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This movie was released in 2001, but I don't remember when I first saw it. It may have been in a theater, or it may not have been til some time later. I should also mention it's based on a children's book by William Steig, called Shrek!, which was written in 1990. However, I didn't know that until I discovered the book in a used book store, in like 2010 or so. So it was kind of fun and interesting to read that, after having first become familiar with the character from the movie franchise. I'd say the book's not as good as the movie, but still... not bad. Anyway, so now it's December of 2011, and I'm watching the movie again for the first time in years... in fact it might be only the second time I've ever watched it all the way through, I'm not sure. Um, I also want to say that so far there have been four Shrek movies, though I've only seen the first three (the third was the first one I ever reviewed; I don't know when I'll write a review for the second, because I don't currently have the DVD, but I'll get it someday). And of course I also need to see the fourth movie someday, as well as the spin-off, "Puss in Boots," which came out earlier this year. (Puss was first seen in the second movie.) And there are two TV specials (for Christmas and Halloween), both of which I've seen and reviewed. So... it's obviously a very popular and successful franchise, though probably the first movie will always be the best.
It starts with a fairly standard storybook narration (by Shrek himself, voiced by Mike Myers), which tells of a princess who was placed under an enchantment that could only be broken by love's first kiss; she was locked away in a tower, guarded by a dragon, and many knights had failed to rescue her. Once that premise is established... everything quickly gets far less standard. First of all I should say the movie has plenty of fun, modern music and anachronistic jokes, not at all appropriate to the medieval era in which it's set, but still... really cool, and appropriate to the kind of movie this is. There are lots of fairy tale tropes, familiar characters and such, which are all played for ironic laughs, because nothing's quite as you'd expect. And the prime example of that is the fact that the movie's hero, Shrek, is an ugly ogre who scares everyone, and who just wants to be left alone in his swamp. Definitely antisocial. Anyway, the ruler of a kingdom called Duloc, Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow), has recently issued a reward for anyone turning in fairy tale creatures, who he wants to get rid of. Early on, there's a talking donkey (called Donkey, voiced by Eddie Murphy) who gets turned in to Farquaad's troops (along with tons of other creatures), but Donkey manages to run away, and soon runs into Shrek, who scares away the pursuing troops.
Donkey wants to stay with Shrek, though Shrek just finds him annoying. But he does agree to let him stay the night at his place (but not in the house). And I suppose I should say Shrek seemed a bit surprised to find that Donkey was the first... um, person... to ever actually like him. Which I guess is a refreshing change from people constantly threatening him with torches and pitchforks. But anyway, that night, all the fairy tale creatures who had been rounded up by Farquaad's people suddenly showed up in Shrek's swamp, because they'd been evicted from their homes. So, Shrek decides to find Farquaad and force him to let everyone return to their homes... This seems to have made Shrek a champion in their eyes, though he was just doing it to get rid of them, so he could have privacy again. And Donkey was the only one who would admit to knowing where to find Farquaad, so Shrek reluctantly agreed to let him be his guide.
Meanwhile, we see Farquaad torturing the Gingerbread Man, wanting to learn where all the fairy tale creatures have gone. Which doesn't really make sense to me, because they were already in custody, so I have no idea how they got to Shrek's swamp. But whatever. Um, oh, and I should mention that Farquaad is really short. Because apparently that's funny. But anyway, he wants his kingdom to be perfect, which is why he wants to get rid of all the fairy tale creatures. Although there's another problem, which is that Duloc isn't technically a kingdom, because Farquaad isn't technically a king. But he gets advice from a magic mirror, which tells him that he can be a king if he marries a princess, and gives him a few choices. Farquaad chooses the third, Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), who happens to be the princess Shrek was reading about at the start of the movie. Shrek and Donkey show up just as a tournament is about to begin to choose a champion from among Farquaad's knights, to go rescue Fiona from the dragon. Shrek ends up besting all the knights, so Farquaad names him the champion, and promises to get rid of the squatters in his swamp, in exchange for going on the quest.
So, anyway, Shrek and Doneky go to the castle, battle the dragon, and rescue the beautiful Princess Fiona. Though it's not a very fairy tale sort of rescue, as there's an unexpected twist regarding the dragon, which I won't reveal (at least not until my review of the second movie). And Fiona is upset by the unorthodox way Shrek rescues her, and by the fact that her rescuer isn't her "true love". Still, in spite of her disappointment at things not going as she expected... well, they have a couple of days together as they travel back to Duloc, and it soon becomes apparent that Shrek and Fiona actually have a lot in common. (Honestly, this is very refreshing in and of itself, considering how fairy tales usually don't bother to provide any plausible reason for the romantic leads to fall in love, other than it being expected.) But... well, there are two nights when they have to make camp, and both times, Fiona insists on privacy (we'd already had a hint earlier from the magic mirror that something strange happened with Fiona at night, and clearly she doesn't want anyone to know about it). But on the second night, Donkey learns the secret, which has to do with the exact nature of the curse she's under. He thinks she should tell Shrek, but she doesn't want to. Meanwhile, Shrek overhears a piece of their conversation (a remarkably cliched sitcommy plot device), and gets the wrong idea.
So... the next day he brings Farquaad to pick her up and take her back to his castle, while Shrek goes back to his swamp, alienating both Fiona and Donkey. But ultimately, Donkey refuses to give up on his friendship with Shrek, and makes him realize he'd made a mistake about Fiona. So, they go to the castle to stop the wedding... I feel bad about spoiling this, but it's kind of necessary. And I will avoid spoiling certain plot points (as I said, until the next review). Besides which, movies like this almost always have to have a happy ending, right? True, this movie is mostly about turning cliches and expectations upside down and inside out or whatever, but the happy ending is one tradition that isn't changed, even if it is somewhat twisted from the norm. All I'll say is, Shrek and Fiona end up together, and the curse is broken... just not the way Fiona expected, exactly. But definitely in a way that makes perfect sense, all things considered.
So, yeah. The theme of the movie is "don't judge a book by its cover," and that applies not only to Shrek, but also to Fiona, and perhaps other characters. And I'm sure there are other morals, but I don't want to get bogged down in detailing all that. Mainly, it's just nice to see a movie with characters that audiences can love in spite of their being... decidedly outside the norm. (Honestly, the point that "Ogres have layers" is all well and good, very true... underneath the surface, Shrek's a nice guy. But that doesn't change the fact that the surface layer is also a legitimate part of who he truly is, and while that layer is unpleasant... I think that's the most lovable part of him. For both audiences, and Fiona.) And that's about all I'm gonna say, except, you know, there's cool animation, cool music, lots of great humor, action, friendship, and romance that I genuinely find romantic, which is a rarity. Definitely an altogether awesome film.