I wish you could see the smile on my face as I write this review. Not because I just won the lottery or I have Sandra Bullock under my desk but because by putting words together about Shrek, I have to reminisce about my experience seeing it. If I can share that time with you and persuade you to take the opportunity to experience it for yourself, we could start a chain reaction that could end all conflict in the world. Everyone would have a Coke and a smile and we could teach the world to sing (provided that Michael Eisner isn’t the President at the time.) Shrek is that kind of movie.
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If the Toy Story films were the Little Boys of the Animation Wars between Disney, Dreamworks and Warner Bros., then Shrek is the Fat Man. It ranks with the same kind of awesome power that Toy Story exploded onto movie screens, but acts as the exclamation point for those that didn’t appreciate the magnitude the first time. Disney might have felt significant losses with the release of Dreamworks’ Antz, The Prince of Egypt (and even last year’s Chicken Run), but they must now officially surrender their status as the premier contributor of animated features.
The title refers to this big, green, ugly ogre (voice by Mike Myers) who lives alone on his own terms in the middle of a swamp outside the kingdom of Dulac. Run by the short in stature Lord Farquaad (voice by John Lithgow), all the classic fairy tale characters are rounded up and banished into the swamp, much to the dismay of our hermit hero. In desperation to keep his neighborhood neighborless, Shrek ventures off to Farquaad accompanied by the fast (and always) talking Donkey (voice by Eddie Murphy) to plead for him to find another nesting ground for the exiled. Farquaad agrees to his request provided that Shrek take on the annointed mission of rescuing the woman he has chosen to be his bride, Princess Fiona (voiced by Cameron Diaz.).
To even hint at all the complexities that Shrek has in store for the audience in both the humor and visual departments from there would be like getting your Christmas presents without the wrapping paper. It goes without saying that with the voice talent involved alone, you’re going to get a healthy dose of laughs. But the likes of Myers, Murphy, Lithgow and Diaz combined with the acidic wit of Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio’s script will make you OD on hilarity.
Myers infects Shrek with his favorite Scottish brogue, recollecting the audible delight of previous characters like “Fat Bastard” (from Austin Powers 2) and the family from So I Married An Axe Murderer. You couldn’t ask for better voicework from Lithgow as Farquaad, who doesn’t make him evil in the “kill ‘em all” sense but more in the tradition of nasty narcissism. (His first scene in the film is the funniest sequence you will see all year.) Diaz is also spot on, turning Fiona into the Princess Leia of Medieval Times, vulnerable yet tough and high-maintenance. And what more can be said about the genius of Eddie Murphy as a character comedian. I always felt that his work in Disney’s Mulan (while very good) belonged in a film more worthy and appropriate of his vocal skills. Shrek is that film and Murphy runs with every soundwave of it.
These are four big talents surrounded and complemented by a planet of geniuses that will probably take at least five viewings just to begin your appreciation of the effort that went into this. For years, the internet, conspiracy theorists and religion-based “family watchdogs” have accused Disney and its animators of placing subliminal images (or messages) into their “G”-rated spectacles. Whether it be a priest with an erection, someone telling Aladdin that all good girls take off their clothes or proof that Jessica Rabbit went through puberty, Disney has taken its lumps through the (mostly) falsity of it all. But Dreamworks has found a way to cut through the subconscience and give the finger to Disney without ever visually showing the actual hand.
Call it Katzenberg’s revenge or merely a way to dissect the traditional necessities of fairy tale lessons, but Shrek pokes so much fun at Disney and their classic features, that Mickey will wonder what happened to the rest of his Swiss cheese. You can pick apart all the instances that pay homage (or skewer) the atypical archetypes of the Magic Kingdom. Disney characters like Pinocchio, Cinderella and Snow White are all on hand for a playful beating and I can’t even tell you about the fate of the singing bluebird (which may result in the funniest, most edgy joke of the year). No Disney convention is left unturned as you can even draw comparisons to their recent The Emperor’s New Groove, whose two heroes consisted of a big, ogre of a man and a talking floppy-eared animal on a journey to save one’s home.
But Shrek owes most of its satire to Beauty and the Beast, which it proceeds to turn upside down with the pleasure of the world’s greatest rollercoaster. Farquaard is the antithesis of Beauty’s hulking alpha-male Gaston and Shrek is the perfect beast that falls for the belle he feels is out of his reach. Yet that’s just the surface as the true intentions don’t reveal themselves until the film’s climax, which had me applauding (first mentally, then audibly) even after I saw the foreshadowing on the wall.
When people ask what makes films universal, you use one like Shrek as reference material. This is the kind of film you want to share with your friends, family and children even though you had no hand whatsoever in its creation. You just want to be at the top of the grapevine spreading the good word. Animation gets dismissed by a select portion of the culture, either for its association with children’s entertainment or their desire to just see human characters who are usually given less dimensionality (in all literal senses of the word) than the “cartoons.”
Is Shrek appropriate for children? Absolutely. Will adults be entertained? Guaranteed even more than the children. Credit must be given once again to screenwriters Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio for taking a short, short large-type children’s storybook (by William Steig) and bulking it up to feature length with a richer story, bigger & better characters, and enough witticism to strangle Mark Twain in his grave.
If you’re not laughing hysterically, you’re slack-jawed in the amazement of the CGI detail painted into every pixel of every scene. (I nearly got dizzy as the camera swoops over Shrek & Donkey on the bridge.) If you’re not slack-jawed, you’ll be giddy at the array of fairy tale cameos so abundant, you’d swear you were watching the animated version of Robert Altman’s The Player. Shrek is a film for the young and old, male and female, beautiful and ugly, tall and short. This isn’t just a fractured fairy tale, it’s a storybook vision in a mushroom cloud of imagination of fun.
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