As a pleasant reminder of what you’re NOT going to get with SHREK, this animated film starts with the cliché of a storybook fairytale. Big green hands turn the oversized, tritely illustrated pages of a princess locked in a tower and the brave knight who rescues her and gives her true love’s first kiss. And then the big green hand tears out the remaining pages and does something with them that you would never see in a Disney film. And so it goes in this Dreamworks produced, computer-generated flick that is as subversive as Monty Python and almost as rude. And when I say almost, I mean it’s very, very close, especially with the subtle digs at Disney itself, none of which I will spoil for you.
Our hero is the eponymous Shrek, whom Mike Meyers has given a lilting Scottish brogue that never slips into cutesy mode. He’s a big green ogre who lives alone in a swamp and likes it that way. Cuddly he’s not. This is a guy who showers in mud and dines with gusto on eyeballs and slug slime. To his horror his home and swamp are suddenly invaded by pretty much every fairy tale character you’ve ever heard of and then some. They’re not too happy about it either, I mean Cinderella dealing with wicked step-relatives is one thing, but an ogre, even a fairy tale character has to draw a line somewhere. But the ruler of this storybook kingdom is a perfectionist and gnomes, elves, and jive-talking donkeys who sounds like Eddie Murhpy, just don’t fit in with the plan. Then again, Lord Farquar doesn’t either. Voiced with supercilious delight by John Lithgow, he’s a height-impaired tyrant who overcompensates for his lack of stature in all sorts of interesting ways. When Shrek, talking donkey in tow, turns up to take his swamp back, he gets stuck rescuing a princess bride for the pint-sized potentate.
A word about the animation, because it is amazing. The crew at PDI, who did the actual work on the pixel farm, have rendered fabric, water, hair and even fur realistically but not photographically. Too much realism would, after all, spoil the magic of animation. Though as close as they come with the human characters might give the Screen Actors Guild pause. On the other hand, some of the human movements are, very occasionally and very slightly jerky, but, honestly, who cares?
What follows is a classic quest adventure, you know, spooky old castle, lava-filled moat, fire-breathing dragon and damsel in distress, but don’t be fooled. The dragon has unexpected depths of emotion, the damsel, voiced as a slacker by Cameron Diaz is a fiesty little ninja who’s read one too many romance novel and the moat, well it is filled with lava, but that’s not important. What is important is that when the story does take the inevitable fairy tale turn of having a moral, the one about not judging a book by its cover, it’s completely painless. This film is, and this is key, about as pious as a whoopee cushion even with its happy ending. Though even that has its own particular surprises. And that may be the neatest trick of all.