It’s easy to forget cartoons weren’t invented for children. Steamboat Willie was meant to dazzle adults as well as kids. Chuck Jones and his cohorts used one level of comedy for the young ones and another subversive level for the big people who watch Bugs Bunny cartoons.
But when Walt Disney realized the real money was in juvenile pockets, this art form gradually headed toward the shallow-as-a-cookie-cutter musicals, which were reborn for the last generation because they really sell tickets and merchandise. Studios with animation departments and holes on their summer schedules haven’t made an honest attempt to compel any moviegoer taller than 4 feet for a long time now (unless you count Prince of Egypt or Titan A.E., which nobody does).
Shrek doesn’t do it either, but it comes close. DreamWorks honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg’s latest pet project does fascinating things with computer animation in a story that’s not really for grownups, but is still more mature than the average Disney animated fare. Katzenberg apparently sees it as his mandate to bring animation up in the world while jabbing his former employers at every opportunity. And if Shrek materializes as the big hit its opening-weekend grosses suggest, Katzenberg will be pulling the mouse ears over Michael Eisner’s eyes yet again.
Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers in his familiar I-ate-a-baby Scottish lilt) is a peaceful ogre who lives in the middle of a swamp, decorated with the “Beware of the Ogre” signs he paints on an easel. He’s quite pleased to be so scary and unapproachable. The only creature who dares to bother him is Donkey (Eddie Murphy), a hyperkinetic beast of burden who won’t stop talking. “Freaks got to stay together. Every monster needs a sidekick,” Donkey says.
But Shrek’s peace goes to pieces when Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow) rounds up all of the kingdom’s fairy-tale creatures—like Pinocchio and the Three Little Pigs—and exiles them to Shrek’s swamp, the better to promote his desolate new theme park, Duloc (any jabs at Disney are completely intentional). In order to get rid of them, Shrek visits Lord Farquaad and makes a deal: He’ll free Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), who Farquaad wants to marry, from a castle guarded by a dragon.
It’s all mainstream fairy-tale stuff, but the script (loosely based on William Steig’s clever 1990 children’s book) allows for plenty of comic leeway. Myers and Murphy ham it up like Robin Williams on his pre-sobriety standup specials, resulting in a series of clever, unexpected riffs on the rigidly standard story.
As an ogre on a mission, Shrek has a confidence and resourcefulness that are quite refreshing in this genre. Though the book was even more forceful about this point, Shrek doesn’t care a great deal what others think of him. He rescues the princess without the fear or self-doubt that might inspire Phil Collins to compose a musical soliloquy. The self-doubt comes later, when the film struggles to tack a third act onto a two-act story.
But thankfully, this is no animated kiddie musical. The music in Shrek consists of rehashes of old-school foot-stompers like “I’m a Believer” or “Try a Little Tenderness.” There’s also a goofy novelty song from Robin Hood and his band of merry men, who then get their skulls kicked in by Fiona. None of it’s taken seriously, particularly with Murphy’s Donkey cutting in on any solemn moment with wisecracks of varying quality.
Shrek’s high-octane computer animation gives the film a sort of super-reality, but the filmmakers aren’t really sure what to do with their power beyond showing off how cool it is. The characters have incredibly lifelike faces, even down to Shrek’s squints and shrugs—but if the drawings were actually people, they’d be guilty of Hestonian levels of overacting. It’s hard to see the point of spending all that money on an eye twitch.
Aside from the visual spectacle, the film is yet another romp through pop culture references and sarcasm-based humor. It’s all very clever and diverting, even if it’s somewhat tamed and muted to appeal to the children who put the big bucks in DreamWorks’ pockets. Katzenberg and his own band of merry men want to take animation onward and upward, but they also remember their main job is to rob the rich.
Shrek (PG) HH1/2 Directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson. Featuring the voices of Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz.