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Year Released: 2001
Here's one way to put it: "Shrek has set a very high bar for the summer: smart, funny, technically proficient... and taking no prisoners."
My conversant Flipside colleague Rob Vaux acknowledges what many critics have, that DreamWorks' computer-generated fable is more ambitious than any of the recent Disney animated projects. Set in the familiar realm of picture books -- a lush, mythical patchwork of the medieval and the supernatural -- Shrek opens as the title character, a green ogre voiced by Mike Myers, playfully terrifies the local villagers. We quickly learn, though, that Shrek would rather tumble through his swamp, belching freely and enjoying his self-imposed isolation. This first sequence encapsulates the comic spirit behind Shrek: Just as the lonely ogre understands what an ogre must do, Shrek understands what a fairy tale must do -- and they both resist their fates. The difference is that while the character is a closet non-conformist, the movie acts as a brazen mutineer, conjuring fairy tale conventions merely to crush them.
Intended as a rowdy drop-kick of Walt Disney and the genre principles he helped imprint on America, Shrek is more Tom Green than Tom Thumb, more Zucker brothers than Brothers Grimm. For example, a lovely lass serenaded forest animals in Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, but in Shrek the shrill crooning of a princess inspires bluebirds to burst from agony. Derisive metaphors rarely come off so clearly, or so witty, and such inventive mockery is rampant in Shrek. My wife nearly embarrassed herself with laughter during a scene in which the Gingerbread Man is tortured by being dipped in milk, while I most enjoyed the moment Gepetto sells Pinocchio to bondsmen, coolly disregarding the wooden boy's distraught pleas. These jokes appear malicious, but they perceive how such events would never occur in Disney's simpering tales, and that fact warrants some mischievous ribbing.
But why would Gepetto part with the beloved Pinocchio? A recent decree has exiled all fairy tale characters from the kingdom of Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow), an evil ruler determined to acquire the youthful Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) from a tower defended by a fire-breathing dragon. When Shrek's private swamp is transformed into an internment camp for cartoon creatures, the ogre confronts Farquaad and cuts a deal: In exchange for removing the refugees, Farquaad will have his princess rescued and delivered by Shrek himself. The point, of course, is that Shrek renovates the traditional heroic quest, envisioning its protagonist as an anti-hero, a mercenary acting from purely selfish motivations.
Accompanied by a talking donkey named Donkey (Eddie Murphy's voice work here is as overripe as it was in Mulan), Shrek manages to liberate Princess Fiona, who exhibits no gratitude. Like Shrek, the character trounces expectations. As obsessed with storybook enchantment as Disney himself, Fiona gripes that her "knight in shining armor" failed to apply the proper amount of noble derring-do while saving her. Riffing on Beauty and the Beast, the plot requires Fiona to fall for Shrek, forcing the self-serving ogre to confront his inferiority complex.
Although Beauty and the Beast engaged computer-assisted animation in 1991, it took another four years for a wholly computer-drawn film to reach release. Toy Story was a watershed, a narrative triumph and a technical landmark. Since then, it has been customary for critics to proclaim each new computer-animated picture the "best yet" in terms of technology. The effects of Antz, A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2, and Dinosaur each trumped the last, and Shrek of course ups the ante once more. Landscapes are richly constructed, matching my childhood visions of hillside castles and enchanted woods. Most impressive is the way the characters' skin textures appear palpable, particularly in the expressive faces, which wrinkle with startling realism. It's not quite lifelike, but I suppose a big green ogre could hardly feel more real than it does here. For those of us who recall the rousing stop-motion of Ray Harryhausen and later the "awesome graphics!" of the Atari 2600, the possibilities that modern computers now afford still astonish. I wonder if children, the primary audience for Shrek, have any idea that they are witness to a technological marvel.
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Since DreamWorks has marketed Shrek for kids, many parents might question the inclusion of some of the cruder content. If a studio aggressively targets children, is it suitable to include numerous verbal puns on the word "ass," or allow the Gingerbread Man to shout "Eat me!" while rebuking Farquaad (whose massive castle, a character explains, compensates for "certain inadequacies")? Having no children, I will decline to resolve that question but I will observe that DreamWorks' attempt to generate the next blockbuster "family film" awkwardly collides with its sardonic intentions. Alienating its core audience would be commercial suicide, which is why Shrek may be "smart, funny, [and] technically proficient," but also less subversive and less ruthless than many critics have gushed.
If you decide to view the genre-twisting Shrek as a significant film, then you might be willing to overlook the fact that it often equates "boldness" with incorporating fart and belch jokes into a classic fairy tale structure. Embodied by the central choice facing Princess Fiona -- she can accept Farquaad as her "knight in shining armor," or choose the ogre she has grown to love -- Shrek is a reworking of Beauty and the Beast and its theme of "beauty is on the inside." But Shrek is a scoffing satire only on the outside, because inside it quite merrily buys into the conventional Happily Ever After ideals it purports to razz. Consider these questions: Will Shrek turn genuinely heroic? Will the ogre and princess fall in love? Will truth and goodness prevail? Will the evil ruler be thwarted? The only surprise is that Shrek, which claims to demystify fairy tales, provides the same answers as ol' Walt might have.
Recognizing the gifts it offers a discerning audience, it may seem churlish to quibble with Shrek, but no more so than granting a knee-jerk rave for a film's aspirations rather than its actual achievements. Although I enjoyed Shrek immensely, I wish it had gone further and embedded its ridicule deeper into the narrative. I much prefer the strapping plot and theme construction of the two Toy Story films, which thrive on thorny situations and would never give Fiona a "mystery" which strips her character of courage -- her decisions become simpler, rather than more complex, after her secret is revealed. My preference may betray a bias for John Lasseter's sturdier stories, but there's also nothing in Shrek so demented as Sid's mutilation of toys in Toy Story, or so bittersweet as Jessie summoning her long-ago discard in Toy Story 2.
Here's another way to put it: Shrek's rapturous critical notices remind me of playgrounds, where mild teasing is often mistaken for "merciless" cruelty. Swift, cocksure, and sometimes bracing, Shrek is like a child who threatens to leap from a soaring swing, but isn't quite audacious enough to follow through.
Review published 07.02.2001.
For another opinion, read Rob Vaux's review.
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