What if, in fact, she is not really an uglified human, but a beautiful ogre?" Many others took issue with Metaxas's claim, and I have to count myself among them. Metaxas's argument implies that he would prefer the ogress remained altered, remain the typical thin-waisted, sexy Barbie doll, rather than reverting to her true unenhanced self. Fiona under the spell looks just like what our media and society have decided is boiler-plate beauty. Not many young ladies are able to accomplish such an appearance without gross abuses to their bodies.
Think of the heavyset high school girl sitting in the audience, the girl who gets mocked by her classmates and left out of social activities. Think of the teenager who has become a reclusive individual because he doesn't feel anybody will ever love him. Shrek says, "Don't let your narrow-minded peers get you down. They only judge people on the outside. You can be loved just the way you are, if seen through eyes of love." But the ending Metaxas desires would affirm that the ogress was right to despise the way she was made, and that taking measures to alter her physical appearance was the right way to go. I found Shrek's conclusion to be inspiring … finally a movie that does not portray that heroes' getting the equivalent of plastic surgery in order to be beautiful. If the movie persuades even one young person not to hurt themselves in a desperate quest to look like a teenager on a WB prime time series, then I'm grateful for it.
What do you think? Send me your own thoughts on the Shrek's debatable methods and conclusion. Does Shrek have a genuinely happy ending, or is it merely encouraging kids to make excuses for the way they behave? Is it legitimate storytelling, or is it merely a cynical lashing-out at the world's most powerful packager of fairy tales? The polls are still open, and by box office indications and plans for a sequel, it's clear Shrek is going to be around for a while.
Hot from the Oven
More moviegoers lined up for Swordfish this week than any other new release. Starring John Travolta as a ruthlessly violent and amoral character named Gabriel, and directed by newcomer Dominic Sena (Gone in 60 Seconds), it features a reportedly spectacular opening action sequence and a plot full of surprises that keeps the audience off-balance.
"Swordfish blows things up really well," reports Movieguide's critic, who then goes on to say that the movie "takes the sensational route in its portrayal of action, sex and nudity." "Gabriel is an amoral character," agrees Preview, "willing to lie, cheat, steal, and kill whomever to accomplish his goal. For him, the end justifies the means." Thus they caution viewers about "shootings, wrecks and explosions. Along with the mayhem, the film is filled with obscenities and numerous strong profanities."
Travolta, who has starred in a few too many bad movies than is good for his career, starts things off saying, "You know what the problem with Hollywood is? It makes [insert synonym for excrement here]." Many critics took advantage of the movie's opening line in their critiques. The Vancouver Courier's Peter T. Chattaway (who also writes for B.C. Christian News) asks, "Were truer words ever spoken than the opening lines in Swordfish?" He elaborates: "Swordfish is not quite as daring as it thinks it is. There are so many holes in this story, a fair chunk of it must have been left on the editing room floor, and the bits that are left don't make much sense on their own terms." Focus on the Family agrees: "Gabriel's right in suggesting that Hollywood has problems, and he's right in saying that there's a definite lack of realism in Tinseltown. Exhibit A: Swordfish. Supposedly intelligent characters compelled to commit illogical, testosterone-laden crimes? Big bangs, sprays of bullets (that only hit certain 'expendable' characters) and loose women ready to satisfy every desire? Obviously realism is the last thing on the filmmakers' minds."
In the mainstream media, the movie received a majority of negative reviews for script, story, direction, and especially John Travolta's performance. "For about an hour, it's nasty fun," says David Denby at The New Yorker. "The action … is preposterous but entertaining. Somewhere along the line, however, the plot becomes so far-fetched, and the digital effects and violence so opportunistic, that one loses interest." Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert testifies, "Swordfish looks like the result of a nasty explosion down at the Plot Works. It's skillfully mounted and fitfully intriguing, but weaves such a tangled web that at the end I defy anyone in the audience to explain the exact loyalties and motives of the leading characters."
Swordfish is also being accused of clearly goading audience to enjoy violence. At Salon.com, Stephanie Zacharek expresses great displeasure with the director over a particularly violent moment in the film. This scene focuses closely on a woman "crying hysterically in fear and pain. The crying persists; we get plenty of shots of the woman's face, contorted by her anguish." Moments later, she dies in a spectacular explosion. "The audience I saw the picture with cheered at the explosion," Zacharek writes. "And granted, it's a pretty grand explosion. But I couldn't get past Sena's sadism in the way he'd focused on the woman's suffering. This wasn't a quick shot of an anguished face (not that that would have been any better). He allowed us to bond with her as a human being before casually picking her off. Maybe he'd defend himself by claiming he was trying to show that violence has consequences. But if he doesn't know himself that that's a [lousy] excuse, his camera sure does."
Evolution, the latest action comedy from Ghostbusters' director Ivan Reitman, took fourth place at the box office, drawing in fans of The X-Files' David Duchovny, and wearing the same stylish, good-humored get-up as its cousin Men in Black.
The Dove Foundation's Holly McClure gives it a mixed review. One one hand, she writes, "Here's an example of a bright director who has ruined a very funny movie … using God's name-in-vain one too many times." On the other hand, "The pratfalls mixed with silly violence keep it light and very entertaining." Lori [who's apparently mononymous] at Christian Spotlight on the Movies came away unimpressed with the "irreverent tone" of the film. She adds, "The story line was not clever in the least. It was a contest to see how many crude jokes can be stuffed into one movie. Honestly, it was a waste of time." Focus on the Family's Bob Smithouser is similarly distressed at the crude behavior onscreen, and he complains about the film's endorsement of "the unbiblical theory of macroevolution." "Laughs are few and far between unless you happen to be fond of bathroom humor," says a critic at Preview, who then notes that "Friendship between the two main characters is inspiring and one does credit God for success."
Movieguide's critic defends the film: "Duchovny and Jones joke their way to success. Some of the jokes are … gross, but a lot of the jokes are genial, smart-aleck, Bill Murray-type humor. Evolution's romantic worldview and evolutionary elements are mitigated by some positive moral and redemptive qualities, including a comment about the great, merciful Christ and a Scriptural exclamation of victory: 'With God, all things are possible.'" The U.S. Catholic Conference calls the movie "escapist delight." Michael Elliott at Movie Parables also finds some merit in the movie: "The key to this film's success is that it never takes itself too seriously. The director is having fun. The cast appears to be having fun. The audience is expected to just sit back and enjoy the ride."
Mainstream critics were ho-hum about the film, many of them accusing Reitman of following the same formula that made Ghostbusters such a smash. A reviewer who goes by the alias "Moriarty" at Ain't It Cool News commented: "If you genuinely don't think Reitman's number one goal here was to rip off his own success, then you're a kind soul with a generous heart who should never visit L.A … ever."
At Movie Parables, Michael Elliott is praising The Road Home more than anything that has come out so far this year. The film, which tells the story of a budding romance between an 18-year-old woman in rural China and a teacher from the city, is opening in limited release around the country this summer. Check your local listings; it might sneak up on you.
Elliott writes, "The Road Home is a love story so beautifully and respectfully told that we are swept away with the depth and passion of the emotional ties that exist … not only between husband and wife, but also between mother and son; teacher and students; really, between any two individuals whose hearts grow together to form a meaningful attachment. There are movies with louder explosions, funnier stories, and perhaps more interesting characters to be seen. I've yet to see a movie that communicates romantic love, the honor a son should have for his parents, and the impact one life can make upon a community as effectively as The Road Home."
Movieguide echoes the praise, cheering for actress Zhang Ziyi (who played the rebellious youngster in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.) "The Road Home focuses on character and atmosphere. Taking center stage is Zhang Ziyi's beautiful smiling face, often accompanied by a lyrical refrain of Chinese music. This refrain reappears during the funeral scene of the father and at the movie's wonderful climax, which plays like It's a Wonderful Life.The Road Home is not just a poetic celebration of the love between two people; it's also a celebration of transcendental values such as love, knowledge, community, service, and hard work."
Going Back for Seconds
Perhaps the best strategy to use in response to this summer's cinematic array of mediocrity and mean-spirited humor is to spend your entertainment dollars elsewhere. Your local video store is full of undiscovered treasure. Ask around. There are movies that are deeply meaningful and inspiring; some have even changed lives. The invitation is still open: tell me about the films that have most challenged you.
Steve McIrvin writes in: "One of the films that I don't typically think of as a film is Les Miserables. I was first introduced to this masterpiece as a Broadway play and hope someday to tackle the intimidatingly-long novel. I am pleased with the way the latest film version stays true to the themes of grace and redemption while keeping up the fast-pace required for modern audiences, and I think it is a wonderful asset that makes Victor Hugo's masterpiece accessible to a new generation."
Karen Fentress nominates Central Station, the Argentine film that took home an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1999. Karen says, "This film is a stunning story of the power of redemption. A startling look at what love can do to the human heart. The story revolves around a woman whose life intersects with that of an orphaned child. Their journey together is at first one she initiates to serve herself. Gradually, the road bends and ultimately she has to make a choice that will impact both their lives forever. I encourage anyone who might be reluctant to rent it because of the subtitles to press on. It should not be missed."
Hannibal, one of the year's biggest—and most critically maligned—box office hits, certainly attracted attention. This indulgent cinematic celebration of a serial killer's repulsive habits stirred even non-religious critics into a fury; its glorified portrayals of a cannibalistic vengeance were so melodramatic and manipulative that audiences were duped into cheering for the villain.
In a commentary on the film in Crisis magazine, Terry Teachout argues that the viewers who thought they saw some religious imagery at work in the film were not mistaken. In fact, he shows how the image of the cross is specifically abused by the director, Ridley Scott, and how the theological beliefs of the writer Thomas Harris are part of what compels him to take such a dark and twisted view of the world.
Next week: Even more recommendations from Film Forum readers, and responses to the Angelina Jolie action flick Tomb Raider.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
See earlier Film Forum postings for these other movies in the box-office top ten: Pearl Harbor, The Animal, Moulin Rouge, What's the Worst That Could Happen? The Mummy Returns, A Knight's Tale, and Bridget Jones's Diary.
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