Editor's Note: Shrekked
Of all the pieces we've published this year, none has provoked as passionate a response as Eric Metaxas's review of Shrek, the summer hit that is now second only to The Lion King in the all-time box-office rankings for animated features ["Shrek: Happily Ever Ogre," July/August 2001]. CHRISTIANITY TODAY'S online Film Forum has been a particularly lively site, with responses to Metaxas from a host of readers, including film reviewer Peter Chattaway, who has frequently appeared in the pages of BOOKS & CULTURE. Leaving aside the specifics of agreement or disagreement, what's striking is not only the sheer volume of response-evidently an astonishing number of our readers saw Shrek almost as soon as it was released-but also the degree of engagement. Movies, for better or worse, are the lingua franca of our culture, or as close to a common language as we come. Here are three letters selected from the many we have received.
Eric Metaxas's preachy, indignant review of Shrek forgets that the rose-colorization of fairy tales is largely an invention of the twentieth century, and that in his quest to create palatable entertainment for large audiences Disney had to strip folklore of much of its moral and cultural authenticity. In the fairy tales of Grimm and countless others, moral frailty and bad taste figure just as prominently as Prince Charming and Snow White. Crude humanity can be the difference between an instructional tale that has relevance to the reader/viewer and one that is mere entertainment. Shrek is not high art, and as Metaxas rightly points out, it goes over the top at points. But the moral and aesthetic universe it operates in is far more interesting than that of the old Disney movies.
Italo Calvino, a great student of the genre, wrote: "Those who know how rare it is in popular (and nonpopular) poetry to fashion a dream without resorting to escapism will appreciate these instances of a self-awareness that does not deny the invention of a destiny, or the force of reality which bursts forth into fantasy. Folklore could teach us no better lesson, poetic or moral."
New York, N.Y.
I read Eric Metaxas's review of Shrek with interest and appreciation. His argument that we should resist all such forms of what I have called metaphor-morphing was cogent and well-taken. But at the same time, his bio noted (and apparently without embarrassment) that he works for the very worst offenders in the world of metaphor-morphing, which is to say, the makers of VeggieTales. And then, in the same issue, another article [Otto Selles, "What's Cooking When Martha Stewart Meets the VeggieTales?"] undertakes to praise VeggieTales, despite a minor quibble here and there.
Let me see if I have your argument down. We should take great care not to twist or distort our ancient images of ogres, princesses, and the like, so as not to mess with our kids' heads. Scriptural metaphor and image, however, is fair game, so long as we are trying to impart "biblical values." Notice the implicit assumption that a scriptural, literate, aesthetic sense is not a biblical value to be imparted to children. King David as a broccoli, or whatever it is they have him as, changes nothing essential about the story-if you are an evangelical.
This issue shows, despite your name, that cultural soul and modern evangelicalism still go together like whiskey and ice cream.
Christ Church, Moscow, Idaho
How do I hate this review? Let me count the ways. Shrek did not "dwell in the swamp happily alone," he struggled with bitterness and depression because of the xenophobic persecution forced on him by the "normal" world. Shrek is not "grotesque"; he's just a big, strong, homely guy with a sense of humor and loyalty-in other words, a catch for any woman with the maturity to overlook the "defect" of his failure to somehow endow himself with Chippendale good looks. And thank goodness Eddie Murphy is the donkey; for my money, he is light years funnier than Ms. Goldberg.
Shrek does not "subvert the glorious and mysterious and ennobling idea of fairy tales themselves." Many fairy tales are frightening, violent, and depressing, and often encourage children to long for unrealistic and unwholesome "magical" solutions to their problems. E.M. says Shrek is "tiresome in its unalleviated puncturing." Tiresome to whom? My husband (age 50) laughed his head off, our 16- and 14-year-old sons roared, and our nine-year-old daughter told her little friends "it's really funny." Of course I, the Mom (age 47), loved it also. And evidently so do millions of Americans. (Don't get me wrong, millions of Americans can be blind as bats, as shown by '92 and '96.)
Nevertheless, Metaxas claims that Shrek is "disturbingly inappropriate for children." The normal adult humor in Shrek is typical of all the best cartoons through the last four decades. Eric, are you one of those blighted souls who think there is nothing funny about sex? Like the political/social commentary and humor of, say, Rocky and Bullwinkle (more of our faves), the psychological/sexual commentary and humor of Shrek flow over the heads of the children in the audience. Also, Robin Hood is not over-sexed, he is just cheerful and mildly randy. His sex drive appears to be markedly less than my own husband's, but excuse me-I see that I have strayed unwittingly on to that offensive topic: cheerful sexuality appreciation.
And then there is Mr. Metaxas's "worst example," his "most ugly moment-when the robin explodes while reaching for the high note, and Fiona, instead of trying to sit on the eggs herself, thoughtfully fries them up for Shrek and the donkey in an attempt to atone for her former selfish ways." God forgive us! My own family had eggs this morning. What are you, E.M., a vegan?
But let's settle down to the serious and tragic paucity of Mr. Metaxas's position: Fiona and Shrek are not "ugly" by any but the shallowest standards of Disney and Playboy. Fiona and Shrek as ogres are merely homely in a cute sort of way, a condition that God in his wisdom has chosen to bestow liberally upon the human family since our beginning. And how heartbreaking that Mr. Metaxas can actually claim in all seriousness that "neither she [Fiona] nor Shrek is transformed." Both Shrek (formerly a gloomy, lonely, self-hater) and Fiona (formerly a bratty, self-centered, dominatrix) are sweetly and beautifully transformed by humility and love. 'Tis not the gospel truth we find in fairy tales, O Eric Metaxas. The gospel truth is that our blessed savior Jesus Christ died once for all, and even the "grotesque" and "ogres" are beautiful and beloved in his sight and their sins are covered by his precious blood if they will but call on his name. Magical (and easy) solutions plus riches (another fairy tale staple) are not the answer to life's ills. It is the love of God and death to self (e.g., Fiona turning her back on fantastic beauty for the love of a good man) that leads to life.
Thanks for the very interesting special section on the Revolution [July/August 2001]; I was particularly interested to read about the retaliation my Moravian forebears suffered in Pennsylvania for their less than enthusiastic support of the war [Mark Noll, "Ordinary People, Extraordinary Times"]. In thinking of our history, we Moravians typically focus more on our relations with the Native Americans than the powers of the time.
I would like to point out, though, that some readers may be misled by A.C. Roeber's comment ["Colonial Modern"] that characterizes Moravians as giving "a very good impression that they were a church." In fact, as Roeber surely knows, the British Crown (and other governments) accredited them as such for the simple reason that the Moravians were a separate denomination. Despite chief restorer Count Zinzendorf's best efforts to make them part of the Lutheran church (in which he remained a minister to his dying day) or, later, an ecumenical parachurch organization, the renewed Unitas Fratrum quickly became just that: the renewal of the independent church of Jan Hus's followers and Comenius. This identity tension between being truly new and truly old was likely the root cause of problems suffered both in Colonial days and in the young republic.