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'Shrek' Is a Fractured Fairy Tale
With Its Heart Firmly in Place

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 18, 2001


    'Shrek' Romance is in the air for Princess Fiona and Shrek in the hilarious and heartwarming "Shrek." (DreamWorks SKG)
My goodness, they have discovered something new in "Shrek."

It's wondrous, it's fabulous, it's – by the standards of these times – all but unprecedented.

Computer-generated imagery? Nah. Old hat. Who cares?

I'm talking about . . . story.

For the movie, despite all its high-tech weirdness, is really that most perdurable of human constructions, a tale told well and true, one that carries you along and prods you to laugh and squeal and jump and dance, all of which fit under the general category of Making You Care.

That it transpires in the odd universe of computer-generated imagery, stuck at the uncomfortable halfway point between the bulky solidity of the actual and the gossamer weightlessness of the drawn, is of almost no import, once you get used to it. It shows you don't have to look real to be real.

Shrek, our hero, who was invented by William Steig in a children's book, seems to be a cross between Ernest Borgnine and the Incredible Hulk. He's large and green and gruff and tough, except that his ears are belled like clown horns. He's an ogre. He's gross, smelly, crude and filthy, and those are his good points. He's not quite a bad ogre, true, but he wants what most middle-aged grumps want: to be left alone with his martooni glass full to the brim when he puts up his feet at the end of the day. Sounds like a certain film critic I know.

In any event, Shrek has pretty much accepted his life, and now and then swats away the annoying importunings of lesser creatures who seek to share his swamp. He knows and accepts that existence is hard and lonely. He just hasn't figured out the following: He's in a fairy tale, and he's the hero.

The setting is some glade-filled, meadow-dappled, vividly re-imagined medieval world, except that it's been re-imagined from the standpoint of a later age – our own. Most of the other creatures gamboling about are refugees from the classic Disney canon. Why, there's Snow W. (she's a cold one) and there's Pete Pan (what a twerp) and there's Tink (get a life, honey) and that nasty, snarling hair-pie over there would be Mr. B.B. Wolf. Hmm, are the fellows from DreamWorks, whose movie "Shrek" is and many of whom are ex-Disney execs, having some sport at the expense of their former employers? And is the evil Lord Farquaad's castle a monolithic high-rise-like office tower as a comment on the rigid hierarchy and bureaucracy of the Disney operation? I wouldn't want to say, but you might draw your own conclusions.

That tiny lord (voiced in highly unctuous aristo snit by the fabulous John Lithgow) has decreed a roundup of all the fairy tale creatures. He wants a perfect kingdom, and these little urchins are in the way. To get intelligence on them, he even tortures the Gingerbread Man!

All the escapees from this fairy tale final solution flee to the swamp of Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers behind a Scottish burr), who goes 7 feet 8 and 530 and would make a pretty good offensive tackle for the Redskins. (Marty, are you listening?) The big green guy is annoyed at their presence and particularly upset by his new self-decreed sidekick, a donkey (Eddie Murphy's voice, in a much better performance than Eddie Murphy's whole person has given in a long time).

So Shrek and the donkey go to the castle to see what's what. What's what is perfection: The tiny Lord Farquaad is clearly anal-retentive, which may again be DreamWorks' commentary on the Disney amusement park fetish, which appears so quaint but is a spotless fiefdom of utter rigidity. Shrek wanders in during a tournament to pick the best man in the kingdom to go rescue a princess held captive by a dragon, so that the lord may marry her and become the king, his true ambition. (See, in L.A., it's always about career.) It turns out, several squished knights later, that Shrek is the best man in the Kingdom. Shrek goes, not out of love or duty but, like any true mercenary, for stuff: He will get the deed to his wonderful swamp.

Just that quickly, we find ourselves in familiarly mythic territory: the quest, whether for grail or, as in this case, frail (except the princess isn't so frail; she knows kung fu). Reluctant Shrek and his donkey buddy find themselves trekking the wasteland, navigating a dangerous bridge over a lake of lava, and ultimately facing off with a giant fire-breathing dragon while the lissome royal lass (Cameron Diaz's voice behind a computer-engineered presence that is – excuse me, kids – kind of hot) shudders in the upstairs bedroom of the castle awaiting her rescuer, not realizing that he'll be seven feet tall and green and that – this is truly unbelievable – she will actually like him.

The directors, Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, working with a staff of 275, have an exceedingly refined sense of kinesthetics. When the action gears up in "Shrek," it really thunders. The escape – Shrek and the princess navigating the old castle's snaky corridors while a rather large flamethrower with wings and scales attempts to fricassee them into beef tips – has a percussive rhythm that gooses your own adrenal glands until they're emptying into your bloodstream. But they're witty, too, in a light way, as when, in one sequence, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty get into a slap fight over a tossed wedding bouquet.

This is a reflection of the movie's perpetual sense of doubleness. Those still innocent of postmodernism – say, under the age of 2 – will simply see a rousing story of heroism and resourcefulness. All others will see a whole panoply of meanings, from the twitting of Disney to an examination of body image and self-love as it afflicts the modern psyche. Of the two possibilities, I think the film is better seen through a child's eyes, lightly; it's so much pure fun as fairy tale that the fact that it's fractured and ironic comes in the end to mean much less than the fact that it's a tale.

And also: The last few minutes are pure treat. After the happily-ever-after part, we get a quick account of a concert in DreamWorks land, as all the fairy tale critters do the frug and the go-go and the Freddy to "I'm a Believer." It even made me a believer. That fat bald guy doing the Watusi in the aisle? C'est moi.

"Shrek" (84 minutes) is rated PG for some intense scenes and potty humor.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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