Box office behemoth. Academy Award winner. Fan favorite. Shrek.
Drawn That Way: Shrek
By Kim Hollis
May 18, 2004
Three years ago, this send-up of fairy tales, the Walt Disney Corporation and tiny, Napoleonic politicians stormed into theaters and kept its steamroller pace going throughout an entire summer season. In the end, it became practically joined at the hip with Monsters, Inc. by virtue of the fact that both CGI-animated films were released in the same year and competed with each other for the newly-created Best Animated Picture Academy Award. For better or worse, Shrek emerged victorious and kept the debate alive as to whether Pixar or PDI produced the better movie. The honest evaluation is that both films have tremendous, wide-ranging appeal, and that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.
As a film, Shrek is a bit of an odd beast as its story and subject matter manage to be heavily derivative and wildly original all at the same time. Drawing from the mythology of favorite childhood fairy tales, the now-famous adventure sends a reclusive ogre named Shrek on a quest to rescue a princess held captive by a fire-breathing dragon (one of the film's great jokes shows Shrek reading this exact story at the beginning of the film, then ridiculing its likelihood by using it as toilet paper). Mind you, Shrek is only rescuing the princess on behalf of the local bully, Lord Farquaad (try saying that name three times fast and see what you get). Farquaad has relocated all of the fairy tale creatures of the land to Shrek's swamp, and the solitary-minded ogre wants his privacy returned. Before he can get it, though, he'll have to suffer through the never-ending prattle of a miniature donkey that accompanies him on the journey.
Possibly the most heralded aspect of the film is its voice work. Mike Myers converts his ongoing obsession with all things Scottish to create the sound of Shrek. It's oddly incongruous with the other primary characters, who talk with their everyday "American" accents. Similarly, Robin Hood is turned into a Frenchman for some reason passing understanding (even the earliest writer on the thief's legend was Welsh), though really amusingly voiced by Mssr. Monica Bellucci himself, Vincent Cassel.
Those incongruities aside, Eddie Murphy is simply perfect as the voice of donkey. No one but Murphy could make a line like, "And in the morning, I'm making waffles!" ring with intrinsic humor and jest. He's a misfit that never knows when to shut up, and his ability to go on and on with nary a breath is exactly what this character requires. Likewise, John Lithgow as Lord Farquaad delivers a fitting combination of culture and impending evil in a manner very similar to that of Kelsey Grammer with The Simpsons' Sideshow Bob. While perhaps not an entirely original take on the villain, it's appropriate for this film.
Finally, Cameron Diaz is the voice behind Princess Fiona, and she's basically adequate. Since the bulk of the punch lines go to Shrek, Donkey and various other peripheral characters, anyway, all she really has to do is "sound pretty."
Moving from voice work to music, the soundtrack to the film is one of the more disappointing aspects. Relying far too heavily on pop music to drive the plot, the score is almost barely utilized, though the bit that is there is really pretty nice. Theoretically, the pop soundtrack should make the film more accessible to a wide demographic, but what it ends up doing in reality is dating the film somewhat. The story becomes less timeless.
That point leads me to another element that must be discussed - re-watchability. I think it speaks volumes that I've owned the DVD for this film practically since it hit store shelves in late 2001, yet I've never really been motivated to break it out until this week. Shrek is a film that I genuinely loved on its release, but it doesn't necessarily hold up that well. Some of the jokes that were funny the first time fall flat on repetition. Also, the pesky notion that the story's message isn't quite consistent really becomes more supportable. While Shrek emphasizes that it's important not to judge someone by his or her appearance, the bad guy is judged…wait for it…by his looks. Instead of making more of the fact that he's an evil bigot, the story reduces him to a series of short jokes. So basically, what Shrek tells us is that we should never base our opinions of a person solely on their outward appearance…unless they're height-challenged. And they even missed the prime opportunity to use a Randy Newman song!
And while much is made of Shrek's clever digs at Disney, there aren't quite so many as the hype might have one believe. Yes, the film hits stuff like Pinocchio, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Tinker Bell, the Three Little Pigs and Dumbo, but what it really does well is send up the entire fairy tale genre. Still, the cleverest lambasting comes at the expense of Disney's corporate culture and the operation of its theme parks, which are hit pretty hard once Shrek and Donkey visit Farquaad's pristine city of Dolac.
But even as the film is at its quickest and wittiest, it all-too frequently relies on the lowest common denominator with regards to its humor. Flatulence of all kinds is the rule rather than the exception, with the entire opening sequence being somewhat devoted to this baser art. It's really hard to fault the creators of the film for resorting to such stuff, though. These are the bits that always get the biggest laughs and have the widest appeal. Still, Pixar has proven that it's possible to be entertaining and funny without making this style of humor the backbone of the story.
Shrek also falls short of Pixar's high standards of visual quality, though that's a minor quibble. It lacks much of the exquisite detail that Pixar has come to represent, but then again, PDI is not Pixar, and Shrek is a very different sort of movie. The bright colors and simple character design actually work rather well in context - almost like an illustrated book of fairy tales brought to life.
Despite its flaws, Shrek the film is much like Shrek the ogre. It has the layers of an onion, and while lots of people might not like onions, there are many who find their challenging flavor to be quite tasty. The humor is nuanced and intelligent, and offers plenty of enjoyment both for children and adults. And while it is perhaps a one-trick pony where grown-ups are concerned, the film should offer plenty of continued and lasting enjoyment for kids, who will only find new aspects to appreciate as they grow older. Above all, it's a frequently hilarious (the Muffin Man sequence is gold) and fun movie that has ample fodder for the sequel that is set to hit theaters this week.