Given all the advances in computer animation in recent years, for a film that uses the technique to be visually arresting is no longer quite enough to really distinguish it. As DreamWorks' enormously entertaining fairy tale send-up Shrek proves, the same low-tech requirements hold in the high-tech world of digital cinema: it all starts with the script.
And what a witty winner of one is given Shrek by scribes Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, Joe Stillman, and Roger S.H. Schulman. In a land inhabited by a number of classic fairy tale creatures, the title character (voiced by Mike Myers) is an ogre who is called on by the evil ruler Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow) to rescue the beautiful princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) from a remote castle surrounded by lava and guarded by a dragon. Farquaad's big plan is to turn his land of Duloc into a grand kingdom, and the only way to do so is to marry a princess--hence the rescue of Fiona; however, that may less easy as it appears, for on their journey home with Shrek's motormouthed donkey sidekick (Eddie Murphy), Shrek and Fiona find that other is a lot more than meets the eye.
Casting an ogre in the part of the hero is just one of the ways Shrek tweaks the traditional fairy tale model. Particularly prone to potshots are the conventions perpetuated by a certain company whose mascot is a mouse. For example, when some characters come out of nowhere and burst into a spontaneous song number as in many selections from "The Masterpiece Collection" DVD and video series, they are greeted with a severe Crouching Tiger/Matrix-style butt-kicking; and there's a priceless gag that won't allow you see Snow White's "I'm Wishing" scene in quite the same light ever again. Furthermore, Duloc is more of a merchandising and tourism spot than most kingdoms, save a certain "magic" one also known as "The Happiest Place on Earth."
The script peppered with so many sharp satirical barbs at fairy tales and also pop culture, Shrek's sense of humor is clearly and surprisingly skewed toward the adults in the audience, but that doesn't mean that the kids won't be suitably amused. A fair amount of jokes will fly over their heads, but there are many they will get, and the amazing degree of photo realism in the animation--a huge step up from PDI's previous effort for Dreamworks, Antz--will certainly hold their attention.
Perhaps even more engaging to the tots is the fact that it, in the end, tells a very satisfying fairy tale story. For all their smart-alecky quips, the writers and directors Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson have enough heart to also honor those same conventions at which they poke good-natured fun. Thanks to likable, well-drawn lead characters that are further energized by terrific vocal work (of the cast, Murphy is the scene-stealing standout), Shrek is truly able to have its cake and eat it too--not only in terms of its intent, but also by just being a lot of fun for any and every audience.
RATING: ***** (out of *****)
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