Film: Beast and Superbeast

One by one, the blockbuster movies of 2001 are proving to be giant squibs. First came Pearl Harbor, whose only resemblance to Titanic (1997) was the speed with which it sank. Then came A.I., which proved that not even Steven Spielberg’s platinum-plated name is shiny enough to make moviegoers sit through two and a half hours of pretentious gabble.

Desperate to find a film worth sitting through, much less writing about, I found myself reduced to sampling also-rans I’d passed up earlier in the year, hoping that one of them would be tolerable. Alas, Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, a rock-and-roll rewrite of La Traviata shot in the style of a $6 billion music video, is the campiest movie I have ever seen—it may be the campiest movie ever made—and though I confess to having been mildly amused by watching Jim Broadbent lip-sync Like a Virgin in drag, I am forced at last to the reluctant conclusion that Strictly Ballroom, Luhrmann’s winsomely charming 1992 film debut, was a fluke.

I had better luck with Shrek, the PG rated animated feature from Dream Works. I can’t really recommend it to concerned parents looking for gentler family fare, since most of the jokes are of the insult-and-bodily-function genre. On the other hand, the script is genuinely funny in a Mel Brooks sort of way and, for the most part, free of the leering sexual innuendo that is the stuff of virtually every successful TV sitcom nowadays, so I suppose you could do a lot worse by your kids. But in every other respect, Shrek is a typical product of the postmodern mass-culture machine, and even as I laughed at its surefire jokes, I couldn’t help but remember the cartoons of my childhood, to which it doesn’t measure up.

Shrek is a mean-spirited parody of the Little Mermaid/Beauty and the Beast Disney school of filmmaking, in which beloved children’s stories of the benighted past are updated by a political-correctness committee and fitted out with insipid soft-rock ballads. As you may gather, I have issues with these movies and their loathsome little commercials for tolerance, but at least they are genuinely sweet-tempered. Not so Shrek. While the inside jokes about Hollywood will go over children’s heads—Lord Farquaad, the villain, is a nasty caricature of Michael Eisner, who runs Disney—even the densest toddlers will surely see that the plot of this raucous film deliberately inverts the idealism of the Disney movies.

Farquaad, a pompous and disagreeable midget whose voice is supplied by John Lithgow, has expelled all the simpering fairy-tale characters from the kingdom of Duloc, leaving only robotic conformists to do his bidding. All he needs to make his world perfect is a princess, so he dispatches Shrek (Mike Myers), a foul-smelling ogre with a Scotch accent, and Donkey (Eddie Murphy), a smart-mouthed donkey, to find the pretty, plucky Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz). The catch is that Fiona is only pretty during the day, at which time she bears an uncanny resemblance to Cameron Diaz: After hours, she reverts to her normal ugly self.

Naturally, Shrek and Fiona fall in love, and once the big-hearted ogre does away with the height-challenged prince, he confesses his love and kisses the princess. This breaks the spell, causing Fiona to lose her looks permanently but also making it possible for her to live happily ever after with Shrek. Get it? Looks aren’t everything! How exquisitely subversive!

Needless to say, however, there is nothing even slightly subversive about Shrek, which beneath its borscht-belt veneer of knockabout comedy is as PC as any product of Disney’s canning factory. (The sole exception is Lord Farquaad, who is the butt of an endless string of midget jokes, an offense for which I wish DreamWorks would be boycotted by the Society for Raising the Self-Esteem of Short People—it’d serve it right.)

Nor is there anything adventurous about the eerie verisimilitude of the high-tech animation that makes Shrek look more like Moulin Rouge than, say, Rabbit of Seville or Duck Amuck One of the nice things about those old Warner Bros. cartoons on which I cut my baby teeth is that they didn’t pretend to be realistic. They were nothing more (or less) than drawings in motion, and that was part of what made Bugs Bunny and Wile E. Coyote so much more interesting (and funnier) than Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.

Digital animation, by contrast, occupies a chilly middle ground between the exuberant artificiality of a Chuck Jones short and the painstaking trompe l’oeil illusions of the hand-drawn Disney features of the 1940s. Like the special effects in Titanic, it looks real but feels fake. Perhaps that makes it more suitable to the heartless patter of Shrek, a movie that can’t decide whether to be clever or charming and ends up being not quite either.

Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast, in contrast, is an unabashedly clever, grimly funny crime movie that delivers on all its promises, and so you will probably not be surprised to learn that it was made in England rather than Hollywood, though the first half is set in a villa in Spain. The premise is pure noir: Gal Dove (Ray Winstone), an ex-mobster turned man of leisure, has retired to the Costa del Sol with Deedee (Amanda Redman), an ex-porn star turned housewife. Gal’s old colleagues, however, want him to return to cold, damp London for one last job, so they send Don Logan (Ben Kingsley), a bald-headed, flamboyantly vicious super-thug, to bring him back alive.

The marvelous script, by Louis Mellis and David Scinto, enriches this stock plot with sharp touches of subtlety. For all their crass vulgarity, Gal and Deedee have found in one another a measure of redemption. As for Don, he is even more horrendous than he appears at first sight, and the spectacular final shot of the film leaves you with the definite impression that this beast has cloven feet.

I’m no Anglophile, but I know a good thing when I see one, and Sexy Beast is the first really good movie to be released this year. Glazer’s feature-film debut successfully fuses the febrile, fast-moving imagery of music videos with the tight coherence of the well-made thriller. My guess is that he has even better things ahead of him. I say this, however, with two king-sized caveats: Every line of Sexy Beast is spoken in the thickest and least comprehensible of lower-class English accents, and the only words you won’t have to strain to understand are the four-letter ones, of which there are several thousand. Don’t let them put you off, though—this is a film of considerable moral seriousness, powerfully acted and compellingly directed, and you will recognize it as such unless you are so averse to dirty words that you can’t hear past them.

Could Sexy Beast have been done differently? Maybe, but it wasn’t, and I suspect that there is no other effective way to make a fully convincing work of art about the deeply corrupted world in which we live. This I have on the very best authority: “The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience.” Flannery O’Connor said that, and I couldn’t agree more. Rent Dumbo for the kids, but see Sexy Beast for yourself.

Terry Teachout

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Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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