IT SEEMS LIKE ONLY . . . well, hardly yesterday, but maybe a year or two ago that moviegoers were laughing at the sight of two computer-animated table lamps cavorting across the screen.
Those lamps were part of the early Pixar short film "Luxo, Jr." Other Pixar computer-animated shorts include "Knickknack," "Red's Dream," "The Adventures of Andre and Wally B." and "Tin Toy," which won an Oscar in 1988.
But those shorts were only an indication of the quality that would come. In 1995, partnering with Disney, Pixar gave us "Toy Story," at 81 minutes the first full-length computer-animated feature film. Then came "A Bug's Life" (1998) followed by "Toy Story 2" (1999).
Meanwhile, DreamWorks was giving us "Antz" (1998) and "Chicken Run" (2000), while other studios were incorporating computer animation into such films as "Jumanji" (1995) and all three "Jurassic Park" dinosaur flicks (1993, 1997, 2001).
And let's not even get into what the Japanese were doing (although this year's "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" gives an indication).
Computer animation is the subject this week because of DreamWorks' "Shrek," which is available for home entertainment (see below).
Note, also, that the Pixar-Disney creation "Monsters, Inc." opens today in theaters across the country.
It's clear that, as always, Disney has the lead when it comes to animation. Yet with "Shrek" and "Antz," DreamWorks is showing that it can compete with Disney better in this field that in the more standard cel animation (anybody remember "The Road to El Dorado"?).
A tiny quintet
Animation freaks can purchase all five of Pixar's early computer-animated shorts in a VHS collection titled, not accidentally, "Tiny Toy Stories."
The collection has been out since 1996 and is currently out of stock. But it's possible to order used tapes through Amazon.com (www.amazon.com).
A video in check
One of my favorite computer-animated short films, the 1998 Oscar winner "Geri's Game," isn't yet available for sale (at least I couldn't locate it anywhere).
Too bad. This Jan Pinkava short about an elderly man playing chess with himself in the park not only is a marvel of movie magic, but it offers a funny story line as well.
It's nice to know that, at least in some cases, story still is as important as technology.
The week's major home-entertainment releases:
3 1/2 STARS
If nothing else, "Shrek" is a devastating parody of all things Disney. In the end, though, that is just one of this DreamWorks computer-animated movie's strengths. Overall, it is a fairy tale that deconstructs fairy tales. In other words, it allows us to enjoy all the conventions of a fairy tale while demonstrating -- and often poking fun at -- just how those conventions work.
The story involves a solitary, grumpy ogre -- the Shrek of the film's title, voice provided by Mike Myers -- whose hermitlike existence is disrupted by an invasion of every fairy-tale creature from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Pinocchio, Little Red Riding Hood's Wolf and the Three Little Pigs. Seems Lord Farquaad (voice: John Lithgow) has banned them all to Shrek's swamp. And when the ogre, accompanied by a talking donkey (voice: Eddie Murphy), visits Farquaad's castle to complain, he is sent on a quest to save the Princess Fiona (voice: Cameron Diaz) who, it seems, has a little secret that is revealed only at night.
When we aren't laughing at Murphy's many asides, or marveling at how sensitive a giant green ogre can be, the movie keeps us busy with one Disney jab after another. Disneyland parking? It's here. Iron-clad theme-park rules delivered by smiling puppets? You find that, too, complete with an annoyingly mocking "It's a Small World"-type tune.
Yet despite everything brain-heavy, the movie ends in true fairy-tale fashion. Here is one kid's movie (rated PG for its several potty-mouth references) that shouldn't bore adults. (VHS, DVD) Rated PG.
Hugh Jackman ("X-Men") plays a super-hacker just out of prison who is recruited, through a beautiful intermediary (Halle Berry), by a super-spy (John Travolta) to tap into a government Web site and steal $9 billion. Our hero, of course, agrees because it will give him the resources (read: money) he needs to get custody of his daughter (Camryn Grimes).
There's twist piled upon twist until any semblance of sense up and disappears. Then all we're left with is cool explosions, Travolta's bad facial hair, Jackman and Berry going topless and an ending that is as elliptical as it is ridiculous.
Director Dominic Sena ("Gone in 60 Seconds") keeps things moving well enough, but he comes up with one absurd sequence after the next, including one that has Jackman dance around like Mick Jagger while trying to remember the coding for his computer "super mole." Holy Gameboy, Batman! (VHS, DVD) Rated R.