At least Disney has the sense to release its animated sequels direct to video, because no one wants to fork over ten bucks for one viewing of a craven attempt to cash in on our children’s affection for these characters. Dreamworks, of course, doesn’t have the luxury of a vast tradition of animated features. They have one tent-pole animated franchise, the Shrek movies, so they obviously feel forced to milk the property for everything they can until another they produce another hit.
The original Shrek was a fresh surprise back in 2001, with a surprisingly intelligent brand of humor that sent up many of our familiar fairy tales and nursery rhymes while not-so-gently tweaking the nose of the Mouse Factory. It was also probably the key event in the transformation of Eddie Murphy from potty-mouthed stand-up comedian to a family-friendly voice actor.
The problem with Shrek’s brand of satire is that it only works when it’s fresh and it has a short shelf life. The first sequel was still sufficiently entertaining with its fish-out-of-water storyline and Sopranos-inspired fairy godmother, but by the time the third film came around, Mike Myers had been during that Scottish burr for so long in so many different movies that he was starting to feel like the crazy in-law who won’t leave.
There’s very little about this movie that doesn’t feel like a high-mileage retread. The sense of delighted recognition that we got from seeing our childhood favorites in unfamiliar surroundings is well past its sell-by date. Most of the jokes here feel like slight variations on material from the first two movies and even the film’s villain, Prince Charming, voiced by Rupert Everett and nursing a massive grudge, has too many echoes of John Lithgow’s character from the original movie.
It’s not that the story didn’t have some promise, shoving our big green friend into the role of reluctant king when his father-in-law, Harold the Frog King (John Cleese), is sick and about to, um, (must… resist… obvious…pun!), um, kick the bucket (yeah, that’s the ticket!). Wishing to return to his beloved swamp, he sets out with Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss-in-Boots (Antonio Banderas) to locate the other heir to the throne, a slacker named Artie, which is short for Arthur (Justin Timberlake). Shrek is a bit distracted from the mission, however, because Fiona (Cameron Diaz) has dropped the bomb that she has a little ogre in the oven.
She has her own problems, however. Having been reduced to reenacting his past heroics in second-rate dinner theater, an embittered Prince Charming rallies the various characters who feel that they have gotten the shaft in all those familiar stories that the previous Shrek movies spoofed. They stage a coup d’état against Fiona and her mother (Julie Andrews), who have to organize Fiona’s friends Snow White (Amy Poehler), Cinderella (Amy Sedaris) and Repunzel (Maya Rudolph) for a jail break.
While some of the individual jokes work well enough, the film has an overall feel of staleness. We’ve seen a lot of this before and the movie is coasting on our familiarity. One would hope that Dreamworks will give the franchise a bit of a rest but, sadly, this appears not to be the case. Hopefully, someone will be sane enough to make it direct-to-video.