WFTB Score: 16/20
The plot: Curmudgeonly ogre Shrek is alarmed to discover that fairytale characters are being dumped in his swamp. Reluctantly allowing an annoying, talking donkey to tag along, Shrek cuts a deal with the diminutive Lord Farquaad to rescue his fairy princess for him in exchange for peace and quiet. The princess, however, has ideas of her own, her spirit arousing feelings in the ogre that he is reluctant to reveal.
Based on the book by William Steig, Shrek is a rare thing in film-making, a conjunction of plot, characterisation, design, script, (voice) acting and computer animation all coming together to great effect, the result being a film children will love but with adult appeal. How does it do this? I’ll tell you. It evokes nostalgia for familiar childhood stories – Little Red Riding Hood’s wolf, three blind mice, three little pigs and the gingerbread man all show up – and at the same time presents an irreverent version of material handled soberly by Disney – Pinocchio, Snow White, dwarves and all.
Shrek, voiced as a stroppy Scots ogre by Mike Myers, is the anti-hero of the piece, not a Prince Charming in search of his bride but a beast with a justified persecution complex who just wants to enjoy his swamp unbothered. When Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow) starts rounding up fairytale characters, Eddie Murphy’s quick-talking donkey escapes and looks to Shrek for both shelter and company. He is soon joined in the swamp by a host of other fairytale creatures and, desperate to get his home back to himself, visits Farquaad in his dreadfully theme-parkesque city of Duloc. In order to become a king, Farquaad must find a princess, and Shrek turns up just in time to go and get her on his behalf. He and Donkey overcome the perils of the fairytale castle to rescue Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), but she turns out to be a much more complicated heroine than anyone had banked on. In the course of their journey back to Duloc, Shrek and Fiona begin to find themselves attracted to each other, despite her apparent beauty and his outward beastliness.
The animation that brings Shrek and co. to life is bright and entertaining, and some of the effects, such as the movement of water, beer and lava, still impress however many years later. The visuals complement the smart script whose jokes come thick and fast; the banter between the characters, featuring several ad-libs, is punchy and the voice acting uniformly excellent (it’s hard to pick anyone out but Lithgow is wonderfully hissable).
Particularly impressive, too, is the invention shown in realising each scene, whether the film is joking around or not. Three scenes stand out for me: Fiona and Shrek’s fun day together, culminating in the inflated frog and snake ballooning into the sky; the sequence set to the rendition of Hallelujah where Fiona and Shrek’s sorrow is mirrored with some brilliant cuts and virtual crossfades; and, of course, Fiona’s breaking of the spell at the wedding, a dazzling music-and-light show that knows exactly what it’s doing emotionally but is unquestionably a lovely spectacle, especially as it finishes contrary to expectations.
There are one or two very small points to criticise, if you care to; as the plot almost demands, large chunks of the plot are ‘borrowed’ from Disney and elsewhere, however much the traditions are subverted. The ‘Monsieur’ Hood interlude is something-and-nothing, and provides a demonstration that the animation of secondary human characters is distinctly so-so. The soundtrack too has its highs and lows, Hallelujah and I’m a Believer being obvious highs (leave before the end credits to avoid most of the lows!).
Overall, though, Shrek is so much fun, and its story and message so sweet and uplifting, that you would have to be a particularly grumpy ogre to find fault with it. To date, two feature-length sequels have followed, but neither has captured the unique magic of the charming original.