Shrek (United States, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Dreamworks Pictures' wonderful, whimsical Shrek proves to be the latest family film to live up to its billing. With its blend of high adventure, light romance, and double-layered dialogue (which will take on a slightly different meaning for the under- and over-12 crowd), Shrek is capable of enthralling both children and their parents. In fact, this movie is so good that adults unaccompanied by offspring can venture into a theater without having to dress up in a disguise. Shrek is not a guilty pleasure for sophisticated movie-goers; it is, purely and simply, a pleasure.

When it comes to computer-generated motion pictures, Shrek has once more raised the bar - and this one was already at an impressively high level in the wake of Toy Story 2 and Dinosaur. Yet Shrek outshines them both, boasting the most impressive detail and most amazingly rendered creatures of any motion picture in its class. And, although the human beings still don't look entirely realistic, they're getting close. In fact, this is the first major computer animated film in which human beings have had a significant role (they played secondary parts in the two Toy Storys), and their appearance is such that we have no more trouble accepting them than we do in traditional animated fare.

Shrek is essentially Beauty and the Beast with a few clever twists. In the quirky, irreverent way that it views fairy tales and their conventions, it's not unlike The Princess Bride. Fans of those two stories will find much to like here. And, both kids and adults can play a game of "guess how many famous faces we can see". There are certainly a large number of cameos: Pinnochio (a "possessed toy"), Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Cinderella, the Big Bad Wolf, the Three Little Pigs, the Gingerbread Man, the Three Blind Mice, the Mirror (as in "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all..."), and many others.

Our protagonist is an ogre named Shrek (voice of Mike Myers, using a Scottish accent). Except for scaring off the odd knight who comes in search of his hide-out, Shrek leads a relatively peaceful life, until the day that he stumbles into Donkey (voice of Eddie Murphy). Donkey is fleeing soldiers who are rounding up all the fairy tale creatures with the intent of resettling them. Unfortunately for Shrek, the local landholder, Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow), has decided to deport them to Shrek's swamp. This causes the irritated ogre, accompanied by his new best friend, Donkey, to head for the city of Duloc, where Farquaad holds court. There, he makes a deal with the noble - in return for getting back his swamp, Shrek will perform a quest and rescue Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) from the tower where she is held prisoner. The catch: she's guarded by a fire-breathing dragon. Farquaad wants Fiona for his wife (he chose her over Cinderella and Snow White), and figures that the ogre might be his best chance to rescue her. But what he doesn't count on, and what Shrek doesn't expect, is that the beauty and the beast will develop feelings for each other.

Many of Shrek's funniest lines (like "a castle that big must mean he's compensating for something") will go over younger viewer's heads, but there are still plenty that won't ("I'm going to save my ass", referring to Donkey). The screenplay was obviously written with all age groups in mind. Shrek is not on such a lofty plane that children will feel as if they're missing something, but it isn't lobotomized in a way that will insult the intelligence of older viewers.

As impressive as the visuals are - and they are very impressive - Shrek wouldn't be the movie it is without a quartet of effective vocal performances. As this kind of animation becomes more prevalent, the importance of choosing the right voices will need equal care and attention. Voices help to define the characters, and a bad choice can do irreparable damage. Just as not all silent stars were suitable for talkie roles, so not all live-action actors can do vocal performances. Fortunately, Shrek has four capable actors. First and foremost is Mike Myers, who is known as a vocal chameleon. Without seeing his name in the opening credits, you'd never know it was him. John Lithgow plays Faquaad as nasty and short-sighted, but not really evil, which makes a pleasant change from the usual animated villain. Eddie Murphy shows that a real comic genius can get laughs without relying on his own facial expressions and body language. Murphy's Donkey is one of the funniest characters he has brought to the screen. (Here, he improves upon what he did in Mulan.) Finally, Cameron Diaz's princess is equal parts sugar and vinegar. She believes in true love and Prince Charming, but, like her Charlie's Angels alter-ego, she's not afraid to do a little Matrix-style butt kicking.

The interplay between Shrek and Princess Fiona is sweet and tender, while the exchanges between the ogre and the ass are often barbed and subversively funny. Like The Princess Bride, Shrek breaks with convention, but not so far that viewers will be put off by it. And, while there is a happy ending (as there must be in any fairy tale, no matter how unconventional), it's not necessarily the conclusion that many people will be expecting (at least up until the 2/3 point, when the movie reveals its hand). First-time co-directors Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson (he has worked as a visual supervisor on other films, including the two Joel Schumacher Batmans; this is her first credit) have crafted a movie to be proud of, and one that will hopefully receive a lot of attention, even during the crowded summer season. Shrek is easily one of the year's most magical experiences.

Shrek (United States, 2001)

Ranked #6 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2001
Run Time: 1:27
U.S. Release Date: 2001-05-18
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1