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Review of DreamWorks Shrek
by Harvey Karten

Distributor: DreamWorks Pictures
Director: Andrew Adamson, Victoria Jenson
Writer: Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Book by William Steig
Cast: Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, John Lithgow

Shrek looks at first like a typical fairy tale--actually a collage of the genre featuring the three blind mice, three little pigs, Goldilocks' bears, Red Riding Hood's big bad wolf, Pinocchio and Cinderella. Not long into the movie--which features some impressive state-of-the-art cgi animation giving a startling, lifelike appearance to both characters and landscapes- we see that Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio's screenplay from William Steig's book subverts one of the principal conventions favored by the brothers Grimm in their collection, "Kinder und Hausmarchen."

The brothers shared Sir Arthur Gilbert's grim view of unattractive women. In their sexist formulation, a homely woman could never find love and marriage together with a trip to the castle in a horse and carriage. That beauty is skin deep seemed a foreign concept to these master story tellers.

Directors Andrew Adamson and Victoria Jenson set out to make a more politically correct tale. Shrek conveys a motif that should put its young and impressionable audience straight: one is beautiful if he or she is of wonderful character. Heart and soul are more precious than derma and cuticles. We may be at first attracted to others by the symmetry of features, but for the honeymoon to last, we must appreciate one another's inner qualities.

The theme should be obvious to the most attention-challenged seven-year old. Adamson and Jenson hammer in the strain without subtlety. But since the journey is more important than the destination and leitmotifs travel best if conveyed by entertaining carriers, how well do they succeed in putting on a show?

The answer is mixed. Like Chicken Run (also distributed by DreamWorks), Shrek is wicked, clever and funny, conveying the feeling that this movie has been made by human beings and not by machines. But something about Peter Lord and Nick Park's year 2000 creation hit home in a more trenchant way. I suppose the opening scene, comparing the chicken coop to a Hitlerian concentration camp with poultry faced with certain death, gave that animated work its bite. Chicken Run is penetrating. Despite its motif, Shrek is by contrast still a fairy tale removed from human drama, its characters, despite their sabotage of Grimm philosophy of beauty, always remote creations of another world.

That said, Shrek has quite a bit going for it, particularly the perpetually amusing and sometimes even hilarious lines for the Donkey, provided with crackerjack delivery by Eddie Murphy. The Donkey, a Sancho Panza to Shrek's Don Quixote, is not a stubborn creature at all. In fact he's a friendly beast with expressive eyebrows and a Cairn terrier's desire to please. Because he is a lonely animal, he immediately bonds with Shrek, an outwardly ugly green ogre who knows enough about the world to realize that he has little chance to bond with any of the world's fairy tale creations.

With a delightful Scottish accent provided by Mike Myers, this fluffy and horn-eared beast has none of the confidence of Austin Powers, though his inventiveness is intriguing. When he needs light for his hermit's cave, he simply plunges a long finger into his ear and extracts sufficient wax to produce a candle for his grotto. And he has impressive strength. When the height-challenged Lord Farquar (John Lithgrow) sends an army of knights to rid his feifdom of what all consider a disagreeable demon, Shrek dispatches the with the energy of Ang Lee's Yu Shu Lien. When Farqaad sees that Shrek can gain for him the hand of an imprisoned princess (Cameron Diaz), with whom a marriage would realize the lord's ambition to become the king, he dispatches the ogre to the palace to free the lovely woman with a twenty-first century urban sensibility. No one suspects that the princess has a secret fear of sunset that makes her more vulnerable than Cinderella at midnight.

Shrek is fun but a film which despite its subversive theme will not necessarily snatch the enthusiasm of the young, who are too well accustomed to the fabulist types portrayed in imposing computer generated graphics. Nor is there much here that could gratify the adults who are taken in hand by their tots and who have the right to expect more grown-up double entendres than the exclamation by the Donkey that Farquaad's lavish castle must be compensating for his tiny (word blocked out). Given the team of actors engaged successfully in the surprisingly difficult job of doing voiceovers, Shrek would have been better with a more vigorous script. As it stands, it falls short of its tagline, "The greatest fairy tale never told."

Rated PG. Running time: 90 minutes.

Review (C) 2001, Harvey Karten (republished with permission)

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