Saturday, May 19, 2007

REVIEW: Shrek the Third

Let's be perfectly honest: There was really no reason to make a 3rd "Shrek" movie. The most interesting part of the story was already told in the original, all the necessary loose-ends and character arcs were tied up in the second, etc. Aside from the garaunteed boxoffice paydirt set to be innevitably scored by financially-wobbly Dreamworks, there was really no pressing "need" to revisit this particular franchise.

Fortunately, unnecessary isn't always the companion of "bad."

The original "Shrek" got most of it's early buzz from it's much-touted spoofing of the Disney brand, but it became a gigantic hit on the strength of it's refreshingly small, character-focused story. True, it was wedged in among a lot of pop-culture jokery and broad satire, but there was a genuinely moving and engaging central narrative at work and audiences responded to it. The law of diminishing returns kicked in a bit with "Shrek 2," but it was an overall worthwhile entry from the "bigger and wackier" school of sequel-making.

"Shrek the Third" wisely dials the scale back a bit from #2's epic size, offering up what amounts to a "here we go again" mini-adventure (or two, really) that feels at points more like the third act to a longer cut of the second film than a seperate entity in it's own right: Just as Shrek (Mike Meyers) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz) are gearing up to leave Far Far Away and head back to their cozy swamp cottage, King Harold (Fiona's dad, voice of John Cleese) passes away - leaving Shrek next in line for the throne. Shrek is acutely aware that he's not at all cut out for the job, and he's already wrestling with his angst over Fiona's just-announced pregnancy, so when he learns another heir exists in the person of Fiona's dorky cousin Arthur (Justin Timberlake) he jumps at the chance to set out on yet another quick quest with Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss N' Boots (Antonio Banderas) to go and fetch him. Meanwhile, evil Prince Charming, (Rupert Everett,) still smarting from his defeat at the end of the last film, seizes on a temporarily Shrek-less kingdom as the ideal opportunity to stage an invasion of Far Far Away with help from an assembled army of fairytale villians.

It's more than a little dissapointing that, after the clever upending of Disney-fied fairytale iconography in the original film, this installment can't seem to find much material to mine in it's broad satire of Arthurian fables once Timberlake's "Artie" enters the picture. The basic gag is to relocate Camelot to a sitcom High School (Lancelot= jock, Merlin= hippie teacher, and so on) which is cute, but also a bit... stale. The story also suffers noticably from the lack of a great antagonist. Everett has fun with Charming, but the sole and sufficient joke to the character ("THE Prince Charming is the bad guy, the ogre is the good guy!") was played-out by the end of #2 - where he was a supporting villian for a reason. And while the "bad guy army" is a fun idea, it's mostly a collection of gags we already saw in the other two movies.

Basically, there's a distinct sense of half-effort coloring a lot of the broader story strokes, but the consolation prize to that is the rest of the film being similarly light and unpretentious: the gags fly fast and loose, and it seldom feels the need to pile on the "this is IMPORTANT!!!" pathos - it plays like an above-average episode of a weekly sitcom, and in this case it's a solid choice. And there's a lot of fun to be had in the subplot of Fiona's all-Princess baby shower teaming up to fight Charming.

What still works the best, and helps make the film not entirely disposable, is Shrek himself. It was quite a revelation, coming to the original film informed only by the slapstick-heavy trailers, that the titular grumpy ogre turned out to be that rare children's film hero who was actually characterized by a certain intelligence: Shrek isn't a "lovable oaf," he's a clever and fairly shrewd character - which made perfect sense given the solitary existance we're told he'd been living most of his life, and gave an added poignance to his "outcast by choice" situation in the original film: It wasn't that he "didn't know any better," we could tell he had chosen his path based on genuine pain and a more-than-complete understanding of how the world regarded him.

This continues here in the subplot of Shrek's unease at impending fatherhood: Usually when a franchise takes this road, the go-to angle is that of an immature guy leery of being forced to definatively "grow-up" as a father. Shrek, on the other hand, is already a grown-up, and he has a grown-up reason for his worry: Not only does he fear not being able to handle the responsibility, he's really worried that his overall nature will make him a less-than-ideal parent: "Wait till you meet my Dad, he's a real OGRE," he sighs, noting that no one's ever uttered that phrase in a positive context. When we get the obligatory "nightmare" sequence as Shrek imagine's himself in a deluge of babies, the theme of the "fear" is that he's barely able to keep them from injuring themselves. To the degree it can in a cartoon about an ogre, this feels real. This feels relatable.

It's probably time to call it quits on the series at this point, and the movie itself isn't in any way essential, but it's likable and inoffensive. In a Summer season that's going to deliver both a Michael Bay movie and a "Resident Evil" threequel, there are worse things to be.

FINAL RATING: 6/10