directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson with Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, and John Lithgow
opens May 18 at Majestic Bay, Metro, Pacific Place, and other theaters
THE CRYING GAME has nicely prepared parents waiting to take their kids to this summer's first big animated feature. "Don't give away the secret!" might go the promotional campaign for Shrek, a very P.C. fairy tale based on the 1990 children's book by William Steig. Certainly Shrek's plot relies on all the bedtime reading conventions so beloved by parents and children. There's a beautiful princess locked in a castle, guarded by a dragon; there's a villain who seeks to marry her; there's a brave, chivalrous hero who must free the damsel in question. Familiar stuff, right?
Yes and no. We recognize the voices emanating from the computer-generated animated characters: Cameron Diaz as Princess Fiona; John Lithgow as dastardly, height-challenged Lord Farquaad; Eddie Murphy as the Sancho Panza-like talking donkey who latches onto our hero— himself a crass green ogre (Mike Myers) fond of slime baths and flatulence. Something different is at work in Shrek, and it's not just the CGI texture of the drawings. As traditional, corny, but crowd-pleasing fare like The Lion King and The Little Mermaid fades into (short) childhood memory, Shrek is trying to goose the predictable old 'toon formulas.
Resolutely impolite, uncouth Shrek is the lumpy, funnel-eared embodiment of this flick's calculated contrariness. A misanthropic loner who lives in swamp, he's roused to his princess-rescuing quest only after his idyll is interrupted by Lord Farquaad. Refugees from a dozen famous cartoons are ominously if amusingly interned in Shrek's domain (supply your own Holocaust/ethnic cleansing parallel here). Farquaad despises "fairy-tale trash polluting my perfect world," sounding both like an old-school fascist and fitness club body Nazi.
THE KEY WORD here is "perfection," which weighs heavily upon both Fiona and Shrek. The latter, of course, is only grouchy to mask hurt feelings. "They judge me before they even know me," he laments. In this way he's a stand-in for the countless picked-on kids—too fat, nearsighted, ungainly, uncool—on so many merciless playgrounds. Fiona's got issues of her own (notwithstanding her Lara Croft-like body), while Murphy's obstinately cheerful ass will befriend anyone (any ogre?) of any appearance. (Is the once-raunchy comedian, also starring in June's Dr. Doolittle sequel, going to spend the rest of his career speaking to and for animals?)
Shrek's accept-yourself sermonizing will probably work best with preteens not yet possessed of that filtering device known as cynicism. Adolescents may laugh—but not enough to appear dorky. Parents will find plenty to enjoy in references to Star Wars, Ben-Hur, and even The Matrix. The movie can't match the Toy Story series for sheer wit and inventiveness, partly because it's overburdened with its message, but mainly because CG animation still can't render living subjects without looking, well, downright creepy. (Toy Story also had that problem with dogs and humans.) Hence, Shrek's green hide is far more convincing than Fiona's fair skin, while the donkey's fur appears uncanny. Background scenes, like a field of swaying sunflowers or a fiery castle, are quite lovely, which Shrek contrasts with Farquaad's soulless, Albert Speer- like office park.
Still, it's story, not style, that matters most for younger viewers. Boys will love Shrek's benign gross-out behavior (which Fiona comes to tolerate). Girls are really the movie's intended audience, however, and Shrek's ultimate success or failure depends on their reaction to its central transformation. Shape-changing is a staple of fairy tales and myth, but Shrek tampers with an established trope at its own risk. "It's destiny—you must know how it goes," says romantically minded Fiona, puckering up for her life-altering kiss. When that smooch finally comes, one can only wonder if a thousand upturned girls' faces will be mouthing "Eeew!" or "Aaah!" in response—and, in the inevitable merchandising to follow, which doll they'll prefer.