Like most fairytales, this one begins "Once upon a time...", with the hand of an unseen reader turning the pages of a beautifully illustrated storybook. Unlike most fairy tales, however, that hand belongs to the ogre, Shrek (Mike Myers), who promptly rips out a page and uses it as toilet paper.
You might think that pretty much sets the tone for the movie but, while it does have its fair share of fart, poo, and belch jokes (c'mon, it stars Mike Myers), Shrek is, surprisingly, a fairly conventional family-orientated fantasy.
Not that that's a problem, mind you s- if you don't have a lump in your throat come the climax then someone should pull your powercord, you cold, emotionless robot. But you can't help feeling that DreamWorks' team of writers haven't made as much of the potentially Disney-ribbing material as they could have. Sure, Pinocchio is dismissed as a "possessed toy", but once our monsterish hero is off to save the princess, the winky-wink references occur with far less frequency.
Yet there's no denying that the monster-as-hero device has 90-odd-minutes worth of entertainment mileage, and the delivery of the story's moral is handled well enough to avoid tweeness. This is largely thanks to the impressive triple act of Myers, Eddie Murphy, and Cameron Diaz.
Even though he's hoofing the same animal-sidekick territory here as he did in Mulan, Murphy dominates the dialogue, portraying a donkey who's as motormouthed as he's supposed to be stubborn, the perfect foil to Myers' anti-social, Scots-accented Shrek (quite why Myers insists on repeatedly foisting this fake-Caledonian twang on us is a mystery, but, what the hell, it works well enough). Diaz, meanwhile, reinforces her game-for-a-laugh reputation as Princess Fiona, even playing along with a brief skit on Charlie's Angels. And John Lithgow? Well, he's great as diminutive dastard Lord Farquaad (don't say it too quickly, kids!), but it's a crying shame he's shunted back into Bit-part Land by a plot that largely excludes him.
As important as the cast, of course, is the look of the film – although, given the quantum-leaping developments in computer animation, it's far too tempting to let yourself be distracted by attention to detail or by worrying about how realistic it is when you should just be sitting back and enjoying the ride. Suffice to say that Shrek looks perfect enough for you to forget that you're watching something computer-generated: every tree sways as it should, every blade of grass and strand of hair wafts accordingly, and the characters themselves – especially Fiona – nestle comfortably between the movie's storybook style and photo-realistic convincingness.
Which all means you can sink into your seat and just lap up what has to be the most likeable, light-hearted fairytale comedy since The Princess Bride.