Friday, February 08, 2013

Shrek (2001)

USA, 90 minutes
Directors: Andrew Adamson, Vicky Jenson
Writers: William Steig, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Joe Stillman, Roger S.H. Schulman, Cody Cameron, Chris Miller, Conrad Vernon
Production design: James Hegedus
Art direction: Guillaume Aretos, Douglas Rogers
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams, John Powell
Editor: Sim Evan-Jones
Cast/voices of: Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, John Lithgow, Vincent Cassel

What surprised me most about a revisit to Shrek is how dated it has become. (Full disclosure: though I saw Shrek when it was new, I have not since taken advantage of any of the offerings of the subsequent franchise, which include three sequels, five video games, various TV spinoffs, a comic book, and a Broadway musical.) I say this also acknowledging that many of its strengths are still there: taking a page out of The Princess Bride, it's as smart and knowing as ever about its sources, operates at both adult and kid levels, and tells its story with clarity, uncluttered by distraction. It's just complex enough to be interesting, it never cheats, and it is witty more often than gross (and even when it is gross, it is tame by today's standards).

One of the most obvious ways Shrek shows its age is also the one to be expected, which is the state of the art of the animation. I recall that the CGI here was considered one of its strong points on release, but now it just looks 12 years old—12 years that encompass a whole lot of innovation and development in the industry. Though it was conceived at one point in 3D, Shrek now seems to present-day animation somewhat as Hanna-Barbera of '70s TV was to it. But I don't make the finest distinctions among animation. The dated qualities of the Shrek CGI were enough for me to notice, but not enough to annoy. I would call Jay Ward one of my favorite animators and he's nothing if not primitive, so partly that's a matter of my own aesthetic. But another quality that dates Shrek is a bit more of an obstacle for me.

That's the music, which seems to me so wrong as to be painful, cringe-inducing in its own right. It's mired in late-'90s alt-rock cliché, which is already conceptually jarring even as texture here but made even more so when one gets down to specifics: two songs by Smash Mouth, including one, "All Star," that serves as theme, plus the Eels, Joan Jett (on her third or fourth rise), Self. They're all here. There's even John Cale warbling out a cover of a Leonard Cohen song, "Hallelujah," which I admit I was mighty happy to hear, but it was still a distraction from the picture.

Babe and The Matrix (of course) get referenced here. Cameron Diaz voices Princess Fiona. I don't have anything against Diaz, but she's by and large way overmatched, cast I suspect as much as anything because she was an "it" girl of the moment, riding high from turns in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, There's Something About Mary, Being John Malkovich (remarkably drabbed down), and Charlie's Angels. To me, she is another aspect of Shrek that seems stuck back there, a little overrated perhaps and certainly has not worn so well.

But the voice casting otherwise is actually one of the picture's great features. John Lithgow is fine swallowing the microphone as the big-chinned but fatally short Lord Farquaad. Mike Myers is great as Shrek, the big ugly green ogre with a Scottish accent who must rescue a princess in order to win back the privacy of his swamp that he craves. But Eddie Murphy as Donkey is the star of this show, slipping easily into all manner of shtick in his familiar stand-up style. He has rarely been in better form, reliably injecting laughs all the way through. Only one example: a discussion between Shrek and Donkey about the inner nature of ogres. Shrek says it is layered like an onion. This causes Donkey to go off on a long riff about parfaits. "You know, not everybody likes onions," he says. "Parfait's gotta be the most delicious thing on the whole damn planet."

Shrek is also a great parody of Disney features—it comes of a great love of them, which I can see better now, having finally relaxed my own personal ban on all things Disney, put in effect for a shifting constellation of reasons since about the age of 11. Shrek is programmatically the inversion of Disney, its heroes an ugly ogre, an ass, and a princess who (depending as always on the beholder) mysteriously shuttles between "beautiful" and "ugly," and with explicit references to the 1991 Beauty and the Beast, Peter Pan, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The Snow White lift is notably good at turning tables. Princess Fiona, up early in the morning, finds a bluebird and sings to it, finally hitting a note that explodes the bird so she can steal the eggs.

There's more of that too. It really is pretty funny all the way through. The fairy tale narrative arc is ultimately very satisfying, ending on a big showy finish with a Monkees cover by Smash Mouth, "I'm a Believer." Bad music again, I know, yes, cringe cringe. But on the whole the movie works so that such things become forgivable.

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