In "Shrek: Forever After," the fourth installment in the popular animated series, the titular ogre (voiced by Mike Myers) finds himself burned out by the monotony of family life, wondering where the edge has gone that once made him such a ferocious creature.
The film's creators might be projecting their own concerns. A franchise that emerged in 2000 as a fresh, witty and irreverent antidote to Disney's fairy tales, and followed up with a sequel just as inspired and uproarious, the series has now succumbed to the very formula it once chastised its competitors for. "Shrek" has spawned an amusement park attraction, a line of toys and direct-to-television Christmas specials.
To keep the franchise alive, endless sequels are produced with a weary regularity. While "Shrek the Third" may have retained some of the original's charms, it was obvious the not-so-jolly green giant was running on fumes. Now comes the fourth go-around, which has a few chuckles but otherwise feels too familiar, predictable and tame. It's not so much that we dislike Shrek, Donkey (Eddie Murphy), Puss-in-Boots (Antonio Banderas) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz); it's just that, by now, they feel like the cut-up who used to make you laugh, but by repetition has grown less humorous and more tiring as his routine goes on.
Shrek, at least, has the option to go back to the beginning, when things were a bit edgier and free. The film finds him weary of changing diapers and performing for star-struck fairy tale inhabitants, ready to make a deal with Rumplestiltskin (Walt Dohrn) to have just one day back as an unfriendly ogre. Of course, Shrek should know better than to sign a contract with the mischievous troll, who has his eyes on the kingdom of Far Far Away. As soon as Shrek puts his signature on Rumplestiltskin's contract, he finds himself in a world where he's not only a feared ogre, but has never been born at all.
That's right, the "Shrek" franchise is doing its riff on "It's a Wonderful Life." Shrek learns that not only has he never been born, but that Fiona was never rescued from the Dragon's Keep. Instead, she has escaped on her own and is now a freedom fighter determined to save the ogres from Rumplestiltskin's evil plans. Donkey is reduced to carrying witches' carriages. Puss, having grown fat from too much milk, doesn't even have the energy to chase a mouse. And, in the film's cleverest sight gag, the poor Gingerbread Man is reduced to gladiator matches against animal crackers.
Myers and company have inhabited these characters for a decade and easily slip back into the fractured fairy tale world helmed by director Mike Mitchell ("Deuce Bigelow"). It's admirable that the cartoon characters have actually grown and matured over four films - the whole film hinges on Shrek's change from an evil ogre to a lovable ... ogre. It's pleasant to revisit them and, even if there weren't belly laughs galore, it's nice and familiar to see Shrek settle down with an "eyeball-tini" at the end of a hard day. It's like revisiting a beloved sitcom in its aging years: You find that the characters still put a smile on your face, but it's about time to bring things to a close before they wear out their welcome.
"Shrek" and "Shrek 2" broke the mold in computer-generated films not by being pleasant, but by being edgy. There was an anarchic, deconstructive wit about the series as it poked fun at Disney's tropes and created characters who would send Snow White huffing away in offense. In doing so, it also set the tone for Dreamworks' other animated entries, from "Shark Tale" to "Monsters vs. Aliens," all of which aped "Shrek's" blend of pop culture parody and postmodernism. Instead of continuing at the forefront, "Shrek" succumbed to formula and its happily-ever-after mentality feels a bit untrue to the spirit of the original. And as "Shrek" settles for "pleasant," the animation studio it helped found is now in the classic-making business it once lampooned, with "Kung Fu Panda" and this year's "How to Train a Dragon," proving you can have heart and wit without succumbing to a fart joke or over-the-top dance sequence.
That's not to say that the fourth adventure is without merit. As always, Murphy and Banderas steal the show as Shrek's bickering sidekicks. There are a few cute pop culture gags, such as the Crone's Nest Carriage Park. But it's clear the franchise is running out of clever ideas. Rumplestiltskin comes off as an annoying character instead of a witty, well-thought-out villain. The film also brings out the Pied Piper, but his special way of dealing with victims comes off as uninspired and doesn't capture the laughs Mitchell must have thought it would. A coven of witches that help Rumplestiltskin is a missed opportunity, save for a "Wizard of Oz" call-out that made me chuckle.
And Shrek and Fiona may not be funny characters, but Myers and Diaz have instilled them with enough heart that there's still a surprising sweetness to watching two young ogres in love. The film's twist allows Shrek to woo Fiona all over again and there's gentleness to the romance between the two. The film floats along amiably, never really doing anything wrong but never really giving a reason for its existence or proving that the sharp wit behind the first two is still at work.
I should also note that the film is in 3D although, aside from a fun little broomstick chase, nothing really remarkable is done with the technology. I think "Shrek 4" is 3D simply because the mandate these days is that every family film needs 3D; the better to overcharge Mom and Dad with.
I'm a bit confused as to whom the film is aimed. Adults will likely appreciate the seriousness given to Shrek and Fiona's marital woes, but they also may come away bored by the film's more child-centric brand of humor. Kids will like the pratfalls, but will probably be a bit confused by all the alternative-universe mumbo-jumbo and even a bit scared by some of the story's darker elements. Whereas "Shrek" subverted the genre and made a snarky fairy tale for adults, the last two entries seem to be aimed at pleasing everyone, which, ironically, only alienates audiences. And when the humor is that broad, the edge that made the original and its first sequel so much fun necessarily dulls.
The film literally closes the book on "Shrek" (it is, after all, billed as "The Final Chapter.") And while the story has been largely enjoyable and the characters worth revisiting, I'm thinking the story of "Shrek" could have used an editor to peel off a final chapter or two.
Originally published in the May 23, 2010 edition of The Source.