A Fairy Tale, Well Told
While adorned with modern nudges and computer pyrotechnics, DreamWorks' charming Shrek still recalls far simpler times and noble animated films.
Thursday, May 24, 2001
I have to be honest. I went to Shrek prepared to blast what seemed to be another manufactured-for-the-season blockbuster. It''s got everything that you don''t like to see surrounding a movie: tons of pre-release hype, a promotional tie-in with a fast-food chain (Burger King) and even before its release you could buy Shrek-related paraphernalia in the grocery store. I was loaded for bear and my finger was on the trigger. But somewhere just after the opening title sequence, I was disarmed and charmed--there even might have been the trace of a tear in my eye.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I''m a sucker for a good fairy tale, well told. Walt Disney did a big number on influencing the childhood sensibilities that carried over into a Joseph Campbell-enriched adulthood--whether that''s a good thing is open for debate. Princes charming, damsels in distress and true-love-conquering-all are not part of today''s politically correct gestalt. And that''s what makes Shrek, the animated feature from DreamWorks Pictures, so damned appealing: At the same time it''s all gussied up with knowing winks and computer-generated finery, it''s a throwback to something simpler. It''s a fairy tale, well told.
In some ways, although it benefits tremendously from the path forged by Disney in the ''30s and ''40s, Shrek takes an even longer chronological trip, back to a time when fairy tales were not quite so innocent, when they contained elements of satire and earthy reality.
As befits its nature, Shrek''s tale is predictable. The title character is a not-so-jolly, misanthropic green ogre (voiced by Mike Myers) whose solitary lifestyle is cramped when the evil Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow) banishes (more or less) the creatures in his kingdom to live in Shrek''s swamp. When the solitude-loving ogre complains to Farquaad, Shrek''s sent on a mission to rescue the dragon-imprisoned Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) who will make all of Farquaad''s dreams come true.
If Shrek returns with the princess, Farquaad will deed the swamp to Shrek and make the creatures go away. Shrek traipses off on his quest accompanied by his newfound blabbermouth-donkey friend (Eddie Murphy), and if you can''t figure out the rest of the story from there, you need a course in remedial romantic fantasy.
But, for all its retro charm, Shrek is not a retro movie. First, of course, is the supple CGI animation that renders impressively lifelike characters. (Although even here, the richly detailed backgrounds, rendered mostly in a palette of dark hues, recall the beautiful artwork of Disney classics like Cinderella and Snow White.)
In keeping with the modern need to have some sort of message in animated movies, there is some muddled sort of moral about not evaluating people based on their appearance. (I had a difficult time understanding why it''s wrong to judge Shrek by his looks, while it''s funny to make fun of Farquaad because of his short stature.)
Then, too, Disney''s characters would never have dreamed of having bodily functions, while Shrek reeks with fart jokes. (Hence the PG rating.) And where there was a straightforward innocence to Disney''s classics, here there''s a self-awareness that proclaims the filmmakers'' thor- oughly modern take on a classic genre.
Shrek is strewn with references to and characters from its forebears, and it''s sometimes tough to tell whether they''re included as satire or homage. There''s the Gingerbread Man, and the Three Blind Mice, and the Wicked Witch of the East. Probably even more significantly there are also appearances by the Seven Dwarves, Pinocchio and Flora, Fauna and Merriwether from Disney''s Cinderella--these are the characters that make one wonder if they''re included simply as innocent fun.
Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of DreamWorks'' principals, formerly served with Disney before Michael Eisner dumped him from the team. So you have to wonder how many of the scenes are a not-so-subtle way of thumbing his nose at his former employer. In particular, there''s a pastoral scene where Princess Fiona, doing a dead-on Disney Snow White impersonation, begins an impromptu duet with a bluebird. By the end of the song, the music they make is less than beautiful and things end badly for the bird.
Fortunately, these little jabs and references seamlessly blend in with the rest of the story. Children will take the characters and humor at face value. But for adults, they''re almost reassuring. In a way, they seem to be telling us that despite our loss of innocence it''s still OK, if just for a moment, to view and believe in a fairy tale, well told.
Shrek... ( * * * * )Directed by: Victoria Jenson, Andrew Adamson
Starring: The voices of Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, John Lithgow
Where: Century Galaxy Six
When: See Movie Times