"Shrek's" title character is a brusque, uncouth, Scottish-brogued Ogre (Mike Myers) who wants nothing more than to live quietly in his isolated swamp, unmolested by the world outside. Unfortunately, the diminutive Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow) has other plans, evicting every imaginable fairytale creature from the surrounding forest and depositing them on Shrek's doorstep. Among these is a talkative donkey, known simply as "Donkey" (Eddie Murphy), who makes Shrek his personal buddy project, whether Shrek likes it or not.
The easily annoyed Shrek wastes no time in confronting Farquaad himself, demanding that the squatters be cleared off and his swamp returned to its unsavory tranquility. But the scheming Farquaad has other plans, offering Shrek a deal. If he and Donkey can recover the fair Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) from the castle where a dragon has imprisoned her, and deliver her for Farquaad to marry, Shrek may have his swamp back.
The ensuing odyssey, of course, is anything but a conventional fairytale quest. Layered between the jabs at Disney are a host of other pop culture references, nearly all of which emerge at the most unexpected moments and with as little restraint as possible. Precedent and timing both seem to be on "Shrek's" side, too. Like the live action pictures "A Knight's Tale" and "Moulin Rouge," between whose release dates the DreamWorks film is sandwiched, "Shrek" takes an irreverent approach to a revered genre, liberally lacing its soundtrack with contemporary rock tunes and campy in-jokes. At the same time, "Shrek" feels oddly familiar, occasionally evoking shades of television's "Fractured Fairy Tales" and Rob Reiner's "The Princess Bride."
Precisely how mainstream family audiences will respond to "Shrek" is a dicier question. Many are sure to find the film a bit too uncouth in its preoccupation with bodily functions and sexual suggestiveness while others will heartily embrace the shattering of decades-old animation taboos with respect to subject matter and character behavior. Whatever the wider reaction, fans and detractors alike should both find much to admire in "Shrek's" skillful thematic balancing act as it manages to poke fun at a genre while exploiting that genre's conventions for its own purposes. In the end, "Shrek" is just as warm and fuzzy as any of the Disney films that it mocks, playing both sides of the fence without necessarily tearing the fence down.
Like "Antz," "Shrek" is a co-production between DreamWorks and computer animation house PDI, a rival pairing to that between Disney and Pixar which produced the two "Toy Story" films and "A Bug's Life." PDI's technical sophistication has long been viewed as a step or two behind that of Pixar, an assessment that "Shrek" bears out with animation which, while undeniably accomplished, still lacks the fluidity of motion for which the Disney-Pixar films are so renowned. At the same time, DreamWorks and PDI have evolved far beyond their "Antz" work with an attention to character and background detail which, in some ways, exceeds Pixar's.
While such technical sophistication is important, it is by no means the determining factor in the success of computer animated films. Of more crucial importance is the quality of the voice casting, and it is in that area where "Shrek" scores its most resounding triumph. Voicing the Ogre with his popular Scotsman accent, Mike Myers (stepping in for the late Chris Farley) is able to both humanize and soften the character in ways not immediately evident in the writing. Cameron Diaz' unorthodox take on a post-feminist fairytale princess is likewise accomplished, endearing yet amusing without feeling cloying or manipulative. It's Eddie Murphy's Donkey, however, that steals the show as an uproarious, jabber-jawed comic foil who gives new meaning to the term "wiseass" with a never-ending stream of one-liners that promise to be among the season's most memorable. Voiced by Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, John Lithgow and Vincent Cassel. Directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson. Written by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and Joe Stillman and Roger S.H. Schulman. Produced by Aron Warner, John H. Williams and Jeffrey Katzenberg. A DreamWorks release. Animated. Rated PG for mild language and some crude humor. Running time: ??? min