Shrek

Shrek, DreamWorks' new enchanting animated feature, provides constant delights for the eye, while never neglecting the mind. The first American animation to receive its premiere as a competition entry at the Cannes Festival in half-a-century (since Peter Pan), Shrek represents a unique brand of entertainment: simple and straightforward in its textual surface, but sophisticated and even campy in its subtextual connotations, including some racy barbs directly addressed at Disney, which had monopoly on the field of animation until the recent threats posed by DreamWorks, such as last summer's hit, Chicken Run.

This beguiling story of an ugly and lonely ogre, who sets out on an odyssey to rescue his destined princess and finds his heart, represents family fare at its very best, seldom seen anymore in today's fractured market. DreamWorks should expect blockbuster numbers, both domestically and internationally, for a movie that will also perform superbly in post-theatrical life, ultimately destined to become a classic.

Reportedly, when William Steig's illustrated children's book was published in 1990, many parents felt it was especially fun to read it aloud to their children. After seeing Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson's magical movie, they won't have to do it anymore: Densely textured, with splendid vocal contributions from Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, and Cameron Diaz, Shrek almost calls for repeated viewing.

Steig's book provides the skeleton for a hodge-podge of a script, credited to Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (responsible for Aladdin and The Mark of Zorro), Joe Stillman (Beavis & Butt-head Do America), and Roger S. H. Schulman (Balto). Based on a melange of sensibilities, visual styles, themes and gags, the end result may not be the most coherent picture, but it's certainly a most enjoyable movie, one that, because of its mishmash quality, will appeal to various age groups.

Shrek accomplishes another difficult task: It tells a story, with the classic structure of a road movie, while at the same time commenting on the entire tradition of fairy tales. It's this deconstructive characteristic that will attract the more mature and savvy viewers, who don't ordinarily see animated features.

The intertextual frame becomes clear in the very first sequence, when the pint-sized Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow) ruthlessly rounds up the usual suspects — familiar fairy tale creatures — and banishes them to a squalid swamp, home of Shrek (Mike Myers), a gross, unappealing outcast with the foulest breath and worst bathroom manners. A solitary figure, who claims to enjoy his seclusion, Shrek doesn't relish the intrusion of such creatures as the Big Bad Wolf, Pinocchio, the Seven Dwarfs, the Three Blind Mice, among others. It may be a too obvious inside joke that the fairy tale creatures previously lived in what looks like a Disney empire, but the prank works both as a parody and in setting a jovial, high-spirited mood for the tale.

Following the tradition of the buddy-buddy road movie, the versatile screenwriters introduce a non-stop chatty Donkey (Eddie Murphy), who becomes Shrek's comrade. Together, the eternally bickering duo set out on their mission. Foretold by a witch, after she recovers from the sight of him, Shrek is off on a journey to find his true, unexpected love. The text rolls right along, breaking into rhyme and knightly talk (“You there, varlet…why so blithe”), and occasionally into silliness (“Pheasant, peasant, what a pleasant present!”)

While Shrek features the classic fairy tale triangle of a valiant hero, a beautiful princess, and a dastardly villain, each of the staple characters is turned upside-down and inside-out. In a major divertissement, the hero is a hideous monster — green, warty, ill-tempered, and disgusting — the princess is not all she appears to be, and the villain has some obvious shortcomings: rising to only three-feet tall, he still tries to cast a giant shadow. Indeed, nothing is sacred, and everything is ripe for an energetic, but not mean-spirited, lampooning.

The tale benefits immensely from the presence of Fiona (Cameron Diaz), a princess locked in a distant and dangerous tower, waiting to be rescued by prince charming. Central chapters are based on Farquaad's promise to remove the fairy tale creatures off Shrek's territory if he'll bring Fiona to become his queen. This leads Shrek and Donkey to a scary fortress, surrounded by lava and guarded by a huge fire-breathing dragon. There's good fun to be had, when Donkey suddenly realizes that the enormous, threatening dragon is a romantic lady lusting after him.

Like the other characters, Fiona suffers/benefits from duality: At first, she appears to be sexy, opinionated, and feisty (Diaz applies well skills she had acquired for Charlie's Angels), then her secret is revealed, which brings her physically and mentally closer to Shrek's outcast/outsider status. Needless to say, in neither role, she is a typical damsel-in-distress princess.

Obviously movie connoisseurs, the filmmakers borrow heavily from such cherished Hollywood fantasies as MGM's The Wizard of Oz (in the road home sequences) and Disney's Beauty And The Beast, which influences the entire texture, both thematically and visually.

The ingenious, often nutty images onscreen, just like the illustrations in Steig's book, blend with the exuberant text and dialogue thoroughly, sometimes echoing, and often expanding it. Featuring magic, animalism, and chaos, Shrek also propagates such all-American values as self-reliance, self-fulfillment, and above all, hope and acceptance. The fast-forward movement of the story, the inventive language, and challenging visuals, which are all full of surprises, makes this yarn especially amusing to observe.

As a blackly humorous reversal of the handsome prince fairy tale, Shrek is scripted and staged with an unerring sense of style. Considering that this is a first effort for co-directors Adamson and Jenson, both of whom take advantage of their background in visual effects and art direction, Shrek provides a double reason to celebrate.