Producer Jeffrey Katzenberg, who left Disney to help start DreamWorks, has called Shrek a "fractured fairy tale," no doubt referring to those wonderfully cracked segments on the old "Rocky and Bullwinkle Show," which gave Aesop and the brothers Grimm a show-biz makeover. Like the animated films Katzenberg oversaw at the Mouse House ' everything from The Little Mermaid to The Lion King ' Shrek has one foot in the classic fairy tales of the past and one foot (with the skirt hiked up past the knee) on the corner of Hollywood and Vine. The difference is that Shrek is about the classic fairy tales of the past, toying with them for fun and profit. And so we get an ogre who acts like a prince, a princess who doesn't really need saving and enough digs at Disney to land Katzenberg in court again. Of course, the last time Katzenberg was in court he walked away with $250 million in back pay. Talk about fun and profit.
Slightly de-burring the Scottish accent he adopted for Fat Bastard in the last Austin Powers movie, Mike Myers does pitch-perfect voice work for Shrek, a genuine ogre who looks like Uncle Fester if Uncle Fester 1) was green, 2) was the size of Andre the Giant and 3) had ears that resembled an anteater's snout. Alas, it's not easy being green; everybody's always running away in horror. So Shrek spends most of his time holed up in the swamp, showering himself with mud, brushing his teeth with bug juice and, after reading to us from a fairy-tale storybook in the movie's opening scene, ripping out a page and wiping his rear end with it. Luckily, Shrek gets most of the gross-out humor out of its system early on, relying instead on the amazing vocal talents of Eddie Murphy, whose every line reading spells comic relief. Murphy's playing a jackass named Donkey who latches on to Shrek like a tick.
Even with Donkey at his side, Shrek might have lived happily ever after if not for the arrival of just about every fairy-tale character ever conceived, all of them banished from Duloc, the Magic Kingdom-like castle presided over by the maniacally short Lord Farquaad. You can get a chuckle out of me just by saying "Farquaad" out loud, but John Lithgow, who voices the character, does much more than that, stretching vowels way past the breaking point. Lord Farquaad, who desires to be Prince Farquaad (but must marry a princess first), looks like he's been pulled off a playing card, with his page-boy haircut and his overall lack of a lower body. There's a great scene where he's torturing the Gingerbread Man and the two of them get a who's-on-first thing going after the G Man desperately asks, "Do you know the Muffin Man?"
In exchange for clearing Shrek's swamp of everything from the Three Bears to the Seven Dwarfs, Lord Farquaad sends him off to rescue Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), who's being chaperoned by a fire-breathing dragon. (Is there any other kind?) This gives the animators a chance to show off their latest software, which produces flames that would have had Prometheus eating his own heart out. Yet another marvel of computer animation, Shrek uses all the shapers and shaders at its disposal to fulfill that old dream of bringing a storybook to life ' a high-end storybook with pictures that have the precision and luminescence of those done by England's Pre-Raphaelites back in the 1800s. Judging by the press material, DreamWorks is particularly proud of Princess Fiona's face and body, citing the more than one million digital polygons that went into her (richly flowing) hair alone.
This is all very impressive but also somewhat limiting. Not for nothing is Princess Fiona the least interesting character, except for when she does a Matrix number on Robin Hood and his Merry Men. The software, though better than ever, is still not to the point where it can create smoothly flowing human movement, despite the layering of clothes onto skin onto muscles onto bones. There's a kind of fluid jerkiness that seems almost like stop-motion animation. Shrek wants to be both an Arthur Rackham picture book and a Tex Avery cartoon, but doesn't have enough elasticity for the latter. Besides, one has to wonder where all this hyper-realism is leading us ' to a cartoon character who walks and talks and looks and sounds exactly like Cameron Diaz? Then, except for having to cough up her paycheck, why not use Cameron Diaz?
Princess Fiona is a beautiful send-up of the whole damsel-in-distress trope, though she harbors notions of a Prince Charming who will literally sweep her off her feet, notions that are dampened somewhat when Shrek takes her proffered hankie and wipes the sweat off his forehead with it. He's a beast, she's beauty, but the movie does a good job of complicating that old premise. Lacking perhaps the final element of inspired craziness, Shrek may not be quite the instant classic that Aladdin and Toy Story were, but it's awfully close. And it will surely achieve classic status over the years, long after the inside jokes about the Tragic Kingdom and some unbelievably incongruous rock songs (including Joan Jett's "Bad Reputation") have outlived their usefulness. Like the Grinch before him, Shrek is mean and green and box-office gold.