The Argument: the only Shrek with any life is the rampaging anti-hero of the brilliantly nasty book that started it all

The Argument: the only Shrek with any life is the rampaging anti-hero of the brilliantly nasty book that started it all

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.”

We have been conditioned to expect that any character who is “full of rabid self-esteem” will eventually meet with a sticky comeuppance. Steig’s Shrek never learns a lesson, never changes his ways and is ultimately rewarded for being “exactly what he is.” Not every storybook lesson needs to be punitive, and not every proud creature is owed a humbling. Shrek’s an enemy of boredom, and the guy who has the most fun, and that’s enough.

Steig was a Brooklyn-born author and illustrator who, in addition to being an award-winning children’s writer, contributed nearly 2,000 cartoons and covers to the New Yorker before his death in 2003 at the age of 95. John Updike—who kept an original Steig sketch in his office—wrote that “his cartoons do not only deliver a joke but make us reflect upon the nature of reality.” There is a looseness and spontaneity in his work that begins with his famously shaky drawing style. At a certain point, he stopped making rough pencil sketches and went straight to ink, giving his images a sense of reckless energy, as if his hand could barely keep up with his imagination. In Cats, Dogs, Men, Women, Ninnies and Clowns, a deluxe edition of Steig’s sketches assembled by his widow and published last fall, New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast wrote that, in the big house that is the cartoon world, “Steig’s drawings throw open a bunch of windows and let in some fresh air.”

In his stories, too, there is a sense of extemporization—as if Steig asked himself the question “What if…?” and proceeded to make up the answer as he went along. Many of his best stories are about some form of confinement—a rabbit who can turn himself into a rusty nail gets hammered into the wall of a cat’s house; a donkey who finds a magic pebble changes himself into a boulder in a moment of panic and is isolated from his family.

If the stories have any lesson at all, it is this: between freedom and confinement, freedom is better.

The name Steig gave his notorious ogre is a variant on schreck, the Yiddish word for “terror” or “horror,” and his Shrek more than lives up to the billing. He horrifies everyone, even witches, but fears nothing. Well, almost nothing: at one point, he dreams he is in a field full of laughing, frolicking children, whom he is powerless to stop from hugging and kissing him. He awakes, shaken, and must reassure himself that it was only a dream, a horrible dream. Imagine how different the history of the Shrek franchise would’ve been had DreamWorks shared this abhorrence of schmaltz. For one thing, Shrek the Musical would more closely resemble Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.

For all his nastiness and destruction, the original Shrek is ultimately an open-hearted being. He may knock senseless the dull-witted peasants and puffed-up knights he encounters, and he may quake at the thought of being kissed by children, but when he falls for his princess—who, unlike Princess Fiona, is a genuine horror, with “ruddy eyes” and “carmine sties”—it is with an enormous amount of passion and sincerity.

This Shrek isn’t the lovably goofy bumbler stomping around onstage and aping the moves of a decade-old film, but a genuine anti-hero, more full of life and vitality than anyone else around. He resembles Max, the young boy in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, who terrorizes his family, then finds a way to turn his punishment into a source of adventure. Sendak, like Steig—like the best writers, period—trusted his readers and eschewed obvious sermonizing. The spirit of Sendak’s book was similarly discarded in the process of adaptation: Spike Jonze’s maudlin film version transformed the tale of a little rabble-rouser who was having a romp inside his own imagination into a painfully earnest exploration of the nature of families. Yawn: when does the rumpus start?

If Steig’s Shrek were ever to meet his higher-profile namesakes, he’d probably nail them “between the eyes with a putrid blue flame,” as he does the dragon in the book. And we would cheer him on, knowing that, like Satan in Paradise Lost, he would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven. Or star in a musical.

Shrek the Musical
March 20 to April 1
Toronto Centre for the Arts