[Deep Focus]
Yep, it's another butt joke.

Shrek has something to prove. Splashing across the screen to the tune of last year's big Smashmouth hit and having its lead character, voiced by Mike Myers, literally wipe his green, hairy ass with a page torn from a fairy-tale storybook, the newest extravaganza from the DreamWorks animation factory seems hellbent on convincing you that it's not a Disney film.

OK, I'm convinced. Disney films never had this many fart jokes, anyway. Shrek is the latest manifestation of a proudly unDisney mindset, going so far as to pepper the film with Katzenbergian jabs at Disneyland. In fact, Shrek belongs to a tradition that thumbs its nose at tradition. A slew of fairy-tale characters are featured, but in the role of nuisance.

Shrek is an ogre. He's big and ugly and he talks like Fat Bastard. He has hygiene issues and, worse, an attitude problem. So when Lord Farquaad (voiced by John Lithgow) starts rounding up fairy-tale characters from the kingdom and banishing them to a plot of land surrounding Shrek's home (for no apparent reason), Shrek takes it up with Farquaad himself. Farquaad sends Shrek on a quest to rescue a beautiful princess from her prison atop a high tower guarded by a dragon. If Shrek brings the princess for the Farquaad to marry, thus earning the title of king, he promises to remove the irritating critters from Shrek's site.

It's not hard to guess how this turns out -- suffice it to say that Shrek has a slightly sunnier, more tolerant disposition at the end of the film. Along the way, the film struggles to pull all of its ideas together, with varying degrees of success. The first section of the film introduces some details about Farquaad's kingdom and the status of fairy-tale creatures as second-class citizens that are subsequently abandoned. The smart-assed donkey, voiced by Eddie Murphy, offers a running commentary on Shrek's state of mind, among other things, in the film's standout performance.

Shrek has a smugness that it never earns, and I was getting pretty sick of the film's self-congratulatory mindset when a spectacular action set piece featuring a big purple dragon popped my eyes open and set me straight. The sequence is not just gorgeously animated, but it's also cleverly designed and executed. Best of all, it introduces a character worth rooting for -- the dragon. From that point on, Cameron Diaz joins the cast as the voice of Princess Fiona, and her presence in the mix livens things up considerably. What's more, there are a couple of scenes in the second half of the movie that are so bizarre and unexpectedly funny that they almost make up for the clumsy references to The Matrix, Babe, and pro wrestling.

Finally, it's too bad about the computer animation, which works at cross-purposes to the characterization. When animation becomes "realistic" enough, it turns into a grotesque parody of itself -- these characters don't move like real people (or real ogres). Instead, their insanely detailed face muscles just sort of shift, in a precisely choreographed move, from one expression to the next. It's as if someone filmed an elaborate puppet, like the one Carlo Rambaldi built for E.T., and then rotoscoped animation over the face of that puppet. But it doesn't resemble human behavior at all.

The stand-out accomplishments in this field are the films from Pixar, which include two feature films about toys, one about insects, and a slew of shorts whose central characters include table lamps, snow globes, and a unicycle. (Not humans, animals or ogres.) When I reviewed the original Toy Story, I wrote, "I can only imagine that after this brave, nearly perfect first step, computer animated films will get a lot worse before they get any better." This is what I was talking about.

Directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson
Written by Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Joe Stillman and Roger S.H. Schulman
Screenplay by Ted Elliott
Based on the book by William Steig
Starring Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz
USA, 2001

Theatrical aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Screened at Mann Grauman's Chinese Theater, Hollywood, CA

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DEEP FOCUS: Movie Reviews by Bryant Frazer