Once upon a time, an ogre named Shrek lived in a mythical but nonetheless insalubrious swamp. He was green. He was overweight. He liked to take mud showers. He made candles out of his own earwax. Understandably, he led a rather lonely life. He pretended he preferred it that way.
Meantime, the local tyrant, Lord Farquaad, has been torturing the Gingerbread Man. "No, not my buttons, not my gumdrop buttons!" his brave but hapless victim piteously cries. Just why his lordship takes such violent umbrage at fairy-tale creatures is not clear. But he decrees that they all be exiled from his kingdom to Shrek's fen, which irritates the monster.
It is the hilarious business of Shrek, a delightful new animated feature based on the William Steig book, to subvert all the well-worn expectations of its genre-to make us see, as the ogre does, how tiresome fairy-tale creatures and conventions have become. At the same time, Shrek suggests some smart, anachronistic spins for the collective unconscious to try out.
This the movie does by employing the latest in animation technology. The producers call it a "fluid animation system." We are powerless to explain how it works, but we can describe what it produces: a very persuasive three-dimensionality and an astonishingly subtle range of facial expressions for all Shrek's characters.
The truth is that this movie would have been a good one no matter what the state of its animators' art, because it has an amusing (and morally useful) tale to tell. Basically, we're talking that old standby, a quest story. The ogre (Mike Myers characterizes him vocally as a dour Scotsman) does a deal with the vertically challenged Farquaad (John Lithgow) to rescue Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) from a faraway castle. If he succeeds, the princeling will marry the girl and remove the crowd of enchanted nuisances from Shrek's property.
Is the princess guarded by a ferocious dragon? You bet. Will Shrek fall in love with her? Why bother to ask? What's so good (or original) about all of this? Well, frankly, it's the Donkey.
He's Shrek's sidekick, a pest, a troublemaker, a nonstop talker, and he may just harbor secret dreams of pop stardom. Mostly, though, he represents the reality principle in the movie-hooves on the ground, big ears swivelingly alert for false and dangerous notes. His vocal characterization is supplied by Eddie Murphy, and it is fair to say that not since Robin Williams in Aladdin has an actor so deliciously appropriated a movie. Whether he's fending off the sudden amorous attentions of Fiona's dragon, proposing an evening of man-to-man conversation with Shrek-to be followed by a waffle breakfast he's willing to whip up-or dealing with a twitching eye brought on by his many stressful adventures, no one has ever made a funnier jackass of himself than Murphy.
There's still plenty of room for Myers' comic gloom. His Shrek is, indeed, the perfect foil for the Donkey's irrepressibility. Diaz, too, has an excellent character to play. You've got to see what she does to Robin Hood and his Merry Men when they get fresh with her. She is also not exactly what she seems to be.
It would be unfair to reveal Fiona's secret, except to say it puts a potent twist on that standard fairy-tale trope about the transformative powers of love and provides a neat switch on all those Snow White şSleeping Beauty legends. But let's not stress morals and messages. Let's stress the sheer, cheeky fun of this movie. And the fact that Shrek, like the recent Chicken Run, enchantingly expands animation's palette and possibilities. ╝