I've never understood what children see in Shrek. Hardly a role model, the selfish and ornery ogre voiced perfectly by Mike Myers wears a defeated, sour puss only a mother could love. He constantly belittles his best friend, Donkey (Eddie Murphy), and guards his affections for true love Fiona (Cameron Diaz) with well-honed sarcasm.
And yet, the Shrek machine -- marketing factions included -- makes money hand over fist as the franchise exploits ancient fairy tales children no longer read and spins timely jokes from pop-culture references kids couldn't hope to understand.
The creative team piloting Shrek's animated adventures has always aimed over the heads of young audience members in hopes of amusing the parents in the theater. But this latest sequel Shrek the Third abandons kids altogether to invent a marginally paranoid but enjoyable comedy rooted in the psychological terror associated with entering adulthood. Seven credited screenwriters polish a story only parents can appreciate, though most moms and dads will miss half the movie because they'll be explaining jokes and themes to their befuddled youngsters.
Right off the bat, Third had massive shoes to fill. The second Shrek, by far the series' sharpest installment, also happens to be one of the funniest animated comedies I've ever seen. It's also the third-highest grossing film of all time (in the U.S.). In comparison, this new sequel cannot measure up to its immediate predecessor. Third more closely resembles the original Shrek, hinging its fate on a rescue mission (of sorts) that's designed to bring the titular, bitter homebody a little bit closer to his beloved swamp.
The movie makes a quick sweep through the Beverly Hills-inspired Far, Far Away to reestablish its fantasy environment before advancing the two main plotlines. In one, newly married Shrek, his loyal Donkey, and sword-for-hire Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) set out to find a substitute heir to King Harold's throne after the ruler -- now a frog -- croaks. On a side note, Puss officially supplants Donkey as the sidekick of choice (in my mind) the minute he gently removes his tiny hat and proclaims in Banderas' sultry whisper, "The Frog King... is dead." DreamWorks reportedly wants to groom the fashion-conscious cat for a separate franchise; a project is in the works for a 2010 release. Not a problem. This courageous kitten easily could carry a film of his own.
But back to Third. While Shrek and crew are traveling to Worcestershire to bring back potential ruler Arthur (Justin Timberlake), vain villain Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) recruits a makeshift army of disgruntled fairy tale villains -- Captain Hook, Rumpelstiltskin, and Cinderella's wicked stepsister among them -- to attack Far, Far Away and claim the vacant throne. Left to defend her father's kingdom, Fiona receives unexpected assistance from Snow White (Amy Poehler), Rapunzel (Maya Rudolph), Cinderella (Amy Sedaris), and the narcoleptic Sleeping Beauty (Cheri Oteri). As if that isn't enough to process, Third ups the ante one more notch by blessing Fiona with a bun in the oven, which gives daddy-in-the-making Shrek a healthy dose of parenting anxiety.
Subversive humor, long the calling card of the Shrek films, is present here but in shorter supply. A dream sequence involving a wave of baby ogres invading Shrek's cottage gets its biggest laugh when the scene shifts abruptly to a textbook nightmare that shows Shrek giving a commencement speech at his college graduation wearing a cap but missing his gown. The Shrek team assumes their audience has matured since the ogre's 2001 debut, so it doesn't hesitate to toss off jokes about Hooters, baby making, and parenting perils, knowing full well these gags will reach maximum impact at an altitude higher than the average adolescent head.
Third is a short comedy (running barely 90 minutes), and the funniest bits are in the trailers: Shrek and Fiona bumbling through their royal duties in the requisite opening montage; Donkey and Puss switching bodies after new character Merlin (Eric Idle) casts an inappropriate spell. When the sharp sarcasm wanes, Shrek smashes objects or falls back on a flatulence joke. Ninety minutes of this is more than enough.
It goes without saying that the cutting-edge animation impresses. In this installment, our main ogre looks more human -- Shrek actually resembles the late Carroll O'Connor in this outing -- and the human characters behave more like ogres. Unfortunately, Prince Charming is a minor foil compared to his mom, the Fairy Godmother (voiced with devilish wit by Jennifer Saunders in part two), and the conflict sustaining Third withers rather quickly.
Thankfully, there is the family issue, and Shrek the Third concludes with a choreographed home-from-the-nursery routine that's frantic, caring and -- again -- constructed with parents in mind. Some might think this is a natural end for Shrek and Fiona, but parents know their fun is just beginning.
OK, who went on the carpet?