Summary: A fun, clever, doubly-subversive animated fairy tale.
Review: I’m not a fan of the majority of DreamWorks Animation. They tend to rely on pop culture familiarity, some adult humor, and a lack of strong, intelligent themes & plots. I haven’t seen all of them — I’m willing to watch more in the hope of proving myself wrong — but the second major CGI film they produced, ‘Shrek’, remains my favorite thus far.
The film seems to have uneven tone at first glance, bobbing and weaving between a fairly adult, cynical and subversive story, and a message movie that is universally appealing, hopeful, and traditional of western cultures. The titular protagonist perfectly embodies this narrative conflict (calling himself “an onion with layers”), which is what we call a smart move. In the opening, he literally wipes himself with a page from an archetypical fairy story, but by the end he embraces it wholeheartedly. This isn’t a standard subversion of fairy tales. It is a subversion of subversions of fairy tales. The main theme is appearances, accompanying assumptions, and the damage jumping to conclusions does to everyone… which is why the apparently wobbly tone is actually an integral part of the film. It’s kind of interesting, actually, because the film’s ability to keep the audience on its toes is also shared by Disney’s 2003 film ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, which was also co-written by Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio. Hmm.
But perhaps the weakest part of ‘Shrek’ is the mild vulgar and sexual humor, which, even in this intentional blender of a film, seems mostly out of place. This is not because it’s an animated movie, but because it fails to gel completely. This seems indicative of a broader problem with DreamWorks Animation, that is the assumption that animation is a children’s medium, and that for adults to enjoy an animated movie, there must be anachronistic cultural references and humor that adults supposedly like. Ironically, it just makes Shrek unfortunately more juvenile and restricts the potential audience somewhat. Contrast this with Pixar, which for the most part has focused on making damn good movies that rely on the appeal of their usually strong premises and are thick with fantastic characters the spawn more of their own memes than they reference others. This is because Pixar understands that animation is a tool, not a genre, and that people are attracted to stories that stand on their own.
The most engaging aspect, the hook, of ‘Shrek’ is the great chemistry that Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy and John Lithgow have with each other. In the hands of lesser voice actors, the story might have failed. The most enduring humor, in my opinion, comes from their interactions.
‘Shrek’ is essentially ‘The Princess Bride’ for my generation, but I don’t believe it will, in twenty years, be nearly as enduring at that movie.