Because of its unique ability to tweak, distort, toy with, and transform reality, animation has long been conducive to the sort of glibly postmodern, self-referential humor that has monopolized popular culture for much of the past decade. Bugs Bunny and company were cheekily breaking down the fourth wall well before Mad magazine introduced countless generations to irreverence and skepticism, while Rocky & Bullwinkle, The Simpsons, and South Park have followed in Bugs' reality-tweaking footsteps. Even Disney regularly makes knowing, pop-culture-savvy animated comedies (Aladdin, Hercules, The Emperor's New Groove). All of which may be part of the reason that the self-referential humor of Shrek, a photo-realistic animated fable from Dreamworks, can't help but feel somewhat stale and desperate. Essentially a fairy-tale Antz with a giant injection of self-consciously hip "attitude," Shrek stars Mike Myers as the voice of the titular ogre, a cranky loner forced to take action once an effete lord (John Lithgow) forces Shrek's swamp to become a rest-haven for a collection of rootless fairy-tale characters. Teaming up with a wisecracking donkey voiced by Eddie Murphy, Shrek sets out to free a fairy-tale princess (voiced by, and modeled on, Cameron Diaz) as part of a deal to get his beloved swamp back. Trafficking in the same constant, low-level buzz of pop-culture recognition as Scary Movie, Sugar & Spice, and Charlie's Angels, Shrek gets off to a blood-curdling start, with a flurry of scatological gags and toilet humor set to the psychotically bouncy strains of Smash Mouth's "All Star." Nothing else is as off-puttingly bad, but the scene contains nearly everything wrong with the film, from its showy semi-naughtiness to its obsession with bodily fluids to its jarring use of contemporary songs to its desperate eagerness to please. Shrek's ability to fit in a number of touching, funny moments—a sequence involving a jittery gingerbread man is almost worth the price of admission alone—says much about the intelligence and wit behind it. It's just a shame that the film is never as clever or as hip as it so desperately feels the need to be.
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