If you ever enjoyed playing in mud as a child or preferred "Fungus The Bogeyman" to Grimms' Fairy Tales, then Shrek is a film you must see. A joyous celebration of ugliness, scatology and anything that makes you go "urgh", it's far too much fun to be wasted on children.
Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) is a big but far from jolly green ogre who is quite happy living in his swamp in the principality of Duloc. Unfortunately, one day, an order from the autocratic Lord Farquaad (Lithgow) leads to an ethnic cleansing of storybook characters out of the town and into Shrek's swamp. The ogre, already having to deal with a mentally challenged talking donkey (Murphy), is having none of his so he sets out on a quest to get the storybook people out of his swamp. This leads him to Farquaad's castle and a mission to rescue the fairest princess in the land from her prison at the top of a tower surrounded by a swamp and guarded by a dragon. In other words, fairy-tale business as usual, but with a twist. For in this particular fairy story, the good guy is an ugly green monster who eats onions and hates everybody including himself.
The joy of this film is that it subverts every convention in the Disney manual of how to make films for kids. It's rude, sometimes breathtakingly risque (say Lord Farquaad's name quickly), and delightfully unpleasant. From the opening which details Shrek's morning ablutions to the unconventional ending which implies some bizarre sexual relationship between a donkey and a dragon, everything is flipped on its head. The point that beauty is only skin deep is a familiar one, but it's rarely been made as literal as it is here. The beauty of Shrek's soul is gradually, and (amazingly) unsentimentally revealed as the film goes on. The sentiment is there but, with the exception of one touching scene scored to Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah", it's constantly undercut with jokes and little bits of original madness that are just perfect - the balloons made from unsuspecting animals for example or the crazy poetry of the moment when the moon is mistaken for a particularly bright star.
The witty script encourages the voice actors to do their best work for years. Mike Myers, using a softer version of his Fat Bastard voice, is ideal as Shrek because his gruff sarcasm is just funny enough to be likeable and tart enough to be unsentimental. Eddie Murphy is a delight as the befuddled Donkey, making the most of the best dialogue he's had since the glory days of Beverly Hills Cop. Cameron Diaz is just right as the princess and John Lithgow is hilarious as the nastiest cartoon villain since Jimmy Woods in Hercules. There's also a baffling but very funny camp skit on Robin Hood, given a French twist by Vincent Cassell - a scene which calls to mind nothing so much as the Camelot song in Monty Python And The Holy Grail.
Of course, it's techically astonishing thanks to the superb CGI work, but that's not the most impressive thing about it. CGI still has trouble with human expression and the work on Shrek and the Donkey is better than that on the princess and Lord Farquaad, but that's a minor niggle given that this is, after all, an animated feature. The artistry behind the whole film is beautiful, true craftsmanship worth of recognition at the awards ceremonies. However, what really impresses is the wit and compassion of the script. There are more good one-liners than you would find in ten Hollywood comedies - the description of Snow White in a "Blind Date" style being my favourite - and a genuine love of fairy tale characters and conventions. Many of the best jokes are thrown away - the three blind mice, the wolf in Grandma's bed - and deserve to be savoured on a second viewing. The pacing and editing are spot on too - short enough for kids but long enough so that you're not hungry for another movie after watching it.
There are certain flaws of course. It's full of that near-the-knuckle risque humour that makes parents nervous (although kids will just laugh) and some might feel that the emphasis on scatology is a little unnecessary. I also think that some of the best jokes - the torture of the gingerbread man for instance - are too obviously aimed at adults rather than kids. But these are minor gripes. For wit, invention, satisfying character development and a genuinely uplifting climax, Shrek is the only film worth seeing this Summer. Take the kids or, if you haven't got any, pretend you're eight again and go anyway. You won't be sorry.