An ogre, by definition, is an ugly, man-eating giant. It’s a testament to the clever bait-and-switch strategy of this new animation feature from DreamWorks that its titular hero would hardly bite, let alone eat, anyone. But then Shrek is an ogre only by name; he’s more of a likable lug whose aggression is a defensive posture and whose desire for solitude comes from not wanting to get his feelings hurt. As voiced by Mike Myers, with a toned-down version of the Scottish burr he used for Austin Powers’ Fat Bastard, Shrek’s moments of irritation are more likely to come in the form of sighs than growls. He’s a threat to no one and just wants to lull in the peaceable remove of his swampy home.
That may sound like a concept with a high saccharin quotient, but this is a very canny film when it comes to cloaking its soft heart, starting with an opening scene where Shrek is using the pages of a conventional, sappy fairy tale book for toilet paper. Nowadays even the kids, presumably, are too sophisticated (or prematurely burnt-out) to go for that old true-love, happily-ever-after jazz — though, of course, that’s exactly where this story’s headed and you pretty much know it all along.
Shrek’s lonely contentment is disturbed when the dastardly and vertically challenged Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow, a master of satirical high dudgeon) decides to purge his kingdom of all its bothersome fairy tale and cartoon creatures and have them resettled in the ogre’s swamp. Finding his precious retreat suddenly infested with dwarfs and princesses and all manner of talking animals, Shrek heads for Farquaad’s castle to protest, accompanied by a loquacious donkey (Eddie Murphy, giving his most ingratiating performance since he starting making movies) who sees through the ogre’s bully act and wants to be his pal. Farquaad is willing to cut a deal — if Shrek can rescue the Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz, suitably feisty) from her dragon-guarded mountain castle and bring her back for Farquaad to wed, he’ll divest the swamp of its cutesy refugees. And so the quest begins.
Shrek has an amusing patina of postmodern self-awareness, starting with multiple kiddie-canon cameos from the likes of Snow White and the Gingerbread Man (whom Farquaad submits to torture by milk) and continuing with pop-culture references (“The Dating Game” is particularly well-used). It has a slew of appropriate pop songs, including one written by Leonard Cohen and sung by John Cale, which has to be some sort of hip mainstream cartoon landmark. The animation, with its dimensional verisimilitude, is beguiling and the whole package ends with a noncloying dash of uplift. And if it’s all as light as the lightest feather, still one would have to be seriously curdled not to respond to its good intentions.
Visit the official Shrek Web site at www.shrek.com.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].