After an awful Spring of major bombs starring big time actors like Julia Roberts and Morgan Freeman, (and, predictably, Sylvester Stallone) the first enduring and terrific major studio film with an official release date of 2001 stars a not so jolly green giant-- er, ogre that is-- and his sidekick, a talking donkey.
This 3D animated feature from Dreamworks is a clever and adventurous combination of "The Princess Bride" and "Beauty and the Beast." It features the voices of Mike Meyers as Shrek, the ogre, Cameron Diaz as Princess Fiona, John Lithgow as the vain tyrant Lord Farquaad, and Eddie Murphy as the talking donkey, Donkey.
Farquaad has rounded up all of the fairy tale creatures in the land, and banished them to the dismal swamp--with a particular prejudice against characters who have appeared in Disney films. This interrupts Shrek's hermit-like existence; so he storms off to protest to Farquaad. The Prince lives in a squeaky clean kingdom that is VERY reminiscent of a certain theme park.
After Shrek beats up most of the army in Farquaad's small world, the two make a deal. The Prince needs to marry a princess to become king. If Shrek rescues Princess Fiona from a castle surrounded by a lava moat and guarded by a dragon, Farquaad will resettle the fairy tale people once again, and restore Shrek's quiet.
With Donkey in tow, Shrek sets off to rescue Princess Fiona. Of course, our Beast falls in love with the Beauty, and cannot be a party to future persecutions of fairytale characters.
But the plot is hardly the point. While it has a good moral, "Shrek" is a full blown satire of fairytales, with loads of pop culture references thrown in, to boot. The jokes fly as fast and furiously as an "Airplane" movie, as Farquaad interrogates the Gingerbread Man by dipping him in milk, Robin Hood's Merry Men do a fey Riverdance take off, and while climbing a volcano, Donkey and Shrek argue about whether that's brimstone they smell, or if Shrek needs more self control.
The whole cast of voices does a fine job, but Eddie Murphy is simply brilliant as Donkey. His comic riffs are inspired, and I'll bet you farthings to donuts that your kids will run around the house for weeks calling out things like "I'm a donkey on the edge!" and "I'll make waffles!" then collapsing in fits of laughter.
I usually hate it when modern pop soundtracks are worked into a medieval story-- it was jarringly irritating, for instance, in the otherwise solid "Ladyhawke"-- but it really works here. My kids are already bugging me for the soundtrack cd. This is also the best looking non-Pixal animated movie ever. Period. No question about it.
While "Shrek" doesn't quite achieve the emotional level of the "Toy Story" movies; its hilarious wit and deconstructive nature are in a league with "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," but for the whole family-- though there is some mild rude language and humor, and some double entendre that will fly over the kiddies' heads.
There is also a nice twist at the end. Without revealing too much, let me say that it has always bugged me that the "Beauty and the Beast"-type of story always becomes the Beauty and the Beauty tale, after supposedly telling us that physical beauty isn't what matters most. "Shrek" earned a lot of goodwill with me by the way this is also turned on its head.
Another movie that tries to inject modern in-jokes into a medieval setting is "A Knight's Tale." Supposedly based on a bit of Chaucer's "Canturbury Tales," this teen oriented flick can't decide if it wants to be "Grail" style satire, or merely "Gladiator for Dummies."
The movie stars Aussie hunk of the moment, Heath Ledger ("The Patriot") as a young man who hopes to achieve knighthood by jousting his way to the top of a suspiciously clean, disease and religion-free Middle Ages England.
There are some funny moments that make fun of modern sports (though the rock soundtrack doesn't work as well as in "Shrek") Ledger is an appealing hero, and the movie is harmless enough-- though it irritated me that a test of his love was being willing to take a dive, and the jousts are pretty repetitive.
"A Knight's Tale" is a diverting popcorn movie if you're not in too demanding a mood; but I bet I'd have more fun seeing "Shrek" for the fifth time than I did seeing "Knight" for the first.