It’s not everyday we get a hero that looks like something I blew out my nose. Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz and Academy Award nominees Eddie Murphy and John Lithgow lend their voices to Shrek.
Director – Andrew Adamson & Vicky Jenson
Screenplay – Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Joe Stillman & Roger S. H. Schulman
Based on the book Shrek! by William Steig
Producer – Aron Warner, John H. Williams & Jeffrey Katzenberg
Rated PG for mild language and some crude humor
Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) is an irritable, terrifying green ogre whose solitude in the swamp is interrupted when many fairytale creatures are exiled by order of Lord Farquaad (voiced by John Lithgow). Shrek, wanting his peace and quiet back, tells the creatures he’ll ask Farquaad to rescind the order, and takes a talking donkey (voiced by Eddie Murphy) with him to help.
Upon arriving at the castle, Shrek and Donkey cut a deal with Farquaad to get the creatures’ land back by rescuing Princess Fiona (voiced by Cameron Diaz), who Farquaad has chosen to marry so he can become king in order to enact his dastardly plans.
Founded by Steven Spielberg and former Disney Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, DreamWorks Animation began in 1994, releasing their first film four years later, Antz. Although films like Antz and Chicken Run were great examples of what DreamWorks was capable of, lackluster films like The Prince of Egypt and The Road to Eldorado held them back from being able to keep up with Pixar, the animation giant at the time (and Disney’s saving grace from all the ho-hum animated efforts they kept churning out in between The Lion King and Wreck-It Ralph). Although nowhere as consistent as Pixar, Shrek, released in 2001 (after being stuck in development for years), finally showed that DreamWorks could compete with them, winning the first ever Oscar for Best Animated Feature over Pixar’s Monsters, Inc.
Then Shark Tale came out and just crapped all over that thought.
Often compared to The Princess Bride, Shrek manages to both embrace and defy its fairytale conventions, pleasing audiences of all ages with a mix of sly adult humor (some of it will fly over your little ones’ heads, but it’s nothing that’s too much for them) and lively characters. Directors Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, along with their team of writers, have created something irreverently entertaining, poking jabs at their Disney competitors (the Magic Mirror here says about Snow White, “Although she lives with seven men, she ain’t easy!”) without being mean-spirited. In fact, co-producer Jeffrey Katzenberg, who had a not so clean break from Disney years prior to this, could’ve turned Shrek into a 90-minute Disney roast, but instead finds a way to spare no one from a ribbing (everyone from the Big Bad Wolf, Three Little Pigs, Pinocchio, Cinderella, Disney World and “It’s a Small World After All” is riffed on) without it coming off as some grudge-fueled vendetta.
Following after what Pixar did with Toy Story, DreamWorks raised the animation bar an extra step with this film. The detail in these characters and the world around them are amazing, and even today, despite the bar still being raised with films like Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen and fellow DreamWorks alum How to Train Your Dragon, the animation here still holds up as a visually impressive experience.
The title character of Shrek was originally intended for the late Chris Farley, who recorded roughly 80% of the lines before his death in December of ’97. We can only imagine how different this film would’ve been, or whether Farley would’ve been the right fit or not (I assume had it have been a success, his sagging film career would’ve gotten a much needed boost). However, you can’t deny that Mike Myers, who was brought in to replace his former SNL co-star, and what he brought to the character of Shrek is a large part of why this film is as charming, in its own off-beat way, as it is.
Working with a Scottish brogue much similar to his Fat Bastard character from the Austin Powers series, Myers brings something immensely likable and sympathetic to the brutish ogre. Shrek is initially irritable, wanting nothing to do with anyone else, but we soon realize it’s not ’cause he’s a monster. He lives alone out of a feeling of inferiority brought on from others thinking of him as the monster he really isn’t. It’s the usual feel-good message for the kiddies that’s par for the course with animated features, but it’s not head-beating overbearing, and Myers makes it so hard not to like Shrek, you just won’t care either way.
Equally game is the rest of the supporting cast. Scene-stealer Eddie Murphy is perfectly cast as the wisecracking donkey. Knowing Murphy, he could’ve become very annoying very fast, but he knows when to go full-throttle and when to hold back just a bit here. John Lithgow is sinisterly smug and delightfully nasty (he has a hilarious interrogation with the Gingerbread Man), and Cameron Diaz brings the usual sweetness to the fairytale damsel in distress, while also giving her an ass-kicking edge at times. There’s also a romantic element between Princess Fiona and Shrek (it’s no surprise that the two end up falling in love with each other) that’s genuinely sweet and contains a few pleasant surprises along the way that add a little something to their bond. If you haven’t seen the film, you’ll know what I mean when you finally do.
Quirky and irreverent yet irresistibly charming, Shrek still remains, alongside Chicken Run, the finest animated film out of DreamWorks Animation. The CGI animation is first-rate and there are plenty of laughs for both the young and old. That said, I can’t imagine this film working as effectively as it does if not for the perfectly matched voice work from Murphy, Lithgow, Diaz and especially Myers, all of whom provide the laughs and heart that have made this such an enduring animated film.