The number of films that have made me laugh out loud in the cinema this year can be counted on two fingers - most recently, we have American Pie 2 but the other is of course Shrek. With the jokes coming thick and fast we have a film that appeals to kids in one respect and adults in a completely different way.
Shrek (Mike Myers) is an 'ugly green ogre' who finds his swamp home overrun with a wild group of fairytale creatures - I don't think a fairy tale has been left untouched with appearances by the Three Blind Mice, Snow White and all seven dwarves, Pinocchio and the three little pigs standing out the most. In order to get his swamp cleared out, he visits the 'town' of DuLoc to ask Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow) to evict them. He agrees - on one condition, that Shrek journeys to a Dragon-guarded castle and rescues Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) from the tallest tower. Unfortunately for Shrek, he's accompanied on his journey by a talking Donkey (Eddie Murphy).
The film takes great pleasure in taking familiar fairy tale scenarios and turning them on their head. Mix in some decidedly risqué humour and I think the makers of Shrek have stumbled upon a winning formula. There's just so much here that even after 10 viewings you'll still be discovering interesting little nuances. Like the recent A Knight's Tale, Shrek also delights in modernising certain aspects of this story (far more successfully, I might add) - the Horse-and-cart park outside DuLoc, and the information kiosk being great examples. There are also some great spins on TV programs - the most obvious being the Blind Date style sequence where Farquaad chooses his bride-to-be. Eschewing the need for 'contemporary' music, once again as with A Knight's Tale, Shrek makes use of some much more modern tunes. The emphasis on this is far more obvious in one of the extra features (which I'll come on to shortly).
The entire cast shine - some have criticised Mike Myers' use of his 'Scottish accent' to voice Shrek, but I think that it's very well suited to the ogre myself. There's enough 'gruffness' to make him seem very ogre-like, but at the same time it's subtle enough to let the character shine through. Lithgow is excellent as Farquaad with just enough nastiness to make him seem convincing as the villain but still retaining a human quality. Eddie Murphy is outstanding as the Donkey - although it's a very close run thing between him and Myers as to who's the star of the show. Cameron Diaz once again shows she's more than just a pretty face by settling into her role and delivering her lines with just the right tone. Finally, it's worth mentioning Vincent Cassel in the role of Robin Hood (although where they got the idea of having a French Robin Hood, I don't know!)
The scenery is beautifully rendered in CGI - this really is state-of-the-art stuff. The decision to take the 'fantasy' route certainly helps and I'd go as far as to say that Shrek outdoes Final Fantasy in the jaw-dropping animation stakes. There are literally millions of neat touches that you may not pick up to begin with - I loved the way in which Princess Fiona was doing her hair during the Matrix-like bullet-time sequence. Facial expressions are spot on - just the way Shrek looked at Donkey after Fiona had cooked them some eggs made me crack up, and even non-humanoid characters have a presence that is enhanced dramatically by the attention to detail.
The backgrounds are perfectly realised too - fire and flames look as real as they're ever going to get when generated with a computer, and every blade of grass or leaf on a tree is individually rendered and animated. There's little doubt that computer generated animation has come a hell of a long way in the 12 months up to this film's theatrical release and makes the likes of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace look more than a little dated already.
Apparently, the disc I have in my hands is the rental release - however, even so it's feature packed and matches exactly the specs of the recently announced retail release. Chances are that they are going to be the same disc.
The hardest part of reviewing a disc like this is reviewing the picture quality - what can you say when you can't see anything wrong?! The term 'perfect' has been overused of late - and it's hard to say where things can improve. I've seen plenty of reviews describing the Star Wars: Episode 1 picture quality as perfect (including our own review), but this is several rungs higher up the ladder. In which case Shrek's picture quality is better than perfect. Of course, this is hardly surprising given the source material - this is a direct digital transfer so there's no risk of introducing any print damage related artefacts, and encoding for major releases these days is nigh-on flawless anyway. I can say that there are NO artefacts, there is NO edge-enhancement or posterisation. In fact there isn't one thing I can fault. Full stop.
The first 'black mark'. The Region 1 release will feature a DTS soundtrack - ours does not. What we do get instead is a good (but not outstanding) Dolby Digital 5.1 outing. It's nice and clear with spot-on channel separation and a good wide soundstage, but the amount of surround action (other than ambient atmospheric effects) is disappointingly low. Still, all five speakers do get a reasonable workout and the sub is called into action on more than one occasion.
The soundtrack really shines when the various musical numbers are blaring out - everything just sounds so right. Of course, the lack of a DTS soundtrack is a disappointment, but does explain why our release is only on one disc. It looks like DTS discs still don't quite count for enough sales to make the inclusion of the superior soundtrack financially worthwhile. If you want the DTS soundtrack, there's only one disc to get - and this isn't it.
Unfortunately, when compared to the Region 1 disc this one is again lacking. The extras - while sounding good on paper, are for the most part superficial and don't really add anything to the value of the product. However there are a couple of good bits and bobs here so let's have a look at them first:
CommentaryThe commentary track is by producer Aron Warner, and director's Vicky Jenson and Andrew Adamson and is fairly engaging, although there are one or two gaps which do break the flow slightly. There also aren't too many major revelations - it's more a case of pointing out which cast members voiced which characters and things like that. There are some bits and bobs that make the commentary worth a listen - the 'commentators' obviously have a lot of love for their creation and this does come through.
Shrek in the Swamp Karaoke Dance PartyThis is basically a nice long sequence with all of the characters from the film taking part in a 'karaoke' party featuring some well-known songs. The highlight is probably Robin Hood and his merry band performing their rendition of YMCA.
Animation Interviews: "Meet The Press"This is the animated characters being interviewed on the film. It's worth watching just to see the characters themselves involved in the backslapping instead of the actors. Very tongue in cheek with some wonderful little observations such as Princess Fiona being inspired by the 'Charlie's Angels girls'!
The Tech of ShrekThis looks at what went on when bringing the film to the big screen. We get to see some of the animation process intercut with interviews with various key crew members. It's all very interesting, but doesn't really offer very much over and above the sorts of things we've seen before on similar CGI releases. We get to see the animation at various stages during its lifecycle from very rough unshaded designs to the final result.
And that's really it for the good stuff (apart from one DVD-ROM feature I'll come to in a minute). The rest is pretty lacklustre and probably collectively offers about 10 minutes worth of interest. The Production Notes don't really give anything more than you'll get from the other features, the cast and filmmakers notes are fairly undetailed - the IMDB or similar is far more useful for these sorts of things, the international dubbing featurette runs for about five minutes and just goes over what is needed to bring the film to an international audience (different people doing the voices - that's basically it).
Finally we have the 'games' (if we can call them that) - there is short trivia quiz, a character morph (sticking heads, bodies and legs of four characters together), a 'Decorate the Gingerbread Man' (various static screens of the Ginger Bread man in different 'costumes' and finally the DVD-ROM based 'ReVoice Studio' which allows you to record your own voice and overlay it on top of the animation - quite clever, but ultimately unrewarding.
So what don't we have? From what I can gather we miss out on 6 or 7 'games', a Kid's Zone section, various featurettes (some containing multiple angles), an extended ending to the film and probably a lot more. Disappointing.
Shrek is probably my favourite film of the year so far - so that gets a easy and big thumbs up, the DVD however is sadly lacking when compared to the Region 1 release. The lack of extras is one thing, but the lack of a DTS soundtrack is another, the Region 1 disc also features a full-screen transfer of the film and retails for a unbelievably cheap $19.95. If you've got multi-region capability then there really is only one choice, but if not then the Region 2 disc is still pretty good - you won't be too disappointed.