Laughs and fun from an ogre
Review: 'Shrek' a wild, enchanted, hilarious tale
By Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- The age of digitally animated features has officially arrived, and an onslaught of pictures that expand the boundaries of fantasy entertainment via groundbreaking computer technology is on the way.
If they're anything like DreamWorks' "Shrek" -- a fractured fairy tale of sorts featuring the voices of Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz and John Lithgow -- we're in for a good time indeed.
"Shrek" kicks the summer movie season off in highly entertaining style. Who could have guessed that a picture featuring a talking donkey and a flatulent ogre would be the funniest thing to hit our screens in months?
Myers gives voice to Shrek, a lumbering behemoth with green skin, a bulbous nose and ears that look like miniature upturned trumpets. Shrek keeps to himself in his little swamp, living a quiet life that's occasionally disrupted by villagers who try to get too close.
Although we know he's a relatively harmless guy, Shrek's ogre-ness allows him to scare off intruders with intimidating poses and well-timed growls. Then it's back to his tree-trunk home, where he showers in mud, eats rats and brushes his teeth with the goo that he squeezes out of unlucky caterpillars. (Some of the best gags concerning Shrek are literally gag-inducing, but in a very broad, improbably charming way.)
We soon discover that evil Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow) has banished fantasy creatures from his kingdom; his henchmen are busy rounding them up. This engenders one of the best scenes in the film, during which such beloved characters as the Wicked Witch of the West, the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf are being relieved of their fairy-tale duties and hustled into a medieval paddy wagon.
A talking donkey, fittingly named Donkey (Murphy), escapes during processing and is pursued through the forest by his would-be captors. Shrek, who isn't in the market for a jackass roommate (who is?), scares the mob away, inadvertently rescuing Donkey.
A Grimm story, with lots of twists
Later that evening, Shrek is bewildered to find scores of storybook characters piling into his yard and home. They have nowhere else to go, so Shrek volunteers to talk to Lord Farquaad about the situation. Farquaad's tacky, commercialized castle is another clever highlight. The sequence features several well-aimed jabs at Disney's Magic Kingdom, including a somewhat bawdy re-imagining of those annoying little dolls singing "It's a Small World After All."
Shrek ultimately cuts a deal with Farquaad: If he can rescue Princess Fiona (Diaz) from her dragon captor, Farquaad will let the creatures back into his kingdom.
Farquaad, you see, needs to marry a princess in order to become a legitimate king. He selected Fiona from the three choices offered him by his magic mirror during a brilliant "Dating Game" parody.
"Shrek," much like the "Toy Story" movies, keeps the kiddies happy while containing enough witheringly sarcastic pop-culture references to appease David Letterman. Suffice it to say that this is the first fairy tale to prominently feature Rupert Holmes' "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)."
Lots of heart
It's not, however, as wall-to-wall dazzling as "Toy Story." There are scenes -- including a thrilling battle with the dragon -- that make you gasp out loud. Unfortunately, much of the back story is conveyed in relatively mundane woodland settings, and some of the dialogue drags a bit.
It's hardly enough, though, to taint the picture as a whole.
Murphy's endlessly jabbering Donkey will be a favorite among children. His movements seem to have been based on someone's family dog; he even spins in a little circle, then crosses his legs before he lies down to take a nap. Shrek's gross-out shtick is also a treat.
The only miscue among the characters is Princess Fiona. Digital animators have yet to perfect human flesh and movements. Fiona sometimes gives off the creepy air of a possessed Barbie Doll, and Diaz's California-girl line readings simply don't fit the character. In a word, Fiona is bland -- a failing only magnified when Donkey sings a Bette Midler tune or breaks into a Wilson Pickett impersonation.
The most unexpected element of these digital films is that they contain more heart than pictures featuring real human beings. DreamWorks would be doing us all a favor if they'd let the same group of people behind "Shrek" make some live-action features. Although it's disturbing that Hollywood can only generate emotion through a hard drive, that doesn't take away from "Shrek." It's a smart, terrifically imaginative little movie, with a forgiving message that children need to hear. It's also a heck of a lot of fun -- even if you don't believe in fairy tales.
Parents may be surprised at the tone of some of "Shrek"'s humor. Although they're mildly presented, there are toilet jokes, an occasional low-level curse word and a pretty violent pro-wrestling takeoff. But it moves so fast, your kids will be focused on something else before they've had time to process the information. Rated PG.
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