"Shrek" (IMDb listing) announces itself loudly in the opening shot where our hero takes a page from a book of familiar fairy tales and proceeds to wipe his behind with it. No need for subtly, the filmmakers announce loud and proud that this post-modern roast of "Cinderella," "Snow White," and countless other fairy tales will be as knowing and crude as any other family film you've seen in recent history. As beautiful and carefully executed as "Shrek" is, the content is the same cynical rubbish we've seen a million times before.
Our hero is Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers), an ogre who lives a lonely life in the swamps of Duloc. Constantly hunted by knights, Shrek is resigned to a life where nobody wants to take the time to get to know him. When Prince Farquaad (John Lithgow) declares that all fairy tale characters (Pinocchio, Peter Pan, ect.) be rounded up and jailed, a talking donkey named Donkey (Eddie Murphy) escapes and befriends Shrek. Shrek, irritated and annoyed, agrees to help Donkey win his freedom and journeys to the Prince's castle to plead his case. The Prince witnesses Shrek's mighty power first-hand and sends him on an expedition to retrieve the Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) from a far away castle. Once found, Shrek soon falls for the Princess and learns that not everybody is afraid of his appearance.
Four years in the making (which explains "Macarena" and "Riverdance" references), "Shrek" is frequently an incredible film to behold. With lush landscapes and realistic fleshtones, it's pretty obvious a lot of time and effort went into creating this world. The non-ogre characters also take the magical leap and appear almost human to the naked eye. "Shrek" is a technical marvel that pushes the envelope of computer animation that much closer to the danger zone of realism, yet the film never forgets to also remain cartoony to keep up the fairy tale aspect of the story. Taking a giant leap past the synthetic realms of "Toy Story" and "A Bug's Life," "Shrek" throws down the gauntlet for the next animated film to come (most likely the anticipated "Final Fantasy" picture opening in July).
As technically perfect as the animation is, the screenplay is lacking. A "nudge-nudge, wink-wink" self-referential collection of fairy tale parodies strung together with smug dialog and a brutal moral about loving yourself unconditionally, "Shrek" is out for blood right from the first shot. I positively abhor these films that think they're paying homage to the old Warner Bros. cartoons or "Fractured Fairy Tales" by launching the jokes at 150 mph and always letting the audience know that the filmmakers get the gag too. You can almost hear the self-patting of backs during scenes that make fun of Disney (coming from ousted executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, these mouse jokes are infantile and impotent), and especially the moments where legendary fairy tale characters swing by for cameos. Also disturbing and not terribly classy is "Shrek's" preoccupation with flatulence humor. Very little is amusing in "Shrek," especially for the "Simpsons" generation that can see satire done on such a greater level week after week on that landmark television show.
The much-hyped voice cast is a collection worth admiring. Mike Myers resurrects his "If it's not Scottish, it's crap!!!" character from "SNL" to embody the (rather large) personality of Shrek. As a giant green ogre, Myers brings subtle humor and genuine empathy to the character. Myers mostly plays the straight man to Eddie Murphy's Donkey, which leaves Murphy to collect the laughs that the film isn't able to muck up with all the cynical baggage. As the neurotic ass, Murphy is freed once again to play around and just be funny for a change. The two create a kind of Hope and Crosby vs. "Dumb and Dumber" type relationship that forms a strong backbone to the endless parade of sight gags and limp parody. It makes me wish that Shrek and Donkey were characters in another movie that just focuses on them and eschews the pretentious mocking.
"Shrek's" jokes come too easily, and they ruin a potentially sweet and clever film with needless derision. It's irreverence on a "Toy Story 2" level that just wears you down after only a short time. "Shrek", as a feature film, doesn't know when to quit.
Filmfodder Grade: C