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Shrek (2001)

He is not your typical fairy tale hero. She is not your typical fairy tale princess. These are not your typical fairy tale characters. And this is not your typical fairy tale.

This is a fairy tale, tilted two degrees off-center.

Shrek is a computer animated fantasy-comedy directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, loosely based on William Steig’s picture book Shrek! and produced by Dreamworks Animation. It features the voices of Cameron Diaz, Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, and John Lithgow.

Shrek (Myers) is a grouchy ogre who wants nothing more than to live in peaceful solitude in his swamp. His secluded bacherhood is interrupted, however, by a sudden influx of exiled fairy tale characters, including Pinocchio, the Three Little Pigs, a Wolf in Granny’s nightdress, and a talking Donkey (Murphy), forced into the swamp by order of Lord Farquaad (Lithgow). Shrek travels to Disneyland Duloc to confront Farquaad and bargain for the return of his swamp, with the chatty Donkey tagging along. Farquaad offers him a deal: rescue the fair Princess Fiona (Diaz) from a tower guarded by a ferocious dragon, and Shrek’s swamp will be returned. Sounds simple, right? Of course it does. Will there be problems? Of course there will. Shrek and Fiona turn out to have a lot in common, and the crusty ogre finds himself falling for her. Second, Farquaad plans to marry Fiona in order to become king and rule over all of Duloc (this would be a bad thing). Third, Fiona seems to have a little bit of a curse…

I enjoyed the hell out of Shrek when I first saw it. I’d become bitter and jaded from Disney’s habit of churning out and retreading the same tired stories and running them into the ground with sequel after sequel (… after sequel!), but Dreamworks has managed to take the tired fairy tale conventions and give them a well-needed kick in the head. For starters, the hero is a smelly, ugly, grouchy ogre. For another, the fair princess to be rescued isn’t exactly made of rainbows and unicorn farts herself. Many side gags poke indirect fun at the usual fairy tale conventions, even as the main plot beats the Hero’s Journey over the head with a tire iron. The result is absolutely hilarious.

The voice acting was also excellent, with Mike Myer’s vaguely Scottish accent inspired by the voice that his mother had used when reading him bedtime stories, and Cameron Diaz is spot on as Not Your Mother’s Damsel in Distress. Eddie Murphy was delightfully obnoxious as the talking Donkey, and John Lithgow was enjoyably evil in a role that might or might not have been a direct jab at the CEO of Disney at the time. The only real snag came in character design. This was one of Dreamworks’ early films, created before they’d settled on the cartoonier character designs that would mark later films. While the characters here were wonderfully detailed, with subtle colors and shading, this attention also made Fiona’s animators feel like they were animating a corpse. Whoops.

If you like your fairy tales fractured, your heroes unconventional, and your princesses spirited, check out Shrek. It will satisfy adults and kids alike.

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