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'Shrek' needs human touch

The lack of warmth in the film's look illustrates the shortfalls of computer animation. Still, it's a pleasant enough virtual fairy tale.

By STEVE PERSALL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 17, 2001


The state of computer animation art looks Grimm in Shrek, a compound-fractured fairy tale more dependent on pixels than paintbrushes.

Nothing against DreamWorks continuing its Quixotic tilt against Disney windmills. Shrek is, after all, as much fun as the studio's effort deserves. Saving princesses from dragons and despots is fantasy business as usual, even for an ogre. That it's usually another studio's business is the root of Shrek's sharpest humor.

DreamWorks co-founder and Shrek producer Jeffrey Katzenberg is still grinding axes on his former employer's reputation. The best jokes in Shrek spoof Disney tradition; the villain's lair looks suspiciously like a certain theme park's Main Street USA, and a bluebird of happiness explodes during a sugary crescendo.

There's a Sleeping Beauty-style winged demon and vistas that look borrowed from The Lion King. Even green, globby Shrek looks like a super-sized version of Toy Story's claw-game aliens.

Mike Myers gives Scottish voice to the gentle ogre, earnestly tossing off wan one-liners. His swamp has become a relocation camp for fairy tale stars like Pinocchio and Snow White. Evil Lord Farquaard (John Lithgow) banished them, so Shrek storms the castle, only to be hired to retrieve the ruler's chosen bride, the beautiful princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz).

Along for the journey is a jive-talking donkey named Donkey (Eddie Murphy). The character is as undistinguished as his name except for Murphy's improvised wisecracks in the spirit of Robin Williams' genie in Aladdin.

Fiona is cursed in a way that shouldn't be revealed but does contain the film's lone message worth savoring. The spell can be broken by love's first kiss, and Farquaard's lips are puckered. But is he her one true love? The answer is so obvious that the filmmakers don't waste much time debating it. There are pranks and pratfalls to download, you know.

Shrek does contain several laughs, some of them explosive. Yet, the only way Katzenberg's crew chooses to distance itself from the Mouse House is by smearing technology all over the screen. Shrek's creators are so concerned with computer imaging that reasons for the magic to exist are lacking.

Something about Shrek's sterile perfection is unsettling, especially in the faces of its characters. One factor digital immersion can't duplicate on-screen yet is personality.

Human faces in Shrek seem carved, rather than evolved, with blood-drained complexions and curiously blank eyes. Each tic and gesture appears vaguely mechanical, unlike the fluidity of hand-drawn animation. Only the actors' voices lend characters any recognizable humanity and, therefore, a measure of audience affinity.

The effect resembles nothing more than a high-tech video game such as Tomb Raider or Final Fantasy, including roller-coaster swoops and 360-degree camera swivels to spy sneaking enemies. Should we honestly consider making movies look like television as a step forward? Each time Hollywood plugs in its mainframe, the limitations of keyboard filmmaking become more obvious.

Moviegoers are flesh-and-blood creatures, and cinema's primary appeal is allowing us to imagine ourselves on-screen. When heroes and villains appear less human, our ability to project is lessened. Even jungle animals and forest dwarfs have behaved closer to us than Shrek, Fiona or Farquaard.

But that can only occur with the intangible warmth that computer keyboards drain from fingertips, like the difference between a penned letter and e-mail. A completely hand-drawn animated film is too expensive these days, and computer ease is too impersonal. Some balance will eventually be found, either in the artists or their tools. Until then, we'll settle for pleasant, byte-sized distractions like Shrek.

MOVIE REVIEW

Shrek

Grade: B

Directors: Andrew Adamson, Vicky Jenson

Cast: voices of Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, John Lithgow

Screenplay: Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Joe Stillman, Roger S.H. Schulman, based on the book by William Steig

Rating: PG; mild profanity, crude humor

Running time: 89 min.

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