All the warning signs are there: the fact that it’s the fourth film, the fact that it’s in 3D, the fact that virtually all of the original creative talent (aside from the actors) have moved on.
So – has the law of diminishing returns caught up with “Shrek Forever After”?
Yes and no – but mostly no. In fact, “Shrek Forever After,” if not as witty as the first two films in the series, is still funnier and more exciting – and more emotionally connected – than most of the summer’s blockbusters so far, including both “Iron Man 2” and “Robin Hood.” It’s also engagingly entertaining – which is more than you could say about the Broadway musical version.
Written by Josh Klausner (“Date Night”) and Darren Lemke, “Shrek Forever After” doesn’t need 3D to pull you into its story (not that any film does). And you don’t need to have seen the first three films to get the jokes in this fourth one – or even to plug into the story.
The film opens with a flashback – sort of an alternate storyline that could have been snipped from the first film. Fiona’s parents – the king and queen of Far Far Away – are desperate to rescue their daughter, who is trapped in a castle guarded by a dragon, awaiting true love’s kiss. Convinced that no one will ever want a girl who is an ogre by night, they are ready to give up their kingdom to Rumpelstiltskin, the preeminent double-dealer of his world – when word comes that Fiona has been rescued. So – no deal, which leaves Rumpel frustrated at having come so close but still failing to take over Far Far Away (not to be confused with Far Rockaway).
Cut to the present, where Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz) live in domesticated bliss in Shrek’s swamp. They have three little baby ogres and a normal life; Shrek is no longer feared but has become something of a tourist attraction. Indeed, his life is so tame that he’s feeling hemmed in, cooped up and otherwise trapped.
It’s so bad that he blows up in the midst of his kids’ birthday party and storms out, grumbling that he wishes things could go back to the way they used to be, when he was a feared denizen of the forest. And there, ready to make his wish come true, is a down-on-his-luck Rumpelstiltskin.
Ever the huckster, Rumpel tricks Shrek into trading a day from his infancy for a day when he can be a fearsome ogre taking joy out of scaring every human he sees. But, as Shrek’s glorious day-off proceeds, he suddenly discovers that, in fact, the whole world has changed – because the day Rumpelstiltskin took was the day Shrek was born.
So it’s as if Shrek never existed. He’s not friends with Donkey, he’s not married to Fiona – and Far Far Away is ruled by Rumpelstiltskin, who was able to make that deal with Fiona’s parents and gain control of the kingdom. Even worse – Rumpelstiltskin has a legion of witches to run things, and they’ve made all the ogres into slaves.
If it all sounds a little like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” well, yes, though that’s not a reference that this film’s target audience will understand. Plus, Shrek has to find and woo Fiona – now warrior-queen of the ogre resistance – before the end of the day or he will cease to exist altogether, a dilemma that George Bailey never had to confront.
The fact that this is all computer-animated doesn’t relieve it of its obligation to amuse or to excite. And “Shrek Forever After” delivers on both levels, as well as on the split-plane of appealing to tots while entertaining their parents. There are as many witticisms that will fly over younger viewers’ heads as there are slapstick gags and jokes about bodily functions.
The voice cast is well-attuned to these characters, whether it’s Myers’ Scottish brogue as Shrek or Eddie Murphy’s spontaneous singing of inappropriate pop standards as Donkey. Add in Antonio Banderas as a seriously overweight Puss-in-Boots and you have a winning team.
On the other hand, the script could use more jokes – it always can – including a greater awareness of the humor inherent in famous voices in incongruous bodies. Jon Hamm, Jane Lynch, Kathy Griffin, Meredith Vieira, Craig Robinson and Lake Bell all have bit roles – but only Robinson is able to really make his presence felt. The rest will have you scanning the credits and saying, “Wait – who was she?”
Otherwise, “Shrek Forever After” is that pleasant surprise: a sequel – a third sequel, no less – that nearly captures the imagination and humor of the original.