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Directed by Andrew Adamson, Vicky Jenson 
Starring Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, John Lithgow, Vincent Cassel, Peter Dennis, Jim Cummings, Chris Miller, Kathleen Freeman, Jacquie Barnbrook, Guillaume Aretos, Matthew Gonder, Calvin Remsberg, Jean-Paul Vignon, Val Bettin

When my friend Garth was younger, he thought that buying music advertised on television was a fantastic deal. Where else could you get 40 great songs on one CD, all for $11.99? But then his purchase would come, and "Jailhouse Rock" would be sung by some washed-up country-western singer and "My Girl" would be performed by a barbershop quartet from Omaha. Yes, they might have been "all the original songs," but they certainly weren't "by the original artists."

The new movie Shrek is somewhat reminiscent of those old K-tel compilations. It has a lot of the elements of a classic animated fairy tale, but something important's missing--something original, that touch of the old Disney magic.

Shrek is about a large, green ogre named Shrek who wants to be left alone. One day, however, Lord Farquaad, the ruler of the land, dumps a whole bunch of creatures in his swamp. The creatures are "fairy tale weirdoes" that Farquaad thinks are lowering his property values. Shrek goes to the lord to complain, but Farquaad says Shrek can have his swamp back only if he rescues the fair Princess Fiona who's being held hostage by an enormous dragon. Shrek along with his annoying donkey sidekick set out on their mission. Along the way, love nips both of our protagonists, each in a surprising way.

It's a standard animated fairy tale combination--adventure with a splash of romance and a hint of a moral. The moral here is somewhat of an inversion of the Ugly Duckling story, but I won't ruin it for you.

Nonetheless, Shrek has trouble bringing the old formula to life. It's not that the filmmakers don't try to appropriate some of that Disney pixie dust. They shamelessly steal characters from animated films of yore: Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Tinker Bell. They lift music and characters from The Princess Bride. They borrow dialogue from Babe.

In a style reminiscent of another animated classic (The Simpsons), Shrek is a postmodern pastiche, full of allusions to other movies or products (the WWF gets a full scene of its infamous wrestling moves). Sometimes, the jokes work--there was something delightful about watching the Three Bears dance or a scene with a Gingerbread Man being interrogated on a cookie sheet. Often, though, the references are just meant to flatter the
audience. Ha ha, I recognize that character. Ho ho, I catch which movie that comes from. For the kiddies, there's the holy trinity of farting, burping, and bad breath. Even Princess Fiona enjoys a good belch.

One of the problems with making so many references to other movies is that often Shrek looks feeble in comparison. The best example is the dragon, whom we first see only as an enormous red eye. I immediately thought of the extraordinary creature from Sleeping Beauty and wondered if contemporary animation effects might give us something even more impressive. Hardly. Instead, when the full dragon is revealed, it looks annoyingly like an action figure from a happy meal.

I suspect that directors Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson would argue that that's intentional, even an inside joke. But irony and allusions are poor substitutes for beauty and emotion. The Princess Bride and Toy Story had healthy doses of irony and references to other tales, but they were also full of heart-felt emotion and an obvious love for the genre. They had a grace about them that satisfied both adults and children. Shrek is stuck
with Mike Myers (Austin Powers) doing a mediocre Scottish brogue and EddieMurphy (Nutty Professor) doing his usual schtick.

Maybe I'm being too hard on the film, though, as it does have some nice moments. The computer animation is state of the art. The backgrounds and sets, in particular, are spectacularly beautiful, reminding me of the lush
painting-like backgrounds in Phantom Menace. The animation of the human characters isn't quite up to that level, but it has a nice children's-book quality about it. And kudos to the team of animators who designed Fiona's
green dress.

The movie is also paced well. Scenes rarely overstay their welcome, and the slow parts are never too slow. Shrek also has a nice message about beauty that doesn't feel cloying or patronizing. And instead of irritating easy listening songs by the likes of Elton John or Phil Collins, the music is largely upbeat. I mean, any movie that can structure an effective montage sequence around Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" deserves some applause. Too
bad it's not Leonard Cohen singing. 

 J. Robert Parks  5/21/2001

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