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FILM REVIEW: SHREK
By Mark Caro
Chicago Tribune Movie Writer
With "Shrek," DreamWorks stakes its claim to Disney's cutting-edge animation crown while blowing a raspberry in Mickey Mouse's face. This computer-animated film, which mostly chronicles the title ogre's adventures in rescuing a princess, aims to be not just a kids flick but a sassy mock fairy tale that appeals to all ages and sensibilities.
Leaving few of its swamp stones unturned, "Shrek" is alternately sweet and mean, sophisticated and vulgar, witty and base, dazzling and ugly, charming and charmless.
The youngest/least-jaded viewers presumably can enjoy the colorful creatures and endearing fable elements. The potty-humor-inclined kiddies should be won over by the opening few minutes, during which the green Shrek is shown sitting in an outhouse, burping, wallowing in brown sludge and passing such noxious gas underwater that fish float to the surface.
For older kids and parents, the movie is packed with inside jokes. The broadest ones revisit classic fairy tale characters, many of which, not coincidentally, have been featured in Disney cartoons.
In "Shrek," the nasty Lord Farquaad has kicked these characters out of their kingdom and banished them to the ogre's swamp, so we're treated to the sight of the Seven Dwarfs in shackles plus a rounded-up wolf in Granny's clothing, the Pied Piper and those familiar trios of Bears, Little Pigs and Blind Mice.
To reinforce the Disney connection, sly swipes are taken at Disneyland like the labyrinthine queues and the ear-numbing "It's a Small World" attraction and the Mouse House's penchant for musical cartoons; the fairy-tale characters here are banned from singing or whistling.
The movie even tries to appeal to Hollywood insiders; Lord Farquaad is said to resemble Disney chairman Michael Eisner in face, voice (John Lithgow) and temperament, though the 3-foot-tall Farquaad is about half of Eisner's height. The back story here is that DreamWorks executive and "Shrek" producer Jeffrey Katzenberg is a former Disney studio chief who had a rancorous break with Disney and Eisner, so these broadsides against the Magic Kingdom have given the entertainment media a hook for a publicist's fantasy of advance stories, as DreamWorks no doubt calculated.
While the multiple directors (Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson) and writers seem to be aiming for a tone similar to the post-modern "The Princess Bride," "Shrek" flies in too many directions at once, particularly over its first half.
There may be a fine line between stupid and clever, as Spinal Tap opined, but there's also a fine line between clever and funny. The out-of-context cartoon characters trigger amused recognition in the brain more often than chortles from the gut, unlike the hilarious collision of Disney and Warner Bros. characters in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit."
Some of the movie references spark laughs, particularly a "Babe" line and a "Matrix"/"Charlie's Angels" stunt involving the rescued Princess Fiona (voiced by "Angel" Cameron Diaz). But "Toy Story 2" had a higher in-jokes/laughs ratio without straining to demonstrate its hipness or to evoke heartfelt emotions.
"Shrek" is at its best when it actually settles into its story. The reclusive Shrek (Mike Myers, recycling the thick Scottish accent he used in "So I Married an Ax Murderer" and as Fat Bastard in "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me") is unhappy that his swamp has been overrun with fairy-tale characters, so he makes a deal with Lord Farquaad: The ogre will retrieve Princess Fiona from a faraway tower for the tiny tyrant, who in exchange will relocate the offending creatures.
Accompanying Shrek on his trek is a blabbermouthed, nameless Donkey (voiced by Eddie Murphy), who teaches the cranky ogre to warm up. Donkey fits the amusing-sidekick role just fine, though Murphy provoked more giggles as the mini-dragon sidekick in "Mulan."
There's a full-sized dragon who guards Princess Fiona and, in one of the cute/funny twists that really works, takes a liking to Donkey. Meanwhile, the princess is expecting to be saved by her true love, not some lumpy green ogre.
Although it reportedly makes technological advances in the art of computer animation, "Shrek" isn't nearly as visually pleasing as the Pixar/Disney collaborations (the "Toy Story" duo, "A Bug's Life"). A few set pieces wow, such as Shrek's and Donkey's over-the-lava bridge crossing and their subsequent showdown with the dragon, but in general the look is rather dim and drab.
The faces of Shrek, Lord Farquaad and others have been animated with plenty of working facial muscles; what's missing is some intangible magic that would make these characters indelible and irresistible in the way that the best animated creations are.
Princess Fiona has a particularly generic, anorexic-Barbie look, though this characteristic has a worthwhile purpose in the plot. She's got a secret, and it's resolved in a giddy, farcical, window-smashing climax that almost makes you forget the elements that don't work.
Love comes in all shapes and sizes, the movie happily proclaims, but even this message is undercut by the ongoing ridicule of Lord Farquaad's height.
Is it too much to ask that fairy tales, even tongue-in-cheek ones, try to be true to the moral of the story? Is it inconsistent to laugh at gags involving an injured Gingerbread Man (who resembles an ornery Mr. Bill from classic "Saturday Night Live") and an endangered mommy bird and her eggs but to be rubbed the wrong way by the inclusion of an annoying French Robin Hood and his Merry Men, who exist just so they can be thrashed?
It might take an ogre to deny the entertainment value of "Shrek," but to wish that it left a better aftertaste is only human.
Directed by Andrew Adamson, Vicky Jenson; written by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and Joe Stillman and Roger S.H. Schulman; based on the book by William Steig; edited by Sim Evan-Jones; production designed by James Hegedus; music by Harry Gregson-Williams, John Powell; produced by Aron Warner, John H. Williams, Jeffrey Katzenberg. A DreamWorks Pictures release; opens Friday, May 18. Running time: 1:29. MPAA rating: PG (mild language and some crude humor).
Shrek Mike Myers
Donkey Eddie Murphy
Princess Fiona Cameron Diaz
Lord Farquaad John Lithgow
Monsieur Hood Vincent Cassel
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