An animated feature from PDI/Dreamworks
The latest film made by PDI/Dreamworks - the production team behind the 1999 animated film Antz - sets a new standard for the state of the art in computer animation. It does so in the context of a rather sweet and charming story, which unfortunately often gets lost in the display of technical virtuosity and the complications of the collaborative process of film-making - especially on an animated film.
The story is adapted by a team of four credited screenwriters from a children's book by author and long time New Yorker cartoonist William Steig. Although the resulting script is funny and sharp, it is overwrought - the jokes and snappy dialogue polished to a blinding brilliance that becomes a little brittle and precious after a while. And despite the cleverness of the dialogue and impeccable structure of individual scenes, there is an unsatisfying impression of inconsistency. There is no single guiding sensibility shaping the story.
The script follows a formula of rhythmic structure, with slower-paced expository scenes interspersed among the manic bursts of slapstick and verbal jousting - and nearly everywhere a joke can be shoe-horned in, one is. The result is like a meal that is, although well prepared and delicious, a little too large, a little too rich.
There is a similar problem with the music - which is a wonderful smorgasbord of popular tunes from the last thirty years or so. It is great, but it doesn't always fit comfortably with the story that is being told on the screen. And there is always a problem with using familiar songs, that they draw our attention away from the film.
As an avid Jetthead, for instance, I appreciated the inclusion of Joan's classic Bad Reputation, but this boisterous anthem of teenage female rebellion has little to do with the fight scene with which it is synchronized. It was distracting to have a song that has strong associations and a strong message of its own being used as "background music" for a scene to which its sentiments are relatively inappropriate.
The music seems compiled with an eye to what would stand alone - what would work to sell a sound-track album - rather than to its contribution to the effect of the film. In the same way, the dialogue is more like a series of scenes than the telling of a story. Elements are thrown in without any clear connection to character or plot, for their value in a given scene, and then dropped as quickly when that value has been extracted.
There is, for instance, a dazzling set-piece involving a bunch of dancing forest bandits that involves some very funny fast-patter, rife with double entendres, and some wonderful visual slapstick. It seeks to establish a "kick-ass" feminist credibility for the heroine, but her attitude and skills come out of nowhere, and never resurface in the context of her character or the film - so they have the feel of having just been thrown in to make this one scene possible.
It probably doesn't help that one of the novice co-directors, Andrew Adamson, comes out of video-advertising background - based around those little 30 to 90 second assemblages of images and sound that are complete in themselves, independent of any sense of character development or transformation. His partner, Vicky Jenson, cut her teeth in animated television and storyboard work for films before joining Dreamworks as a story artist and production designer on The Road To El Dorado.
What is missing in their resumes - and in the film - is the story-teller's fluency. They do great things with the details. This is a film where there is so much going on most of the time, that it will certainly take several viewings to catch all the jokes and gags that are happening away from the center of the frame. But the unifying element that ties all these digressions together and makes them all contribute to the eventual effect of the story is missing.
The story concerns an unlikely romantic hero, the green ogre, Shrek, who finds love and self-acceptance through fulfilling a quest. Together with other characters, he learns the value of friendship, and the importance of looking beyond the surface, in that superficial and sentimental way that mainstream animated films have mostly been content to handle what are actually fairly profound themes.
The writers pander to young audiences' fascination with what is currently called "gross-out" humor with a number of jokes about bodily functions, odors and fluids, as well as references to Shrek's rather unconventional dietary preferences. If you are beyond the stage where the sight of a character slurping down a rat's tail like a strand of spaghetti excites a delightful frisson of disgust, this may be the least likeable part of the film.
On the other hand, there are some rather cynical, blackly humorous bits that clearly go over the young audience's heads, but are jarring in the context of what is essentially a children's film. There is a send-up of the Disney convention of a duet between the ingenue and a bird that is wickedly funny as a satire of the syrupy sweet nonsense of the originals, but one has to wonder what young viewers, who have no reference point for the parody, will make of it.
As in a number of recent "children's films" of both the animated and live action varieties, the film seems to be hedging its bets - trying to be a successful children's film, while still providing a helping of "adult humor" to attract a teen and adult audience. This is a very hard mix to make work, and the result in Shrek is a disconcerting unevenness.
The wise-cracking relationship between Shrek, voiced by Mike Myers, and his sidekick, a trash-talking donkey named Donkey, voiced by Eddie Murphy, is very like the relationship between Murphy and Nick Nolte in 48 Hours - fine for adults, but perhaps a little too glib and sarcastic for young children. When the writers try to blend those chacterizations with the emotional vulnerability required to put across the emotional core of the story, they are working a cross purposes with themselves.
In addition, the film indulges in a number of in-jokes that take shots at Dreamworks' animation rival Disney, where Shrek producer Jeffery Katzenberg worked until he was fired by Disney head Michael Eisner, sparking a bitter round of lawsuits and recriminations. While the jabs at the sacred cow of the Mouse are wickedly delicious, they are another element that distracts from whatever coherent story might be told here.
But after all, this is an animated film, and a fairy-tale at that. It is an "entertainment" in relatively pure form. It moves along very briskly - there is something a little too "music video" in the pacing for my taste - and it is full of clever sight gags and verbal humor. The characters, while not drawn very well or in much detail, serve as effective vehicles for the funny business, and less well, but still serviceably for the films more serious moments.
Murphy steals the film with his verbal pyrotechnics. From a brief evocation of Otis Redding, to a dizzying, non-sequitur babble that recalls Gracie Allen, he puts his voice through octaves and variations of timbre and tone that add an extra degree of liveliness to his character. It is his enthusiastic, energetic and uninhibited vocal performance that gives the film most of its excitement.
Mike Meyers brings Shrek a softness that is unexpected given the many deliberately abrasive characters he has created over the years. It helps to put across the romantic side of the story, and to give us something to care about in a film that otherwise might have just been a string of disconnected gags. He plays the straight man setting up Murphy's frenetic escapades - and he does it well.
Cameron Diaz gives voice to Princess Fiona, the heroine of the piece. She finds a nice quality that pokes fun at the whole princess concept, without a trace of meanness. She is particularly effective in a couple of brief scenes of introspective emotion, where her characterization adds a counterbalance to Murphy's and Meyers's glib banter. As the villain, Lord Farquaad, John Lithgow is a petty and whiny as he needs to be, a thoroughly annoying fellow effectively representing the trivial selfishness of evil.
As a composite of insider jokes, romance, satire, sentimentality and slapstick all dolled up as a fairy tale, Shrek often seems as if it doesn't know quite where it's going. That it gets anywhere at all is due to the effective application of the creative energy of some talented writers, animators and performers, and in spite of the fact that sometimes they seem to be pulling in different directions. As interesting and amusing as the film is at many points, and as engaging as the visual effects are, it's too bad that the final destination isn't a more interesting and satisfying one.
That's my take on it. What's yours?