In the first two minutes of Dreamworks’ new animated feature fantasy Shrek, there are maggots, a bowel movement, mud, slime, and a giant, infantile green monster picking boogers. In other words, it starts off like a typical summer kiddie pic. But it gets better. Really it does.
That’s partly because the eponymous big green critter, an ogre who lives in a shack at the edge of a swamp and enjoys throwing his weight around the forest, is actually a warm, lovable, misunderstood guy–lonely, craving affection, and just trying to get along in the world. Even ogres need love. Thankfully the creative team–two directors, four writers, and five producers, including Dreamworks honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg, at the head of an army of artists and technicians–is not content to merely shovel out a load of corny moral platitudes in between the bodily-function jokes and let it go at that. Shrek does contain one or two tedious moral lessons, but the rest of it is a deft combo of kidstuff humor, grown-up wordplay, sight gags, and plenty of suitably smashing, state-of-the-art animation, not the least of which is the character of Shrek himself. As the picture rolls and he grows in stature, his animation keeps pace. You might be tempted to call him complex–even if you knew he was played by the voice of Mike Myers.
Myers uses a Scottish accent for the lovably crude big fellow, and Eddie Murphy, in nonstop chatter mode, plays the annoying, obligatory animal sidekick–a donkey named Donkey. Adapted from William Steig’s children’s book, the story takes the form of a quest: in order to rid his marshy home of a noisy collection of fairy-tale and nursery-rhyme characters (the Three Blind Mice, Pinocchio, et al.), the disgruntled ogre strikes a deal with the despicable and diminutive Lord Farquaad (a playing-card-faced despot with a prominent jaw, played by John Lithgow) to rescue a princess called Fiona (voice of Cameron Diaz) from a fire-breathing dragon in a haunted castle, etc., etc. So it’s not what Shrek does that will tickle the fancy of grown-ups forced to sit through this PG-rated adventure, it’s how he does it. The writing is better than it ought to be. And the artwork is gorgeous, on a level with the work in Antz, Dreamworks and PDI’s 1997 triumph of high-toned computer graphics.
The sight gags go beyond the juvie norm. Both Shrek and Lord Farquaad relax with martinis at the end of their day. Very civilized. There are fun bits such as the “torture” of the gingerbread man in the castle dungeon (the poor Mr. Bill-like little fellow has his legs torn off, and appears later on crutches) and the cue cards (“Reverent Silence”) at the royal wedding. Farquaad’s hideous high-rise castle is a grand architecture parody. The computerized crowd scenes are a vast improvement over the fakey-looking ones in Gladiator (Ridley Scott, please copy). The CGI fields of daisies and sunflowers are positively transcendental shimmering in the sunlight. Ditto the nighttime landscapes. And let’s admit it–Princess Fiona is an improvement on what a live-action actress could do in the same role.
That’s faintly disturbing, somehow. There’s been a lot of talk the past few years about rapid advances in computer-generated imaging, and how someday soon “they,” the CGI creations, might be able to replace human actors in selected situations. The next test of that proposition is Columbia’s summer release Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, which stars an all-CGI cast playing human roles–although they too are voiced by humans, as in Shrek. Japanese production companies have been the leaders in the humanoid fantasy game (with virtual pop “idols” performing “live” concerts for adoring fans), but the idea is slowly catching on in Hollywood.
Outside of the ogre hero, the donkey, and the various fairy-tale folk, Shrek‘s cast is made up of simulated humans interacting in the strange CGI light. The drawings are extremely lifelike and the movements convincingly realistic. Suddenly, humans-and-toons pics such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, in which real actors cavort with kwazy toons, have been rendered quaintly old-fashioned. If that film were made today, Bob Hoskins would most likely only be hired to supply the voice for his character. Armed with Diaz’ vocal portrayal, Shrek‘s Princess Fiona is more charming, more vulnerable, perkier, and even more sensitive than if she were played by a human actress. The CGI is that uncanny. Scary.
If they’re searching for grievances in their upcoming talks with the studios, the leadership of the Screen Actors’ Guild might well consider the impact on its membership of the amazing brand of human duplication on display in Shrek. One day, there might be no more need for midget-actor munchkins and rubber-faced human comics à la Jim Carrey (or their enormous salaries), let alone handsome male leads and sexy female ones, if CGI this convincing takes hold of the imagination of the moviegoing public.
But such real-world worries don’t enter into Shrek‘s voyage of self-discovery. Long before the little band of wanderers meets up with the French-accented Monsieur Hood and his Monty Pythonesque merry men, Shrek, no thanks at all to Myers’ burr, conveys a moral depth unheard of in the average toon. The script gleefully undercuts it almost every time, such as in the “lyrical interlude” spoof near the end of the film. Picking up on the anachronistic anarchy of animated features like Aladdin (writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio were responsible for that one), Shrek uses the sum total of artistic and fictive history as its palette. The only things it takes seriously are the notions of true love and beauty-is-only-skin-deep–good things for kids to soak up after they’ve had their fill of flatulence.
Meanwhile, their parents will be amazed to encounter John Cale music (he sings Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”) in a PG-rated summer toon. Never mind the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer,” performed by Smash Mouth. At 89 minutes, the pic is not a moment too short. Plenty of time to allow the unnerving simulated humanity of Shrek’s moral growth and Princess Fiona’s red-haired spunkiness to sink in. These characters don’t merely try to be engaging, they are engaging. They’re here. Look out, Tom Cruise –you’re next.