Shrek
Directors: Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson. Animated. Voice Cast: Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, John Lithgow, Vincent Cassel. Screenplay: Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Joe Stillman, and Roger S.H. Schulman (based loosely on the children's book by William Steig).

One does not need to read or listen to the voluminous back story on Shrek—indeed, one does not need to look anywhere outside the movie itself—to realize that DreamWorks' new animated fable wants to take some shots at the Disney template for kiddie cartoons. Shrek wants to eliminate, among other Mouse-eared traits, the rote "Once upon a time" introductions, the cheesy Phil Collins-style anthems, the inevitable, sentimental arc toward the romantic union of astoundingly thin people (thin even by the standard of 2-D). For all the things that Shrek wants to take away from us, and believe me I'm happy to give several of them up, its creators have two things to offer us in return: unprecedented technology and "hip," ironic Attitude. Unfortunately, relieving us of unwanted elements does not guarantee that the substitutions are pleasing, and Shrek often seems too preoccupied and self-satisfied to please, anyway—that is, when it isn't pandering as smotheringly as any Disney cartoon of late. It is one thing that Shrek falls short of the digital animation standard raised so delectably high by the Toy Story films; few recent films, animated or otherwise, have been so consistently and amiably entrancing. It is quite another defeat, though, to realize that Shrek isn't even as good, much less good-willed, than the more mediocre output of the Disney dynasty it wants so thirstily to topple.

Shrek, voiced by Mike Myers, is a green ogre with a Jay Leno chin, suction cup ears, a Medieval-by-way-of-Hollywood tunic, and an Oscar the Grouch disposition. He makes his grand entrance through the door of his own wooden outhouse, using a page torn from Walt's old standby, the calligraphed fairy tale (princess in castle, fire-breathing dragon, rounded Celtic script, et. al.) to do what paper does best in an outhouse. Though this nasty bit of business (nastier even as an attack than as an act) is mercifully kept off-screen, bashfulness certainly doesn't remain as Shrek's position on potty laughs. The first fifteen minutes alone shows us Shrek bathing in slop, killing some fish by farting in his pond, and turning his earwax into an instant candle. The film's fascination with bodily excrescence ranks up there with Jurassic Park's—remember all that sneezed phlegm and those giant Dino-doodoos?—which perhaps proves that Jeffrey Katzenberg wasn't the only DreamWorks co-founder enforcing his notions of kiddie fun. Or maybe Mike Myers' own Fat Bastard affinities for potty humor are irrepressible even when he is heard but not seen. Either way, it is useful to recall that when live action films seek to distract our kids with scatology, everyone recognizes bad taste, condescension or at least laziness. Shrek's pandering fart-joke humor, which it never abandons, isn't a fatal flaw but at least offers proof that the movie is not nearly so far above its competition as it likes to think.

The actual plot of the thing finds Shrek and his sidekick Donkey (voiced by Eddie Murphy) venturing across an enchanted landscape to rescue Princess Fiona (voiced by Cameron Diaz), the lamentful lass whose captivity was the subject of Shrek's desecrated storybook. Shrek's trek is no knight's tale, nor even a Sleepless in Seattle-type thing; DreamWorks, at least this month, is too cool and knowing for love across space and time. (Presumably, we'll have to wait for Spielberg's A.I.—"His love is real, but he is not"—to have our guileless sense of childlike wonder restored to us.) Instead, Shrek has agreed to recover Fiona as part of a deal with Lord Farquaad, the prissy, land-hogging aristocrat who has been banishing all manner of fairyland creatures (three bears, three pigs, the three Sleeping Beauty pixies) from his evil empire and dumping them in Shrek's bog. If Shrek can vanquish the dragon, save Fiona, and deliver her as Farquaad's bride, he'll grant the swamp back to its rightful ogre: in other words, a woman for an acre.

Plot complexity is doubtless not what fables, even sleek and genre-savvy ones, should be evaluated by, though even by these standards it is obvious that Shrek's narrative is an excuse to deliver snappy dialogue and snipy characters, barbed Hollywood in-jokes, and coups de grāce of what currently represents state-of-the-art animation (check again by next summer). A few of Shrek's more throwaway gestures and less vindictive punchlines offer good, momentary diversion. There's a strange moment during Shrek and Fiona's eventual cross-country trip in which the feuding flirts make balloon animals out of live woodland creatures: weird, funny tokens of both endearment and rivalry. I laughed out loud when, in place of the expected Alan Menken pablum, Joan Jett's "Bad Reputation" crashed down on a bloodless brawl starring our heroes, and I also relished a send-up of the Disneyland theme-parks that is excusably and delightfully wicked because the caricature is so apt and specific (unless the parks are already caricatures themselves).

Still, a lot more of Shrek feels strained, mean-spirited, or just too dull to entertain. The scene where Princess Fiona, a closet martial arts expert, suddenly engages in some Matrix-style time-stop butt-kicking feels as lamely desperate as the same gag did in Scary Movie, a frame of comparison that no film should ever pursue. Farquaad's effete self-importance, spewing bile and sipping martinis through the two sides of his pouting mouth, is parody (of 'toon villains and of Disney head-honcho Michael Eisner) but lacks panache. He's the kind of character we know we're supposed to hate because he's short; and if we missed that, we really know we're supposed to hate him if we drop the "r" from his name. Jokes like these aren't funny for kids, because they miss them, and they aren't funny for adults, because meanness stands in for humor (not to mention wit or charm). At times, then, Shrek plays like a feature-length extension of those infamous Disney scenes where Jessica Rabbit's breasts are exposed, or Simba kicks up a lewdly-shaped cloud of dust: bitchy fun for the animators, perhaps, but empty as entertainment for us.

In other scenes that have at least been conceptualized more energetically, the energy seems misplaced, irrelevant even in a movie that doesn't need relevance. The painstaking detail of the images (hair with distinct, billowy strands, grass and fire with almost palpable texture) earns as much perlexity as admiration: is animated film necessarily improved by a swerve toward photo-realism? Differently phrased, does Shrek's gingery back hair really need to be there? All sorts of other elements of Shrek feel similarly needless. Why is Mike Myers speaking with a Scottish accent? Why a francophile Robin Hood in a purposefully silly, abrupt production number? Filmmakers more truly free of Disney's influence likely wouldn't require such flat, relentless conjurings of their popular characters. Meanwhile, Eddie Murphy's vocal turn as Donkey is tiresome in a whole other way: occasionally lively, but evidence that the comic racialized Sidekick is not limited to live-action fare.

For me, the definitive sign that Shrek didn't add up was the climactic scene in which a major character spontaneously levitates and experiences a startling physical transformation. Keep in mind that by this point in the movie, the Too Cool For School mask has slipped a little, and Shrek finally aims for something like straightforward tenderness. As this magical event takes place, the "light" in the frame (or whatever illuminates a digital composition) grows overexposed and the character's skin translucent, until beams of light actually begin to shoot from the fingertips. The visual dazzlery and swelling music reach such elaborate levels of overstatement, though, that it's swiftly obvious the scene is satirizing itself, as well as its obvious antecedent in Disney's Beauty and the Beast. Thing is, the scene is lots more fun and exciting as a moment of innocent awe than as yet another ironic prick in Disney's hot air balloon. Instead of reaching a welcome climax, the film slides back toward its comfortably mediocre cynicism. Even the whiff of an admirable message—that all different kinds of people can be beautiful—is undercut by the preceding hour and a half with the familiar valorization of Barbie girls. Guess who can't do cool martial arts anymore when she becomes a size 10?

The other implication here is that even when Shrek perceives its own need to be gentle for a moment, it still can't wipe its ruthless smirk off its face: the satire of feeling suddenly looks like an inability to feel. Shrek all but admits at this juncture that, while it may have fun at the expense of Disney's shortcomings, it certainly owes most of its too-few triumphs to Disney's example; the parodied element comes off much better than the parody itself. Also, by refusing to venture anywhere near that example, the movie boxes itself into a stoutly maintained veneer of irony, which, as in so many of today's smart-ass comedies, is an easy posture that doesn't prove anything except a jealous stinginess about honoring competitors. It's also the quickest way to avoid real feeling, which Toy Story, Beauty and the Beast, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame didn't do, but Shrek does. Perhaps that's a fair choice for a film that opts to showcase an ogre, but when Shrek stops shrieking proudly about what it isn't doing, it's all too clear that what it is doing is not much. C–


Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Adapted Screenplay: Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Joe Stillman, and Roger S.H. Schulman
Best Animated Feature

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)

Other Awards:
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Animated Feature
National Board of Review: Best Animated Feature
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Adapted Screenplay
Satellite Awards: Best Picture (Musical/Comedy); Best Supporting Actor, Musical/Comedy (Church); Best Ensemble Cast

Permalink Home 2001 ABC Blog E-Mail