There is good news and bad news about Shrek the Third. The bad news is that it isn’t on the same level as the first two. The good news is that it still gets enough right to be well worth a look. This second sequel finds the King of Far, Far Away (John Cleese) dying, in what has to be one of the funniest death scenes ever committed to celluloid. With his final breaths, he asks Shrek (Mike Myers) to take over the royal duties. The ogre doesn’t want – or feel comfortable with – such a big responsibility. He just wants to go back to a quiet life with bride Fiona (Cameron Diaz). However, life might not be so quiet, as she is pregnant. Shrek finds himself experiencing a severe panic attack at the mere thought of becoming a father.
There is potentially a solution to the first issue. If Shrek can find the only other remaining heir to the throne, he can avoid having to wear the crown. Along with pals Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss-in-Boots (Antonio Banderas), he sets out on a journey to find the heir. It turns out to be Artie (Justin Timberlake), a much picked-on student at a hilariously cliquish fairy tale high school. (As a prank, someone sticks a sign on Donkey’s rear end that reads: “I suck-eth.”) Artie figures that by becoming king, he can get revenge on everyone who has ever taunted him. Shrek doesn’t really care what his motives are; he simply cares that Artie will do it.
One person who desperately wants to be king is series villain Prince Charming (Rupert Everett). In order to snatch the crown, he bands together all the fairy tale bad guys – including Captain Hook and the Evil Queen – to storm the castle and kill Shrek. Fiona figures out his plan and forms an army of her own: Cinderella (Amy Sedaris), Snow White (Amy Poehler), Sleeping Beauty (Cheri Oteri), and Rapunzel (Maya Rudolph). Meanwhile, Shrek and the others experience some difficulty getting back to Far, Far Away, so they visit wizard Merlin (Eric Idle), who accidentally puts Donkey and Puss in each other’s bodies.
The problem with Shrek the Third is that it’s too over-plotted. The first two movies effortlessly spoofed all the conventions and clichés of fairy tales. They were simultaneously respectful and anarchic, turning your expectations upside-down while still delivering the kind of storytelling magic that make such tales beloved in the first place. In truth, Shrek and Shrek 2 made it look easy. In contrast, Shrek the Third shows how hard it is to comically reinvent fairy tales, especially when it has been done so beautifully twice before. The screenplay seems to struggle for a direction, almost as if the writers didn’t have a strong initial concept and tried to cover it up by adding in lots of new characters and plot twists. Considering that the story isn’t all that magical, it’s kind of amazing that the movie spends so much time developing it. Rule number one of fairy tales is this: simpler is better. Clog them up too much and you suck some of the energy from them. That’s kind of what happens here, especially in the middle third, which sags somewhat under the weight of excess plotting.
Okay, so that’s a flaw, but let me make one thing perfectly clear. I love the Shrek pictures. So do millions of others. There is something about this series that is valuable. Part of it is that the characters are so lovable and so well-defined that many of us will follow them anywhere. Another factor is the trademark off-the-wall humor that has permeated the series. Both of these strong points are found in abundance in Shrek the Third, and they are what kept me having good feelings about the film even in spite of some plot difficulties.
Each of the actors has embodied the role they are voicing. It has become standard to cast animated films with big-name talent, but it’s never been done as well as in this series. Myers, Murphy, and Diaz don’t just phone in voice work; they give full-blooded performances, using their voices as tools to create rich characters with very distinct personalities. They were matched step-for-step by Banderas in the first sequel, and this time Timberlake and the others do likewise. Everyone is at the top of their game. Even the smallest parts are filled by actors who give it their all. (Check out Regis Philbin as the sister of barmaid Larry King, as well as “The Office” star John Krasinski as Lancelot.) After three films, I find myself having lots of affection for Shrek and his friends, and that affection remains on this third go-round.
And, of course, there are more than a handful of extremely funny moments to be found in Shrek the Third. The humor is one thing that they got 100% right. Remember that hilarious scene from Shrek 2 where the swashbuckling Puss melted hearts by flashing his big kitty eyes? Well, there’s a scene in this picture where he tries that same trick, forgetting that he’s been implanted into the body of Donkey. I don’t know what’s funnier – the way he looks or the reaction he gets. I also laughed at Shrek’s parenting nightmares. (“They cry and they poop, and they cry when they poop, and they poop when they cry,” he laments.) If I were to examine the ratio of big laughs, I’d say Shrek the Third largely measures up to the first movie. I consider Shrek 2 to be one of the funniest films ever made. This one doesn’t quite hit that constant level of fast-and-furious humor, but there are still enough really funny parts that it doesn’t disappoint comedy-wise.
The fact is that if you’ve loved this series as much as I have, you will find plenty to enjoy in Shrek the Third. Just know that it isn’t quite the masterpiece that the others were. And if they make Shrek the Fourth, I’ll still be the first in line for it.
( out of four)
Shrek the Third is rated PG for some crude humor, suggestive content and swashbuckling action. The running time is 1 hour and 32 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: Shrek the Third
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