On May 18, 2001, Dreamworks unveiled Shrek in theaters. The animated satire would go on to gross $484 million globally, launch a slew of sequels and nab an Oscar for best animated feature at the 74th Academy Awards. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
In Shrek, a bunch of smart-alecky computer animators totally deconstruct the time-honored, much-beloved fairy tale. Then, they mischievously put it back together again to the strains of Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer.” A great many people throughout the world will be believers, too, once Shrek gets loose in theaters. Before opening in the United States, the film will premiere on the Croisette, the first animated feature In Competition at the Cannes International Film Festival in 18 years.
One remarkable though disconcerting aspect of recent American cinema has been the devolution of live-action features into uninspired mannerism and decadent thrill-seeking, while animation continues to evolve its techniques, themes and vibrant artistry. However much Shrek might expand the visual palette of computer animation, much more important are the wit and compassion the CG animators at PDI/DreamWorks bring to this fractured fairy tale.
Shrek is best compared to Dumbo, one of the most charming cartoons made at Disney Studios under Walt Disney’s aegis. Both play the tale of “The Ugly Duckling” for all of its worth. But instead of a tiny elephant with huge ears, the title character in Shrek is an ogre — green, ornery, nasty-looking and foul-smelling, and, what’s worse, he has terrible table manners.
Shrek (played in a droll cockney accent by Mike Myers) is the epitome of everything a fairy-tale hero is not. He hates everybody. He lives apart from society in a swamp. And he would have remained content with such a caste system — with him as its castaway — if a funny thing doesn’t happen. Actually, a very funny thing.
A pint-size despot named Lord Farquaad (an imperious John Lithgow) rounds up all the fairy-tale critters in his domain and banishes them to Shrek’s swamp. His tranquility is thus shattered by blind mice, dancing bears, homeless pigs, a wooden boy with a long nose and a big, bad wolf camped in his bed.
But what utterly undoes his existence is a talking donkey (played with sidesplitting comic patter by a motormouthed Eddie Murphy). The magic of a talking donkey means nothing to the Ogre; the magic would be if he could get Donkey to shut up.
Against his better judgment, Shrek accepts Donkey as his guide to the kingdom of Duloc, where Farquaad is ensconced in a castle and landscape of pristine cleanliness and anal-retentive orderliness. Here, the animators — many of them ex-Disney “cast members” — take several well-aimed pot shots at Disney’s Magic Kingdom.
Shrek and Farquaad then cut a deal: Shrek will rescue Farquaad’s Princess Bride from the faraway lair of a fire-belching dragon, and Farquaad will give him back his swamp.
Shrek and Donkey, whom Shrek can’t seem to lose, journey to the Dragon’s forbidden fortress, surrounded by a boiling lava moat. The first surprise comes when the Dragon turns out to be the female of the species, and she falls madly in love with Donkey. Then, Princess Fiona (a spirited Cameron Diaz) turns out to be a very modern princess with very specific ideas about how her rescuer should behave. She even, in a scene possibly added after the international success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, displays the martial-arts agility of Zhang Ziyi.
The film is filled with puns, anachronistic wisecracks and sly naughtiness. Sitting down to dinner, Shrek digs wax from a trumpet-like ear and lights it to create a table candle. A gingerbread man being tortured by Lord Farquaad growls, “Eat me!” The music leans toward the modern, too. Put it this way: When was the last time you heard a Leonard Cohen song in a cartoon?
The film’s chief problem is a structural one. Once Shrek and Donkey breech the Dragon’s dark castle and remove the Princess, nothing really opposes our heroes’ progress. The Ogre and Fiona must come to terms with their mutual appearances and realize that looks can deceive. But the characters are never again in any real jeopardy, which undermines the dramatic tension.
Shrek represents a considerable technical advance over PDI/DreamWorks’ first computer animation effort, Antz, by introducing humans into the mix. The human’s hair and muscle tissue are almost too real when compared with the more cartoony fairy-tale creatures. But the fantasy worlds conjured up by these computer magicians are brilliantly surreal with tiny, tiny details coming alive in unexpected and delightful ways. — Kirk Honeycutt, originally published May 7, 2001