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What To Watch: Finding Heart and Humor in ‘Shrek’ (2001)

A classic animated fairytale remains one of the best films for kids and adults.

Shrek is a 2001 animated fantasy about an ogre who, after his swamp is filled with magical creatures, agrees to rescue a princess for a villainous lord in order to get his land back.

A good parody only work if the makers respect their target, otherwise it’s just a series of irreverent jabs, which is why most in the genre fail, being only a series of scenes that try to make a joke or lame pop culture reference. The one’s that do it right take all the things we recognize and make it their one, dotting the landscape with fun visual or audio markers that recall earlier iconic moments from other films or entertainment. This is precisely what Shrek does and why it became such a success. That and it’s just so darned funny.

Shrek
Shrek, 2001 © DreamWorks

THE STORY: Living a peaceful life in the swamps of a fairytale land, Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) is a big, green and happy ogre, content in his isolation and reputation as a fearful beast. One day however, that all changes when his land is overrun by a horde of other fairytale creatures who have been exiled by the fairytale-hating Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow) of Duloc, looking to clear the place out of such ilk. With no other choice, Shrek agrees to go talk with Farquaad and must travel with Donkey (Eddie Murphy), the only one who seems to know where the guy lives. Once in Duloc, Shrek finds himself in a tournament where the winner gets the chance to rescue a young woman named Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), whom, via a talking magic mirror, Farquaad has learned is the fairest of them all and therefore fit for him. Shrek and Farquaad make a deal that if he saves the girl, he will remove the creatures from his swamp, so Shrek and Donkey head off to the castle where the princess is guarded by a fire-breathing dragon. And that’s not the only thing that will test Shrek as he learns some important lessons about love and friendship along the way.

Shrek
Shrek, 2001 © DreamWorks

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Based loosely on William Steig‘s 1990 fairy tale picture book of the same name, DreamWork’s adaptation is a Disney-skewering minor masterpiece of great animation and spot-on gags, full of pokes at the mythology, tropes, and clichés of the fantasy genre. A huge box office success, it put the animation studio in direct competition with Pixar and created a franchise that is still running strong (a fifth film is planned for a 2019/2020 release).

While the look of the film is fun and colorful, with jokes and such coming at the screen in sometimes rapid-fire succession, it is the writing and voice work that really sustain it. Razor sharp, it runs the gamut of lowbrow bodily function humor to a few well-timed and executed gags that might sail right over the intended audience’s head. It’s all delivered with terrific performances, with Myer’s Scottish-laced Shrek to Murphey’s talk-taking always upbeat Donkey.

Shrek
Shrek, 2001 © DreamWorks

Naturally, the thing to do is try and keep up with the funny. That’s sometimes hard because honestly, the story is so well-written, one gets lost in what’s happening and can easily forget that, yeah, this is a parody. Still, the cracks at Disney and the telltale tentpoles of fable stories are spot on, with plenty of good-natured ribbing that hit with surprising accuracy. All that along with some real poignancy and investment in the characters, and Shrek becomes something altogether wonderful.

A GREAT MOMENT: Hardly a spoiler, but of course, Shrek and Fiona begin to develop feelings over their trek back to Duloc. Wouldn’t be much a movie (nor a fairytale) if they didn’t. Shrek is in unfamiliar territory here and the beast is flummoxed by the girl’s charms and oddly un-princess-like behaviors. She kicks butt like no other as well. What Shrek doesn’t know is that she keeps a secret, one that Donkey finds out on his own and promises not to share.

Shrek
Shrek, 2001 © DreamWorks

And this brings us to Donkey and Shrek, their relationship throughout the glue that binds it all together. It’s rare in a film like to have characters that aren’t just snarky one-liner generators, but in Shrek, the two are a remarkably well-developed team and the dynamic between them is always engaging. Their relationship is one that follows a predictable arc but nonetheless, is one that is populated with plenty of impactful moments that easily lend the experience a lot of heart. That’s is best put together in a moment when the two are at a conflict, when Shrek misunderstands something he heard and Donkey is bound by his promise to keep secret. The meaning of friendship and trust is put to the test and we see the roots of Shrek’s isolation overwhelm him while Donkey’s unwillingness to abandon what they’ve built rises up to challenge the ogre, reminding Shrek that friends forgive each other. It’s a great moment.

THE TALLY: Shrek is a rare delight, a film that by itself if a fun and exciting adventure that almost very nearly tips over into the very kind of story it’s poking fun at. Truly one for the whole family, able to entertain younger viewers while keeping the adults laughing, it has a built-in timelessness to it that continues to work like magic. These are powerfully connected characters that are rich with personality and fun to see in action and what’s so great is that we end up less concerned with the jokes as the story progresses and more tied to how it will end, hoping, just like the fairy tales it takes aim at, that everyone living happily ever after. It’s what to watch.

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