Once upon a time in a bracken swamp there lived an ogre who just wanted to be left alone. Then along came Madison Avenue, which wanted to put him into a kid’s meal with a soda and a side of fries.
Co-directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jensen, “Shrek” is equal parts buddy flick, screwball romance and action adventure film. Mike Myers provides the voice for the title character, a reclusive green ogre that bathes in cesspools, drinks eyeball martinis and fashions tapers with his earwax. His hatred for the outside world becomes clear when the villainous Lord Farquaad (voice by John Lithgow) claims emminent domain on his swamp and invades it – converting it into an internment camp for all fairytale characters.
With a “little man” complex and a yellow streak wider than Jack Sprat’s wife, Farquaard wishes to form the perfect kingdom for humans. To do so, he relocates the more magical inhabitants of his realm and must wed Princess Fiona (voice by Cameron Diaz) who is sequestered in the uppermost tower of a dragon’s keep. Shrek agrees to rescue Farquaad’s Princess in exchange for the return of his swamp and sets upon the quest with the help of a wise-ass donkey, voiced by Eddie Murphy.
Shrek’s quest to regain his swamp becomes a soul-searching tale of prejudice and positive self-image. As boring as that sounds, this film is intelligent and witty. It spoofs everything from the Gingerbread Man to the Three Bears of Goldilocks fame – and flips them upside-down via new interpretations that integrate current pop culture references and music (the soundtrack includes Smash Mouth and Joan Jett). Much of “Shrek”‘s content intentionally pokes fun at Disney versions of these tales, which in itself is comical, but inherits a different edge when taken in conjunction with an understanding of Jeffrey Katzenberg’s – the K in Dream Works SKG – history with the Disney empire. Farquaard’s kingdom is an immaculate, fully automated souvenir-shopped castle that trades in a turnstile for a portcullis and provides signs for horse-cart owners so that they know “You Are Parked In Lancelot.”
“Shrek” is a visually stunning testament to new technologies in the digital animation field. Brought to you by the creative minds at PDI/Dream Works (“Antz”), “Shrek” sets new benchmarks for visual effects. And though that benchmark will last only a few minutes in the environment of instantaneous one-upmanship, we should savor the moment. The Princess’ green velvet dress moves, wrinkles and reflects light flawlessly. Layers of skin move over flesh and bone to create complex facial expressions.
Not since Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” has a production had more fun turning the tables on fables. There is some language and violence, hence the PG rating. Though “Shrek” has its fair share of toilet jokes, most of the comedy is sophisticated. The Charmin violence is squeezably soft and lemon-scented.
My question is, “Do You Know the Muffin Man?” Even if you don’t, even if you were one of those poor unfortunate souls who never found out who the dish ran away with, “Shrek” may be the perfect starting point from which to work back and construct a happy childhood.