Onion Boy and Jackass

To watch a buddy movie is to witness the profundity of friendship. Whether we observe the buddies meet each other on-screen, learn to work through challenges, experience a falling out, reminisce about a lifetime as companions; whether the friendship becomes toxic or the friends are deemed inseparable; the buddy movie in all its iterations explores what it is to share a meaningful bond with someone. We follow a duo or group of protagonists as though they were one person. The portrayed friendship often invites an intense and trying road to growth that otherwise would be unachievable by the protagonists on their own. We see how deeply the connection seeps into each individual’s core, to the point of becoming a part of each other’s identity.

I will admit that all this may sound like an exaggeration. This doubt is especially valid when considering the multitude of slapstick buddy flicks that dominate the genre. Admittedly, the buddy movie as we popularly know it is light-hearted and fun to watch. It therefore could seem strange to associate such depth to these easy-going films. Often buddy films follow the tendency to façade themselves as silly, comical, tumultuous adventures that celebrate the triumphant bond shared by a duo or group. But once we look under this densely cheerful exterior, the insightful truth of how friendship can intensely affect one’s sense of self becomes apparent.

Indeed, buddy movies continuously emphasize how life-altering a companionship can be. We witness how friends can inspire an emotional liberation with each other’s caring help. And, in some cases, we even spectate a catharsis: an intense release from feelings such as sorrow, remorse, and shame. The buddy movie thus delves into the depths of friendship and self-love. I deem that no matter how upbeat a buddy film might appear, there is always a profound understanding of what it is to be uplifted—or brought down—by a friend.

A film that stands out to me as impeccably illustrating the humorous-yet-poignant nature of the buddy genre is none other than Shrek (2001, dir. Andrew Adamson & Vicky Jenson). The animated film recounts the adventures lived by an unhappy ogre, Shrek, and a lively donkey, evidently named Donkey. The two set off on a mission to free a Princess in exchange for the liberation of a group of fairy-tale creatures who are being evacuated by the fastidious Lord Farquaad. This first film of the four-part series centers around Shrek and Donkey’s friendship. They start off as unlikely acquaintances but become essential to each other’s survival and well-being. It is through their friendship that the two characters grow to become comfortable with themselves. They even become celebrated for who they are after a life of being quite literally pushed aside by society. Nevertheless, their journey toward experiencing this catharsis of self-acceptance is not without hurdles, because Shrek and Donkey do start off as forlorn characters.

The feature begins with a sequence of Shrek enjoying his routine-oriented life. He treats himself to a mud shower, takes care of his swamp, swims in his pond, paints “beware of ogre” signs, eats nice dinners, relaxes on his recliner: all things a solitary ogre appears to appreciate. He even finds amusement in scaring off the villagers who attempt to hunt him down. Just as he is called a beast, his self-confidence seems to overflow as he laughs off the insults. This all-around jovial opening almost has us fooled into believing that Shrek feels fully content in his solitude. It is through the arrival of his soon-to-become buddy, Donkey, that we behold just how secluded and miserable Shrek is. Although he enjoys his own company, he banishes anyone from getting close to him or his swamp. This isolation is no sign of happiness, but rather of deep despair.

The first hint that points to Shrek’s misery lies precisely in this same first scene. Cheerful and musical, the montage sequence primarily paints a likeable portrait of Shrek, establishing him as our protagonist. But it also serves to inform us of how Shrek is viewed in the context of his surroundings. We see that he is wanted for a reward that only brave villagers attempt to earn. The men gossip about how fearsome ogres are, and become petrified when facing him. All this acts as an important indication of how the rest of the community perceives Shrek. The fact that he is all alone in his swamp is also significant. There are suggestions that he wants to be alone, on purpose. He notably plants “stay out” signs that stand as literal barriers, and he roars at people, forcing them to run away. In this sense, we see how the village’s negative perception of Shrek has pushed the ogre to further his seclusion.

This isolated condition in society is mirrored in Donkey’s experience. Before Donkey becomes Shrek’s counterpart, the glimpse of his life we see is quite awful. He is a pet being sold to the lordship’s army for a monetary reward. He appears to be disliked by his owner and is treated like a foul animal, even though he talks just as a human can. He is able to escape the soldiers’ grasp, but appears very afraid and powerless as they chase him down. It is only when he encounters Shrek that he is protected by the fearsome ogre. When the army runs away from the duo, Donkey experiences freedom for the first time after a life of presumed mistreatment.

When Shrek and Donkey meet, they share an implicit bond already: They know what it is to be ostracised and hunted by their so-called ‘community.’ Donkey immediately feels comfortable around Shrek, seemingly immune to his might. He appears to be aware of their mutually experienced situation and chattily suggests that they stick together for survival. Shrek refuses this proposal again and again, until Donkey admits he doesn’t have anywhere else to go, and no one else as his friend. To Shrek’s astonishment, Donkey says that he does not mind being friends with an ogre, and even expresses his respect for him. Thus begins their friendship.

Because they are not used to having people be nice to them, Shrek and Donkey experience difficulties staying cordial with one another throughout the movie. The two often shout hurtful words and are quite harsh with each other. Their attitude is conceivably in the habit of what others have presented to them in the past. They are not comfortable with someone showing them compassion, because they don’t fully believe they deserve it. The emotion is so foreign to these societal outcasts who have internalized this pain that they find it easier to push away someone’s care rather than receive it.

Especially with Shrek, the inability to let someone into his life is an effect of his own insecurity. Shrek appears to find comfort in the idea of no one being able to get close to him. He allows people to critique him and express disgust about him, as we see them do throughout most of the film. If he sets a boundary, he does so with hurtful words or a terrifying roar. He makes sure to eliminate any possibility of a healing conversation. He does not let anyone through to his heart, covered in countless barriers that he explains to Donkey as onion layers—hence his nickname as “Onion Boy.”

Shrek has assumed the role of an appalling monster to the point of believing he has become one. He embodies the scary creature that the world perceived him to be. When he roars, he finds solace in the momentary power it gives him over those who hurt him. In her significant work All About Love, bell hooks writes about what it is to experience love in its many forms: romantic, amicable, communal, spiritual, etc. Her book remarkably illuminates the damages we can experience when we are lacking love. She writes about seeking power as a substitute for love. hooks duly notes: “Power gives us the illusion of having triumphed over fear, over our need for love” (221). In this sense, we can see how Shrek uses his might to cover his lovelessness and fear of rejection. His roar and his swamp have become his symbols of power. They are the only things that bring him consolation for his lack of love. To attribute so much value to his voice and his swamp is Shrek’s defense mechanism, and it leads him to close himself off to the rest of the world.

This is something that Donkey seems to notice. This is where the importance of an uplifting friendship comes into play. At an apogee scene midway through the film, Donkey courageously and relentlessly confronts Shrek about his desired seclusion in his swamp. Donkey questions, “Hey, what’s your problem, Shrek? What you got against the whole world anyway?” Shrek angrily replies: “Look, I’m not the one with the problem, OK? It’s the world that seems to have a problem with me! People take one look at me and go ‘Aah! Help! Run! A big, stupid, ugly ogre!’ They judge me before they even know me. That’s why I’m better off alone.” It is perhaps the first time that the ogre has revealed his feelings to anyone. To this confession, Donkey shares that he didn’t perceive Shrek in that way when they first met. This gesture of acceptance from Donkey is what allows Shrek to feel comfortable with himself—all flaws and sorrows included.

From this moment on, Shrek has found a cathartic sense of self-worth. His demeanor changes radically, and he has found profound relief. Shrek grows closer with both Donkey and Princess Fiona as they continue their journey. A strong moment in which Shrek’s newly found self-belief concretises itself is when he interrupts Lord Farquaad’s wedding. The Lord cruelly mocks Shrek, saying that, “it’s rude enough being alive when nobody wants you,” as the entire village laughs. Yet, the ogre is able to pick himself back up and confess his love to Princess Fiona, having learned through Donkey’s relentless support that he is worthy of love. And, to everyone’s wonder, she loves him back.

The act of Donkey entering Shrek’s closed-off life and managing to set the foundations of a friendship is of utmost importance. The pair’s friendship is what nourishes the essence of the film. Beyond the quest to save the princess, which drives the narrative of the film, Shrek and Donkey’s partnership is what lies at the core of it. When their bond faces turbulence and the duo experience momentary fallings-out, that is when the story halts. That is when the film feels its lowest, as though nothing could continue if the buddies don’t make up. With such prominence placed on the partnership of these characters, we come to understand that this film, despite its title indicating a singular protagonist, is actually about the pair. It is about how they better each other’s lives, to the point of feeling somewhat incomplete without the other.

In my eyes, there would be no Shrek without Donkey. There would be an unfulfilled individual continually attempting to convince himself he was happy, as he does in the first sequence. And conversely, there would be no Donkey without Shrek. There would be a most probably imprisoned character feeling anxious and deprived because his identity and personality are depreciated by his surroundings. There would be no marriage between Shrek and Princess Fiona, no Donkey and Dragon union, no defeat of Lord Farquaad, and no joyful fairy-tale community, if not for Shrek and Donkey’s bond. The flagrant difference between where Shrek and Donkey could have ended up versus what they became shows how impactful friendship has the potential to be.

The discovery of unconditional support and self-worth is what I consider to have allowed Donkey and Shrek to blossom as they do. The honesty and fidelity that they show to one another, even after a dispute, is what maintains the companionship. It is also what opens their hearts to accepting themselves, and accepting all kinds of love into their life. By shedding their metaphorical “onion layers,” the protagonists are able to form the relationships that they previously felt too unworthy and unsure to engage in. They needed each other to grow and find a much-needed sense of family. They learned from each other’s company—albeit forced at first—that they need to be part of a loving community to feel complete.

The movie also shows the hardships and tribulations of being friends with someone. It insists on depicting a realistic portrayal of friendship with the ugly moments included. We are given a wise glimpse of how true acceptance of self is put into practice, which is one of the main reasons why I value this film. We see how accepting love, starting with an amicable bond, immensely changes a person.

The renowned movie about an unapproachable ogre and a chatty donkey’s rise to glory has indeed marked a generation of viewers, young and old. Even though it is the first buddy film that I can remember watching, its messages of self-acceptance and compassion are lessons that are not distant in my mind. As the film celebrates its 20-year anniversary, I find it to be just as timely in 2021 as it was in 2001, precisely because of how acutely it depicts the heart-opening power of friendship.

When placed in contrast to the films of its time and status, Shrek stands out as a piece unlike the others. There is something so rebellious about the way Shrek’s story, characters and outcomes are presented. Although the discussed themes may be the same as in other popular films—friendship, love, and self-discovery—it is their treatment that differs. In a truly postmodern fashion, Shrek utilizes traditional fairy-tale tropes to establish a narrative environment that we recognize. As soon as they appear, we know who these characters and personas are, we know their reputation, we know their life experiences, and we know their probable narrative arc. The film calls on our already existing knowledge of fairy-tale stories to inform an expected outcome, but proceeds to overthrow it.

Shrek unquestionably reset the tropes of its era. It places an ogre and a donkey at the center of its story, the kind of personas that would otherwise be the subject of scorn and disapproval, and gives them a beautiful tale in which they grow to become celebrated by their community. The characters that are usually targeted as repulsive losers are instead praised and offered love, and those that are usually revered as royalty are regarded unsympathetically. It is surprising for such a hugely acclaimed film to possess such opposing tendencies to the mainstream. Yet, the film succeeds as an ever-lasting piece of popular media despite its subversive nature—conceivably because of its subversive nature.

I admire this film because of its choice to take narratives that we culturally already know, consider as just, have a fixed view on, and to completely disrupt them. We are left to ponder about how our principles are perhaps not always commendable, even though they are widely concretised in society. This is something that is so important for viewers to question themselves upon. The film further pushes us to consider how our societal beliefs can be altered to be more compassionate, genuine, and inclusive, notably to marginalized groups. Beyond how comedic and enjoyable the movie is to watch, Shrek undeniably offers stirring lessons about what it is to know friendship and love, and how this experience facilitates the acceptance of ourselves and of others.

Works Cited

hooks, bell. “All About Love: New Visions”. Harper, 2000.