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Shrek   A

DreamWorks Pictures

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: PG
Directors: Andrew Adamson, Vicky Jenson
Writers: Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Joe Stillman, Roger S.H. Schulman (based on the book by William Steig)
Cast: Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, John Lithgow.

Review by Rob Vaux

DreamWorks animation is making a nice habit out of saving us from the summer Disney "blahs." Last year it was Chicken Run; this year it's Shrek, a marvelously fractured fairy tale more subversive than anything Uncle Walt could have dreamed of. It mercilessly upturns every Happily Ever After convention it can find, yet also finds a genuine soul in the midst of all the vicious wit. A combination like that is a special joy that even the best Disney film cannot hope to match.

The animation in Shrek is stunning, but not in the way you might expect. Most animated features these days bend their skills towards wowing the audience, flashing a lot of sound and fury in an effort to knock our socks off. Shrek works more like a picture book: full of green fields, scarlet sunsets and crumbling castles yawning with shadows. Every blade of grass is articulated, every bump and pore on the characters' faces can be seen. But rather than draw attention to itself, the imagery fades into the background, providing a perfectly realized fairy tale kingdom. Countless cartoons have conjured up new worlds; Shrek does it so well that you forget it exists only on a computer screen. All you notice are the characters and the story.

And what characters they are. The title hero (voiced by Mike Myers) is as unlikely a protagonist as you'll find: a crotchety green ogre with a Scottish brogue and the hygiene of a possum carcass. Shrek cuts a fearsome figure and enjoys terrorizing the local lynch mobs, but secretly laments the horrified reactions people have to him. Naturally, the first creature he meets who doesn't judge him by his looks is supremely annoying: Donkey (Eddie Murphy), a motormouthed beast of burden who escapes into Shrek's swamp ahead of the local relocation committee. Unfortunately for Shrek, Donkey isn't alone. The evil Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow) -- a nasty ruler whose huge castle "covers up for certain inadequacies" -- has banished all fairy tale creatures to the swamp. Shrek soon finds himself up to his armpits in pixies, dwarves, and big bad wolves. Farquaad agrees to remove the refugees, but only if Shrek and Donkey will perform a quest on his behalf: rescue the beautiful Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) from an enchanted castle and return her safely to him.

From this skewed quartet of storybook figures comes a Swiftian assault on everything fairy tales hold dear. "Satire" is too gentle a word for the cunning barbs Shrek hurls. An early scene features kindly old Gepetto turning Pinnochio over to the guards for reward money. Princess Fiona belches and enjoys barbecued rat, and the opening credits spell out one of the star's names in writhing maggots. Many of the gags are aimed at DreamWorks' chief competition (Farquaad's kingdom strongly resembles a certain Happiest Place on Earth), but it has more than enough left over for any passing targets of opportunity. Yet through it all, it never appears cruel or mean spirited. Its protagonists have genuine feelings, which the filmmakers treat with thoughtfulness and care. Shrek's loneliness gives him a real soul, and his companions all show quirks and desires that make them more than simple caricatures. This movie believes in its heroes and makes us believe in them too -- all without dulling its satirical edge.

Most animated films will throw a few sophisticated gags out for the grown-ups, but Shrek truly works on multiple levels. Children will love it, but you don't need to be a parent to laugh at its stinging wit... or understand its characters' humanity. It even uses bathroom humor to good effect, something all-too rare in today's gross out movie environment. Here it is only May, and already Shrek has set a very high bar for the summer: smart, funny, technically proficient... and taking no prisoners. Bless its twisted little heart.

Review published 05.20.2001.

For another opinion, read Eric Beltmann's review.

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