Shrek (2001)

D: Andrew Adamson, Vicky Jenson
S: Voices of Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz

A reclusive ogre named Shrek finds his solitude interrupted when the evil Lord Farquaad banishes all fairytale creatures from his realm. The ogre agrees to rescue a princess on behalf of Farquaad (who wants to become a king by marrying one), provided the latter agrees to leave him be. The princess turns out to be a little different than expected, as does the adventure.

Well, not that different really. Shrek is a frequently clever and usually funny spoof of animated fairytales which though based on a book by William Steig relies heavily on references to other fairytales, more specifically The Walt Disney Company's versions of them. It is just as comfortable drawing on the conventions of live action films. Gags at the expense of game shows, the internet, WWF wrestling, and hi-octane action movies including The Matrix ensure that its frames of reference are almost universally recognisable. The film offers a mixture of classic and contemporary referentiality which is bound to date it very badly very quickly but which for now is quite entertaining because it is all so familiar.

Though there is a working story here and there are the usual quota of required characters, essentially, Shrek is a one-joke movie. There are laughs aplenty in there, but few of them derive from character and situation. Calling it 'revisionist' is giving it way too much credit. The film doesn't so much re-envision the genre as depend entirely upon it for its sense of identity. Almost every wisecrack makes sense not because of the story but because the audience is already familiar with the genre. It is one big self-referential poke in the eye of Disney, and with DreamWorks SKG raking in the cash at the box-office on the strength of this premise alone, the joke is even funnier. This does not prevent the movie's flaws from making it a little bit less of a pleasure than it promises to be though. Even a parody needs to have some kind of character of its own (Blazing Saddles, Airplane!), and Shrek just doesn't. It relies too heavily on other movies for its personality, and lacks staying power once you get past the big snigger up the sleeve that comes with being in on the gag.

Foremost among the film's deficiencies on a deeper level is the vocal characterisation. Mike Myers (Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me) provides Shrek with a vaguely Scottish accent, but leaves the personality pretty much to the animators. They do their best, and it has a nice chunky 3D look to it, but the central character is not nearly as dynamic as one feels he might have been. For a start his curmudgeonly attitude is quickly tiresome, not least of all because we are all too aware than eventually he's going to reveal his warm heart anyway. The fact that Myers voices that grumpiness with a fairly lacklustre level of malice dulls any potential edge. He is also just not funny. There are limits to just how many sarcastic and/or ironic jibes a character can deliver before they just get on your nerves. Okay, he is not meant to be entirely sympathetic, but he could have been just a bit more endearing with a little more effort on Myers' part.

Support from Eddie Murphy as a talking Donkey is a lot better though it essentially reprises his role in Mulan. Phil Harris did much the same thing of course when he reprised Baloo the Bear as Little John in the 1973 Robin Hood, so we won't worry about that. There are some nice jibes at the musical comic relief characters who usually fulfil this function in Disney movies, and Murphy seems to hit all the right notes to make the character work on both levels (as character, as parody). It is hard not to shake the impression that he really is comic relief though, specifically to relieve the relative tedium of Myers' characterisation.

John Lithgow is perfectly cast as Lord Farquaad, and yes it is an amusing design concept that he is about three feet tall. Unfortunately that's all there is to him as a character, and there really isn't a lot of evident villainy to balance the reluctant heroism of the lead. Cameron Diaz (Charlie's Angels) voices the princess well enough, but computer animation of this style does not lend itself well to realistic features, and as the straightest looking character up front, she is the least convincing.

Yes, I'm nitpicking and I'm being unnecessarily hard on a movie with is relatively harmless entertainment. But those nits are pretty damn infuriating. Shrek is fun to watch, but there is a nagging sense that it is pretty insubstantial from the get-go. Granted it never tries to be much more than a series of hit-or-miss parodic gags, but though most of them are funny, they have no staying power beyond the ephemeral hit of the in-joke. You don't really come away with a sense that you've sat through a funny story well told by a master raconteur. Instead it seems more like a stream of one-liners shouted in your ear in a busy pub which are hilarious at the time but that you have trouble remembering in the morning. Kids may like it, adults should get at least a few yuks from it, but neither age group is likely to hold it close to their hearts for very long.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.