Friday, October 22, 2010

Shrek Movie Review: The One that Started it All

This review was written in 2001 shortly after the release of Shrek. This is the first time it is being published.

It's quite remarkable that the recent advent of computer animated feature films has produced some excellent movies. Disney and Pixar started it with the two Toy Story films and A Bug's Life and now Dreamworks has picked it up with Shrek, the story of an ogre who goes on a quest to rescue a beautiful princess so that the Napoleonic Lord Farquaad (say it out loud) can marry her and become king. Not only is Shrek the next in a line of films that look fantastic, but, like its predecessors, has an engaging storyline.

We are introduced to the ogre Shrek in a high-energy montage to the tune of Smash Mouth's "All Star" – a song written for the 1999 film Mystery Men, another movie about unlikely heroes. Shortly thereafter, a mob of townspeople come to Shrek's swamp to lynch him. Alas, Shrek's gargantuan stature, hideous features and bad breath scare them off. Shrek may look menacing, but as voiced by Mike Myers with a soft Scottish brogue he has a gentile tone, even if his words are often abrasive.

Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow) has ordered that all the fairy-tale creatures in the land be rounded up and subsequently banished to the swamp where Shrek makes his home. Directors Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson have a lot of fun introducing us to all the familiar faces including Pinocchio (who is being turned over for reward money by Gepetto), the Three Little Pigs, Tinkerbell and many others.  Shrek takes under his wing a cowardly talking donkey named Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and goes to see Farquaad about having the creatures removed from his land.

Farquaad lives in Dulot Castle which is an obvious poke at Disney World, complete with an attraction of singing dolls that are strangely reminiscent of the nauseating "It's a Small World" ride. Lord Farquaad is a cowardly and diminutive runt who will not go to rescue Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) himself. Legend has it she is locked in the tallest tower of a castle guarded by a fire-breathing dragon. Many knights have lost their lives trying to save her. So he enlists Shrek to carry out the mission, who will then get his land back upon delivery of the beautiful Princess.

The story, based on a children's book by William Steig, may be your standard fairytale – with a hero who has an obvious flaw who falls in love with the girl who is fated to marry the dastardly villain. The conflict is that the Princess has a secret that she dare not tell anyone about.  Donkey fills in as the sidekick for comic relief.  It's the way the writers, headed by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, turn all the myths and legends on their heads that makes this particular story so engaging. Consider the wonderful moment when the princess walks into the forest singing, and a small bird begins mimicking her.  You may begin to wonder (as I did) if you suddenly stepped into Disney hell. But then you remember that Shrek is a much smarter film than that and the scene has a fantastic payoff.

The key to this genre being so successful is that the films contain jokes and characters which appeal to adults, but also have a basic story that children may grasp as well. Like any good fairytale, Shrek is a great morality tale. It teaches us that how we appear on the outside is not nearly as important as what we have on the inside. But the morals come across subtly. There is nothing that is too saccharine, nothing too dull. Like Goldilocks would say, everything is just right.

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