Shrek (U)

The jolly green giant loses his heart

Anthony Quinn
Thursday 28 June 2001 00:00 BST
Shrek trailer

Director Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson;
Starring Mike Myers, and Cameron Diaz;
90 mins

There is a delightful slapstick brio to Shrek, the new DreamWorks movie which aims to do for the creatures of fairy-tale what Toy Story did for toys and Antz did for, er, ants. With improbable finesse it buffs up some of the oldest tropes of storytelling and then gives them a mischievous tilt, so that we appear to be watching a celebration of a genre and a sneaky subversion of it at the same time. Too clever by half? Not really, but certainly too clever for younger children, who will wonder why the adults accompanying them can bust out laughing at unpredictable moments.

The ogre Shrek is the slob-hero nonpareil. He's green, he's grumpy, he has ears like miniature trumpets and a lackadaisical attitude to personal hygiene, showering in mud and pulling a plug of wax from his ear to make a candle. He lives alone, not surprisingly, and reckons he prefers it that way. He finds his privacy invaded, however, when the local despot, Farquaad, ordains that all fairy-tale creatures be banned from his kingdom and relocated in Shrek's swamp. The ogre's introduction to his new neighbours is typical of the film's delicacy; at first he thinks it's merely an infestation of mice, a regular domestic irritation. But these turn out to be Three Blind Mice, as in the song, and they herald a whole array of other famous figures and figments – everyone from Snow White to Pinocchio to the Wolf disguised in grandma's nightcap and spectacles. "What?" snaps this last as he rests insolently in Shrek's bed.

The ogre's solitude is scuppered; through no fault of his own he has an encampment of celebrities on his doorstep. Shrek makes a deal with Farquaad: in return for the removal of his squatters he will rescue the Princess Fiona from – where else? – a distant castle guarded by – what else? – an enormous dragon, so that Farquaad can marry her. The story is old hat, of course, but the manner of its telling is anything but. Directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, the film shows off the latest technical advances in animation technology: changes of expression, light or liquid movement can be registered in super-precise detail, thanks to a process called Fluid Animation System. You might care to read the press notes on this: "Imagine digital spheres flying around in free space, which, as they collide, form a singular isosurface, which can be more or less dense resulting in different thicknesses." Or, put another way: Uh? When it comes to science you could call me more or less dense. However the DreamWorks technicians managed it, the results are there on screen, in the gleam of an eye or the tweak of a muscle on a character's face.

The sophistication is astonishing, and just a bit spooky. When applied to the non-human creatures the effects have an antic comedy, like the Gingerbread Man down in Farquaad's dungeon begging his captor not to remove his buttons (his legs are already broken); or the sudden twitching of an eye, which Shrek's donkey (exuberantly voiced by Eddie Murphy) affects as stress-related. Less persuasive, however, are the human characters. Farquaad is superbly voiced by John Lithgow, and his enormous palace comes in for much mockery (inside reports suggest that its sterile, corporatised atmosphere is a sly dig at Disneyland). Why, though, are Robin Hood and his Merry Men cast as a troupe of Frenchmen suddenly breaking into Riverdance? More troubling is the glazed perfection of Princess Fiona, who looks so close to human that you start to wonder why the animators didn't just down tools and invite Cameron Diaz to play her as well as voice her. Apparently the filmmakers did twig this as a problem: at one point she began to look so photo-realistic that they had to "dial her back" so as to fit in with the rest. Oh, for a world in which you could dial back Cameron Diaz.

Shrek himself is voiced by Mike Myers in a gruff Scots brogue, and represents exactly the kind of curmudgeon whose heart awaits the redemptive touch of love. You'd have to be a bit of an ogre yourself to object to this storybook romance, and the twist in the tale is a nice reproof to the Sleeping Beauty-Snow White legends of transformation. I liked it for that, yet there are still reasons why, for all its artfulness and ingenuity, you may not be entirely seduced. For one thing, the film tries a little too hard to be something for everyone. Teenagers will be tickled by the fart jokes, the wrestling sequences and the cute allusion to The Matrix; older kids and adults will respond to the post-modern level of spoofery, Eddie Murphy's motormouth wisecracking as the Donkey and any moment involving the Gingerbread Man.

The only part of the audience who may feel left out are the kids for whom fairy-tales were originally intended. There isn't much in the way of purely "innocent" fun to be had in Shrek, and one imagines under-fives either fidgeting or falling asleep. Yet will those children discover a magic in it five or 10 years from now? By then they may be able to "get" it, but will any of the characters be loved and remembered in the way that the Toy Story brigade have been? I doubt it. The one thing this masterpiece of illusion can't fake, in the end, is a heart.

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