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Fractured fairy tale

Shrek shines and suffers from its own subversion

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Like knights tilting at windmills, DreamWorks continues to challenge Disney's hegemony over the animated feature film. In 1998, the studios went head-to-head with the computer-animated insect adventures Antz and A Bug's Life, and later that year, DreamWorks rolled out its lavish Bible epic Prince of Egypt.

DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg left Disney under acrimonious circumstances, even for the film industry, and with its latest computer-animated cartoon Shrek, the rivalry is even more public. Not only does Shrek feature irreverent cameos from Disney ink-and-paint stars like Pinocchio, Tinker Bell and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but the oppressive land of Duloc bears a striking resemblance to a certain magic kingdom in Orlando.

Katzenberg insists the film's barbs at his former employer have no malicious intent, but it's certainly true that Shrek aims a kick in the pants at the oft-imitated Disney formula for cartoon movies. In adapting William Steig's children's book, Shrek brings outhouse humor, modern rock songs and an irreverent sensibility to the tried-and-true magical romance plot of the animated feature.

It opens with a storybook "Once Upon a Time" prologue lovingly designed like an illuminated manuscript, which only provides toilet paper for the title character. As a Smashmouth song plays, we meet the slovenly green ogre (voiced by Mike Myers, who stepped in for the late Chris Farley), who enjoys living in a fetid swamp, where he can fart to his heart's content and use his own ear wax to make candles.

But he finds his home overrun by such figures as three blind mice, a wolf dressed like Grandma and other escapees from nursery rhymes and folklore. Shrek's swamp has been made into a settlement for fairy-tale creatures at the behest of Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow), a tyrannical pipsqueak devoted to ridding his domain of "imperfect" beings. When Shrek confronts him, Lord Farquaad agrees to make the swamp off-limits on the condition that Shrek rescues the enchanted Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) from a spooky, dragon-protected castle.

Embarking on his quest, Shrek finds himself saddled with a talking donkey as a sidekick. Eddie Murphy's vocal performance offers a reminder that a little Murphy goes a long way, and though he suits the anachronistic setting fine (as opposed to Disney's Mulan, where he was fatally out of place), his incessant chatter is never very witty. His smothering presence points out that, compared to animated flicks like the Toy Story movies (produced for Disney by Pixar), Shrek seems underpopulated, as if DreamWorks blew the voice-actor budget on its four leads.

Shrek has few memorable supporting characters, apart from an alternately menacing and amusing dragon and a scene-stealing gingerbread man -- whom Farquaad threatens to dip in a glass of milk during an interrogation scene. And while Shrek has a lively premise and a snappy resolution, its script sags in the middle, as Shrek and Fiona find themselves oddly drawn to each other. At one point, Robin Hood and his merry men show up, sing an incomprehensible ditty, are summarily dispatched and then never heard from again.

Some of the anachronistic humor works well, as when Farquaad's magic mirror shows him eligible princesses in imitation of "The Dating Game." But Shrek also builds sight gags around the WWF, The Matrix and Riverdance that seem older than Grimm's Fairy Tales. And though the gross-out jokes are mild by the standards of the Farrelly Brothers or the Nutty Professor films, they're still more pungent than some parents may like.

Much of the computer animation is genuinely lovely, from photo-realistic strands of hair and fields of sunflowers to the molten moat around the dragon's castle. But while the fantastical creatures have vivid expressions, the humans tend to look as stiff and plastic as Barbie dolls.

Shrek hinges on a nice message about how you shouldn't judge appearances. It's what's inside that counts, yadda yadda, brought home by an ending that subverts the usual "happily ever after." But its merciless mockery of diminutive Farquaad makes Shrek the movie into a hypocrite. It ultimately asserts that it's OK to be ugly, but not OK to be short; the argument that Farquaad is just getting a taste of his own medicine seems a thin rationalization.

There's a lot to enjoy in Shrek, including Myers, and Diaz's performances and some one-liners worthy of "The Far Side." Aiming to reinvent the Disney-style animated feature, DreamWorks' net result, however, is less like a breath of fresh air than a loud belch at an elegant party.

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