PDI/DreamWorks' Shrek is refreshingly irreverent for an animated feature (not counting the R-rated outrages of the South Park gang). You know you're in for something different right from the opening credits, in which the title character takes a bath in thick, oozing mud and the actors' names are spelled out in pond scum and maggots. Based on the children's book by William Steig, Shrek is a sometimes impolite but altogether endearing new take on fairy-tale conventions, with a repulsive-looking anti-hero kids and adults will likely find irresistible.
Shrek, voiced by Mike Myers, is a cantankerous ogre who lives defiantly alone in a swamp, where his main recreation consists of scaring off unwelcome intruders. But Shrek's hermit-like routine is spoiled, thanks to an edict by the wicked--and decidedly short--Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow), who has banished all fairy-tale creatures from his kingdom. Suddenly, the swamp is overrun with dwarfs, sleeping beauties, blind mice, wooden boys, big bad wolves and nervous little pigs. Shrek also finds himself saddled with a persistent new sidekick, a brash talking donkey with the voice of Eddie Murphy.
Furious, the ogre journeys to Farquaad's castle, where he displays his impressive fighting prowess in a public tournament. Shrek and Farquaad make a deal: The Lord will revoke his edict if the ogre rescues the lovely Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) from the fire-breathing dragon keeping her prisoner and brings her back to be his bride. After several close calls, Shrek captures the Princess, but the fair maiden has a devastating secret that will surely displease the ill-tempered Farquaad.
As anyone familiar with the movie business knows, DreamWorks' co-creator Jeffrey Katzenberg left the Disney organization on less than cordial terms, and Shrek sometimes feels like a raspberry aimed at his former magic kingdom. The movie takes advantage of the public-domain status of certain characters made that much more famous by classic Disney cartoons; thus, Pinocchio is referred to as a "possessed toy," and when a sleeping Snow White appears in Shrek's cabin, he screams, "Get that dead broad off the table!" (There's also a hilarious takeoff on "The Dating Game" later on, in which an announcer attests, "Even though she lives with seven men, she's not easy.") Most explicitly, the film includes a visit to a theme park with disturbing similarities to Disneyland, including an "It's a Small World"-style attraction that takes a gratingly rose-colored view of the world.
But there's more to Shrek than arrows across the moat of the Disney castle. This computer-animated tale advances on the work accomplished in the last PDI/DreamWorks feature, Antz, especially in the expressive facial movements of the relatively realistic-looking Princess Fiona. As in the Pixar films for Disney, the outdoor settings (particularly the details of grass and plant life) are amazingly palpable, though here they're given a more expressionistic pastel color scheme. Some character movements, however, are distractingly jerky.
The screenplay by Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Joe Stillman and Roger S.H. Schulman is fast-paced and filled with enough cheeky humor to keep parents as entertained as their kids. (The gingerbread man tortured by Farquaad is especially rib-tickling.) Myers' Scottish brogue here may be overly familiar after his last Austin Powers film, but he maintains a nice balance between his character's brusqueness and the soft heart lurking underneath. As he did in Mulan, Murphy livens things up with his smart-mouthed sidekick duties, and Diaz is feisty and funny as the imperfect Princess. Lithgow's bombastic readings make a funny contrast with the pint-sized rendering of Farquaad.
Best of all, Shrek doesn't resolve its problems in the expected manner; in this age of eight-year-old Britney Spears and NSync wannabes, it's nice to have a kids' entertainment that sends out the message that beauty truly is skin-deep.