Villains of the Shrek Universe: From Nursery Rhymes to the Grim Reaper
The Shrek franchise famously flips the script on fairy tales to create new fantasy stories. The DreamWorks movies present a monstrous ogre named Shrek as the protagonist, rather than the usual antagonistic role of ogres in fantasy. Even other characters in his world are continually surprised that an ogre is the hero fighting for a “happily ever after” with a princess.
Most of the villains in the franchise must be just as noteworthy to serve as opponents to Shrek and his friends. Fans of Disney may be quite surprised to see characters like the Fairy Godmother, Prince Charming, and Rapunzel become bad guys. The most recent movie in Shrek’s extended universe, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, garnered heaps of praise for its fascinating villains, especially the Big Bad Wolf, aka Death.
Comparing antagonists across the Shrek universe may illuminate interesting themes and lessons that both children and adults can appreciate.
Jack and Jill and Goldilocks: Very Occasionally, Crime Does Pay
The Shrek franchise’s version of Puss in Boots is a departure from the manipulative trickster from the original fairy tale. He takes more inspiration from Zorro, another character played by Puss’ voice actor, Antonion Banderas. When introduced in Shrek 2, he was a sword-for-hire who quickly became one of Shrek’s most loyal friends after feeling he owed the ogre a life debt. When he got his own spinoff movies, he was a vigilante committing heists for the benefit of the common folk. As with most crime-committing protagonists, some of Puss’ enemies are fellow criminals who have considerably less morality than him.
In the first Puss in Boots movie, Puss runs afoul of outlaws named Jack and Jill. If not for their well-known names, these characters would be utterly unrecognizable as characters from a nursery rhyme. The married couple takes more inspiration from famous historical outlaws Bonnie and Clyde. In their introductory scene, they murder a random person just to create an opening in a hotel’s guest list. However, we do not learn much more about them throughout the movie. Jack and Jill are not particularly well-developed characters, as their main role is to draw attention away from the true villain of the movie… but more on that later.
In The Last Wish, Puss is one of many people searching for the Wishing Star, a magical source of limitless life-changing power. One of his competitors is the crime family Goldilocks and the Three Bears. In this version of the story, the Bears adopted Goldilocks after finding her in their home. Then they started committing crimes, although they don’t seem to have sinister motives. They just do it for the money; a trio of bears and a clever young human is specially qualified for “smash and grab” jobs and, presumably, not much else.
Like so many criminal teams, the criminals in these movies face an issue of differing perspectives. Jack would like to retire from crime, not because he is developing a conscience, but because he would like to start a family with Jill. Similarly, Goldilocks hopes to use the Wishing Star to magically create a human family for herself. She hesitates to admit this to the Bears because it will probably mean abandoning them, despite them seeing her as part of their family.
Jill responds to Jack’s suggestion by arguing that their pet piglets are family enough and dismisses the idea of retiring from crime as “talking crazy.” The Bears, on the other hand, are much more understanding and kind about Goldilocks’ desire for a “real” family. It is noteworthy that none of the Three Bears seem to have any desire to use the Wishing Star’s one and only wish for themselves. They only want to get it for Goldilocks, and even after she admits what she’ll use it for, they continue to fully support her. This suggests the Bears’ love for Goldilocks is much more selfless and genuine than Jill’s love for her husband.
Jack and Jill have not settled their argument before the end of their movie, although they are severely injured in a monster attack and no doubt forced to take a break from crime for a while. Goldilocks, however, finally decides to give up her Wish and accept the Bears as her family. The four of them decide to take over a bakery and, most likely, do less crime to focus on family togetherness. This growth makes Goldilocks and the Three Bears stronger characters than Jack or Jill.
Humpty Dumpty and Rumpelstiltskin: Dangerous Obsessions
The main villain of the first Puss in Boots movie, the secret employer of Jack and Jill, is Humpty Dumpty. He is Puss’ childhood friend, and he believes he is meant for more than his life as an orphan and a street urchin. He turns to crime to pursue that better life, and when he tries to convince Puss to help him, Puss declines, leaving Humpty to get arrested.
Humpty harbors a lifetime of resentment for Puss, as well as their hometown of San Ricardo, which he holds responsible for his lowly position in life. His revenge involves getting Puss arrested in San Ricardo and then luring a giant monstrous goose to the town to destroy it. This is an extreme response to the “betrayal” of his friend, suggesting there is something deeply wrong with Humpty and his morality. However, at the end of the movie, Puss manages to reconcile with Humpty and convince him to redeem himself by saving the town. Humpty does this by sacrificing himself, dying in a great fall. His corpse becomes a golden egg, which Puss claims proves he was always “good inside.”
Humpty’s story bears some resemblance to Rumpelstiltskin, the villain of Shrek: Forever After. Unlike most villains in the franchise, this one closely matches the depiction of the character in the original fairy tale: a very powerful and vindictive trickster whose power revolves around making deals.
At one point, Rumpel tries to make a deal with the king and queen of the kingdom of Far Far Away, breaking their daughter’s curse in exchange for total rule of their kingdom. Before he can complete the deal, their daughter is rescued by Shrek. Rumple develops an obsessive hatred of Shrek, and he takes revenge by tricking the ogre into a contract that erases everything Shrek has done. This creates a world where Rumpelstiltskin rules the kingdom as a cruel tyrant. He is particularly cruel to ogres and Shrek’s friends, mostly out of vindictive revenge against Shrek, like Humpty’s complicated revenge on Puss.
Rumpel loves taking advantage of vulnerable people. He is apparently convinced that “no one is smart but [him],” and he likes to prove it by using wordplay to trick people into making bad deals. He promises the king and queen “all their problems will disappear,” and then the king and queen disappear, as people who have faded out of existence apparently have no problems anymore. “Free all ogres” becomes “free every ogre in the kingdom except for one who sometimes turns into a human,” because that one is not “all-ogre.”
The end goal of all this is Rumpel satisfying his greed for power, much like Humpty Dumpty’s greedy obsession with getting a life of luxury by any means necessary. Rumpel is shown being unnecessarily cruel to people under his power. He threatens the witches who work for him with water that melts them like acid. He employs the Pied Piper to capture Shrek and his fellow ogres through enchanting music that defies free will. Unlike Humpty Dumpty, Rumpel has no backstory to make him at all sympathetic or explain why he is the way he is; he’s just evil.
Jack Horner and Prince Charming: Spoiled Brats
Big Jack Horner from Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is also a cartoonishly evil villain, although his backstory is revealed. He was the Shrek universe’s version of a child star when he was Little Jack Horner, and he grows up seeing other people get even more famous than him with their fairy tales, most of which involve magic making their wishes and dreams come true. Although Horner has loving parents and a very comfortable lifestyle, he is envious of the magical creatures and obsessed with attaining magic for himself. This could be attributed to him being a spoiled brat, never being content with what he has and always wanting more.
Horner wants to use the Wishing Star to hoard all the magic in the world for himself, so no one else can have any. This incredibly selfish wish would be even more devastating to the world than Rumpelstiltskin’s Shrek-less dystopia. Horner shows no remorse for his intentions or the terrible actions he takes to achieve his goals.
As a crime lord, Horner is possibly even crueler to his lackeys than Rumpelstiltskin. If anyone so much as mentions his childhood, he becomes outraged and magically kills them. He makes his minions form a human bridge to get across a canyon, and he doesn’t care when most of them fall, presumably to their deaths. During a fight scene, he accidentally kills some of his own minions without a moment of remorse. A character meant to be a parody of Jiminy Cricket, the spirit of ethical guidance, calls Horner an “irredeemable monster.” Horner acknowledges that this should be obvious, and he continues not to care.
All the other characters in The Last Wish team up to destroy the Wishing Star, giving up their own wishes, to deprive Jack of getting his wish. He is apparently destroyed in the process, denying that he deserves this fate with his last breath. Audiences never get a reason to think he deserves to be spared or redeemed. He is a high-quality villain because, while he is very entertaining to watch, it is very satisfying to see him go.
Another spoiled brat in the Shrek universe is Prince Charming. It may be a twist to fully make him a villain, but many fans of fairy tale retellings can appreciate the idea that Charming’s privileged life makes him selfish and shallow. In Shrek 2, this is likely caused by his mother, the Fairy Godmother, raising him to believe he can have anything he wants. The Fairy Godmother also manipulates events to ensure Charming gets what he wants. But more on that later.
Charming thought he would be the hero who rescued and married Princess Fiona. When he learns Shrek did that and is therefore in line to be king of Far Far Away instead of Charming, the prince gets irrationally angry. He exclaims that Shrek “stole [his] kingdom,” even though Shrek never knew there was any competition for who got to Fiona first and Charming didn’t lose anything he previously had. Like Jack Horner, this is the reaction of an immature, spoiled man who feels entitled to anything he doesn’t have.
In Shrek the Third, Charming returns for his revenge. He recruits a small army of fairy tale villains to help him overthrow the rulers of Far Far Away, using his leadership skills and charisma to win them over. He even convinces Rapunzel to come to his side and betray her friends, and he controls the kingdom for a short time. This shows he is a capable villain, even if his motivations are shallow and vain.
Charming’s plan ultimately fails simply because his enemies are capable heroes. Fiona helps her fellow princesses fight back by encouraging them to take initiative for themselves. Arthur Pendragon convinces Charming’s army of villains to turn on him by making an inspirational speech. Then Charming tries to stab Arthur, but Shrek gets in the way. This ending does not take away from the strength of Charming’s character.
The Fairy Godmother and Farquaad: Stop Ruining My Story
Prince Charming inherits aspects of his villainous nature from his mother, the Fairy Godmother. Even fans who readily believe Charming is secretly a jerk may be surprised that the Fairy Godmother is also secretly evil. She does help others to get what they want, but based on what is shown in Shrek 2, she always wants to get something in return for her favors. If things don’t turn out the way she wants, she threatens to take back what she provided and leave people sad and suffering again.
Interestingly, what the Fairy Godmother wants is not entirely selfish. She does not seem envious of anything anyone else has or entitled to what she doesn’t have. Rather, she wants to use the power she has to give her son things and make him happy. However, putting her son’s happiness above everyone else’s happiness has the same effect as most other villains’ selfish motivations. As previously mentioned, this also leads to Charming being a spoiled brat, which means the Fairy Godmother’s parenting methods could be considerably better.
When Shrek and his friends go to the Fairy Godmother’s potion factory, they pretend to be representatives of a worker’s union. The receptionist they are talking to immediately begins complaining about the working conditions under the Godmother and lets them into the factory without asking any questions. This suggests, like Rumpel and Jack Horner, the Fairy Godmother is severely unfair to people who work for her, another detail to make her seem more evil.
The other notable thing about the Fairy Godmother is the way she breaks her diet. Things not going her way make her stressed, and she uses this stress as an excuse to indulge in unhealthy food. She blames the King of Far Far Away for causing this stress and thus blames him for her diet being ruined. The Fairy Godmother’s true motivation is feeling in control of everything around her. Blaming others for her faults and flaws is her way of maintaining the illusion of control over things she doesn’t really control. According to her, anything she doesn’t control is automatically bad and must be stopped.
The Fairy Godmother also reveals this motivation when she is talking to Shrek and trying to explain why he shouldn’t be married to Fiona. She points out several other fairy tales that don’t involve ogres being the heroes, getting the girls, and living happily ever after. Because there is no well-known precedent, she argues, Shrek is wrong to pursue his happiness, and that is why Fiona is not happy being married to him. Of course, there is no actual rule that says ogres can’t be heroes, and Fiona has not said their unhappiness is permanent. The Fairy Godmother is just using this argument to try to get what she wants.
Ultimately, the Fairy Godmother loses because the King stops helping her and sacrifices himself, giving up the favor he received to ensure Shrek and Fiona get to keep their happy ending. This is similar to the characters in Puss in Boots: The Last Wish giving up their wishes to defeat Jack Horner. A few moments later, Shrek gives up something he would like to keep because it will make Fiona happier. This demonstrates that Shrek and his allies are heroes because of their selflessness. The stark contrast with the villains’ selfishness makes them all stronger characters.
Ousting Shrek to maintain control goes back to the very first villain in the Shrek franchise: Lord Farquaad. In the original Shrek, this ruler charges Shrek with a quest to rescue Princess Fiona and deliver her to him so he can marry her. By the laws of their world, this marriage will make him king. Farquaad is quickly established as power-hungry, just like Prince Charming, Jack Horner, and Rumpelstiltskin.
Farquaad considers fairy tale creatures “trash poisoning [his] perfect world.” Unlike the other villains in the Shrek franchise, Farquaad is not based on a fairy tale character. He almost seems to be an outsider from a world of more serious medieval fantasy, where animals and puppets don’t talk, cookies don’t get up and run away, and so on. He sees these characters as anomalies, and he evicts them from their homes and turns them into refugees in pursuit of what he calls perfection.
In the musical theater adaptation of Shrek, Lord Farquaad is given more backstory. The show says his father was Grumpy, presumably one of the seven dwarves from Snow White’s fairy tale. Farquaad wants a better life than the dirty drudgery of his father’s mining job, and ever since his father abandoned him, he has resented all fairy tale creatures like him. By forcing all such creatures out of his kingdom, he can ignore the fact that he is descended from one of them – ignore any part of himself he resents.
Farquaad’s policy of prejudice is just as bad as the dystopia Rumpelstiltskin creates in Shrek: Forever After, if not worse. He hates the whimsy of fairy tales, and audiences can quickly understand this as a villainous motivation. In the end, he is defeated because Shrek’s talking donkey friend has tamed a dragon, who swallows Farquaad whole. In other words, he is defeated by fairy tale whimsy, an ending audiences probably find very satisfying.
In The Last Wish, Puss in Boots realizes he has used up eight of the nine lives he gets for being a fairy tale cat. The next time he dies, it will be permanent. This terrifies Puss, motivating him to search for the Wishing Star and use it to wish for more lives. In addition to the competition – Goldilocks, the Three Bears, and Big Jack Horner – he is being hunted by a bounty hunter known as the Big Bad Wolf.
The Wolf is a terrifying villain. The animation of his character, the voice acting performance of Wagner Moura, his iconic whistle, and Puss’ reactions to him all combine to give audiences goosebumps. This is even before the Wolf reveals that he is not just a bringer of death. He is Death, the Grim Reaper himself. He is hunting Puss specifically because Puss wasted his eight previous lives with frivolity, not giving mortality the respect Death thinks it deserves.
Death enjoys chasing Puss and increasing “the smell of fear.” Although he could probably kill Puss very early on in the movie, he sadistically plays with his prey, taunting him from the shadows. Despite this, he shows a sense of honor and fair play. After disarming Puss’ sword in their initial duel, he demands that Puss pick it up so he can try to defend himself. Again, this is partially a way for Death to entertain himself before killing his target, but giving Puss a fighting chance makes Death an even more compelling character.
By the end of the movie, audiences may not even see Death as a villain. He plays the role of antagonist because he tries to kill the movie’s protagonist, but his motivation is wanting the living to appreciate their lives and live well – an ultimately good goal. When Puss demonstrates that he has learned his lesson and is willing to fight to protect his final life, Death becomes frustrated. Killing Puss would no longer be satisfying; Puss has “taken the fun out of it.” So, Death lets Puss go free.
This seems to be a trend for Puss in Boots. He convinces Humpty Dumpty to give up on his goal in the previous movie, and Goldilocks gives up her wish for the greater good. Arthur Pendragon convinces the gang of minor villains in Shrek the Third to be better, but every other villain in the franchise is too committed to his or her goals to give up or have a redemption arc. The fact that Death backs off without being directly asked shows his honorable goals are stronger than his ego, as opposed to all the other villains.
Despite the various moments throughout the Shrek franchise that are more appreciated by adults, the movies are primarily aimed at kids. Villains with simple motivations are easier for children to understand. This is why Farquaad, the Fairy Godmother, Prince Charming, Rumpelstiltskin, Jack and Jill, and Big Jack Horner are so straightforwardly evil and self-centered. This is also why, although one of the main themes of the franchise is that people and things are sometimes more than they appear – i.e., an ogre can be good, heroic, and deserving of happiness – these villains have no redemption arcs.
As previously mentioned, Puss in Boots is a non-traditional hero because he commits crimes for the greater good. In turn, many of the villains he faces – Humpty Dumpty, Goldilocks, the Three Bears, and Death – are non-traditional as well. Humpty, Goldie, and the Bears redeem themselves by giving up their selfishness to help Puss, and Death is not as selfish as most villains.
Shrek and Puss in Boots succeed against their antagonists by choosing love and friendship and passionately fighting for it. The moral of the story is the moral of most fairy tales: selfless love is the best way to find your own happily ever after.
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