Kids might well be amused by the frenetic pacing of Shrek, the latest computer-animated film from DreamWorks, which moves so quickly it's nearly a blur, though they need not get the jokes to enjoy frolicking in the muck (and the maggots) with a snaggle-toothed green ogre who wants only to be a knight and get the girl. But their parents should demand more than a movie that's nothing but an empty pastiche of pop-culture references: That's what prime-time TV is for. There are moments in Shrek that are so twisted and surreal you might wonder just why you took the little ones in the first place: A gingerbread man lies prone on a cookie sheet, his legs broken off and just out of reach. He is being tortured by midget royalty, a man with the head of an adult and the body of a fetus -- Lord Farquaad, whose name is pronounced throughout the movie as though it were a naughty pejorative (the first, and the 15th, time you hear it, you will swear someone just said "fuckwad").
Farquaad, voiced by John Lithgow, seeks information the gingerbread man won't reveal (ah, but the Muffin Man knows -- and do you know the Muffin Man?), but the most the Gingerbread Man will offer is a high-pitched "Eat me!" At that moment, he looks and sounds like an edible Mr. Bill; you wait for Mr. Hand to arrive, carrying a glass of milk. Instead, a little later, John Cale of the Velvet Underground cranks up on the soundtrack, moaning Leonard Cohen's doleful "Hallelujah" -- just the thing to get kids singing their way into fast-food restaurants for their hap-hap-Happy Meals.
It's as though South Park co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone got their hands on DreamWorks' gee-whiz technology -- which, for better or worse, renders animated characters almost photorealistic, if not downright lifelike -- and made the world's most expensive fractured fairytale, in which the cute and cuddly fart, swear and belch their way to a happy ending (complete with musical number, the daffiest since the end of Return of the Jedi). It's a cartoon full of kinks, Airplane! for the nursery-school set. But its jokes carry no weight. They're as facile as they are funny. And unlike DreamWorks' Antz, this movie has about as much plot as a Saturday-morning cartoon on the WB (or the children's book on which it's based). Crotchety ogre (voiced by Mike Myers) agrees to rescue Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) from a dragon and return her to the villainous Farquaad, only to fall in love with the princess on their rather short journey back to the castle. There's nothing more to it than that, really, save a moral about how beauty is only skin-deep (the princess is not all she appears to be). And for all its technology, Shrek looks no more impressive than your above-average PlayStation 2 video game. (Besides, DreamWorks' technology is already outdated: Columbia's forthcoming Final Fantasy provides the first nail in the coffin of the flesh-and-blood actor.)
Think instead of Shrek as the world's most expensive in-joke, aimed at DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg's old outfit, Disney. It's as though he's stolen the keys to the kingdom and ransacked the place: Pinocchio's now nothing more than a "possessed" toy; Snow White is but a "dead girl" taking up space on Shrek's table (it's also explained, by that mirror-mirror-on-the-wall, that just "because she lives with seven men doesn't mean she's easy"); Tinkerbell is an annoying gnat. Farquaad himself inhabits his own sterile Disneyland, in which gift shops sell Farquaad masks and other worthless junk, but it appears to be abandoned -- no one comes to visit this ghost town of an amusement park.
Here's a film that even employs Eddie Murphy -- billed as the Donkey, a demotion from his role as dragon in 1998's animated Mulan -- almost as if to mock him. (When Murphy's not talking to animals, à la Doctor Dolittle and its due-this-summer sequel, he's speaking through them. He stopped working blue around the time he stumbled onto kiddie-film green.) The Donkey, yet another in the long tradition of talking-animal sidekicks, breaks into song more often than Rosie O'Donnell; apropos of nothing, he belts out Willie Nelson songs, much to the chagrin of Shrek: "It's no wonder you don't have any friends," the ogre grouses in a Scottish brogue, sounding an awful lot like Austin Powers' nemesis Fat Bastard (that, or the man who runs the All Things Scottish store on Saturday Night Live -- Myers must have a hard-on for men in kilts). And one might even argue that Murphy is fast becoming the Rochester of animation -- the sassy sidekick yes-bossing his ass through movies like some shameful vestige. A black man as conniving jackass. How progressive.
But Shrek isn't clever or smart. It just wants you to think it is, through wink after wink after wink. When a film, especially one credited to three screenwriters, makes fun of both Rupert Holmes' "Piña Colada Song" and The Matrix (or Charlie's Angels -- Diaz's princess, who looks strikingly like Bridget Fonda, kicks the asses of Robin Hood and his Merry Men), it's neither hip nor knowing; it's just mundane, obvious and hackneyed -- an issue of Mad magazine, long after it stopped being funny or relevant. But this is what passes for witty in Hollywood these days: movies about movies (or television shows, or fairytales), movies that simply regurgitate the comforting and familiar by pretending to poke fun.