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There can be no denying that Shrek’s state-of-the-art computer-animated graphics are outstanding. But to apply the “moral” of the film to itself, it’s what’s inside that really matters, not how beautiful the outside is. And when it comes to evaluating it as a movie, I have to admit that it’s been a long while since I’ve been as disappointed in a movie as I was with Shrek. I expected to find it at least moderately entertaining, since I’ve really enjoyed other animated films such as Toy Story 1 and 2, Antz, The Iron Giant, and A Bug’s Life. But by the end of watching Shrek, I realized that I actively disliked the movie.

But why? As “the greatest fairy tale never told,” Shrek’s premise has potential. Unfortunately, it seems like the “wow” factor of the amazing computer graphics acted to blind the filmmakers to some very real problems with their movie.

The first jarring experience of watching Shrek was discovering that the main humor of the story (if you can call it humor) comes from the characters being unpleasant to each other. The scriptwriters seem to have misinterpreted “friendly banter between friends” or “humorous bickering” as “constant stream of unpleasant and hurtful remarks delivered at maximum volume.” Few and far between are sentences that the characters exchange at a normal volume, let alone in a civil tone of voice. Shrek (Mike Myers) and the donkey (Eddie Murphy) are the main offenders, but the princess (Cameron Diaz) is portrayed in exactly the same way. It’s not funny; it’s unpleasant.

Along with a liberal helping of fart and burp jokes, all the yelling, screaming, and jumping around plays as if Shrek is aimed at the 6-year-old set, and in particular at kids with short attention spans. However, I think that the film is a terrible choice as a kids’ movie. It’s not the crude bodily humor that I have a problem with; as an adult, I don’t find it amusing, but it’s innocent fun at a certain age. It’s the appropriateness of the “yelling humor” that is much more dubious. Shrek purports to present the nice message of “don’t judge someone by their appearance alone,” but what matters is not what’s said, but what’s demonstrated... and the message conveyed by how the characters actually behave in the film is that you can abuse your friends as much as you want – be unpleasant, yell at them, be hostile, treat them with disrespect – and they will remain your friends. Well, in real life it doesn’t work that way, and I don’t like the idea of telling kids that it’s OK to act like a jerk.

But Shrek is more than just unfunny. What pushed me over into “active dislike” is the gratuitous, random cruelty that is played for laughs. Now, I appreciate the fact that comedy is often constructed by putting the characters in uncomfortable situations. However, the humor in those situations comes from (or should come from) the audience’s sympathy with the character: the “Oh, no, what a mess he’s in!” reaction. There’s none of this in Shrek; what we have, instead, is gratuitous and senseless violence presented as a joke. For example, in one scene the princess, apparently accidentally, cause a nesting bird to explode; afterwards, with no more than a shrug, she takes its eggs to eat for breakfast. Another scene has Shrek grabbing a toad and inflating it to make a “balloon,” which he then lets drift helplessly away into the sky. Would the fate of the bird and the toad have bothered me if Shrek had simply eaten them, as he eats some other creatures earlier in the movie? No, not a bit. What disturbed me – quite strongly, actually – was the pure thoughtless cruelty of killing or mutilating another creature on no more than a whim, with the film presenting this as cute or funny.

It seems almost like an afterthought, at this point, to mention that the storyline is very weak, but it’s true. Shrek plays as if it were a collection of short skits made by the artists: “Wouldn’t it be cool if we had all these fairy-tale creatures in one scene?” “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a take-off of The Matrix, but with a fairy-tale princess instead of Trinity?” The trouble is that these skits might have been funny as skits, but as a full-length feature film, the resulting plot staggers along from one set piece to another without ever coming together as an entertaining or even plausible story.

Shrek comes in a two-disc DVD set, with the special features divided up between the two discs. The anamorphic widescreen version of the film, presented in the original aspect ratio of 1.78:1, can be found on disc two, while disc one contains the pan-and-scan version of the film.

The computer-generated animations are technically superb, easily the best I’ve seen. The animation is fantastic, and includes many elements that are technically extremely challenging, such as fur, hair, and natural movement of clothing. Even leaves and other vegetation are animated superbly. In terms of technical quality, Shrek is outstanding. I just really wish that the story and execution of the idea had been even half as good.

The transfer quality is reference-quality, as well. Colors appear perfectly accurate, and are bright and vibrant with subtleties of shading included. Contrast is similarly excellent, and there’s not the slightest hint of edge enhancement to be seen anywhere. The overall image is completely clear and noise-free.

Evaluating the audio quality of Shrek is a bit difficult, because there are two factors to consider: the quality of the sound transfer of the DVD, and the quality of the soundtrack from the movie.

The DVD presents options for DTS, Dolby 5.1, and Dolby 2.0 audio. The DTS sound quality is reasonable, though I wouldn’t say that it’s particularly great. There is essentially no bass in the soundtrack, and not much use of surround effects. The volume level does present a problem; when a song from the soundtrack plays during dialogue-free, action-only scenes, the volume rises to be uncomfortably loud.

The concurrent problem is that not only do the songs play too loudly, they are truly awful songs. The choice of a pop/rock soundtrack for the film isn’t a bad idea... but the specific songs are garish (to use a visual metaphor), overbearing, and unpleasant. They’re not very good songs to begin with, and they completely don’t go along with the mood of the story.

The Shrek DVD presents a generous helping of special features. Along with an audio commentary, the most noteworthy are a fairly substantial behind-the-scenes feature titled “The Tech of Shrek,” along with several other small features devoted to the technical side of making the film, such as a “technical goofs” section, a character design progression reel, and a short featurette on dubbing Shrek for international release.

The “behind-the-scenes” featurette contains some interesting material, but unfortunately it recycles quite a bit of the interview footage from the more substantial “The Tech of Shrek” featurette. Other minor features include production notes, storyboard pitch of deleted scenes, and the “Shrek in the Swamp Karaoke Dance Party,” which seems to be an extra scene created for the DVD.

Continuing in its effort to target kids as its audience, the Shrek DVD includes a number of DVD and DVD-ROM games. I couldn’t test this part of the special features on any actual kids, so I don’t know how well they’d go over to the target audience, but they looked fairly weak to my adult eye.

Unlike movies such as The Princess Bride or Toy Story, there’s nothing in Shrek for adults to enjoy beyond the surface of the film. Shrek might appeal to a kid’s crude sense of humor, but it’s likely to exceed the parental tolerance level on the second watching... if not before.

If you have already seen Shrek and like it, then this DVD edition is certainly worth buying; the transfer is fantastic, the audio quality (if you don’t mind the soundtrack) is fairly good, and the set includes a liberal helping of special features. If you haven’t seen it yet, consider yourself advised to rent first. The film is worth seeing for its incredible computer graphics alone, but if you’re like me, one watching will be plenty.