This article appeared in Issue 22 of Frontier, the Australian science fiction media magazine
Now here is a 'family film' that you can sink your teeth into. Sporting an exuberant irreverence towards fairy tales, wickedly subversive humor that up-ends the conventions of the Disney animated musical, top-of-the-line computer animation, and some terrific voice talents, "Shrek" is probably the most fun you'll have in a theater this summer. Like "Toy Story 2" from a couple of years back, "Shrek" is a smart and funny family feature that will not only appeal to kids, but their paying parents as well.
The hero of this fractured fairy tale is an ogre named Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers of "Austin Powers" fame) who is not evil, but misunderstood. Stigmatized by his hideous looks, Shrek has resigned himself to spending his days living alone on a swamp. Unfortunately, the diminutive local prince, Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow of "3rd Rock from the Sun"), has done some housecleaning in his kingdom, deporting all fairy tale creatures to Shrek's swamp. Annoyed by the sudden influx of refugees, Shrek vows to speak to Lord Farquaad and have all the fairy tale creatures sent back to where they came from-- of course, Shrek unwittingly becomes the champion for the displaced in the process.
Unfortunately, the negotiations at the castle do not go well, and Shrek ends up being tricked into a quest to rescue the beautiful Princess Fiona (voiced by Cameron Diaz of "Charlie's Angels"), whom Lord Farquaad wishes to marry such that he can be crowned king. It is a task easier said than done, since the ravishing beauty is locked away in a castle surrounded by lava and protected by a fire-breathing dragon. Fortunately (or maybe not), Shrek is joined on his errand by Donkey (voiced by Eddie Murphy of "Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps"), an ass that can't keep his trap shut, and together, they head off to liberate the princess
Similar to the "Austin Powers" movies, the charm of "Shrek" is how it takes the familiar and then mercilessly pokes fun at it with terrific visual and verbal gags. In this case, the targets of ridicule are the House of the Mouse and stories that end with 'happily ever after'. While many of the faces seem familiar, the situations in which you find them are not. Lord Farqaad (who apparently is modeled after Disney chief Michael Eisner) interrogates the Gingerbread Man by breaking off his legs and dunking him into milk. The Lord's castle, which looks like the Magic Kingdom (including a great rendition of "It's a Small World"), is so big that Shrek muses he's 'compensating for something'. The displaced fairy tale creatures include the Three Bears, Tinkerbell, the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, the Big Bad Wolf, and the Three Blind Mice. When choosing his bride, Lord Farqaad is offered three choices à la "The Dating Game" by the Magic Mirror: Cinderella, Snow White, and, of course, Princess Fiona. And speaking of Princess Fiona, she is no ordinary damsel-in-distress, especially since she is well-versed in "Matrix"-style martial arts moves. If you loved "The Princess Bride", another fractured fairy tale, then you'll absolutely adore how "Shrek" rips the genre to shreds.
In addition to the droll script, the visuals and voice talents are top-notch. "Shrek" marks another milestone in the evolution towards more sophisticated and photo-realistic computer animation (which will be advanced again with "Final Fantasy: Spirits Within", due out later this summer). The animation of the characters is so fluid and detailed that it is easy to forget that they are all merely computer-generated constructs. Of course, what also brings these characters to life are the actors providing the voices. Myers, Diaz, Murphy, and Lithgow are all well-suited to their on-screen personas, with the standout being Murphy, who frequently steals the show with his non-stop commentary and one-liners.
But aside from the non-stop laughs, "Shrek" also has a strong emotional undercurrent, as it develops the tender relationship between Shrek and Princess Fiona, a beauty and a beast. And though it would hardly be surprising, the film does have a happy ending, though not the kind that you would expect.
After the dismal failure of Dreamwork's last animated outing, "The Road to El Dorado", it is refreshing to see the animators at the studio back in top form with "Shrek", which offers audiences a well-rounded moviegoing experience. Like the studio's last computer-animated offering, "Antz", "Shrek" offers plenty of eye candy and easy laughs for the kiddies, and more sophisticated and subversive cracks for adults, making it a memorable and fun-filled romp in which everyone goes home happy.