I saw this film at the weekend with a friend and her family, including her five-year-old daughter who seemed to enjoy it very much! It worked very nicely for us adults, too, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it even included a few minor Classical references.
The main plot of the film concerns Shrek being sent to an alternate universe where he never rescued Fiona from the castle in the first film, and Far Far Away (the fairy kingdom where he lives) has fallen into the evil clutches of Rumpelstiltskin. His job is to win Fiona’s heart all over again and save Far Far Away into the bargain – and he must do it by the next sunrise, or disappear forever. This means that we get to enjoy all the fun of seeing Far Far Away transformed into a mean, nasty place, where witches hold club nights in the palace and Fiona is the hard-as-nails leader of an underground resistance force. There is lots of darkness and grittiness and dastardly goings-on, which I personally enjoyed far more than the happily-ever-after world that Shrek was inhabiting in the first place.
As I said, the Classical references amongst all this were pretty minor, but together they made for a very interesting demonstration of how Classics can work in modern popular culture.
Two of them drew on Greek mythology. First, early on in the film, the Queen of Far Far Away told the King that Rumpelstiltskin’s services had been recommended to her by King Midas – very appropriately, since one of Rumpelstiltskin’s talents was turning straw into gold. The Fairyland which Shrek inhabits is mainly populated by stories and characters drawn from the European fairytale tradition represented by Hans Christian Anderson and the brothers Grimm, but this reference means that the stories of Classical mythology are also integrated into the same narrative space. Indeed, Wikipedia tells me that this had already been established in the third Shrek film (which I haven’t seen), which features a Cyclops. It isn’t the only multi-cultural fantasy-land to include stories and characters drawn from Classical mythology alongside those from more recent times – Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and J.K. Rowling’s Potterverse both do the same thing. But it’s always nice from my perspective to see Classical mythology being included, even if (as here) it is fairly low in the mix.
The second Greek reference comes much later in the film, when Shrek and Fiona are imprisoned in the dungeon of Rumpelstiltskin’s castle in the alternate reality. Donkey and a bunch of ogres get into the castle to rescue them by hiding inside a giant disco ball which Rumpelstiltskin is having installed – i.e. a Trojan Horse. This time, the reference is implicit rather than explicit, and indeed sufficiently oblique that it may not have been intentional. But either way it contributes further to the sense that this is an all-encompassing fantasy-world, drawing on plot devices from across the full range of human story-telling.
The final reference was Roman rather than Greek, and again only featured as a small passing reference: but to me it spoke volumes about the different places which Greek and Roman culture occupy in the modern popular imagination. In the dark alternate universe where Rumpelstiltskin is king, we see that the inhabitants of Far Far Away have had to turn to crime, begging and other nefarious activities in order to survive. Amongst them is ‘Gingy’ the Gingerbread man, who has become a gladiator, and fights animal crackers to amuse the passing crowds in a miniature arena in the street. In other words, where references to Greek mythology were serving to widen the scope of the fantasy-world, a reference to Roman history is being used to strengthen the grimy brutality of the dark alternate universe.
This is not news, of course: in fact, 18th-century opera (for example) was already drawing readily on fantastical stories from Greek mythology and brutal stories from Roman history. It’s partly a consequence of the types of literary texts which have comes down to us from each culture, and partly a reflection of modern needs and interests. But a film like this one, which is really drawing mainly on other modern references to Classical culture (e.g. Gladiator) rather than trying to engage seriously and directly with the original sources, can show the pattern up particularly distinctly precisely because it is simply following in the popular vein.
And it might be tempting for me to get all snotty about it, and wish that Greek and Roman culture weren’t constantly stereotyped and distorted like this. But you know, stereotypes have their place, and one of the things they can do very effectively is conjure up a quick and easily-recognisable impression of something that the audience is already familiar with. So I’d much rather see Classical culture popping up in films like Shrek Forever After via simplified stereotypes than not appearing at all. Because that means that Classical history and mythology still hold an important place in our modern 21st-century culture – one which the film’s audience can be expected to recognise and enjoy. And that is why the study of the Classical past is still so popular and important today.