Shrek starts off at a decidedly low point, with a couple of flatulence jokes punctuated by Smash Mouth’s "All Star" on the soundtrack. But it quickly evolves into a family film more than worthy of the term, and by its end we’ve been enchanted by a fairy tale world of green ogres, fierce dragons, talking donkeys and yes – beautiful princesses waiting to be rescued. But it’s no sugar-coated tale of all sweetness and light. There’s plenty of irreverent satire, parody and sarcasm for teens and adults to savor as well.
In Shrek the technical talents at PDI/Dreamworks have raised the ante yet again for computer-animated feature films. Pixar’s Toy Story series did a great job of portraying everything except the people – hard, flat regular surfaces are a lot easier to mimic than human skin and hair. Disney’s Dinosaur managed to capture hair and fur with stunning realism, but there were no humans on screen to use as a benchmark.
In Shrek the computer animation technicians have turned the realism knob up a notch; even the human characters are near lifelike. They’re not quite 100% of the way there, as motor movements, both large and small, and facial expressions still appear somewhat robotic. But as this is a fairy tale, this detail is less important and virtually becomes transparent just a few minutes into the film. The PDI/Dreamworks crew have also used their technology talents to populate Shrek’s world with an abundance of minute detail (the production notes boast of 28,000 trees with three billion leaves) and a large number of extras and background characters, in some scenes there literally is a cast of thousands.
All the technology in the world can’t make up for a weak and uninvolving story, however, (see: Star Wars I – The Phantom Menace) and here Shrek delivers as well. The title character (Mike Myers) is a huge green ogre, living by himself in a fetid swamp at a far corner of the kingdom of Duloc. One day he awakens to find the tranquility of his remote outpost shattered by hundreds of newcomers. The diminutive Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow) has decreed that all fairy-tale characters must be exiled from the city, and Shrek soon has blind mice and little pigs underfoot. The scene where Duloc townspeople turn the characters in for a bounty is priceless–we see Geppetto eagerly pocketing the coins he received for ratting on Pinocchio. Shrek heads into town to complain, accompanied by a donkey (Eddie Murphy) who knows the way. When they arrive at Farquaad’s very tall castle ("Making up for a shortcoming elsewhere, wouldn’t you say," quips Shrek) they’re sent on a mission to rescue the beautiful Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) who is to be Farquaad’s bride. In return Shrek will get his land and privacy back.
But that’s just the basics. Shrek uses this time-honored fairly tale structure as merely a clothesline on which to hang inventive takeoffs on the genre itself and everything from Busby Berkeley musicals to John Woo martial-arts flicks, romantic comediesand Jurassic Park. The credits list four writers, usually a bad sign, but this crew obviously had great fun concocting the script, and it shows. There’s more than enough visual jokes to warrant repeat viewings to catch them all. Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson debut as directors here and manage to keep both the story and the humor continually rolling, with several very nicely-edited sequences that would be the envy of most live features.
The computer-generated characters make good use of the talents at hand. Lord Farquaad and Princess Fiona both move and gesture much like their human voice providers, Fiona especially. Myers gives voice to Shrek using a takeoff on his Scottish "Fat Bastard" character from the Austin Powers films, to good effect. And just as he did as Mushu the Dragon in Mulan, Murphy manages to steal most scenes; the donkey gets most of the snappy comeback lines.
Like any good fairy tale there’s a moral here: love yourself for who you are, and true beauty is on the inside. But Shrek manages to give even that old adage a 90-degree twist. So is there a happy ending? Sure (after all, this is a fairy tale). But it’s one that you probably won’t see coming. Shrek contains surprises and delights in practically every scene. The total package is magical to behold, clever and hugely entertaining for all ages.
– Bob Aulert