(Three and a Half Torches out of Five)
When Dreamworks rolled out Shrek in 2001, it was a shot of adrenaline into an animated film industry that — with the exception of a few Pixar hits — was flailing in the apocalypse of Disney’s golden age. Shrek was unapologetically not trying to be a classic. With A-list voice talent, a Top 40 soundtrack, and a screenplay loaded with pop-culture zingers and crass double entendres, it was just trying to be funny.
And it was. It was refreshingly warm and hysterical.
Somewhere, though, between Shrek 2 and Shrek the Third, the formula got stale. Rather than reinventing the recipe with every new film (like its impossibly magical competitor Pixar), Dreamworks kept making the same movie over and over with different animals and voice talent.
Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. Shrek the Third fell solidly into the latter category.
So why make a fourth Shrek film? Well, money obviously. But after watching Shrek: Forever After, I get the feeling that it’s also an apology: Shrek: The Movie We Should Have Made Last Time, Before We Put This Ogre To Bed For Good.
Shrek: Forever After opens on the scene we’re used to: Shrek still has those disturbingly Teletubbie-like babies to look after, Donkey is up to his same old shenanigans, Fiona is haggard and disgruntled with Shrek because of their weird kids, and the citizens of Far Far Away still love their green hero — maybe too much.
When Shrek runs into “magic contract expert” Rumpelstiltskin after a birthday party, he’s in the throes of full-blown midlife crisis, and wastes no time signing a lengthy piece of parchment that promises him a full day of his old pre-Finona life in exchange for another day from his past. Immediately Shrek is transported to an alternate universe of anarchy that rivals the one Marty McFly created when he ripped the space-time continuum in half in Back to the Future 2.
Shrek is confronted with his life as it would have been if he’d never rescued (and married Fiona). For starters, no one in Far Far Away remembers him; Fiona is the leader of the Ogre Resistance; and Puss in Boots is nothing more than a chubby kitty.
It’s a reinvention of the Shrek universe, and for the most part, it works. The characters retain enough of their old personalities to make us remember why we love them, but their new lives are so strikingly different that the story feels fresh all over again. Shrek: Refreshed!
Mike Myers as Shrek and Cameron Diaz as Fiona seem a little bored with their character’s voices, but Eddie Murphey as Donkey and Antonio Banderas as Puss in Boots are as funny as ever, and you’ve got to wonder at times if Murphy isn’t just ad-libbing the whole thing.
And Walt Dohrn’s Rumpelstiltskin is a treat. The Dreamworks animation team really shows off their skills with Rumpelstiltskin’s effusive facial expressions. A little more of that magic and a little less 3-D is exactly what the animation industry needs.
Shrek: Forever After isn’t perfect. The film has its tired moments, but it’s such a drastic improvement over Shrek the Third that I’m willing to accept Dreamworks’ apology. In fact, I’m willing to add Shrek: Forever After to my DVD collection and pretend the third movie never even existed.
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