Shrek

If you’re in the mood for a postmodern, ironic fairy-tale spoof, and if you’re young enough not to have seen what went before (Jay Ward’s Fractured Fairy Tales, William Goldman and Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride, Shelley Duvall’s tongue-in-cheek Faerie Tale Theatre, Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, James Finn Garner’s Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s The Stinky Cheese Man, etc.), you might have a good time at the new DreamWorks computer-toon Shrek. Or maybe you won’t; like DreamWorks’ Antz, this movie goes so far in including hip references to amuse bored parents that I’m tempted to say Shrek isn’t even really for kids at all. At the Friday-afternoon, packed-with-kids screening I attended, an extended riff on the “Do You Know the Muffin Man” ditty got no laughs whatsoever; not much else did either, aside from the tried-and-true fart and butt humor.

Shrek is based more or less — more less than more — on a 1990 children’s book by legendary cartoonist William Steig, who was well into his eighties when he wrote and drew it, yet managed to deliver something far funkier and pricklier than the cadre of hip DreamWorks whippersnappers (two directors and seven writers are credited) have yielded. The book’s conversion into an expensive kiddie flick painted with bits and bytes may remind some of the unhappy fate of Chris Van Allsburg’s brisk, haunting book Jumanji, which got morphed into a flabby Robin Williams vehicle. Shrek isn’t as bad as that; some of it is diverting (I enjoyed the scenes dealing with a love-smitten dragon, coyly fluttering its huge eyelashes). But I can’t imagine it occupying a warm space in children’s hearts, since it skewers clichés they’ve only just begun to absorb. Can’t we allow kids a few years of innocence before we pop it with the ever-ready pin of irony?

Mike Myers indulges his Scotphilia yet again, bringing his cheerful brogue to the lead character Shrek, a green ogre who wants to be left alone to mope in his swamp. Problem: the nasty Lord Farquaad (the usual hammy voice work by John Lithgow) has banished all fairy-tale creatures from his kingdom, and they have all taken refuge in Shrek’s stomping grounds. To restore them to their homes, Shrek must undertake a quest on Farquaad’s behalf: rescue the fair Princess Fiona (voice by Cameron Diaz) from a dragon’s lair, with the help of a talkative donkey (Eddie Murphy, enjoying this stage of his career as an entertainer at children’s parties).

Shrek moves fast, and its quartet of credited writers (including two who worked on Disney’s Aladdin and DreamWorks’ Small Soldiers) keep the pop references popping. Much has been made of the fact that DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg may be sending a poison valentine to his former bosses at Disney, and indeed the Mouse comes in for some swatting; when the donkey begins to segue into a heartfelt song, he’s rudely cut off by Shrek, who insists, “No singing” — an obvious swipe at Disney’s penchant for Oscar-ready ballads. The outskirts of the evil Farquaad’s kingdom, too, from its “It’s a Small World” clutter of singing animatronic heads to the rope-maze guarded by a man in a big-head Farquaad costume, fairly scream “Disneyland.” Shrek bends over backwards to assure us that it won’t be as square as Disney’s stuff.

That’s nice, but it doesn’t assure us of much else. Too much of Shrek seems like gags dreamed up by jaded adults. One scene, in which Princess Fiona makes short work of Robin Hood’s Merry Men, includes a poke at The Matrix and its crouching-tigress-hidden-wires, frozen-in-mid-air battles. First problem with this: the Matrix money shots have already been overparodied. Second, what kids in the audience would have seen the R-rated Matrix in order to get the joke? It’s there for Mom and Dad. Third, Princess Fiona’s battle skills are established here but then never repeated; in a later scene, when surrounded by Farquaad’s guards, she’s suddenly helpless. Shrek’s fighting acumen is similarly inconsistent; he’s shown in an early scene laying a smackdown on a bunch of Farquaad’s knights — in a scene eerily reminiscent of A Knight’s Tale, with its backdrop of Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” — and then later, when surrounded by the same Farquaad guards, he’s suddenly helpless too. In short, the ability of our heroes to defend themselves depends on whether the filmmakers need an easy laugh or thrill at a given moment.

The movie is capably designed and enthusiastically voiced, though computer-generated animation still hasn’t yet lost its creepy plastic sheen (compare it with the advanced yet homey Claymation seen in Chicken Run, for instance). I cannot — perhaps it is a function of my age — look at movies like Shrek (or Toy Story) without being aware that I’m watching digital shadows; the characters seem locked behind Plexiglas, untouched and untouchable. Untouching, too. Shrek gestures towards a typical humanistic message (Don’t judge others by their appearance), but the story is too busy trashing other legends and archetypes to emerge as a legend of its own. One can’t help thinking that The Princess Bride did it earlier and funnier, and did not take five years in the making or involve armies of techies sitting in front of Macs. There’s no real reason Shrek couldn’t have been a regular, drawn cartoon; there’s little reason it couldn’t have just stayed a book, either. If computer animation is all that sets it apart, then it doesn’t have much setting it apart.

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