“Shrek” is an instant animated classic. Rudely sending up even the most beloved fairy tale traditions while at the same time effectively embodying them, this spirited and often very funny lark accomplishes something that most films in the bygone Hollywood studio era used to do but is remarkably rare in today’s world of niche markets: It offers entertainment equally to viewers from 4 to 104. This story of an ogre’s odyssey from contented oblivion to unexpected love will make out like a Prince Charming wherever it plays, repping a bonanza for DreamWorks theatrically and forever after in home-viewing markets.
Playing equally effectively as a lively romp for kids and an enormously clever comedy for adults, “Shrek” is both simple and sophisticated, hip without being smug or condescending. It’s also a film for animation fans to cherish as well as one that non-enthusiasts can enjoy. On May 12, pic will become just the fifth animated film to be shown in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, after the late ’40s-early ’50s Disney features “Make Mine Music,” “Dumbo” and “Peter Pan,” and the 1973 French production “La Planete Sauvage” (Fantastic Planet).
Shaking the narrative and stylistic cobwebs from the form, standing every fairy tale convention on its head and landing some excellent shots at Disney for good measure, the picture scores on every front: The writing is smart, the vocal performances are game, and the relatively lifelike look is stunningly realized, making for the best-looking computer animated feature to date.
Screenplay by the team of Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (“Aladdin,” “The Mark of Zorro”), Joe Stillman (“Beavis & Butt-head Do America”) and Roger S.H. Schulman (“Balto”) is based on a short 1990 illustrated children’s book by William Steig that chronicled in very simple terms a horrible ogre’s journey to a castle where he wins the hand of an equally ugly princess. There was nothing more to it than that, so it’s a conservative estimate to venture that at least 95% of the inspiration for what’s onscreen came from the scriptwriters, who have let their imaginations go in coming up with characters, subplots, relationships, gags, intrigues and flights of fancy that have no seeds in the book.
First major sign of the extensive effrontery to come is the decision of the pint-sized bigwig Lord Farquaad (voiced by John Lithgow) to round up all the familiar fairy tale characters and banish them to the squalid swamp land where lives the area’s conspicuous outcast, Shrek (Mike Myers). A singularly unappealing, rotund fellow with green skin and the foulest breath, Shrek takes pleasure in his solitary ways and much resents the intrusion of such “squatters” as the Three Blind Mice, Pinocchio, the Three Bears, the Seven Dwarfs, the Big Bad Wolf and many others.
For his part, the vain and imperious Farquaad wants to trade in all his famous minions (who formerly resided in a hilariously designed Disneylike castle complete with roped queue spaces, turnstiles and souvenir shops) for a single princess, marriage to whom will finally make him a king. To this end, Farquaad has retained the “Snow White” Magic Mirror, which offers him, in TV gameshow style, three very appetizing candidates to choose from: Cinderella, Snow White or “Bachelorette #3,” a certain Princess Fiona.
After the mighty ogre and his buddy Donkey (Eddie Murphy) defeat Lord Farquaad’s favorites in a tournament (using a tag team wrestling style that kids will love), Farquaad agrees to move the fairy talers off Shrek’s land if the latter will be his knight and bring Princess Fiona down from her distant tower to become his queen. Reluctantly, Shrek agrees, launching a journey that leads him and Donkey to a scary castle surrounded by a lava-filled moat, guarded by a fire-breathing dragon and festooned with the skeletons of every knight who has previously attempted to snatch Fiona from her seclusion.
None of these threats phases the insouciant Shrek, but he meets unexpected resistance from Fiona herself (Cameron Diaz), a beautiful, feisty young lady who has definite ideas about what her knight in shining armor ought to be like. “I’m supposed to be rescued by my true love, not an ogre,” she objects as Shrek attempts to lead her from captivity. Meanwhile, fearful but sassy Donkey has come in for quite a surprise, finding to his dismay that the enormous dragon has quickly developed lustful feelings for him.
Escaping in exciting fashion from the castle, the new threesome head back for Lord Farquaad’s domain. Fiona, who not only sounds but looks amazingly like Cameron Diaz, continues to show her bossy, opinionated colors. But Shrek, to his astonishment, begins falling in love with her. It’s as impossible a match as Donkey and the dragon, quite out of the question until Donkey makes a late discovery that reveals that Fiona may have more in common with Shrek than immediately meets the eye. Dramatic climax, involving a huge wedding ceremony between Farquaad and Fiona that is interrupted, “The Graduate”-style, by Shrek, is capped by an enormously satisfying final twist.
Fine jokes and reversals of expectations fill the journey homeward, where the film most clearly reveals its charming small debts to such timeless classics as “Don Quixote,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Beauty and the Beast,” among others. One of the funniest bits has Princess Fiona singing a Disney-style duet with a bluebird, until the chirping creature suddenly explodes when Fiona hits a piercing high note. Only false note in the entire picture comes when Fiona, accosted by a strangely French-accented “Monsieur” Robin Hood, makes some “Matrix”/”Crouching Tiger”-type martial arts moves; bit feels like a sop to tastes of the moment and is the element that will first appear to date the film in years to come.
Visually, “Shrek” is a constant dazzlement, the images all but leaping off the screen. Against the brilliantly designed, exceptionally vivid backgrounds, the characters, human and animal alike, appear realistic and highly expressive without being photographically so; the fine line between naturalism and stylization has been unerringly walked by the large team working under first-time directors Andrew Adamson (a veteran visual effects supervisor) and Vicky Jenson (an art director and storyboard artist).
Endowing Shrek with a mild Irish brogue, Myers brings abundant drollery and vocal appeal to the physically repugnant title character, which implicitly lends weight to the underlying theme of beauty coming from the inside. Much as he did in his previous animated outing as Mushu the Dragon in “Mulan,” Murphy provides Donkey with a jive-talking motor mouth; some of his riffs are genuinely amusing, but the routine threatens to become a bit much at times. Diaz’s readings are energetic and willful, making Fiona a medieval “Charlie’s Angels” candidate, and Lithgow makes the vertically shortchanged Farquaad imposing without undue melodrama.
Outstanding score by Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell (“Antz,” “Chicken Run”) is abetted by a collection of eclectic, shrewdly chosen pop tunes all used to lively effect.