Let's face it: Kids are gonna love Shrek, Dreamworks' comedic, computer-animated fairy tale. They'll get a kick out of the loud, outsize characters and superb visuals, and they'll probably laugh a lot. No one under 12 will want to miss it.
As for the rest of us ... .
Why is it that every time a film studio tries to one-up and riff on Disney's animated formula, they end up embracing the same moldy, time-worn Disney virtues? Shrek, which tells of a gruesome, maligned ogre (voiced by Mike Myers) who eventually finds friendship, acceptance, and even romance, is an anomaly - it combines the grossness of the Farrelly brothers' comedies with those squishy Disney themes about being your own person and standing up for yourself, and in the end, you don't know what to make of it. Its script takes more than a few potshots at the Disney empire - including a wickedly smart stab at their theme parks - but it ends on a note of typical, huggy banality; the filmmakers want us to get misty-eyed over characters they've spent the whole film mocking. Shrek is depressing because it's both smart-alecky and emotionally manipulative, an icky combination if there ever was one.
It might be easier to overlook the film's disconcerting lapses in tone if the damn thing was as funny as it thinks it is, but I laughed out loud exactly once, when the film's villain (an enjoyably hammy John Lithgow) interrogates a gingerbread man. But with the exception of this baddie and his Napoleon complex, the characters don't seem fully thought-out and therefore aren't much fun. Our title character starts out as an inspired sick joke but ends up a misunderstood sweetie, and for some reason he's saddled with a heavy Scottish dialect, which might be more entertaining if Mike Myers hadn't been foisting this characterization on us for the better part of a decade. Cameron Diaz's princess character never makes sense, and as Shrek's donkey buddy, Eddie Murphy performs in one of those show-stealing, literal smart-ass roles, but to be honest, he had far funnier lines in Mulan. Shrek is undeniably clever at times, sometimes even witty, yet it angered me: How much time and money was spent on this masturbatory attack on Disney's animated works that, in the end, only turns into a pale imitation of one?
At present, I can think of no filmmaking team more torpid than director Luis Mandoki and writer Gerald DiPego, both of whom bored us senseless with 1999's Message in a Bottle, and who are back to repeat the favor with Angel Eyes. In general, there's no moviegoing experience more disheartening than one in which the entire audience is miles ahead of the characters in the story; this romantic drama slogs on for a good 40 minutes after any half-awake viewer has figured out where events are leading. Jennifer Lopez plays a cop who falls for a mysterious, seemingly omnipresent stranger (Jim Caviezel), and while the previews lead you to expect a vaguely supernatural tale, it's just Mandoki and DiPego up to their old tricks: a beautiful but unlucky-in-love woman tries to get her man to open up and connect with her, which causes him to pull away even further, and which causes some of us in the audience to pull away even further than that.
No young actor can currently match Jim Caviezel's ability to look suicidal yet glumly, romantically hopeful at the same time, but someone should quickly learn; after The Thin Red Line, Frequency, Pay It Forward, and now this, he's becoming a glassy-eyed cliché, Joe Stud as crybaby. And while Jennifer Lopez gives her role a game shot and seems sincere, the only times she comes across as a true actress are in her brief, pained scenes with Sonia Braga, playing her world-weary mother. The rest of the time she's hindered by the banality of DiPego's story and by Mandoki's lead-footed direction, both of which manage to suck the life out of performers as vibrant as Shirley Knight and Terrence Howard (the latter of whom - stop the presses! - plays Lopez's African-American cop partner who doesn't get shot in the line of duty). Angel Eyes is incredibly earnest but incredibly tiresome; you leave the theatre feeling no wiser but certainly older.
A KNIGHT'S TALE
During filming, did writer/director Brian Helgeland become afraid of his movie A Knight's Tale? This period saga about William (Heath Ledger), a young peasant who longs to be a knight, opens with a scene of extraordinary confidence: an audience of rowdies, excited by a forthcoming jousting match, begins clapping their hands and chanting along to the chorus of Queen's rock anthem "We Will Rock You," and the scenario is so ridiculous yet hopelessly right - the muddy, scrappy Bourgeoisie could be revved-up fanatics at a WWF match - that it's intoxicating. A Knight's Tale often revels in this type of deliberate anachronism, with its occasionally ironic dialogue and a score of "classic-rock" favorites, and when it does, the film is terrific. Yet slowly but surely, Helgeland lets the modernist style evaporate, and in the end we're left with a passable but mild hybrid of Gladiator and any number of Rocky sequels. Was Helgeland worried that if he didn't get teens' attention early on with radical techniques they wouldn't have the patience to sit through the story?
All in all, A Knight's Tale isn't bad: It has a simple, audience-friendly plotline, features some impressive technical design, and moves at a nice clip. What it's missing, though, is passion - the kind of moviemaking fervor that, though sometimes misguided, was often apparent in works like Braveheart and Gladiator - and at least part of that lack is because of star Heath Ledger. The kid's got a killer grin and a wistful way with a comedic moment - I loved him rolling his eyes when the woman he loves keeps changing her mind about the best way he can prove his devotion - but his line readings don't have a whisper of surprise, and so far he seems hopelessly lightweight. He's capable but predictable and pretty dull; Tom Cruise might finally have a successor (and that's not necessarily a compliment).
The supporting characters are more entertaining, if rather obvious - especially the nonsense-spouting, often nude Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany) - but the movie is harmed by one casting choice that seems dead-wrong: Shannyn Sossamon as William's love interest. Mixing the feyness of Winona Ryder with the affectlessness of Denise Richards, Sossamon is beautiful but astonishingly phony; you keep waiting for William to realize this, ditch her, and fall for the spunky silversmith (Laura Fraser) who accompanies him on his journeys. A Knight's Tale is reasonably enjoyable but sadly unfulfilled; despite promise, Helgeland and the leads don't quite rock you.