Mike Myers is just fine as the hero, but Eddie Murphy puts the kick back into sidekick in "Shrek," a computer-animated burlesque fairy tale that generates more belly laughs than any live-action comedy since "Best in Show."
Myers stars as the title ogre, a green-skinned misanthrope who sets out to free Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) from a lava-ringed castle guarded by a fire-breathing dragon. He does so on one condition: that the lord of the realm, a mini-potentate named Farquaad (John Lithgow), will clear Shrek's swamp of all other fairy-tale creatures before Farquaad weds the princess.
Farquaad bears the brunt of this picture's frontal attack on the Disneyland ideal. He creates a sanitized court free of warts, smells or wrinkles; he exiles all genuine freaks of fable from his squeaky-clean kingdom to the bowels of Shrek's muddy marsh. Farquaad's "perfect world" can't tolerate the quirky personalities of seven dwarves or three blind mice or even one talking donkey.
That's where Eddie Murphy comes in: He gives voice to a sassily loquacious jackass so used to being demeaned that he accepts being called merely "Donkey." He escapes the fairy-tale roundup and, once Shrek scares off his pursuers, attaches himself to the ogre. Donkey makes the attachment stick through lovable insistence, wheedling flexibility and tenacious mouth power.
Murphy pours his all into this performance. These days, he's never more daring or emotionally present than when he appears in disguise (as in the Klump movies) or even off-screen, as he is here. And the computer animators do their most ticklish, expressive work with his long ears, Mohawk-cut mane, toothy smile and eyebrows as jolly as Jack Nicholson's.
The movie takes the characters of Shrek, Donkey and the princess from William Steig's pithy 1990 children's book, which had the exclamatory title "Shrek!" The top-billed screenwriters are Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (also listed as two of the executive producers). Since Elliott and Rossio's credits include that fervent and funny swashbuckler "The Mask of Zorro," I assume they're responsible for the movie's wittiest flights.
Murphy brings them all off like his very own. As Donkey, what's uproarious isn't merely his mellifluous street slang but his runaway heart. Shrek keeps shutting him up before he can break into a full chorus of "You've Got a Friend," yet that's Donkey's theme song anyway. He's the embodiment of neediness. He looks forward to a night in the swamp as if he were a grade-schooler on his first sleepover.
Although Shrek resists Donkey's fraternal fantasies, Donkey appeals to the younger brother in the rest of us. He's needy, not dopey: when Shrek explains that an ogre's character is complicated - like an onion, because it has, well, layers - Donkey advises he'd be better off comparing himself to a cake, or better still, a parfait. After all, he doesn't know anybody who doesn't like parfaits.
"Shrek" is less like a cake or parfait, than like a whole dessert menu. It's uneven but tasty and full of instant energy. The opening onslaught of scatological humor may make you eye the exits longingly. But once the movie depicts the creature-relocation program, it evinces an air-clearing irreverence that sees you through to the love-conquers-all finish.
Diaz's Fiona, for example, has fixated on being treated like a fairy-tale princess. She fails to scram right out of the dragon's keep because she expects Shrek to sweep her off her feet like Prince Charming. Luckily, the dragon, too, is a distracted romantic who acquires a yen for Donkey. The only one who isn't amorous is Farquaad, who wants to marry Fiona for political reasons; he won't be considered a king until he gets hitched to a princess. A shrimp compared to all the others (even Donkey), Farquaad has an edifice complex. Shrek takes one look at the thrust of his tower and wonders if Farquaad is compensating for something.
Advance publicity has centered on the film's revolutionary technology. But its computer-animation breakthroughs come in areas that audiences will mistakenly take for granted: the splash of liquid, the flow of fabric, the crease and flush of skin or the curl of lips.
It's the writers and performers who make this movie such a crowd-pleaser - and that's to the credit of the animators, who submerge their art in the story. The moviemakers have envisioned even the action set-pieces not as displays of computer magic but as revivals of classic spills and thrills. They use Fiona's castle prison primarily as a maze for a fiery game of hide and seek.
The best visual jokes have a daft, throwaway quality: in a flirtatious moment, Shrek and the surprisingly gritty Fiona display their ability to turn reptiles and amphibians into balloon-like party animals. The movie's riffs on contemporary pop culture may at times be opportunistic and haphazard, but my problems are with its crude beginning and soft climax; a character who should look like a swamp thing resembles no one more threatening than Miss Piggy.
But all is forgiven in the delirious coda of Donkey leading a fairy-tale chorus in "I'm a Believer." It's guaranteed to enlist even non-fans in the ranks of the Eddie Murphy faithful.
Starring Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, John Lithgow
Directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson
Released by DreamWorks
Running time 87 minutes
Sun score ***1/2