United States, 2001
Directed By: Andrew Adamson
Written By: Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio, Roger Schulman, Joe Stillman, William Steig
Starring: Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, John Lithgow
Running Time: 89 minutes
Rated PG for mild language and some crude humor
As I’m writing this review in 2008, not a whole lot remains to be said about Shrek. The film became something of a cultural phenomenon, spawning two sequels (that each raked in their respective bucks) and every imaginable tie-in and bit of merchandise. With all this commercial garbage assaulting the senses day and night, it’s easy to forget that the originalShrek was actually a pretty good little film.
I honestly can’t imagine who I’m writing the following summary for, but here goes: Based (very) loosely on the children’s book by William Steig (perhaps best-known for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble), Shrek stars Mike Myers sporting a very strange accent as the titular ogre, who becomes displaced from his personal swamp after “Lord Farquaad” (John Lithgow at his scenery-chewing best) attempts to cleanse his land by banishing all “fairy tale things” (everyone from Snow White to the Three Blind Mice makes a cameo) from his kingdom. To regain his home, Shrek joins up with a talking donkey (Eddie Murphy, essentially reprising his role from Mulan) and goes on a quest to rescue Princess Fiona (a waif voiced by Cameron Diaz who is conveniently located in a castle surrounded by lava and guarded by a dragon), so that Farquaad can marry her and become a true king. (I’m not sure why local custom prevents a bachelor from being a king, but…um…it does.)
The story functions primarily as a satire of fairy tales, and appropriately borrows as much from The Princess Bride as you would expect it to (right down to the rushed-and-interrupted wedding sequence at the end). It’s got more of a postmodern flair to it, though (apologies for using the most overused word in the English language), and most of the humor centers on parody and flat-out quotationalism. Many of these gags seemed funny at the time, but haven’t aged as well as they should have—it’s unfortunate, for example, that every single comedy that came out within a few years of this one parodied The Matrix, as Shrek’s Matrix-style sequence is by far the funniest. While many of these gags fall a bit flat seven years after the fact, the character-based humor still works well, and Murphy and Myers display quite a bit more heart than you might expect. This is where the film functions best—and is predictably the area in which the sequels lack. Despite all its anti-Disney posturing, Shrek is, at its heart, a fairy tale—and a pretty good one, too. Flowing beneath the surface are all sorts of timeless fairy tale themes like true love, good vs. evil and the nature of beauty. It turns this last theme on its head, which is not only nicely PC, but also plain right. If you like heartstring-tugging, this film’s not a bad choice.
If Shrek has any failings, they’re primarily in the area of animation. As has often been pointed out, Dreamworks/PDI simply doesn’t have the high-quality animation we’ve come to expect from industry leader Pixar. This, however, arguably boils down to more a lack of artistic flair than a lack of technology. Shrek and his donkey look fine, but the film suffers from trying too hard to make its human characters look like real people. Fiona and (to a lesser extent) Farquaad are both extremely hard to watch—proof of the “uncanny valley” if there ever was. You get used to it eventually, but it’s a little cringe-inducing at first.
Where the movie has the most success is, surprisingly, with the soundtrack. Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell have crafted a perfect fairytale score, up to and including the dreamy main theme (which almost matches the quality of the Princess Bride theme). But the film also has an excellent pop soundtrack, which features a good mix of covers and originals from some fairly offbeat bands. This is possibly the best use of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (covered by John Cale) in a film, and that’s saying something. The lone exception is the unfortunate choice of Smash Mouth’s “All Star” (which was already overplayed, even in 2001) for the opener. Oh, well—I guess stupid novelty songs never fail to please the kids.
In the end, Shrek is a funny film with a lot of heart, but its aftermath of unnecessary sequels and obnoxious imitator CGI films that pretend to be irreverent has been unfortunate. This one goes out highly recommended, but make sure your kids never find out there are sequels.