It seems that every day another animal or plant life is put on the endangered species list thanks mostly to man's encroachment on their habitat or the devastating effect of chemical runoff, pollution or other byproducts of modern civilization.
Although obviously not as severe in concept or end result, certain moviegoing jobs appear certain to be added to the cinematic endangered list and run the risk of becoming extinct altogether. While there's been little in Hollywood's past to elicit such concern - beyond the advent of sound that put various organists and some silent film stars out of business - the introduction of computers in the world of movies seems destined to eliminate many jobs, while creating a disparagingly disproportionate replacement of new ones.
The first to feel the effect were those in the visual effects fields, such as the model builders, matte painters and makeup technicians and artists. Filmmakers quickly learned that computers could give them faster, cheaper and more varied results than the "real thing."
With the advent of Pixar and its terrific computer-animated shorts and then feature films such as "A Bug's Life" and the "Toy Story" movies, traditional hand drawn animated work would seem to be the next added to the endangered list. That's particularly evident from such graphics becoming more commonplace in Disney and other studios' animated efforts and due to the three-dimensional abilities of computers that offer more depth to an animated film's look than what hand drawn work can provide.
With the release of "Shrek" and what I've seen so far of clips from "Final Fantasy," however, something far greater than any of those fields is in danger and that's the human actors and actresses themselves. One can imagine directors, producers and studio heads happily embracing computer-generated performers as they'd eliminate temperamental behavior, $20 million salaries and various human flubs and miscues, all of which drive up production costs.
Of course, moviemakers would still need vocal performances and the all important talent and imagination that only human writers can muster, but all of that also seems inevitably doomed as computers become faster and more capable of replacing or at least mimicking various human qualities and capabilities.
That said, if the delightful and witty "Shrek" is any indication of the progressive shape of things to come in the cinema regarding such matters, we're off to a promising start. Not surprisingly, the visual effects - courtesy of Visual Effects Supervisor Ken Bielenberg and Supervising Animator Raman Hui (both of whom worked on "Antz") and their animation team -- are what will be immediately noticed, and are nothing short of outstanding and an amazing advancement from what's previously been offered in such films.
While few of the characters - save the Princess - even attempt to look completely realistic, certain elements of them - their faces, flowing hair and general body movement for example, are startling to behold. The same holds true for the incredibly intricate and highly detailed world in which they exist. Simply put, and at least until the next film comes along to better it, this will be the most glorious piece of computer-generated eye candy you've ever seen on the big screen.
What makes the film - like most of its computer-generated cousins - so enjoyable and entertaining, however, is the basic story, the characters existing within it, and the terrific vocal performances from a talented and well-known cast. It's a testament to the collective efforts of all involved that the effects don't overshadow the overall film, but instead perfectly complement and enhance the tale that's to be told.
Taking the fairy tale route, the story - directed by Andrew Adamson (a former visual effects supervisor) and Vicky Jenson (a former art director and production designer) and penned by screenwriters Ted Elliot & Terry Rossio ("The Mask of Zorro," "Aladdin"), Joe Stillman ("Joseph: King of Dreams," "Beavis & Butthead Do America") & Roger S.H. Schulman ("Balto," "The Jungle Book II") who've adapted William Steig's book - is actually quite simple in structure, but nevertheless very effective and entertaining for viewers of all ages.
Yet, for its basic simplicity, the film works on various levels. Its message about inner beauty flows naturally from the main story without seeming contrived or preachy. Humor stems from all sorts of origins, with some of the most barbed but funny material not so subtly taking humorous potshots at animation rival Disney (one of DreamWorks SKG's head honchos, Jeffrey Katzenberg, reportedly had a bad experience working for the Mouse House where he was denied a promotion and thus left).
Some such material is obvious while other bits are more obscure, but most everyone will get at least some of the jokes that are occasionally delivered in machinegun fashion. While such humor is what makes the film entertaining and often hilarious when not otherwise generally amusing, it's the fabulous cast of characters the filmmakers have envisioned, crafted and voiced that makes it nothing short of altogether engaging.
The title character - voiced by Mike Myers (the "Wayne's World" and "Austin Powers" films) in a more subdued and thus enjoyable Scottish type accent that he often employs - is a terrific animated film creation. Funny yet flawed and far more human than the vast majority of characters created by flesh and blood performers, Shrek could easily become a favorite among kids and a franchise for DreamWorks.
It's Eddie Murphy (the "Dr. Dolittle" and "Nutty Professor" films), however, who steals the show and gets most of the film's funniest bits as a wisecracking, jive-talking donkey who rattles off his lines ten times faster than the film's already speedy humor is delivered. For those who enjoyed Murphy's vocal work in "Mulan," you haven't seen - or heard - anything yet.
Rounding out the main characters is Cameron Diaz ("Charlie's Angels," "Being John Malkovich") as the beautiful princess with a curse-based secret and John Lithgow ("Terms of Endearment," TV's "3rd Rock From the Sun") as the nefarious prince who wants her as his bride, and both performers deliver great vocal performances. Given few or no lines to speak, various other characters are also fun to behold, from the many fairy tale characters to a terrific fire-breathing dragon (that's reminiscent of what Warner Bros. used to do in their cartoons) and one of the film's best bits, a "tortured" gingerbread man who delivers the film's funniest line.
Overall, this is an effort that deserves to be lumped in with the modern day classics of animation. Although its computer-generated effects shouldn't worry any real performers about losing their jobs just yet and doesn't answer the question of whether fans will one day idolize computerized stars like their real counterparts, if this is any indication of what's yet to come, we wholeheartedly look forward to the continued future of computer-animated movies. The fabulously entertaining and highly enjoyable "Shrek" rates as an 8 out of 10.