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.
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 filmsand 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 Kinga computer-animated
film, for all practical purposes, despite the wooden acting by the
ostensible humans in its castwill 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
(Some of those references fuzz the line between parodies and product
placementsit does seem more than a little suspicious that
a parodied company like Starbucks should receive a nod in the end
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]