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Out, Damned Spot

I think it's the freckles and the moles that bother me most. All of the more-or-less human characters have them in Shrek 2, the computer-animated sequel released by DreamWorks in June. But instead of increasing the characters' resemblance to real flesh and blood, the dermatological details look like manufacturing defects on plastic action figures.

Shrek 2 DVD coverSo far, computer animators have been preoccupied with surfaces, more so even than the shallowest "2D" animators of the Don Bluth stripe, but I can't recall a film before Shrek 2 in which the surfaces were at once so lifelike and so unreal. The ants in Pixar's Bug's Life had conspicuously imperfect surfaces, too, but their designs were cartoonish, and so they looked like scuffed toys. The manikins in Shrek 2 are supposed to be much closer to the real thing, but not only do they look phony, but they still click around like refugees from stop motion, just as the characters in the original Shrek did.

In both Shrek films, Jeffrey Katzenberg and his directors and writers have relied just as heavily on the characters' voices as do the people who make The Simpsons. Subtract the voices and in both cases what you have left is animation that is conspicuously mechanical (although with The Simpsons that mechanical quality is at least part of the joke). Katzenberg has no illusions about the importance of the voices to his film. "Let me assure you," he recently told an Australian interviewer, "you take out Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas, and the rest of this cast, and replace it with four qualified, good, talented actors, it ain't half the movie that it is."

Shrek 2's Gund-ready animals go down more easily than its ogres and humans, but that's only because their voices are better. Murphy is America's greatest living comic actor, but if you want to see his awesome talent in full bloom, buy or rent Bowfinger, his co-starring vehicle with Steve Martin. You get only part of him as the voice of Donkey in Shrek 2, although that's welcome enough. Banderas is wonderful as the voice of Puss in Boots, too. In both cases, the actors seized possibilities for comic exaggeration in their animal characters, possibilities that were realized much better through their voices than in the animation.

(The animals' fur looks very nice, though, much more so than the human characters' skin. Maybe DreamWorks should launch a line of synthetic-mink coats and wraps.)

There's something presumptuous, I suppose, in expressing intense skepticism about an animated film that has grossed, as of this writing, something north of $400 million at the U.S. box office and that will probably gross well over a billion dollars worldwide. But a glance over film history will show that there's nothing to prevent a film from making a lot of money, and even winning awards, just a few years before it turns into a dated embarrassment.

Computer-animated films are particularly susceptible to such a fate because improvements in the technology will illuminate shortcomings in earlier films—and very often those films will turn out to have offered nothing but technological razzle-dazzle. I will be surprised if any of the films in the Lord of the Rings trilogy are still watchable twenty years from now, but I'm absolutely certain that The Return of the King”—a computer-animated film, for all practical purposes, despite the wooden acting by the ostensible humans in its cast—will be an exasperating bore. Pixar's best films may survive, thanks to strong writing, but even here, John Lasseter and his colleagues have yielded too often to the temptation to cut story corners.

As for the writing of Shrek 2, Katzenberg has defined the style of all of DreamWorks' animated films in these terms: "A sophisticated film, made from an adult point of view, which is then made equally interesting and compelling to the adult in the child, as opposed to the child in the adult."

That's what big-time film executives always say when they think their studio has made a breakthrough in fart gags. What "adult" means in this context is "smart-ass." The original Shrek was the first DreamWorks film that successfully appealed to the wised-up teenagers who are the core audience for most Hollywood films now, and, as the box-office returns indicate, its formula has been refined and made even more powerful in Shrek 2. There's a great deal that's clever in the writing, but it's the kind of cleverness that invites the audience to congratulate itself for picking up references to the pop culture in which that audience is saturated.

(Some of those references fuzz the line between parodies and product placements—it does seem more than a little suspicious that a parodied company like Starbucks should receive a nod in the end credits.)

Shrek 2 pauses occasionally, and rather abruptly, in its strenuous comedy to make time for episodes intended to give romantic substance to the relationship of the ogre Shrek and his princess-turned-ogress wife, Fiona. The sentimental frosting, the music especially, is very thick in these romantic interludes, and the flavoring is highly artificial. The underlying arbitrariness asserts itself at the end, when both Shrek and Fiona are attractively human and their troubles seemingly over. The filmmakers make them ogres again, for no reason other than to have them conveniently green and ugly at the start of Shrek 3.

The greatest animated films, like so many great works of art of other kinds, have been concerned with character. Computer animation, so far, has given us little more than empty spectacle, whether it's thousands of warriors, millions of individual hairs, or acres of pimply skin. If we can trust Jeffrey Katzenberg, as I'm sure we can, there will be much more of the same from DreamWorks.

[Posted July 24, 2004]