My Sight & Sound review …
The back-and-forth one-upmanship between Disney/Pixar and PDI/DreamWorks continues in Shrek. Two years ago, the rivals played scissors-paper-stone and both came out with insect-themed computer animations, Antz and A Bug’s Life; now, as if to pay back the swipes at Dreamworks’ The Road to El Dorado in Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove, the Jeffrey Katzenberg-backed PDI have delivered a movie that escalates the conflict by including incidental digs at most of the sacred cows of the Disney backlist, with humiliating cameos for the Seven Dwarfs, the Snow White magic mirror, Pinocchio, Cinderella and Robin Hood. Based on a children’s book by William Steig, Shrek is a film of marvels if not quite a marvellous film. It adopts a crowded, gag-filled, approach akin to that of Pixar’s Toy Story films to tell a simple story that has room for as many incidentals as a page of a vintage Mad Magzine movie satire. Though it has a lovely vintage illustration look, with a sylvan swamp and a wonderfully grotesque castle, it sets itself against classicism from the first, as Shrek wipes his arse on a page from a fairytale and hauls in specially-adapted versions by an outfit called Smash Mouth of songs ranging from Greg Camp’s ‘All Star’ to the Monkees’ ‘I’m a Believer’ to sustain raucous musical numbers and stages fights as parodies of WWF wrestling or Bruckheimer-Simpson-style action.
Like Antz, Shrek hauls in celebrity casting and has characters whose looks are shaped by their voices. While the aggressive but mournful Shrek is an appealing character, it is initially offputting that Mike Myers has given him the voice of the Myers creation one least wanted to hear ever again, the Scots slob Fat Bastard from Austin Powers – The Spy Who Shagged Me, and though Eddie Murphy delivers some inspired schtick as the Donkey it’s very much his usual act (as already heard over at Disney in Mulan). After a reel or so, Myers and Murphy do differentiate these vocal charactisations from their previous efforts, and the expected sentimental streak does play effectively as Shrek and Fiona move towards a romance and the Donkey stops fending off the ridiculously lovelorn Dragon. With its constant stream of fairytale-related gags (Shrek’s instruction to the Seven Dwarfs as they invade his home is ‘get the dead chick off the table!’) and routines (the magic mirror offers Farquaad a Blind Date-style run-down of available princesses), Shrek covers a great deal of ground, from the charmingly goofy to the vicious. A torture dungeon scene riffs on nursery rhymes as Farquaad tries to get information out of a gingerbread man by dipping his limbs in milk until they drop off only to be distracted by old, old questions (‘do you know the muffin man?’) and the nasty edge is filed away at the climax as the gingerbread man shows up, limping on a candy cane, to see the villain get his deserved come-uppance. It’s a mark of the care taken by directors Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, or perhaps of the lesson learned from the populated playroom in Toy Story, that the many walk-on characters like the gingerbread man and the hooded toady-cum-torturer seem as substantial as the leads.
Conoisseurs of CGI will note significant advances in the form, with wonderfully textured grass, flame, velvet (Fiona’s dress is a triumph) and water, and a couple of moments you’re in danger of taking for granted until you ponder how difficult they are to obtain in any kidn of animation (like extreme slow motion, in a parody of an action movie run-away-from-an-explosion). Strangely, the move towards nearly photo-realistic human (Farquaad, Fiona, Monsieur Hood) and animal (Donkey) characters that seems to be taking the medium closer to an apotheosis that will mean an end to films like this. If CGI can create exact mimesis, then there won’t be any special need for its use as a replacement for traditional animation when its major application will be in making movies that seem as ‘real’ as any other.
Shrek 2 (2004)
Just about what you’d expect from a sequel to Shrek – the CG animation techniques have advanced so far in the interim that the first film seems like a scratch-pad next to it (a brief bit of live action for a Pinocchio ‘real boy’ joke risks muffing the gag because it doesn’t look different enough from the animation), with an amazing amount of photo-realist detail (a lot more worthwhile in realising green-skinned and lump-bodied ogres than it does with human beings, who can – of course – be filmed much easier without all the RAM usage). What hasn’t progressed is the story: the romance was satisfactorily concluded last time round and the Meet the Parents bit as Shrek is taken to Princess Fiona’s family home in the Kingdom of Far, Far Away is more an excuse for sequences and spot-gags than anything like an emotional spine. So, we have a mediaevalised version of Los Angeles with gags predictable (a mediaeval fast-food franchise) and not so (a blurry ‘reality show’ called Knights) and an inrush of new characters played by Brits – the malign Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders goes diva), well-meaning but weak king (John Cleese), stronger but undercharacterised queen (Julie Andrews) and dim Prince Charming (Rupert Everett). For a chunk of the film, Shrek is transformed into a fairly handsome human and the Donkey becomes a white stallion – which puts even more pressure on the voice actors: Eddie Murphy grabs it and runs off, while Mike Myers (and Cameron Diaz) are curiously subdued, playing straight to many, many turns. Antonio Banderas has the best bit as a swashbuckling, vicious but occasionally cute and sad-eyed Puss in Boots, and there’s nice stuff with leftover fairytale characters. The relentless parade of 80s music samples (Tom Waits as Captain Hook) is actually a barrage, which means it becomes irksome after a while – and the same goes for a splurge of movie references (The Fabulous Baker Boys, Ghostbusters, Flashdance) that whizz by without sinking in or making a point. Maybe the big loss is that Shrek is tamed from the outset – his grumpiness puts a strain on his marriage, but the real ogreness that was the heart of the film last time round is missing in action. The UK version dubs a few minor walk-ons with local celebs: Jonathan Ross replacing Larry King as an Ugly Stepsister.
Shrek the Third (2007)
The Shrek series continues to demonstrate the cutting edge of what is possible with CGI animation – it’s not photo-realistic, because it isn’t supposed to be, but the level of detail is astounding throughout. Unfortunately, everything else is wearing thin. The major problem, carried over from Shrek 2, is that the first film concluded the ogre’s character arc from grumpy monster to mostly socialised monster and finding artificial reasons for him to be a bit ogre-ish (here, its jitters over impending fatherhood) still doesn’t make him as much fun as he was on his first outing. Few folks would want to watch a Christmas Carol 2 featuring the reformed, generous, benevolent, Christmas-loving Scrooge we’re left with at the end of the story, and the same goes for a mostly nice-guy ogre (Mike Myers even tones down the Scots accent). Other regular players – Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas), the Frog King (who gets a long sequence built around a punchline which is delibrately withehld as the frog croaks – which might be a reference to voice actor John Cleese’s similarly-structured ‘dead parrot’ (‘polygon’) sketch) and that bloody Eddie Murphy-voiced Donkey – are back, and have things to do, but still seem to be doing footnotes to first impressions. The plot motor is Prince Charming (voiced again by Rupert Everett), humiliated in Shrek 2 and reduced to mediaeval dinner theatre here, plotting with all the loser villains of fairy tale (Captain Hook, the Wicked Witch, Cyclops, the Wicked Queen, etc) to take over the kingdom of Far Far Away while Shrek is off on a quest to bring back another heir (Justin Timberlake as a weedy Prince Arthur) so he won’t have to take responsibility.
Weirdly, Charming and his baddie crew feel more like worthy protagonists than Shrek and company – the first film was all about turning things round, so we’re perhaps inclined to sympathise with the villains who were cheated of their ‘happily ever after’ by insufferably smug good guys, and would want to see them win. Shrek’s triumphant return admittedly makes for good gags about a hideously-overblown musical production staged by Charming, but it might have been more delightful to let the villains win. An example of the way the strait-jacket of family entertainment hampers effects comes when Snow White does a wonderful switch on her usual image – trilling to all the cute little woodland creatures and then segueing into a heavy metal ululation that prompts the furry critters to launch a mass attack on some guards; it’s a great idea, at once funny and scary, but has to be curtailed before it gets too upsetting for the younger tykes in the audience. Otherwise, stuff happens which feels desperate – Puss and Donkey get their bodies switched by a dimwit hippie Merlin (voiced by Eric Idle, with a character design that looks alarmingly like Terry Pratchett), Shrek has a Rosemary’s Baby/Exorcist dream about ogre baby puke and a horde of young, Donkey has a litter of half-dragon kids. The apt music choices of the earlier entries have been replaced by odd selections (‘Live and Let Die’ for a Frog King’s funeral) and bland rock. Julie Andrews is still wasted, but gets to hum one of her old tunes. Ian McShane takes over from Tom Waits as Hook.
Shrek Forever After (2010)
There was a notable falling-off of quality between Shrek and each of the two previous sequels – which is arrested here, not so much because of the added gimmick of 3D and the latest incremental improvements in CGI toonery but because it’s better at coming up with an excuse for revisiting the characters. A major problem of the sequels, including this one, is that Shrek had a perfect story arc: there really wasn’t anywhere more for the characters to go, and – like Scrooge – the fun of Shrek was back when he was a miserable, repulsive but amusing character rather than the nice guy he becomes in the happy ending. Here, in a riff on It’s a Wonderful Life, the now-domesticated, happily-married, proudly paternal Shrek is getting dissatisfied with his happy ending – nagged by fans who want him to ‘do the roar’ and a stop on celebrity stagecoach tours: after a brilliantly-directed, nightmarish sequence in which the daily repetition of cheerful, happy circumstances becomes unbearable, Shrek storms out of his triplets’ birthday party and wishes he could have just one more day as a proper ogre. Enter Rumplestiltskin (voiced by newcomer Walt Dohrn), washed-up wish-granter, who feels he was cheated out of the kingdom he would have got if Shrek hadn’t rescued Princess Fiona from the dragon’s tower – in a typical fairytale contract, he gives Shrek a day to be a rampaging ogre (scored by the Carpenters) in exchange for giving up a forgotten day of his life. Of course, Rumplestiltskin takes the day Shrek was born which creates an alternate reality where the kingdom of Far Far Away is a dystopia ruled by the evil dwarf and his pack of flying witches, and Fiona had to rescue herself and now leads an ogre band of revolutionaries who are due to be wiped out.
The premise allows the familiar characters to be dialled back to the start, and free of the baggage they’ve picked up in the three earlier films – though, crucially, Shrek is still hobbled by the happy ending and has to be rethought as an inept grunt in an ogre army led by his love interest. As before, there are good spot gags about the Rumple-ruled kingdom – the gingerbread man becomes a merciless gladiator – though the business about Puss in Boots becoming obese and pampered seems tipped in to give the character something to do. It seems as if a whole chunk of important story, to do with human-by-day/ogre-by-night Fiona, has been dropped (we never see her as a human in this reality) which is a shame since there’s potential in the idea that the fed-up princess has been forced to rescue herself and become a much more interesting warrior heroine than she’s been to date. Because of the 3D, there’s a lot of zooming about and aerial battles with the witches, the dragon (a menace again) and the ogre hordes (who disguise themselves as a big glitterball to invade the villain’s rave-like palace). The star turn voice performers (Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Antonio Banderas, Cameron Diaz) do their schtick, which is wearing thin – and Dohrn, an animator, isn’t quite substantial enough to give the interesting villain a vocal personality to match the design (he sounds like Trey Parker on an off-day). Craig Robinson has a good new character (an ogre cook) with a funny running gag about his obsession with running a chimichanga stand while all his comrades are plotting revolution.
This isn’t the sort of film which cares much that overwriting its whole story – a 2010 trope, as witness: Prince of Persia – undoes any narrative progress, and casts a bunch of new characters into limbo. As with a lot of multi-authored animated films, the plot clanks and rattles – first, it seems that ‘true love’s kiss’ will set things right before the day is up and Shrek disappears, and we spend a reel or so with Shrek trying to get the heroine who doesn’t recognise him to kiss him, but that gets old, they smooch and it doesn’t work so we have to go through a battle in which he earns her love all over again for the finale. The finish plays it safe and goes back to where we were at the beginning with Shrek having learned his lesson (which boils down to ‘you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone – but you can get it back’). A truly daring, emotive, honest ending would have been to have Shrek’s sacrifice mean something by letting him fade to nothing while saving everyone else — and hampering the development of a fifth film.