Despite more flatulence humor than any movie since Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor 2, the young children in front of me at the screening of Shrek were restless and bored. Also despite all the flatulence humor, I was not.
Like DreamWorks’ previous animated efforts — including the more traditionally animated The Road to El Dorado and The Prince of Egypt as well as the computer-rendered Antz — Shrek is more adult in content than mainstream American animation has traditionally been. (The time has come for parents to learn that "cartoon" doesn’t necessary mean "kid-friendly"; and there’s no compelling reason why it has to.)
Yet, in spite of its low, even at times bawdy humor, Shrek is consistently funnier and more entertaining than El Dorado or Antz. If it isn’t in the same instant-classic league as The Prince of Egypt — or that of Toy Story and Toy Story 2 from rival studio Disney/Pixar — well, not much is.
Loosely based upon a story by children’s author William Steig (Sylvester and the Magic Pebble), Shrek is a satiric, updated fairy-tale love story, sort of like The Princess Bride, if André the Giant had been the hero, and had worn Lou Ferrigno body paint. And if Princess Buttercup did Matrix-style wire-fu and knocked out bad guys. And if Prince Humperdinck had been a three-foot John Lithgow bent on rounding up all fairy-tale creatures into internment camps. And if the Mandy Patinkin character had been a jiving, mugging Eddie Murphy, and one of the Screaming Eels had fallen in love with — all right, so it’s not a lot like The Princess Bride. (Once again, not much is.)
Actually, Shrek plays a bit like the Brothers Grimm as told by Monty Python, with sometimes jarring cameo appearances by familiar storybook figures: Pinocchio being handed over by Gepetto to the fairy-tale Gestapo ("possessed toy", one of them writes clinically in a logbook); the Gingerbread Man being dunked in milk to make him talk ("Eat me!" he flings defiantly at his tormentor); an annoying Gallic Robin Hood and crew of Merry Men not quite avoiding a bawdy innuendo in a pseudo-Broadway show tune ("I just want to get l… paid").
What rescues Shrek from its crude humor and cynicism, in the end, is its heart — and it does have one. The movie’s themes — love conquers all, friendship and forgiveness, be true to yourself — are familiar, but they work here; and the title character, an ogre voiced by Mike Myers (in another variation on his beloved Scottish burr), emerges as a genuinely sympathetic figure.
Shrek lives alone in a swamp surrounded by warning signs and a mystique of terror that he cheerfully cultivates, more out of fear of rejection than anything else. He doesn’t want the companionship of streetwise Donkey (Eddie Murphy, who’s much more at home in this surreal fantasy than in a similar performance as a diminutive dragon in Disney’s Mulan); but Donkey knows a good ally when he meets one, and will not be driven away.
Shrek definitely doesn’t want the sudden influx of storybook refugees who show up on his doorstep when evil Lord Farquaad decides to use Shrek’s swamp as a relocation camp. So Farquaad offers Shrek a deal: If Shrek rescues an eligible princess (Cameron Diaz) from a dragon so that Farquaad can marry her (thereby, through some unexplained crown law, somehow qualifying Farquaad as king), Shrek can have the swamp back to himself. As Shrek heads off to rescue the princess, we sense that we’re in Beauty and the Beast territory — and so we are (and Swan Princess territory, and Little Mermaid territory); but there’s a sly twist on Beauty and the Beast that manages to be both satirical and sincere at the same time.
There’s a lot of humor here generally aimed at Disney, reflecting Disney/DreamWorks rivalry — and the lingering resentment of former Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, now the "K" in DreamWorks SKG. (It’s widely rumored that Lord Farquaad is supposed to be a parody of Disney chief Michael Eisner; and certainly Farquaad’s castle bears an obvious resemblance to a certain very sanitary entertainment theme park.) At the same time, it’s also a tribute to Disney: If you’re going to do a parody of fairy-tale characters at all, it’s hard to avoid stepping on Disney’s toes, since they’ve practically cornered the market.
Much of the credit for what is right, and wrong, with Shrek goes to Eddie Murphy. After a long string of undistinguished films like The Distinguished Gentleman and Holy Man, Murphy has in recent years enjoyed an enormous comeback, powered by the trademark brand of lowest-common-denominator humor in the Nutty Professor and Doctor Doolittle movies. Fortunately Murphy is a genuinely gifted comedian, and is sometimes able to redeem tasteless material with real humor. Whether or not it works depends on whether it comes off as more funny than it is off-putting, or vice versa; it varies from movie to movie.
In Donkey, Murphy has a role that works. As he did with his dual roles in Steve Martin’s very funny Bowfinger, Murphy injects humanity into a character that could easily have been a mere figure of mean fun. Donkey comes to Shrek for protection, but in the end he is a real friend — the first Shrek has ever had.
The compelling reason to see Shrek, of course, is the eye-popping, bleeding-edge computer animation. Here at least, if nowhere else, Shrek readily surpasses the Toy Story movies, as well as Antz (which it surpasses in other ways also) and Pixar’s A Bug’s Life (which is probably otherwise about its equal).
Shrek and his storybook fellows may be the most convincing pixel-generated characters ever, better-looking even the characters of the title species in Disney’s Dinosaur, maybe even better than Boss Nass and Jar-Jar Binks from Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace. Even the human "synthespians" look better in Shrek than ever before (though the much-anticipated near photo-realism of this summer’s Final Fantasy may set the bar higher still).
At the same time, Shrek and his world is entirely fantastical, and great fun to look at. For animation fans, it’s a must see. Too bad Shrek didn’t take the same high road as Miramax’s excellent family hit Spy Kids, and leave out the fart jokes.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.